Thursday, July 11, 2013

Malachi Bishop on Writing, the Pursuit of a Dream, and the Student that Changed his Life

The Nova Scotian novelist Malachi Bishop, 33, has devoted much of his young career as a writer and, more recently, has become a recognized voice in the campaign to raise awareness about mental illness. His second novel, Shadows No More, which tells the story of a young man’s battle with depression and his family’s inability to deal with it, garnered Bishop a nomination for the Giller Prize. Bishop, who began his career as a policy analyst in the federal civil service, teaches English Literature and Creative Writing at Claredon College. He lives in Toronto, Ontario, with his partner of three years, Cole.
You left Halifax to study political science in Ottawa, where you eventually held a prominent position in the civil service. After only a few short years as a civil servant, you resigned to pursue a writing career. How difficult a decision was that?
It was an agonizing decision. In many ways I had it made. I had a full-time, permanent position with great health benefits, a pension a great opportunity at a time of economic uncertainty in many parts of the country. But I had had a love for writing ever since I could remember, and with the publication of my first novel I had to ask myself, “Is this it?” I was never sure that being a civil servant was right for me. Every morning I felt like I was dragging myself into the office. My heart just wasn’t in it. Even though my first novel was not an instant best-seller, but just getting the book published gave me a little hope that maybe, just maybe, I stood a chance at making a career out of writing. I had to go for it.
You have been successful, and one could say that you’ve achieved a certain celebrity status. And there you cringe. Why does that make you uncomfortable?
I don’t consider myself a celebrity. Margaret Atwood is a literary celebrity. (Shrug) I’m just a guy who chased after a dream and who has the chance, still, to do what he’s most passionate about.
Let’s talk about passion for a moment because, outside of writing, you’ve been a champion of mental health. Tell me how that came about?
I, um … (Clears throat) A couple of years ago I had the pleasure of teaching a very talented student named Zach Brennan. I had only been teaching a few years at that point, but Zach was the type of student that I think every teacher dreams about teaching. I could immediately see Zach’s promise because he brought to each class and assignment great enthusiasm, and his love for words. His words danced on the page. He created word images that, at times, sent a tingling sensation down my spine because I could literally see or hear or smell what he was describing.
(A smile, followed by a long silence) Zach and I … There was just this bond between us that, for the longest time, I couldn’t explain. I mean, I saw the way he looked at me and I must have looked at him the same way. We became good friends outside of class, something that wasn’t exactly kosher an instructor fraternizing with a student. In the beginning, it was innocent until …
Zach stopped coming to class so I went to his apartment to check on him, make sure he was okay. You could call it a moment of weakness, or plain horniness, but that day we gave into desire. Everything changed between us. We talked and laughed, and I thought I knew Zach. Then a few days later, at the college, I was shocked devastated, actually to learn that Zach committed suicide. Then I received a letter in the mail, written by Zach, telling me about his battle with depression. Once I came to terms with Zach’s death, and that I couldn’t have “saved” him, that’s when I knew I had to do something.
Since Zach Brennan’s death, depression or suicide or bipolar disorder have become a central theme in your work.
Yes. It was the easiest way for me, at the time, to come to terms with Zach’s death. I think that all of the short stories that I wrote in the year following Zach’s death revolved around characters struggling with depression, or wanting to kill themselves because they think it’s the only way out. I didn’t intentionally set out to raise awareness of mental health issues. But as the stories were published, and people complete strangers wrote to me and said how they related to the characters and their struggles, I thought that maybe these stories would help in removing the stigma.
Have things changed?
Yes and no. I think, even though we’re talking about mental health more and Hollywood celebrities are talking about their battles with depression, that the stigma is still there. No one really wants to talk about depression. It’s still taboo. Whether it’s depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, it’s as though people still jump to conclusions. If you’re depressed or bipolar, then you must be crazy, the fool type of crazy. That’s how I think things haven’t necessarily changed.
On the other hand, a few months after Zach’s death I had a student from the college’s culinary program confide in me that she struggled with depression. She didn’t know what to do because her family couldn’t understand her illness. They didn’t think she was sick. She had a good doctor and a good therapist, but what she told me she lacked was a good support group. She decided to put up a poster announcing the creation of a new mental health support group, which she called, “Everyone’s A Star.” I was the staff advisor for the group, and we were going to use my classroom to host the meeting. My classroom has twenty-five desks, and at the first meeting sixty four students and staff showed up. We eventually moved the meeting to one of the large seminar rooms. It was an emotional evening.
Last year you were honoured by the local chapter of the Canadian Alliance of Mental Health for your involvement. What was that like?
I was humbled by the award but didn’t feel like I deserved it because, to me, the real heroes of mental illness are those who are battling it every day. It’s the Zach Brennans who did everything they could to fight yet, still, it wasn’t enough.
You fell in love with a student. That student committed suicide. What did the world look like to you after that?
(Laughing). Very different. When the shock had passed, when the grief became “manageable,” I think I became more grateful.
Grateful in what sense?
I had my health. I had a good job, and I loved my job. I had continued success in my writing. I had good friends who carried about me. These were all things to be grateful for that perhaps I had taken for granted. I was on the verge of discovering that a very dear, sweet man would enter my life and change it forever. To borrow that cliché, I took time to slow down and smell the roses.
Outside of your writing and teaching at Claredon College, what other activities interest you?
I try to lead a quiet life. I enjoy spending time with Cole, and we like having our good friends over for dinner, particularly because I love to cook. I also play the piano, which is a great way to shift gears when I feel like a writing project is stuck.
Are you currently working on a new project? If so, what are you willing to share about it?
I’m doing something different. Different for me, actually. I’m working on a collection of short stories, some previously published, others that I’ve written over the last two years. It’s called Tempted and Other Stories, and as the title suggests, the overarching theme is about being tempted into certain actions and situations and how we react. It’s about accepting responsibility on the one hand and, on the other, based on what I’ve experienced in my life, learning to be grateful for life. I’ve learned life isn’t always perfect, but each day I try to say, “Thank you,” for what I do have. That’s a good thing.
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