Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

That Thing RA Dickey Said

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One of the most memorable moments I’ve had writing for the National Post was the day I interviewed Toronto Blue Jays ace pitcher on the phone from my desk over my lunch break. The Cy Young award-winner called me a few hours earlier than scheduled from spring training in Dunedin, Florida, my caller ID flashing “Toronto Blue Jays” while I scrambled to collect my notes.

I was assigned to talk to Dickey about reading, writing, and his relationship with both, on the eve of the baseball season and the release of his book Throwing Strikes. My aim was to collect up his literary recommendations, his wisdom on writing, and any thoughts he had about the frantic anticipation of the Jays 2013 performance. (Oh, that optimism feels like only yesterday.) I relayed to him all my carefully crafted questions and he kindly responded in his immediately likeable Nashville drawl.

Being a books person and a baseball fan automatically denotes that the interview would be a memorable experience for me, but it was on the topic of neither that Dickey really stunned me. There was this moment, half way through the hour-long conversation, where I shared with him that I—like him—was a sexual assault survivor. I dropped the detail almost flippantly, in the context of writing through trauma, and how redemptive it can be for both reader and author. Like a “good journalist” I was trying to find some common ground with my subject during a difficult conversation, hoping he would share how penning his memoir on enduring multiple childhood assaults has helped him move forward as a man and as an athlete. But Dickey stopped me before we continued.

“Stacey May, I’m so sorry that happened to you,” he said.

I had to pause. I had to collect myself. I’m sure he doesn’t even remember it. A detail like that doesn’t make it into a published interview, and his empathy in the face of my trauma was certainly not relevant to the story that appeared in newsprint. Perhaps it’s not even relevant now. But it was human.

We’re in the thick of books’ (and baseball’s) busiest season right now, and it occurs to me that so many of the things we deeply love become part of a well-orchestrated, spectacular show. (Hell, in the movie Bull Durham they actually call major league baseball “The Show.”) The Gillers, The Griffins, The GGs, The Journey Prize are all a show—a black tie, cocktail dress, bestselling, “tell us about your process” kind of show. Launches, lunches, deals, critics, reviews, columns, tweets and takedowns are all the show. Everyone is fabulous, and no one is broken. Like they say in Bull Durham, “In the show, everyone can hit a fastball.”

When you’re embedded in the culture, in the quick turnaround of deadlines, in all the fall parties and the Saturday book sections, you tend to get stuck in the glitter and grind and forget the why of it all. The fact that these communities are actually made up of actual people. The kind of thing that makes the circus worth it is when a man you’ve never met, a man who throws a mean knuckleball and writes a meaningful memoir, apologies to you for a world where rape happens. A rare moment like that reminds you of the basics of why we tell stories and why we should be interested in the people who tell them.

On my lunch break in the middle of my workday, with me frantically trying to maintain the glossy demeanor of a professional in the face of Dickey’s kindness, his gesture derailed me. It broke down my distance from the subject matter, my ability to pretend it was all just a job. It was a welcome break where the work became about nothing more than two people who had survived something hard having a chat about how it can, and how it will get better.

Great literature is so much about that kind of quiet, shared experience, the artful rendering of those private “unprintable” instances in between—yet it occurs to me that we have built a world of walls around ourselves to prevent them, a cold structure to keep the emotive elements as distant as possible. Dickey understands a need for authenticity—how it brings people together—better than most. “[Baseball is] a very tough place to be completely authentic and feel like you’re going to be accepted,” he said to me that day. “I think that when a person sees another person efforting to do that, in a place that that shouldn’t be the case, I think there’s an immediate connection.” He knows the best stories unfold when we step out of the performance and embrace vulnerability. Where we start being honest with ourselves and those around us.

Value in life doesn’t come from trying to impress critics or judges, or win prizes or awards, or from being the coolest kid at the literary party. It’s cultivated when you stray from your notes and disclose your dark secret to a nice Nashville ball player, a stranger on the phone taking a break from his training for “The Show.” It is in these spaces where we diverge from the script, and share things we didn’t think we were capable of sharing, that our best work resides.