Sometimes the people who become your best friends are who’d you expect. The kid your age who ends up living next door. The neighborhood family expecting a baby the same time as you. A coworker you laugh with at lunch.
But then there are the ones who are only on the periphery of your life when an unexpected connection is formed, and they become people you can’t live without.
John was that.
We met at a writer’s group I joined in 2004. He sat at the long table filled with 15-20 writers on any given Sunday. He usually had good stuff to say. We did not speak much then, not any more than any other members of the group.
But that changed in August 2006. He submitted a few chapters of his novel in progress, A Dignified Exit, and I was stunned.
I was known for my rather sharp critiques. I never liked anything. So the group, and certainly John, was surprised, when I passed him this:
John, John, John.
Writing like yours is what feels comfortable to me. It’s beautiful and honest and illuminates elements of life worth slowing down and examining in fine detail. It’s patient and languorous and sad and true.
I know I’m not living up to my reputation as the novel-slasher of NIP, but I know good stuff when I see it, and this is good stuff.
This will not be an easy book to sell, but it’s worth it. Keep trying. Persevere.August 2006
Shortly after this, according to our very first private email a few days later, we started a query critique group with fellow author Suzann Kale, who was working on Midnight Tequila. The three of us helped each other submit queries to agents over the next month.
Then came one of those moments you don’t forget — a member of our writers group, Melanie Typaldos, author of a middle grade book featuring a capybara, had a pre-surgery party, and I sat by John. I don’t really remember anything about the party other than him and our intense conversation about writing, the pain of creation, and living as an artist with only one foot in reality.
Afterward we wrote each other rather exuberant emails on writing and decided to meet more often. Our discussions went all over the place — novel inspiration, themes from our lives that melted into our fiction, and the painful nature of trying to wrestle with the forces of creation, whether in writing, like we both did, or as a painter and illustrator (John illustrated dozens of children’s books) and photographer (I was working as a portrait photographer at the time.)
In one of our email conversations during this period he told me this:
There is a feeling like no other in knowing you have done something that is truly good. It doesn’t happen often, mysteriously elusive, but when it does, you’re somehow in touch with your higher self. Something beyond the self. Every once in a while I am blessed with a gift from the infinite.John Asher — September 2006
By the end of the year, we were talking on the phone every day, Monday through Friday, around 2:00, the last hour before my girls got home from school. We read each other sections of our books. Talked about our queries to agents. Commiserated over rejections. These daily conversations went on for another 10 years, punctuated with group meetings, happy hours, and the restaurants where we became such regulars that the waiters knew us by name and placed our orders as we found a table. He never failed to send me a Valentine in those early years, original sketches and mixed media I still love to take out.
Since I did photography, he sometimes asked me for new photos of him for his web sites and books. I took a few, once at a party in 2008, and once by the jukebox at Catfish Parlor in 2012, where we met often.
When I wound up in the hospital in 2010, John showed up, book in hand, and read to me while everyone tried to figure out what was wrong. A young surgeon insisted I needed my gall bladder removed when I knew I didn’t, so John became my partner in crime when I snuck out to avoid the scalpel! (Spoiler — I was misdiagnosed and still have my gall bladder today!)
Later that year, I was at the Heart Hospital when John had back-to-back surgeries, one planned, one emergency. No one was sure he’d pull it out, but a week later we celebrated his 75th in a post-surgical rehab hospital.
I made the switch to self publishing in July 2011, and John waited to see how it would go for me before doing it himself, publishing both A Dignified Exit and The Dogs of Mexico in December. We rode the early wave of self-publishing and both had a glorious time with it. John went on to release several more books, and I published close to fifty. He liked to tease me about my fandom, and on my birthday in 2015 he sent me this:
John’s long-time friend Tommy Kendrick did this video of John in 2015 after narrating John’s book The Dogs of Mexico in audio. These were great days.
When I added more children to my life in late 2015, phone calls got hard for me to pull off, so we emailed all our daily issues. A quick search of my inbox shows over 4,000 messages. When I finally got everyone school age again, we found new spots to have lunch, including this spot at Hyde Park Grill last fall near his new apartment.
When he landed back in rehab to strengthen up earlier this year, I stopped by several times a week. Things weren’t going well, and he had one last book that was finished but he hadn’t released it yet. I asked him what the heck was he waiting for? His daughter and I went to his place to raid his computer for the files, and so his final book, James and Jilly, came out in May.
John was with me in 2006 as I searched for an agent for my very first novel, Helena the Muse, which he told me just a few weeks ago was still his favorite. As we went over the figures for his final novel and I told him my marketing plan for it, he reversed the conversation — what in the heck was I waiting for in not releasing my best work?
Maybe I will. I haven’t even read it in a decade, since those days when John and I would pore over every sentence of our manuscripts, critiquing the placement of a phrase, or the variation of a verb. Reading it again will certainly channel him, and the faith he had in me — a faith we shared in each other.
John R Jones, known to his fans as author John J Asher, died in the early morning hours of August 15, 2019.
I’m not really sure what my creative life looks like without him. The perfect critique partner is an impossible find. But for thirteen glorious years, I had it. He was never too busy to hear the latest plot I was struggling with. No phrase was too small or insignificant to discuss.
The imprint of his influence will remain with me always, even on the work I will have to continue without him.