I'm fascinated to hear different readers' takes on the stories I write. It's really interesting and enlightening to know some of how they feel touched by my characters and how events in their own real lives relate in some way to what they encounter in my fiction. From one-off emails to long, deep correspondence, I treasure the letters from readers. I feel challenged - in a good way - when readers ask me why I chose to go in one direction rather than another with plot or character or want to know what happened in between scenes in the story, or before the story began. I also often feel influenced by them in my writing, from incorporating ideas a reader brought up about an early story into later series to borrowing bits of readers' lives for my characters.
On the other end, I love writing to fanfic authors and interacting with them about their fiction as well. I like that readers can ask questions - about the story itself, about decisions made along the way, about writing plans, about what elements of the fiction are drawn from the author's own experience - and almost always get answers. Usually careful, thoughtful answers. There's an intimacy in fanfic author/reader interaction that kind of animates the whole enterprise. It's intensified, I think, because often the same people are both readers and writers of fanfiction. So you can start talking to an author about her/his story, but branch off into writing methods and reading preferences.
It's not so easy to communicate with writers of published fiction. It's possible, of course, to send a fan letter to a mainstream author, and some do respond. But the responses are usually kind of pro forma. In my experience you rarely get the kind of genuine, heartfelt interaction that is the usual experience in fandom.
Ironically, the first time I ever wrote to a published author, I did get a lovely and very personal letter in response. Perhaps that's what set me up for thinking that should be the standard. Here's what happened:
I was in the ninth grade. An English class - but not mine - had had a "Write to the Author" assignment and I'd heard about it, in general, from some kids in the class. They all chose an author of a book they'd recently read to write to, and some of them got responses. I'd never heard of writing to an author and there was one I wanted to know more about, so it gave me the idea. But not being in the class (and being a dumb - or at least naive - kid) I didn't even know how to go about doing it, having no clue about writing care of the publisher.
The author I wanted to write to was Nathan Leopold and the book was Life Plus Ninety Nine Years. Leopold was a convicted murderer. He and his friend Richard Loeb had abducted and killed a boy named Bobby Franks in 1924 and were sentenced to life in prison for the murder and 99 years for the kidnapping. It was a celebrated trial, one of the first with psychiatric evidence. Loeb was murdered in prison, but Leopold, who lived a normal life span, really made the most of his prison years. He continued his education, started literacy programs for prisoners, participated in medical research. My mother had passed his memoir of his life in prison on to me, and I found it an inspiring tale of finding purpose in life wherever you are. He was an engaging, interesting, vivid memoirist and I was captivated by the book. Towards the end of it he appears before the parole board and gets turned down. The book was published in the late 1950s and I read it in 1969.
My mother said she thought she had read some time back that he had been eventually paroled, but didn't know any more. I really wanted to know what happened to him afterward, how he lived outside of prison, what his adjustment was like. I decided to try to find out. So I went back to the part in the book where he tries for parole. There was a hospital in Puerto Rico that had offered him a job if he got out, and he uses that as an argument for release, although it doesn't work. So I found the hospital's address and wrote to him care of them.
Weeks went by before I heard anything, so I thought I likely wouldn't. But a letter came. He said in it that he had indeed worked at that hospital when he was finally released, but had left there 10 years ago and they had finally tracked him down and passed on the letter. He warmly thanked me for the kind things I'd said about the book and about him and caught me up on all he'd done since being released: work, marriage, travel. I was thrilled to get the letter and felt sad to read his obituary some time later.
This has, btw, become a sort of a thing between me and my brother Joel. He sometimes refers to me (or introduces me) as "my sister Dale, who corresponds with murderers." To which I always reply, "One murderer. One letter."