Columns > Published on February 16th, 2015

32 Valentines: Showing Love For Books And Writers

All photos by Peter Derk

In third grade, there was this country kid in my class, Bryan. He was one of these kids in school who definitely lived on a farm. He wore tight black jeans and a black cowboy hat. On Valentine's day, he gave this girl Stephanie roses. I thought this was about the ballsiest thing I'd ever seen.

I'm trying to be more equal in my language, so also it was the ovaries-est thing I'd ever seen. Whatever organ produces and/or stores your gametes, or whatever organ you want to reference as a source of gutsy power, that was the organ I would reference to say how I felt about the act of giving a girl flowers in school. It was very much an organ-powered act to a young me.

I decided that this year, I'd make my big, public declaration of love. My "Bryan's Ovaries" act, if you will.

I filled out 32 valentines, 32 being the standard number in a pack. And I sent them to people who helped me out in in the reading and writing realms. Writers who taught me something. Joke writers who make me laugh. Book publishers that do good work.

This column is kind of a project post-mortem. What happens when you send out 32 Valentines to people who helped you out, inspired you, or made your life generally better as a reader and a writer? What happens when you take a shotgun approach to love? How do people react when they receive the kind of note normally used as a vehicle for Nerds candies? What 32 little love lessons are to be learned by this project?

Here we go.

Valentine #1: Amy Hempel

First things first, I had to buy some valentines.

There were many excellent choices of Valentine's Day cards in stores weeks before it was necessary or appropriate. The scratch n' sniff variety struck my fancy right away. The only problem, scratch n' sniff is such a gamble. You can't smell until you buy, and most times the smell is best described as:

A) Cinnamon
B) Chemical spill with a hint of cinnamon

I ditched the scratch and sniff. Then I came across these bad boys:

Metallic Britney Spears valentines. So shiny they can't be properly photographed. There was one unopened pack for sale on Amazon. I see that another one has gone up on Amazon since I purchased the first, and I just want to tell everyone that I didn't pay NEARLY the $230-some dollars that this seller is asking. Not that I will judge if you do.

Valentine #2: Koushun Takami

Now that I had all the cards, I wanted to send them by snail mail. Any other method would be a waste of early-2000's Britney Spears, the Britney who made us believe that with 500 crunches a day and a red outfit made out of Fruit Roll-Up material, we could achieve anything.

Right off I hit a snag. How do you find an address for someone in Japan? I wasn't having any luck, so I decided to search for a Japanese address using the Japanese language!

Unfortunately, I do not read or type Japanese. I tried a Google Translate. "Address for Koushun Takami." Takami koshun no tame no jusho.  Just to be crazy, I translated it back to English. Then Japanese, then English again. After a few back and forths, I got "Takami N is koshun the jusho you are not tame."

I settled for sending a valentine to Takami's publisher. Everyone already knows the wild heart of Mr. Takami can't be tamed. He doesn't need me to say it.

Valentine #3: Julieanne Smolinski

The internet means there is really no need, whatsoever, to put a personal physical address out there. This is a lesson that it would seem a lot of other people learned and did not advise me of before I wrote this column. I mean, it makes sense. Why put out a physical address? There are plenty of ways for people to get in touch with you that pretty much eliminate the chance that they get in touch with you in a way that's gross or scary or creepy or likely a combination of all three. By sending you a Britney Spears valentine, for instance. A Britney Spears valentine that hopes you have a red hot Valentine's Day.

Valentine #4: Patrick DeWitt

I'd forgotten how hard it was to play the weird love politics of childhood with these damn cards. For example, I didn't want to give my best male friend a card that demanded he have a RED HOT Valentine's Day when I was in third grade. I wish I could sit here and tell you that I didn't give a damn. But I totally did. I wanted the best valentines to go to the people I liked best. The romance-y ones to go to the people I would most want to romance, in whatever way I understood that in third grade. The two giant ones they always put in with these packs, I wanted to give those to someone I had a crush on. I'd pretend like it was no big deal. But come on. We all knew.

Valentine #5: Brian Azzarello

I had a bad run-in with Mr. Azzarello at a comic convention one time. Which was 50% his fault, 50% the fault of me being an awkward 18 year-old. Hell, instead of going to Cancún or wherever for a senior trip, I was at Chicago Comic Con with my buddy. We stayed at my grandma's house and took turns sleeping in the bedroom with the TV that got scrambled porn. To say I was an awkward youth is to put it lightly. I wanted to bury that hatchet more successfully than I've buried the memory of watching scrambled pornography at my grandma's house.

Valentine #6: Mike Drucker

6 cards in I needed to make some rules for myself.

It hit me that I could probably find a whole lot of addresses if I really, really tried. It was when I started using the white pages in conjunction with Google Maps. When I grabbed that little orange man and dangled him above what may or may not have been Mr. Drucker's house, it was then that I thought, "Pete, you've entered a very creepy place, and I don't think people will appreciate a valentine sent this way. I think your methods might distract from your message."

Valentine #7: Gail Carriger

Ground Rules:
1. I will try to find a physical address, if possible.
2. I will try for only 10 minutes before giving up and sending to a publisher, agent, or possible other source so the valentine can be passed on, hopefully.
3. I will not get all excited when I find out Gail Carriger's agent is nearby in Denver and I WILL NOT consider dropping off her valentine by hand.

Valentine #8: James Kochalka

4. I will not drop the little orange Google Maps man anywhere. Not even at Gail Carriger's agent's place. Seriously. If that orange guy were real, he'd be an all-time biggest creep.

Valentine #9: Lisa Zimmerman

Lisa was one of the best professors I had in college and a great poet. She really was great. One of the very first people who took an interest in my writing, and when I lost a contest she had no problem being just a little pissed off for me. She also had a great rule: In first semester poetry, you are not allowed to use the word "soul."

Valentine #10: Chuck Klosterman

Somewhere in here, around valentine #10, I started to feel this part of me revive. The part that felt kind of good about spreading a little love. It's been a long time.

When I say it's been a long time, I mean that more than time-wise. I mean it spiritually. The kid who did that stuff, who stuffed little envelopes, who gave a little pack of Nerds to everyone in class, that kid was long dead. He grew up, contracted a serious blood condition because he never stopped eating valentine Nerds, passed away from old age, and then maybe spent time as some kind of romance ghost like in a Nicholas Sparks movie. That kid was super dead, is the gist. But now, NOW he had arisen to terrorize again. WITH LOVE!

Valentine #11: Powell's

More an apology to this wonderful bookstore than a love note. Powell's has a bag check. Which I have abused when coming in from the airport. Maybe even going so far as to treat their generous system as a personal travel locker of sorts. You fly in, you take the train to Powell's, you check your bag in, slip out another door and explore downtown a little, come back and retrieve basically everything you own from a nice spot in a wooden cubby.

It really is a great bookstore. Sorry, Powell's.

Valentine #12: Simon Rich

I'm getting close to half-way done writing these. I've sent some out. So far, nothing. No word back. Not that I should expect it. I don't know how long it takes a letter to reach someone in Japan via a publisher, or if it ever does, but this was a hard moment. It was hard because when I started, I felt like it wouldn't be disappointing to hear nothing. To send all these cards down a well, which would now be a fairly fabulous and shiny spot, as wells go. Now, in this hard moment, I figured out that I will be. I'll be disappointed if I don't hear anything back.

Valentine #13: Richard Siken

Will an amazing poet appreciate a foil Britney Spears valentine from someone he's never heard of?

Valentine #14: Michael Kimball

Does my horrible handwriting on the front scream anything but "Crazed Stalker"? Why can't it be reversed, insane killers have perfect handwriting and normals have the scrawl?

Valentine #15: Muji

Would anyone actually be foolhardy enough to open one of these, and if so, appreciate the weirdness from a total stranger?

Valentine #16: Carlton Mellick III

In answer to all those questions, maybe yes and Carlton Mellick III.

Valentine #17: Tom Stechschulte

The thing you start to figure out, while I might have gone through these experiences with these people and their work, they don't know me at all. Tom Stechschulte read the audiobook for Cormac McCarthy's The Road. And for me it was like we were buddies. He was in my head. He told me a story when I was out running last winter, in the snow and I had to stop because I'd started crying a little. For me, it was this whole thing. But for Tom Stecschulte, for him that never really happened.

Valentine #18: Allie Brosh

From her web site:

The truth is that I am bad at responding to praise even though I enjoy getting it a great deal.  I never know how to reply when I receive an email that is just a wall of adoration with no other topics thrown in.  I enjoy those emails more than you can ever know and I have even created a special folder for them so I can go back and read them when I'm feeling down, but, outside of just saying "thank you," it is hard to converse with someone about how much they love me.  Just know that your praise doesn't go unappreciated.  Sometimes it's the only thing that gets me through a bad day.

Okay. I decided to Tweet a valentine. Which seemed lazy, but I made it into a COMIC! Haha! Now who's lazy?

Unsent Valentine: Marya Hornbacher

From her web site:

Due to the volume of mail she receives, Marya cannot respond to emails personally.  Please rest assured that your email will get to her, and that she sends her gratitude and warmest wishes in return. 

Hmm. A little less warm than the warmest wishes from Allie Brosh. And if she doesn't respond to email, what chance does snail mail have?

Unsent Valentine: Michael McDowell

Who the hell is Michael McDowell? Only the screenwriter of a little movie called Beetlejuice. Which has become the movie I call my comfort movie.

It turns out Michael McDowell is dead.

It's weird, isn't it? This guy wrote my favorite movie. I didn't know his name. And now he's dead.

Valentine #19: Shigeru Miyamoto

Sure, it was a long shot. The godfather of Nintendo. The man whose characters and worlds inspired a young Pete to storytelling.

I found an address allegedly used by someone who supposedly got a letter through to Miyamoto. I don't know anything about mail to other countries, but the address didn't look right.

And it was not.

On the plus, my first response! Of sorts!

Valentine #20: Jarte

Am I a bad person because it's starting to get tough to come up with people to thank and love? At about 20? That I'm resorting to thanking a piece of software?

Would it make me a bad person if I told you the trouble really started in the first dozen?

Valentine #21: Bukowski's Grave

This last summer I was in Los Angeles, and I wanted to visit Bukowski's grave. Partially because I think he's pretty great, and partially because his gravestone is kind of unbelievable.

Well, I didn't make it. I decided to sleep in at my very spider-y AirBNB. Seriously, this place was almost comically filled with spiders. You open a cupboard: spider. You open a drawer: Spider. You close the door, spider behind the door.

I felt pretty bad about that. The valentine is addressed to a grave. I have no idea if that works at all, whatsoever.

Valentine #22: Kate Beaton

This was my second Twitter valentine. I couldn't help it. I tried to do something nice. It's really, really hard not to be a creep on Twitter. I don't know how to do it.


My hope is simply to come off as a harmless loon as opposed to a creep. That's all I really ask out of life. Can people just assume I'm a dummy who's a little off and not be afraid that I'll do whatever it is creeps do when they tweet someone a valentine?

By the way, tweeting valentines to strangers sounds categorically like something  a creep would do.

Valentine #23: Hideo Kojima

Solid Snake is the closest I've ever been to being in love with a man. He's a character in a video game, but we all have an experimental phase. Mine ended with the second installment in the Metal Gear Solid series. I didn't dig the mullet, and the visible panty line was a strange addition. It was short-lived, but we'll always have Shadow Moses.

Valentine #24: Ernest Cline

Holy shit! An honest-to-goodness PO Box! This dude has a physical mailing address. 2/3 in, my first real physical address. A place where you could go and stand around, and eventually maybe Ernest Cline, no. Pete, you're sliding into stalker creep mode. Maintain.

Valentine#25: Candy Mafia

This might need some explanation.

I have three complaints about Jolly Ranchers. Namely:
1. What the hell?
2. Where the hell are the orange ones?
3. What the hell?

And let me tell you, people are happy to say orange was never a part of the Jolly Rancher line-up. And let me tell you, I'm happy to curse the lineage of those naysayers because orange was real. It was real TO ME.

Turns out, there's a company that sells orange Jolly Ranchers by the bagful. There's some kind of tropical mix that still includes orange, and this company will separate them out from the other flavors. This company, Candy Mafia, is happy to point out how difficult it is to separate the deliciousness of orange from Peach, the vile imposter, because the two look very much alike.

Ever since I got a sack of these, the orange candy has basically worn a hole in my face while I write.

Valentine #26: Tom Spanbauer

I'm lucky enough to have Skype appointments with the man himself. I sent him peppermint Pop Rocks for Christmas. They were in the mail when I found out that Mr. Spanbauer really avoids sugar as much as possible. I learned the man avoids sugar, and in the next day or so he'd be getting peppermint candy from me. Ho, Ho, Ho.

Valentine #27: The Kirch

The Kirch is a person I actually know. She edits stuff for me. With vigor. She's pretty awesome and helpful, so I sent her a valentine. Then I worried that her husband would beat me up. I've never met her husband, and I don't think she would marry a beater-upper, but you never know.

Valentine #28: Hawthorne Books

In fact, should I wonder if someone is going to show up on my doorstep? I put my real address on these valentines. Shit. Should I have a prepared statement for the police that explains why I'm not a berserk stalker man? Could I use this column to explain? Or is this just a surefire way to remove any doubt of mental illness?

Valentine #29: Ivan Brunetti

Officers, I know this looks bad. But let me explain. I'm in my 30's, and I stayed up late over a series of nights to create these Britney Spears valentines for my friends. Well, not friends. See, I just think of them as my friends. I'm not explaining this well. Tom Stecschulte is inside my head, but he doesn't know it.

Valentine #30: McSweeney's Internet Tendency

McSweeney's Internet Tendency sent me a very kind rejection email when I was about 21. I'd submitted two pieces. One was a travel guide to Latveria, the imaginary country run by Dr. Doom. The other was a letter from a fictional Rush Hour fan club begging Mr. Jackie Chan and Mr. Chris Tucker to make a third installment in the series. Which they eventually did. Did my letter somehow find its way to the producers? I'm not saying No.

Valentine #31: Poonmaster Flex

Long story. But this is my girlfriend's nickname.

If her tolerance/embracing of that isn't enough to justify a nice card, then the space and time she gives me to write pretty much has to be.

Valentine #32: LitReactor

It's been almost a year that I've been with LR so far. And I love it. I couldn't work for a better place. I got busted looking at the forums on way back when at work, and now I'm typing stuff for the next iteration of that site's spirit. Never would have thought.


I thought it might be low. I thought I might not hear much back.

One thing I will take away from this, I suck at mail. I got a couple letters back in my mailbox. I do not know how much postage other countries demand. I am not really sure which parts of an address go on an envelope unless they're given to me exactly as they go on an envelope.

But I have to believe that some of the valentines hit the mailboxes they were intended for.

I'll update in comments when/if I hear back from people. But you know what? It's cool. I didn't demand to hear back in the valentines. It's not like anyone I targeted...wait, poor word choice. It's not like anyone I wanted to praise owed me something back. I owed them. That's why I sent the valentines in the first place.

Now that I think about it, I remember country boy Bryan in 3rd grade, and I remember when he gave Stephanie flowers in class. But I don't remember what her reaction was. What she thought about it or said about it. I know there was something, but I can't remember.

Which means I've had my Bryan's Ovaries moment. I put the love out there. Maybe even twice if some folks on the list get a little link love.

People will tell you that you can't force someone to love you. That is true. What people won't tell you is that you can have your Bryan's Ovaries moment whether anyone loves you or not.

About the author

Peter Derk lives, writes, and works in Colorado. Buy him a drink and he'll talk books all day.  Buy him two and he'll be happy to tell you about the horrors of being responsible for a public restroom.

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