2016 Non-Fiction Contest Winners: An Interview with M. Bayless
M. BAYLESS is the author of four books for children. She lives in Vancouver, with their cats and lots of fish. She is pursuing an MFA in Creative Writing at UBC. Her contest winning essay, which swirls around issues of life and death amidst murky aquarium waters, appears in the current issue of EVENT 45/3 – you can click HERE to subscribe.
EVENT: I was struck most by the compassionate and kind tone that radiates from this piece. There are moments of such sadness and loss, but through it all there is this kind hopeful spirit that pierces the sorrow like a needle, drawing a gentle yellow thread through the sadness. Is this indicative of your personality? Or something you tried to achieve in the piece?
MB: Thank you! I hope that’s my personality, because I wasn’t consciously striving for any particular tone. I was feeling my way around something. Loss, whether of people we love, or of some part of ourselves like our intellect or health, opens us up to grief and wonder at the same time. Something is peeled away and we come more directly in contact with life. During the year following my father’s death, it seemed that every time I got on a bus or train an old man would sit next to me and talk. It was a year of old men. I heard about their first grade teachers or the Cox’s Orange Pippins they used to get at Woodward’s or their first job at the mill. Their stories would break my heart because I was missing my father and they were missing their youth, but for twenty minutes or an hour we would be like father and daughter. I still feel close to them. Writing that piece put me in the same, peeled-open state. (Thank you for that metaphor of the needle, by the way. Makes me feel sharper.)
E: This may be a totally weird question, but I just had to ask it. Do you eat fish?
MB: Fish eat fish. Fish eat people. I prefer blueberries. But in the interest of full disclosure, I can eat a bag of salted licorice fish gummies in a sitting.
E: Another impressive element in your piece is the deftly woven research (aquatic tank maintenance, tropical fish care, Irvin Yalom etc.) Were you doing research specifically for this piece?
MB: Frank, tanks, and fish hospitals are research only in the way that eating chocolate is research. I’ve always loved tiny aquatic universes. Right now, my nano tank is home and garden to some clever blue wizard shrimp. (There may be truth to the rumours that my kids raised themselves while I scraped algae.) When it comes to books by Irvin Yalom, the psychotherapist, that’s both research and obsession. I have been wrestling deeply with issues like purpose and mortality, guilt and forgiveness these past few years. Whenever I’m worried, I tend to read obsessively even though not much sticks, so I’ve accumulated stacks of books on pretty odd topics. Irvin Yalom is my go-to medical expert for fears of mortality because he is charmingly neurotic himself, but I read books by many other authors while writing (or living) this piece. When a friend who had been diagnosed with cancer last year asked me if I could lend him anything about death and dying, I had to break his question down into categories, by pile. “Do you mean books about finding meaning in life when you’re almost out of time? About what happens to the body the last few days before death? Memoirs by brilliant people who died while writing them?” I think he left with three or four titles by Irvin Yalom and something Buddhist.
E: As a successful YA and children’s author, was writing this kind of work a massive departure from that? How did you approach this genre? What drew you to write about this topic?
MB: I am definitely more comfortable writing funny stories for younger readers than I am writing about mortality. “So Long and Thanks For All the Fish” started out as an assignment for a non-fiction class I was taking with Deborah Campbell at UBC. I was passionate about the topic I’d chosen, which was about the pathologization of trans people. For months, I conducted interviews and read books, journals and blogs. I was going to write this beautiful thing that could make a difference. But, I just couldn’t get it down on paper. I’m still trying, in fact, and it’s been a year. I went through all the stages of writing failure, which are the same stages you go through for brilliant success. The stages are: optimism, trepidation, devotion, desperation, despondency, and celibacy. Followed either by grief or exhilaration, depending on the outcome. Somehow, while failing to competently write even one page of what I was working on – which feels exactly like mercury poisoning combined with leukemia – I wrote this piece for myself about losing my intellect. I took all the broken bits that I’d scribbled while not writing the other thing, and pasted them together. And when I read it, I was surprised and comforted.
E: What are you reading right now? Or, what have you read recently that you loved?
MB: I love Miriam Engelberg’s graphic memoir, Cancer Made Me a Shallower Person. The title says it all. Miriam twists all the weird self-pity and cancer darkness up with quirky human moments and connects you to truth.
I’ve just finished Deborah Campbell’s memoir-thriller, A Disappearance in Damascus. She’s the teacher who gave me the assignment that led to “So Long and Thanks for All the Fish,” but while that’s the reason I read her book, it’s not why I love it. Deborah was an undercover journalist in Damascus when her friend and fixer, Ahlam, was arrested by the secret police and disappeared. This is the story of that friendship and Deborah’s decision to put herself at risk to find Ahlam, but the questions it raises are also universal. I could not put it down.
Interview by Cara Lang.
M. Bayless’s winning essay “So Long, and Thanks for all the Fish” appears in the current issue of EVENT 45/3. Click HERE to subscribe or renew your subscription.