3 min read

In Memoriam: Petra Mayer

Petra Mayer smiling against a light blue background, holding a paper with her name, job, hometown and twitter handles on it.
Damian Woehr/NPR

Petra Mayer – editor at NPR Books, pillar of my professional life, and dear friend – passed away suddenly this morning. I'm stunned and devastated. I was chatting with her yesterday; I owed her a review on Monday. It is impossible and unbearable that she's gone.

Petra recruited me to write reviews for NPR Books by emailing me out of the blue in the autumn of 2013. With a subject line that read "hello!!" she wrote the following:

I stumbled across you in a BBC story about Arab influences in SF and I’m ALWAYS looking for new and interesting voices to review SF/Fantasy/genre in general and occasionally some poetry – and write essays on things that interest them. (It’s a pretty broad mandate, really.  Is there something bugging you? Fascinating you? Would you like to tell a large audience of smart people about it? Come write for me!)

She had no way of knowing – I'm struggling now to remember whether I ever told her – what a low point I was at. I was abandoning a doctoral program that was ruining my life; I was unemployable in a foreign country; I was subsisting on the dregs of student loans and freelance reviews that paid $25-$50 a piece. She was a miracle, the sun coming out.

Reading my reply to that first email now – how polite and restrained and professional I was trying to be – I want to cry. It's nothing like how we grew to speak to each other over the course of eight years and hundreds of emails, full of cat photos and exclamation points and capslock, yelling at each other about how much we loved books and comics and Doctor Who. It's nothing like how we spoke to each other yesterday.

It's impossible to think of Petra in the past tense. It's bad grammar. I've turned, while writing this, to her own remembrance of Terry Pratchett, for a sense of how to even begin this kind of thing, and to hear her speaking.

Working with her was a dream. She taught me so much while helping me find confidence in my intelligence, my perspective, my voice. She was so passionate about genre fiction, so alive to community discourse and discussion, so devoted to uplifting marginalized voices and just making room, for people, for ideas, for stories. She was furious about injustice and imbalance, determined to do whatever was in her power to address it. The world was more vivid in her company, its colours brighter. She was brilliant and funny and wonderful. When asked, in 2018, what she loved about public radio, she said,

EVERYTHING. No really. We tell stories in a way no one else can, we lift up voices no one else does, we'll bring you the news but we'll also bring you the joy in a way no other medium can.

That was her, precisely, completely.

I loved her so much. This can't be all that I write about her. I'm so grateful for her, for every message we exchanged and every moment I got to spend in her company. I'm grateful that we got to visit each other's homes and meet each other's cats and humans. That we got to go on long walks together in Glasgow and DC. That we got to play Animal Crossing together and talk to each other about books on the radio. I can hear her voice in my head as I'm writing this, her laughter, her teasing me about Canadian spelling and semi-colons (there are only three and I still want to beg her permission to keep them) and sounding too academic.

My deepest condolences to her family, her colleagues and friends, everyone who was lucky enough to know her. I'm grieving with you.

It would be so much easier to write this if she were reading it.