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Shaun Usher
Photograph: Craig and Eva Sanders Photography

Shaun Usher interview: ‘We fell in love through handwritten correspondence’

Letters of Note editor and author Shaun Usher reveals that the best way to study history is to read other people’s letters

By Tiffany Gibert
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From the Women of Letters storytelling show to the much-anticipated new collection of Langston Hughes’s letters, epistles seem to be all the rage right now. And one of the best places to find them is Shaun Usher’s online trove, Letters of Note, where he collects some of the most remarkable correspondence ever penned. Now, Usher has published the crème de la crème of his finds in an incomparable print collection (which happens to make a perfect gift book for just about anyone). We spoke with Usher before his selected shorts event next week about that daunting project and what first sparked his letter love.

How and when did you start the Letters to Note site? Was there one letter that began it all?
About 12 years ago, I met my now-wife. A couple of weeks after we started dating, she moved to Spain for a year, and for some reason, we decided to keep in touch mainly by letter. The result was that we fell in love through handwritten correspondence. At that point, I became acutely aware of the power of letter writing and knew one day I'd look into the whole concept further. Then in 2009, while I was working as a copywriter, a client project led me to letters again, and I decided to start the website. Since then it's snowballed. The first letter I put on the site was a rejection letter from Walt Disney to a young woman who wanted to become an animator.

That’s such a wonderful, personal story! Now, since that first Disney letter, how many have you published on the site, roughly?
I've not counted for quite a while, but there are over 1,000 letters on the site. It seems a lot, but in the grand scheme of things it's the lightest of scratches on the surface. Someone like Mark Twain wrote like 100,000 letters in his lifetime; I've amassed just 1,000 of everyone's.

But that must have seemed quite intimidating when you started putting together the book. How did you decide which to include?
I drew up a short list of 500 letters, some of which weren't already on the site, and literally just picked at them for three weeks, slowly eliminating some for various reasons. My goal was to end up with a diverse selection of 125—a mixture of letters from different era, written by people from all walks of life, on a, hopefully, wide range of subjects. I think I succeeded to an extent, but I don't think I've ever been truly content with big decisions like that. I find it impossible to stop meddling.

I'm very impressed by how well-rounded the book came out. Are there letters you find yourself returning to more and more, particularly when you’re looking for inspiration or even guidance? I often reread F. Scott Fitzgerald’s letter to Scottie.
I love that letter. I think my favorite, when it comes to inspiration, is written by Sol LeWitt to Eva Hesse. It's in the book but not on the site. He repeatedly tells her to stop overthinking and just "DO.” The opening paragraph is wonderful: He lists all the things she should stop doing, such as, “Looking over your shoulder, wondering, doubting, fearing, hurting, hoping for some way out.” It's a work of art and to see it performed on stage is also a beautiful thing.

Which letters are most often chosen to be read at events?
Mark Twain to the bogus medicine salesman. It's an amazing, succinct piece of writing that never fails to amuse the audience. Nick Cave's rejection letter to MTV is another that gets read aloud frequently.

Looking to the future, do you have a wish list of anyone you’d love to have a letter from but don’t, yet?
Bill Murray. I've searched high and low for a letter written by him but have failed miserably at every turn. For some reason, and it's nothing more than a hunch, I'm absolutely certain that he writes the most entertaining of letters and that to read one would improve my life in some way. But I just can't find one. I'll keep searching for as long as I'm able. Maybe I should write to him myself; it may be far easier.

As someone who certainly stays on top of the epistle game, are there any recent or upcoming letter collections you’re excited about?
There are two amazing collections that I've read recently, which are essentials: The Letters of Samuel Beckett, 1957–1965 and Selected Letters of Martha Gellhorn. Both knocked me for six. And I'd also recommend a book called My Dear Bessie, which is out next month. A gorgeous collection of letters between two "normal" people that will melt and warm the heart in equal measure.

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