I received an email the other day from my friend Janice in St. John’s, NL., telling me than John Eerkes-Medrano had passed away. A heart-attack, she said. And I had to close the lid of my laptop, stop what I was working on.
John was my editor. I’d just finished working on a book with him: a new novel. He liked the title and also the least likable character. He told me it was, at 200, 000 words, a door-stopper and might intimidate some agents and publishers. But he worked with me on that beefy book. And, as editors and writers will do, we wrestled over a few key sections. He told the last line of the novel had to go. I ignored his suggestion. Twice. But, in the end, I saw he was right. The last line is gone now. The book is better for that small change, and for the thousands John suggested in line-level and substantive edits.
Editors are anal. They have to be. And they are also angels. Not the harpist aficionados we cartoon in our minds. But the kind that nearly crippled Jacob in the Old Testament, when Jacob wrestled with one until dawn. Writers wrestle with their editors, and we’re wounded when our weaknesses are pointed out – our pride gets hurt. But a writer who has a good editor will not let go of that editor because he knows that editor, like no other reader, can truly bless his work: make it better.
John was that kind of angel. Fierce, gentle, demanding, keen-eyed. He occasionally “rolled his eyes” at me in his marginalia: told me I could do better. And so I wrote thinking often of what John might say, how I could keep his attention, make him laugh, make him sweat, make him love a character I was pretty sure (from our conversations online and in person) he’d hate.
Knowing John is no longer here means I’ve lost a friend, an elder. John and I both came from religious backgrounds, and though I do not think he considered himself religious still, to me he was an elder in a religious sense: a guide and confessor. I could talk to him about what my books were really about. He got my mythology, the ancient stories that haunt my contemporary tales. But he always made sure that the myths – the allusions and metaphors – translated well in the story’s own language. “It’s possible, with good writing, to get the angriest skeptic on your side, invested in your story.” And so he guided me in how to do this, and also (with his wry humor), how not to do this. He believed I had something to say. I lost confidence in that assertion with this last project and I emailed him about my concerns. As good elders do, he encouraged me without talking down to me or dismissing my concerns as angsty.
“I don’t think what you have here, in this manuscript, is good just because you pay me!” he joked. “I worked on this so I have skin in the game. It might be a slog, but you just need to keep going.”
I did that, and I’ll keep doing that. Though now without John. Without a man I considered my friend.
John took my first draft of Odin’s Eyes with him on a trip up north. His wife Laura was on a research trip and he was tagging along, he said. I sent him a Word doc. of my manuscript and he wrote back a week later, mid-trip, saying:
Laura’s research trip (my vacation) was wonderful. We spent one week in the village of Gambell, on St. Lawrence Island, just 30 miles off the east coast of Russia, and another week in Shaktoolik, on Norton Sound. The people in Gambell are Siberian Yupik, walrus and whale hunters who still manage to get most of their meat from the sea. And they are tough, heading out in their 12-foot aluminum skiffs to take on these magnificent beasts. Here are a few photos: two kids showing off their new pup (sorry, I couldn’t resist!), the elder Iyaaka telling me about the good old days of hunting on the Bering Sea (a lovely, cantankerous fellow), and a view of Gambell on a rare clear day (that’s a bowhead whale jawbone in the foreground). This visit will stay with me for a long time.
Here’s the picture of him sitting with Iyaaka, the elder.
I wonder if John knew that to me he was an elder. Not in a church, of course. But in that tribe of writers Margaret Laurence once famously spoke of – the CanLit tribe. He welcomed me, let me share his fire – his keen-eyed insights, his brilliance. He celebrated with me when our book was nominated for an award. (What would other editors say if they saw how many exclamation points he used in that email?)
At meals my son Liam grabs my hand and my wife’s hand and squints at me harshly until I pray. This morning, John, I said a prayer for you. I hope that’s okay.