By Brian Panowich
Two of the most popular questions I get asked at events and lectures, which are mostly virtual these days, is “Who are some of my biggest influences?” and “When did writing become something I knew I wanted to do for a living?” There are many ways to answer those questions that sound much cooler than the truth—and sometimes I do—if the crowd is waning. But the real answer to both of those questions is the same—and it’s much more of a personal response than just listing off some literary heroes.
Many moons ago, on one random afternoon, a fella by the name of Ryan Sayles emailed me about a short story I’d written online. It was only about as long as this column and it was the first story I’d ever published in my life.
Anyway, Sayles had an idea. He wanted to self-publish a book, just the two of us, but with a twist. He wanted to release it like an 80’s Punk Rock 45, a book with a Side A and a Side B, that featured two different writers. And he wanted to approach it with a Punk Rock attitude as well. You know, “Who cares if anyone likes it? It’s for us, not them.”
I liked the idea—a lot. So, we did it.
We invented a fake imprint that we named after Ryan’s oldest son, Zelmer, and got comic book legend, Chuck Regan, to pretty us up a cover. And then boom—we just threw it out there.
What we didn’t know at the time was that Ryan, Chuck, and I had just started a club—our club. And it felt amazing. After that first book came out, we knew it couldn’t stop with just the one, so we began to hunt down recruits to join the gang. For both me and Ryan, there was only one obvious choice—an unknown tattooed lunatic poet out in the Arizona desert who’s work we both admired online. This guy didn’t just write stories, he set fire to them, and you were lucky to get a glimpse.
That was when Isaac Kirkman joined our little cabal. He became part of our tribe. And I believe that finding your tribe in this world is the most important mission in life other than just getting through it with a minimal amount of scarring. We added others to the ranks along the way, and we just wrote stories—for fun—for each other—and some of them were actually pretty good.
But Isaac—man, that guy was amazing.
He wrote prose that howled to be let loose from the page as if it were something fierce and alive.
I wanted to write like that.
I wanted my words to make other people feel the way his work made me feel.
Isaac Kirkman, more than any other author I’d been reading my whole life, made me strive to be better—and not just a better writer—but a better person. And if I thought I could get remotely close to where he was, I knew I had to make a go at it. I just had to be as honest and as brave on the page as he was. So that’s the real answer to both of those questions. That’s when my journey really began—when Isaac Kirkman joined our club.
Of course, no club lasts forever, and our group eventually dissolved, as we all started off down our own roads of life.
But the friendships we made were forged in cast iron, even though most of us had never even met face to face in the real world. I’d always hoped someday I’d get to meet my beautiful friend, Isaac, if I ever made it out to Tucson, Ariz. where he lived, but it always felt like a pipedream. In fact, I’ve still never been to Tucson—but I did make it to Scottsdale on tour for my second novel, LIKE LIONS. And Isaac, despite the chronic pain he was always in due to a condition called Ehlers Danlos Syndrome, a connective tissue disorder he suffered from, still opted to take a sixteen-hour bus ride to meet me at my hotel.
I was sitting at the bar when a seven-foot, lanky, lyrical genius, decked out in a white Gram Parsons Nudie Suit strolled in like he owned the place. He spotted me there and without hesitation he crossed the lounge and hugged me like I was long-lost family.
And you know what? I was.
We ate, we drank, we laughed, we talked about books and heartache, because what else is there?
Twenty-four hours later I left for the airport already looking forward to the next time I’d be coming back to see my friend. That was two years ago this month.
I never did get back. Instead, I attended his funeral in January. He died from complications of his disease, while holed up in a hotel room writing poetry in Mexico.
Because everyone knows that the brightest fires always burn out the fastest.
I have cried a lot over the past two years and I’ve even punched a few walls. But I finally found the strength to stop all that nonsense and sit down to tell this story—because this is what Isaac would want. He would want people to smile and create things in his name, not cry and give up. The man was story, and song, and brotherhood, and was truly one of the few people I’ve met on earth that understood the concept of unconditional love.
I know I’ll see him again. I just know it. And I’ll finally be able to thank him for who he was to me, and how there never would have been a professional writer living in my house without him. I miss you brother. I’ll see you on the other side.
And oh yeah, the first page of my forthcoming novel begins with the words, For Isaac.
Photo by Lum3n from Pexels
Appears in the April 2021 issue of Augusta Magazine.