It's with great sadness that I've heard the news tonight of Joel Lane's passing at the age of just 50.
I was so very fortunate to know Joel and privileged to have worked with him as his publisher on his short collection of 'Birmingham Noir' crime stories, Do Not Pass Go, back in 2011, and to have continued to have known him since.
I had first came across Joel Lane a little earlier on, by sheer coincidence; when I was about 17 or 18 I borrowed his novel From Blue to Black from my local library, picked out on a whim. What was electrifying about reading this, in a small midlands town in my late teens, was that for the very first time I had found a writer writing about things close to my heart, that mattered to me (rock music, and especially those mentions of Spiritualized, Joy Division, and others) and not only that, but setting the story in places I knew about (namely Birmingham - a bit further away from where I'd grown up, but close and familiar enough to leave me with a buzz about seeing the place written about and in print). These were places and things that I'd not thought before that you could write about. What was exciting was to suddenly see all these possibilities, open doors, the permission that great writers grant to fledglings such as us, through inspiration such as this.
I remembered the name of the author long after I'd forgotten the title of the book, so several years later, when I started working in poetry and publishing and going to readings in the West Midlands area, it was great to finally meet Joel and to tell him what an impact his book had on me and how it changed my idea of what I had thought was possible with creative writing (as always, he was very modest about this and always looked a little bashful if I mentioned it at readings or launches).
As well as working prolifically across several genres of fiction (crime, sci-fi, speculative and horror and literary fiction) Joel was also an incisive and quietly-brilliant poet; he published several collections with Arc (The Edge of the Screen, Trouble in the Heartland and The Autumn Myth), and a pamphlet of poems recently with Flarestack Poets, called Instinct. Again, the urban environment, and specifically Birmingham's environs, influenced and informed his tender, melancholy and sharply-observed poetry. He was truly a part of the rich tapestry of Birmingham's writing community, and tonight it feels poorer for his loss.
Joel was a deeply principled, thoughtful and gentle person. He cared greatly about many issues of social justice, equality and politics, and had the sort of intelligent overview of current affairs that made him a fascinating person to converse and debate with. He was also great fun to edit - on Do Not Pass Go, we sat in a rough Wetherspoons pub in Acocks Green one wet and windy night (the sort of place that could easily have come out of one of his own short stories, in fact) debating back and forth the merits of various plots, characters and dialogue, Joel arguing the case for them when appropriate, talking through alternatives when we came up against things that didn't quite work. An attentive and careful author, he knew just how far to let the editors go with their pruning shears, and exactly when his writer's instinct knew something just had to stay as it was.
Fellow Birmingham writer, Roz Goddard, reminded me on Twitter tonight of a reading we did with Joel in Kingswinford Library earlier this year. We could have simply stayed all night - he loved reading the stories, the audience couldn't get enough of him, and got all the in-jokes and the local references in the stories - it might have been chucking it down outside, but indoors, Joel's brilliance as a story-teller just radiated from those darkly-humourous tales, and thrived in the audience's reception of them.
So thank you Joel, for the brilliant books, the stories and the poetry that will stick with us, and the memories.
We'll all miss you so much.