Tuesday, November 26, 2013

One of the Best Writers You've Never Heard Of Has Died

Today I found out  that Joel Lane died. Mark Valentine shared a very personal account of Joel and his work, and we are very lucky that Mark has chosen to turn his grief into an eulogy that helps us know Joel and his work a little bit better. Thank you Mark, for sharing your personal stories of Joel.

I only knew Joel through his fiction, and through the brief professional relationship we had. I published his short story collection The Lost District and Other Stories. I was always frustrated that I wasn’t able to find a larger audience for his work, but his fiction had an unrelenting quality that is sometimes the hallmark of both great work, and uncommercial work. For a good example of what I’m trying to convey, check out both the Publishers Weekly review, and Ray Olson’s Booklist review of The Lost District over at it’s Amazon page. These are reviews by people who have been made extremely uncomfortable by Joel’s work, but can’t help but respect (and sing the praises of) the writer who managed to invoke those feelings with just a few words on a page.

I am very proud to have published his collection. Indeed, one of the few perks of being an independent publisher was being able to follow the ones heart, instead of just following the market. And this book is one of those books that I have a personal connection too. I first discovered Joel’s work in the pages of Karl Wagner’s Year’s Best Horror anthology, and regularly stumbled across his work from that point on. This was all long before I was an editor, or even thought of working professionally in the field. I was a fan. And I was a fan of Joel Lane’s short fiction. I’d see it every year… in the magazines… in the original anthologies, and in the best of the year anthologies. Many years later, when I found myself editor in chief of a genre publishing company, I  jumped at the opportunity to work with Joel… to follow up his World Fantasy-award nominated short story collection with a new volume of his amazing, moving, troubling work… to help continue that long, ongoing genre conversation, and to make sure that Joel Lane's name was a part of it. I was ecstatic.

Hopefully we can take some solace in the idea that (to steal a phrase from a different genre) the circle will be unbroken.  Maybe, like I did,  a new generation of readers and writers will find and be inspired by Joel's writing. We may be in a small, dark little corner of the literary world, but in that corner, Joel was a giant. I feel very lucky to have known him and his work.

Obviously, this long view can’t ease the immediate pain of loss for those who knew him personally. Mark Valentine shared some very personal remembrances of Joel, and I’d like to share one of my personal remembrances too.

As Joel and I began going through his uncollected fiction and began imagining the shape and form we wanted the book to take on, he suggested we name it after his story “The Country of Glass.”  Due to my father’s alcoholism I had had a very negative and visceral reaction to that story, and while I was kind of self conscious about my reaction, I told him I’d prefer to not name the book after that particularly story, and explained why.

He immediately apologized to me, and offered to remove the story from the book altogether. I assured him that he owed me no apology… that the visceral impact his fiction had on readers was what I loved about his work, and that the story needed to stay in the collection.  And while we brainstormed over alternate titles, he was a perfect gentleman when he shot down several of my completely unserviceable suggestions.

Around the time The Lost District was published, Joel suffered a very personal and tragic loss… the sudden and unexpected death of his father. The circumstances of that death forced Joel to be continually confronted by the details of that death long after it happened. The world kept rubbing salt into that emotional wound. 

It was during this time that I lost contact with Joel, and if I’m honest with myself, it was in part because the very real loss that Joel suffered forced  me to consider my own father and the rift that separated us.  I wasn’t able to comfortably deal with these emotions, and Joel’s emotional turmoil mirrored my own in a way that, much like his fiction, made me deeply uncomfortable. But Joel personal grief, as well as his fiction played an important roll during that period of my life. It helped me realized that I still have a father who is alive, and accept that though that could be a burden, it was also a blessing.

Thank you for these insights Joel. I wish I could have somehow conveyed this to you when you were alive. If we are not careful, our lives can easily be subsumed by mounting piles of regrets. Of things we wish we should have done. I wish… I wish. And that is a terrible, terrible irony. Because the crushing weight of regret and how it shapes us is one of the facets of the human condition that Joel regularly grappled with in his fiction.
I wish you were here Joel, so I could tell you one more time… Your work is  important and powerful, and I thank you for sharing it with me and with the world.

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