I woke up yesterday to the news that British writer Graham Joyce is dead. For most Americans (except, apparently, Stephen King,) this news doesn’t mean much. That’s a shame because Graham Joyce was a spectacular writer. More importantly, from the little I knew him last year as his student at Nottingham Trent University in the UK, he was a hell of a person, full of love for life, kind, generous, and funny.
I remember a tutorial I had with him in his little office in a grimy building on Nottingham’s Clifton campus. I was an MA student there in the Creative Writing program; he was one of the Fiction teachers. The dingy office, which I found after wandering through a rabbit warren of rooms, didn’t seem right for Graham, who glowed with positive energy. A kind of dazzling life force shone through him. But the English Department had plans to move out; the dingy old building was slated to be razed. That seems especially fitting now, somehow.
I was there to get help for a short story. I think now, if the people who accepted me into the program at NTU knew how little I know about writing short stories, they may not have. I knew, as they say there, sod all. I got better, thank God, in no small part to that one tutorial, and to his – and other teachers – lessons in class.
“Have you read my books?” he asked me.
I had only read two at that point, so that I could see what kind of writer this teacher was. Like most Americans, I didn’t know his work, wildly popular in England. I’ve read more now. I’ve got Some Sort of Fairy Tale on my bedside table, but I’m too sad to pick it up at this moment, knowing there’ll be no more of these, no more of his particular brand of fantasy novels, what some call “speculative.” The Wikipedia entry mentions that his work is hard to classify.
“I just finished The Limits of Enchantment,” I told him. He’d won a Hugo award for that. I didn’t really know what to say to him about it. How do you say, “OH MY GOD, I love that book so much!” when you know that would make you sound like a middle schooler meeting J.K. Rowling, and you want to present a thoughtful, mature presence? That book takes place in the Midlands, where he lived in Leicester, in the sixties. It examines the changes of that decade through a story of a healer whose grandmother’s adherence to the old traditions of herbal healing and midwifery has come under attack. What I had to ask him, what I was dying to know was: Were the places in that book real? Were the Midlands really like that – full of pagan lore and ancient ways? So I managed to ask a sort of intelligently framed question about it.
“Yes,” he boomed, and he laughed. He was full of stories of the traditions of the area, “The entire history of England is right here! You don’t need to go to London! It’s HERE where all the important stuff happened.” He told me about a still active Pagan custom in the village of Hallaton that takes place at Easter. It has something to do with a hare pie, a race involving “bottle-kicking” where the bottles are big barrels moved along by teams. I’m not sure why. I don’t know what the pie has to do with it. The Wikipedia entry says of this custom, “There are virtually no rules to the bottle-kicking, except that there is no eye-gouging, no strangling, and no use of weapons.” Madness. And been going on forever, apparently, along with many other odd traditions.
How can you not love a tradition with rules like that? Graham and I didn’t discuss his books after all; we discussed the Midlands. Then we discussed the plotting problems in the story I was writing for his class, and he helped solve them.
His classes. Until he became ill with lymphoma last year, he’d never missed a class at NTU. He helped so many struggling writers, inspiring them, encouraging, instructing. He was always enthusiastic, always generous. My friend Sana said, of the first class we had with him, “Everyone felt so inspired just listening to him, we all went home and wrote like crazy.” That didn’t always happen. Sometimes, in the program, after a class, you wanted to go home and put your head under the pillow and stay in bed for days. But Graham was never negative, just uplifting.
We discussed other things as well that day in the dingy office.
“So you were out sick?” I prompted.
“Yes, my doctor is doing tests, I’ve been not feeling well. I don’t know if I will last the whole class tonight.”
“I’m so sorry,” I said, not thinking much of it. Graham was fit, a rugby player. He was sinewy and muscular. He was the tough son of a miner, and he’d worked his way up through sheer talent and energy to be a writer and a lecturer at a university. For Americans, this is a familiar story. For the English, it’s not as easy to leap over a class divide. But he did. He was too tough to be really sick, surely.
“I have pain right here,” he said, pointing to a spot above his waist on his left side.
“What’s there, I wonder,” I said. “Is that your spleen?”
He never came back after that night. My class never saw him again.
While sick, he continued to write (A new work, The Year of the Ladybird will be released posthumously, and will be known in the States as The Ghost in the Electric Blue Suit. I hope I’m not too sad to read it when it comes out) and work on his blog throughout last year. One of his entries linked his illness with The Hero Journey. Read it and you’ll see Graham’s spirit shining through.
That spirit is also evident here from an August blog entry, quoted today in The Guardian:
“This is what I mean by the shocking clarity that cancer brings,” wrote the novelist. “And if a dragonfly buzzes my ear like an aeroplane I’ll still be going, ‘What did it say?‘ Because the screw that has for so long been loose in me hasn’t been tightened by cancer. Actually I know what the dragonfly said. It whispered: ‘I have inhabited this earth for three hundred million years and I can’t answer these mysteries; just cherish it all.’ And in turn the Heron asks, with shocking clarity as it flies from right to left and left to right: ‘Why can’t our job here on earth be simply to inspire each other?’”
At the end, Graham wanted people just to inspire each other. He’d spent a lifetime doing so himself.
After our Midlands talk, when he realized how interested I was in the folklore of the area, he sent me several emails, until, well, they just stopped. In them he pointed out other traditions and Pagan customs that he swore were still going on in the Midlands. I realized today that since I no longer have an NTU account, I can’t access them. I’ll never be able to read those precious emails again.
It’s funny; we know about death. We do know that it awaits us and our loved ones. It awaits the greats, like Robin Williams and Graham Joyce too. But we’re always, always surprised.
Yvonne Surette teaches English at the high school and college level. She has MA’s in Creative Writing and Literature. Mostly she loves the Red Sox and her grown kids. And the Beatles. She is currently working on a novel. You can reach her at email@example.com.