The Letter Project

November 22, 2009

Special Delivery (42)

Filed under: Letters — Theresa Williams @ 2:32 am
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This is what Zach Tarvin has to say about the following letter he wrote to J. K. Rowling: 

I think the only thing I can think of to say about the JK Rowling letter is that I’d always been a fan of the books. They certainly helped me open up in school. In July of 2007, I was going through my seventh surgery just as the seventh book was about to be released. I wrote the bulk of this letter one night in late April 2008, thought there was more that wasn’t fully unlocked, then finished and sent it when I was home for the summer.

I received a response from her publisher a few weeks later, saying it had been sent on to her offices in Edinburgh. The first week of August, I received a letter from her PA saying she’d received it, but was currently unable to respond personally. That week, Amazon/Scholastic announced the release of  “The Tales of Beedle the Bard.”

The day after Thanksgiving, last year, I received a letter from Arthur A. Levine Books (the imprint at Scholastic responsible for Harry Potter) that said they’d received a copy of my letter, and were touched. They invited me to apply for a summer internship with them via Scholastic’s Summer Internship Program. Unfortunately, the program was cancelled for summer 2009, due to the economy.
Dear Jo (if I may),

            I wrote to you once, at a very socially awkward age near the release of book five, but I think I actually have something meaningful to say this time.  More than anything, I wish to say a very heartfelt thank you because if there are any books I can resolutely say changed my life, they were the Harry Potter books and the Bible. 

            To start, I have to include that I was born just over twenty years ago with what’s called a craniofacial anomaly—born without part of the frontal bone in my forehead.  Eighteen years ago this June I had reconstructive surgery to artificially replace this bone, but the swelling was extreme and the muscle that would normally have operated my eyebrows snapped.  By the time it was done, in addition to a permanent scar that runs from the tip of my ears across my forehead (rather like a bizarre pair of headphones), I would also have to have surgery to implant a sling to make my eyelids function as a normal person’s would.  Until a sixth surgery in the summer of 1999 they were without a fold at all, and still can only be opened even with the artificial fold only by lifting my eyebrows and activating the artificial sling.

            We’ll just say that I’m more than familiar with the types of stares and snide remarks Harry encountered throughout the series—I endured similar from as early as I could remember.  Not everyone was horrible to me as a kid, but there was a very “scar head” attitude about things.  Always having to sidestep the question “What happened to your eye?” question and not being able to give an answer.  As I got older, it got harder.  After hitting my head on a playpark piece one of my slings came out.  And then, worst of all, just before I hit puberty the decision was made that the original work done to my skull needed touched up—to fill in the then nonexistent bridge to my nose, recessed temples for structure.  It was done the summer before I transitioned to the most soul shattering event in the American education system—junior high school.

            In four years, beginning in 1998 I had two surgeries—the aforementioned “touch up” and almost a year later an operation to make the sling that works my eyelids more permanent (ten years now—knock on wood).  It wasn’t until I was ten or eleven that I knew the reason I was put through all of this—what my deformity was called.  It had never been a hindrance to me, I accepted it, but when my peers and I were entering our teenage years…well, it felt a bit like Order of the Phoenix for me. 

            Throughout my childhood, most memorably the year before and the year I was told by my mother what was, essentially my story, I had been creating stories in my mind to be lived out on the playground or on paper as a method of escape.  Literature and Language Arts were always my favorite classes.  My mother bought me the first three Potter books in late 1999, and though I somewhat timidly will admit that I didn’t read them right away, when I started them in the summer of 2000 I raced through them—loving each one.

            In October 2000, I decided to put the story that had been playing around in my head for two years to paper, handwriting over a hundred pages before the month was out.  It was therapy, a personal narrative about what it would be like if I were the equivalent of a Merlinified King Arthur.  On a personal level, this was important to me because the main character had a craniofacial anomaly.  I am not sure that I would have ever committed to telling the story without the influence of Harry Potter.  Finally there was a character with which I wholeheartedly identified.  In fact I was told by almost everyone in my school that I looked like the Harry on the cover of the American Goblet of Fire.  Clearly we are not entirely alike—maybe only linked by a simple little scar.  But your books, your characters, helped me immensely at a very confusing time and continued to help me share understanding.  As I got into high school, particularly in the first two years, I was ridiculed to hellish extent, in the face of everything I tried to explain.  It got to a point where I felt genuinely alone, utterly, completely hopeless.

            After enough torment in high school I confided in a teacher who was able to resolve the situation by sitting myself and what would equate to a then Draco Malfoy, I explained my entire story in detail.  I told him the full truth, including the tid-bit I had only recently discovered from my mother—most children born as I was with a craniofacial anomaly and pouching of the brain are severely mentally handicapped.  The sit-down left us both shaken, I think him more than myself, but I was not convinced anything would change.  But I kept reminding myself of the Quibbler article.  And things did change over the rest of that year.

            Surgically though, my journey was not over.  Though my overall appearance was relatively normal, I was left with a chronic underbite that as I grew made it increasingly more difficult to chew.  By the end of my first year of college in 2007, I was barely able to eat chicken without cutting it into tiny bits first.  July 18th I underwent massive surgery to remove the excess bone from my lower jaw and to receive cheek implants (for my cheekbones were fairly weak) to support it all.  The resulting surgery left me unable to chew for nearly three months.  But, more importantly, I was afraid I would miss the launch of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

            I’ve taken a lot of flak for being a college student who loves Potter, and I still refuse to let it bother me.  I had waited patiently since February—reserved my copy and all.  I had not missed a midnight launch since my local bookstore started them with Order of the Phoenix—and I attended that the night before departing for Europe as a student ambassador.  The conclusion of the series meant as much to me, sentimentally and symbolically, as the completion of what would be my seventh and final planned surgery.  It was the seventh surgery, in the seventh month, seven years since I had been genuinely hooked on Harry Potter, and the seventh book was due out shortly after. 

            And even though I had only been discharged nine hours before, I was there at midnight.  I was doped up on several different painkillers, leaning on my mother for support, but I made it and was damn proud of it.  I had to listen to my audiobook to prevent my proper copy being ruined from the drool (my face was swollen to about triple the normal size), but I had it.

            There was nothing more I could have wanted than to have the medical transformation chapter of my life close with the aide of the closing chapter of Harry’s story at my side while I healed.  Funnily enough, the themes of a mother’s love and sacrifice really hit home for me—mine was having to find all these non-solid meals for me, and often having to take a towel to my face because I had no feeling in it, and couldn’t tell it was covered in applesauce, custard, etc. These books helped me be more open, more myself, able to share the story of what happened to me, and raise awareness against judging someone for being different.

            Jo, I never stopped writing—not once.  It was always the same overall plot, first as one book, then as a trilogy, and now as a series of four books.  The characters were transplanted form middle school, to high school, and now to college as I have.  But more importantly, what you and the series have done for me is shown me the ways in which a writer can make a positive difference.  The ways in which these books have personally affected me are one thing, but the way you’ve campaigned for multiple sclerosis (which claimed my maternal grandmother) has inspired me for years—driven me to tell this story, and others in the hopes that one day, even if I am long dead, someone takes away a similar message as I have with Harry Potter.  I am currently seeking a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in creative writing with the hopes of becoming an editor as I continue writing in my career—the dream being as I stated above.  As for the previously mentioned book? Almost eight years later I have a good outline sketched out, and hope to have the first volume finished by the end of the year. 

            I cannot imagine where I’d be right now, were it not for Harry Potter, I really can’t.  I want to be a writer, and if I can’t support myself on that alone, I want to edit as well.  If a book I write, or a book my press picks up, can do for someone else, what your work has done for me, I will die a happy man.  I’ve started on the path to this, recently I’ve been made Co-Editor-in-Chief of my university’s undergraduate literary journal, and Technical Editor of our international literary journal Mid-American Review.  I am at a complete loss to even describe how absolutely grateful I am at the opportunity, and how it came about.  Because if there was ever something I read that made me decide, this is what I want to do, I want to write, I want to edit, it was the Harry Potter books.  And though some may label it an odd obsession (and I really don’t care if they do), whenever I think back on what got me through some of both the hardest and the best times of my life, it will be inextricably linked with Harry Potter.

            I believe the story is the greatest single unit for fostering understanding and growth, it’s why we tell our kids stories (and I can assure you, if I have children, Harry Potter will be on their shelf as soon as they’re old enough).  Your personal story, and the story you have created have had a tremendous effect on me, and so I say again, thank you, thank you a thousand times over, for both your time in reading this letter and sharing Harry with the world.


Zach Tarvin

P.S.  Amazing speech at Harvard, the Plutarch and Seneca quotes have gone on my Facebook…



  1. Wow, Zach!
    I celebrate the miracle of your life, your talents, your passion for writing.
    Good luck with your career!
    Sally Reece, Classmate and Grandmother of Miracle Babies

    Comment by Sally Reece — February 19, 2010 @ 9:25 pm | Reply

  2. […] 2008, after a particularly pensive night of writing, I wrote a letter to Jo, which you can read at The Letter Project if you want more […]

    Pingback by Guest Blog #2: On Supporting Authors, Readers, the People Who Make Books, and the Literary Community | Growing Up L.A. — April 2, 2013 @ 3:30 am | Reply

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