In Remembrance – Four Years Gone: An Interview with Jay Lake
“I love whom I love, and I am loved by more people than I will ever know. Love keeps me going through the pain and loss. This is not a desert, just a tired landscape overwritten by years of struggle and the footprints of a thousand people who helped carry me. Thank you.”
Jay Lake June 6, 1964-June 1, 2014
Today marks the fourth anniversary of that great loss we all felt when Jay Lake took his long journey home. Many things have changed. Many have remained the same, but we are still here. We still miss our friend and that spectacular that light illuminated our lives, the one that dimmed at the moment of his passing. Today we want to remember our friend and the wisdom, the joy and humor he left behind.
Time really never heals a damn thing. We just learn to live with the pain, but sometimes it’s the memories that make it hurt just a bit less.
We knew this day would come. He’d been preparing us for years. There were those posts Jay made on his blog that had us worried, that had us thinking of the inevitable. He was honest about his struggle, sometimes brutally so. Cancer isn’t pretty. It isn’t polite. It touches us all and Jay knew that. He knew and he documented his fight. So, we shouldn’t be surprised, should we? But when death comes, even the expected death, it always comes too quickly. It’s always surprising. It’s always sudden, even when it’s not.
I was not a close, long-time friend. I was not someone held in Jay’s quiet confidence. I was just a fan, a fellow writer who admired him. How could I not? How could anyone who watched him tackle the cancer monster and still do what he could to be a productive writer not instantly love him? That’s the thing; Jay didn’t let cancer slow him down and he didn’t stop doing what he loved. He had stories to tell. He had a job to do and to me, some random fan who wanted to learn, who wanted to listen, he was kind and good and supportive.
I was convinced he was using some funky alien juju when he kicked my butt at Scramble. For weeks he’d knock each game out of the park, thousands of points that left me feeling like a second grader going against Stephen Hawking in a battle of wits. I always lost and he’d always laugh, nerd flirt with me and then tell me about how much he loved words. And that was it, wasn’t it? A love of words and the magic in them, shooting into lines, crafting worlds and moments that connect us all. I didn’t begrudge Jay his wins because in each game he taught me, challenged me. That’s what a great teacher does.
When pancreatic cancer took my dad, Jay sent me a heartfelt message of condolence. He didn’t have to do that. He didn’t have to acknowledge my heartbreak. But he did. Despite his own battle, he took a moment to tell me how sorry he was for my loss. That was Jay: taking moments to teach, to comfort, to help, to reassure.
It’s those moments that I believe will be missed the most.
In 2013, Jay chatted with us here at LitStack about his book Green. He said it was a parent’s book. He said the main character had elements of his strong, determined daughter. It wasn’t, though, his legacy, I don’t think. Jay’s legacy, to me, is perseverance. It is the notion of fighting, of working, of enduring despite the hurdles thrown in your path. So, today I am honoring my friend Jay and I hope you will too. Today, I’m stepping away from this site, from the world, from the internet and I’m writing.
To Lisa and The Child and to all those who loved Jay, I send you my deepest condolences and heartfelt sympathies. They aren’t much, but they are true and sincere.
To Jay: The world is dimmer without your beautiful light shining in it. Be blessed, my sweet friend.
Your childhood was one that was somewhat out of the ordinary. How do you think the varied cultures you were brought up in informed your writing and specifically the genre you write in? What were some of your favorite books growing up?
In a meaningful sense, as kid I went everywhere and saw everything. Not literally, obviously, but by the time I left home for college and my young adult life, I’d hiked the route of the Bataan Death March, seen the sun rising over Kilimanjaro, and climbed down inside a classical Greek tomb. Among many other things. So my view of the world has always been highly elastic and deeply varied. Growing up among other cultures gave me a deep sense of displacement that I think corresponds closely to the experience of the alien. My interactions on everything from food to race to weather were very different from what my status as a middle class , cisgendered, white American male would suggest to the casual observer. Not better, or more correct, just different. And for me, our genre of speculative fiction is all about the difference. I’ve always considered fantasy and science fiction to be a natural match for my background. Plus, growing up overseas in the 1960s and 1970s meant I came of age before satellite TV or VCRs. My media exposure was almost completely limited to books. I was drawn to fantasy and science fiction from a very early age through my reading taste. I’m a voracious, swift reader with good retention, and there was a lot of genre fiction available to me. Favorite books in those years included Lord of the Rings, Andre Norton’s Forerunner books, Asimov and Heinlein in both the juveniles and their early classics – I loved the Foundation trilogy, though truth be told I find it close to unreadable now. Also Delany. I tackled Dhalgren in sixth grade. God knows why, I don’t even understand that book now at age 48, but I loved it anyway. Dune. The list goes on. A bit later I ran into Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser, as well as Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun, which just about changed my life.
What do you love most about speculative fiction as both a writer and a reader?
The possibilities. It almost literally has no boundaries and is not constrained by genre formula. Of course we have plenty of subgenre boundaries and formulaic fiction – some of that quite good, I don’t see that label as pejorative – but we can go anywhere and do anything. It’s the ultimate in fabulism, and for my money, the mother of genres. The Epic of Gilgamesh, The Odyssey, Beowulf: they would all be speculative fiction if written today. As a reader, it lets my mind go places I never imagined. As a writer, it lets my words do the same.
Every writer experiences a moment when they decide if they want to be married to writing or just fool around with it. When did that decision come to you?
Late in the year 2000, after I joined the Wordos, a very excellent critique group based out of Eugene, OR. My daughter was old enough (3) for me to return to writing seriously, my life was arranged so that worked well, and I had an inspiring group of mentors and critics.
You dedicate Green to your daughter, and she has been quite the force in your life. Do you think you could have written the character Green without being a father? Do aspects of Green (the character) frighten you because you are a father?
Green is absolutely a parent’s book. I don’t know if a reader would see it that way, but as the writer, I do without a doubt. As for my child, she is as scary strong and resourceful as Green the character, and shares some of Green’s more curious characteristics. Minus the sequestration and training to violence and religious and sexual weirdness, obviously. But the alienation from her birth culture (she is adopted from China), the intensity of purpose, the sense of focus – they are all present in her.
You have mentioned that you aren’t too bothered with negative reviews because even those show that someone has been interested enough in your work to read and comment on them. But do you ever get the urge to respond to a review that seems to be placing personal biases on your work, rather than reading and commenting objectively?
Yes, I do sometimes get that urge. Responding to reviews, even to comment on gross factual errors or painfully obvious bias, is a mug’s game. So far, I have successfully resisted the urge to play, with one or two possible exceptions where people have in effect asked me a question publicly, specifically one that didn’t seem rhetorical. The story absolutely belongs to the reader, so unless I’m prepared to show up at their house to discuss my auctorial intent, I try to stay out of the transaction between story and reader – of which reviews are a public case.
You have written in so many different mediums: short story, essay, novel, blog in anthologies, magazines, websites… is there something you have yet to do that intrigues you? Graphic novel? Screenplay?
I’m really not interested in screenplays. A graphic novel, or a serialized novel, would be fun. Unfortunately, with my health issues – almost five years with Stage IV colon cancer, and things are slowly getting worse – I’m not likely to have those opportunities, as keeping up with my current interests and commitments requires more than I have.
You seriously seem to enjoy interacting with others in the sci-fi/geek community at conventions, and you are so open with your fan base; how important is this interactions with your fans to your writing process? Or are they more a lovely benefit of your need to write?
I love readers and fans, but I write ultimately for me. I think every writer does, must even, though certainly many would likely not express it as I do. So I would say the public interactions in my writer persona are a lovely benefit rather than a key driver. After all, I wrote seriously for over a decade before I first got published, and had no fan interaction to sustain me then.
Science fiction as an all-encompassing genre is often referred to as “escapist.” Would you agree? If so, to what degree do you “escape” when you write and with what you write?
Of course it’s escapist. All fiction is, by definition. Otherwise it would be boring as heck. One of the curses of becoming a writer is you fall into the trap of thinking critically about almost everything. A book or movie than can slip past my critical processes and simply entertain me has become a rara avis in my life. I actually escape more into my writing than into my reading. Writing is for me a special case of reading, except the story is coming out of my fingertips instead of off the page. I often find myself breathlessly wondering what will happen next, which is kind of weird consider I am the writer.
That the geek/nerd movement is currently so popular with the younger set would seem to be ideal for a writer who also works with high technology, but you also eschew popular culture, which also plays a big part of the movement. So – do you consider yourself a geek?
I’m not sure I’d say I eschew popular culture completely, but it’s a fair cop. I turned off my cable TV in 1994 and haven’t watched cable or broadcast since. I left computer and console gaming around 1998. Both because they were sucking up the same brainspace I use for writing, and I’d rather write. I’ve long since lost track of either current or pop music, and I never paid much attention to comic books. The three slices of pop culture I do attend to are movies, Web comics, and political, cultural and religious blogging. I pick up the rest of what I need by osmosis, or via Netflix streaming.
All that being said, I’d like to think I have some geek cred. I played D&D back in the Chainmail and brown book days. I have worked in high tech all my life, sometimes on the IT side, sometimes on the sales and marketing side, at the moment in a blended role. I am a patent holder and an award winning science fiction writer, both of which are serious geek merit badges. I am an avid early adopter of a number of technologies, albeit also quite cheap about spending money on toys. I used to do much of my own car repairs back when I owned classic cars. I even understand XKCD sometimes. But I’m not a geek in the contemporary ComicCon/gamer/MMORPG/toy collector sense. Not at all.
The nice thing about geekdom is that like SF, when it’s at its best, it can be all-encompassing. When it’s not at its best, geekdom can be as appallingly retrograde as any other slice of culture. Welcome to the human condition.
You’ve been very open and frank about your battle against cancer. How has this impacted your work and what made you decide to participate in Lakeside?
There’s an unholy mess. As I write this interview response, I’m fresh with news of an additional tumor which has presented while I’ve been working through my third chemotherapy series. Cancer has all but stolen my career. I’ve lost about half of the last three years of writing time to the brain fog that chemo induces. My ability to commit to events as a headliner (instructor, GoH), is gone, probably irretrievably. I don’t expect to live more than a few more years, so there are dozens of books and hundreds of stories I will never write. I won’t let my voice be stilled completely, not until sometime after the disease claims me permanently. The Lakeside documentary is one way for me to keep talking even when my writing mind is silenced by the disease and the ravages of its treatments.
Thanks to Sharon Browning for contributing to this interview.
This interview first appeared on LitStack in January, 2013.