Previously published in Dawn Books & Authors
Sometimes you talk to someone for a very short time and find a great many things in common, and the fact that you’ve never met, are a generation apart in age, a world apart in your lives, doesn’t seem to matter — you’re friends, suddenly.
Graham Joyce was that person. I was fortunate to interview him on my radio show in February 2013, where we talked about his most recent novel at the time, the gorgeous Some Kind of Fairy Tale, the book he was working on next called The Year of the Ladybird and the music he’d picked out for the show. We stayed in touch over email and Twitter, having discovered a shared love for Kate Bush and Tom Waits, with Graham often telling me hilarious stories of his time spent developing scripts for the video game Doom 4. I had loved his books for so long that it was a genuine pleasure to discover that he himself was a wonderful human being — kind, generous and so smart.
Just a few months after we recorded, Graham announced online that he had been diagnosed with cancer. I hadn’t known him for too long, and probably not that well either, but it was still a shock to hear the news of his passing on September 9th. Everyone had known that Graham had been fighting lymphoma for months. He’d write about his treatments on his blog and reported dark, funny little ‘cancer conversations’ on his Facebook page, always with humour and grace, even when weakened by the treatments.
His work has pretty much always been lauded. You’d be hard pressed to find a fantasy writer writing currently who didn’t admire and respect Graham Joyce — from Neil Gaiman to Lev Grossman to Joe Hill. Graham had been the recipient of a number of awards, including a half dozen British Fantasy Awards, a World Fantasy Award and even an O. Henry Award. The Guardian called him one of the best writers of ghost stories and while he really was, it’s hard to pin down Graham’s writing into one genre. He told me he made up a category for himself: “hallucinatory realism,” but that it was a tough one to have to explain. What’s important, as always, is that Graham wrote with great skill and talent about relationships and he always looked for the magic in people. He wrote with great heart — whether it was a ghost story, a subversive, frightening fairy tale or a ‘literary’ fantasy, the natural world and its magic was always a part of his work and every one of his stories or songs had a big, booming heart at the centre of it, strong and undeniably alive.
I discovered Graham Joyce’s novels in Karachi’s Itwaar Bazaar, back when it was still Jumaa Bazaar. Pulling out a yellowed, dog-eared copy of The Tooth Fairy was one of the best literary discoveries I have ever made. Even now, all these years later, that book can still rattle my mind and make me realign so much of what I think I understand about folk tales and fairy stories. That’s just what Graham did so well — he made his readers question and doubt themselves and everything they thought to be true. When we spoke about Some Kind of Fairy Tale, he said he’d always been interested in “ambiguity and ambivalence,” that what he wanted his readers to be left with was “a kind of puzzle.”
This puzzle, for Graham, wasn’t so much about his books, but about the larger world. For the reader, he said, the puzzle is the question, “is the world a little bit more miraculous than I thought it was when I started this book?” And with Graham’s haunting, evocative books, the world often was.
Just last month Graham Joyce wrote a beautiful piece on his blog about the “shocking clarity” of cancer. As always, he was searching for magic in the natural world: “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?”