An Interview with Rick Bailey

Twitter’s not my favorite form of social media, but it introduced me to fellow Michigander Rick Bailey, so I guess I should be happy with it. Rick is the author of three collections of essays, all published by University of Nebraska Press. His latest, Get Thee to a Bakery, is out today, and I encourage everyone to put it on their to-be-read list. Rick has an easy-going, laid-back style of writing that makes you feel like you’re putting on a favorite sweater when you open the book’s pages and read. Whether he’s discussing the squirrels in the back yard or the landscape in the Republic of San Marino (his wife’s native area), Rick has a way with words, and he brings the reader as deep into the story as we can imagine, and then digs even deeper. Readers learn from Rick, and I think that’s to be expected, considering he’s a retired writing professor. Rick always seems to be on the go, so I’m grateful he took the time to answer my questions.

Christina: In your newest work, Get Thee to a Bakery, you come back to “familiar subjects: home, family, food, health, travel, technology, finding humor in the minute details of everyday life.” Why are you drawn to the ordinary, and how do you make those mundane tasks seem so extraordinary?

Rick: Early in my experience as a “creative writer” I tried to write about the big events in my life. Those were the things I was interested in. I was going to make my life into a novel. But I couldn’t seem to do any of the big events justice. Partly that was because I was still learning craft (I would say I’m still still learning craft). Partly, too, that was because I’m just not very good at making “big” statements, the “and this is what it all means” kind of thing. I wasn’t interested in the little stuff. Fortunately I wrote poetry for a while, and I started to understand that the little stuff counts.  And fortunately one of my poetry teachers said, “Don’t explain the poem you’re writing.” That made an impression. I guess that means show don’t tell. Anyway, I started to think small and stopped explaining, started to think about what’s happening right now, today, in this moment. It was liberating. Start in the middle of things, the mess, the trivial, and capture it. The big things will take care of themselves. Right now my wife is standing at the kitchen table making wontons. Her hair has turned gray. She looks like her mother, who was a great ravioli maker. And the fridge is humming and it’s cold outside. All this small stuff at once. It’s like that great poem with Raymond Carver, “Mesopotamia.” He writes: “In any case, I feel myself being drawn to the kitchen. So much that is mysterious and important is happening out there this morning.”

Christina: A lot of research must go into each of your essays, since they’re chock full of historical facts and details and trivia. How do you keep from falling down the rabbit hole? And are you a whiz at Jeopardy?

Rick: Not a lot of research. I’m a butterfly, or a gnat, lighting on details and getting stuff stuck to my feet. I often move from personal experience to research into a subject and then back to personal experience. The move to research jiggles loose a personal detail from memory, widens the scope of my topic, and takes me places I didn’t expect to go. The essay “Monsters” in Get Thee to a Bakery began when my wife said something, as she often does, about her reading—about a great bug die-off.  It got me thinking about the bug world as I knew if when I was a kid: bugs splattered on the windshield when we drove up to the lake, bugs I washed off windshields when I pumped gas. Then in my reading I go to Puerto Rico and to Berlin and wind up in Toledo, Ohio, where the algae blooms in Lake Erie bring me back home to the Great Lakes. Connections offer themselves. I write them down.

Christina: Jim Daniels wrote about your work in American English, Italian Chocolate: “Rick Bailey’s writing sparkles with wit and self-deprecating humor, provoking laughter that hurts with the recognition of our own foibles and faults.” I agree with him: your writing is laugh-out-loud funny at times. So I have to ask, do you think you’re funny in person? And do others think you’re funny?

Rick: No, I don’t think I’m particularly funny. I laugh when I’m writing, sometimes I laugh out loud. Both my kids think I’m funny. My wife rolls her eyes. I think I’m painful to live with.

Christina: You taught writing for thirty-eight years at Henry Ford College. As a fellow two-year college instructor, I’m curious about what drew you to teaching at that level instead of at a high school or a four-year university (which are all, of course, vastly different). What was the greatest lesson you learned from your students?

Rick: The greatest lesson I learned from my students was the same lesson I tried to impart to them. That our lives have meaning, that we discover and assert that meaning in the stories we tell. When I went to academic conferences, I would hear personal narrative widely disparaged. Don’t talk about yourself. I get that. At the college level you’re helping students get control of academic discourse. Their success in school depends on acts of rhetorical persuasion. I can control the vocabulary, the concepts and details. I sound like you, teacher of English, of science, of business, etc. What bothered me was an attitude that the lives students had lived and were living didn’t matter. So in my practice as a writing teacher, I asked students to tell their stories, bring their personal knowledge to the writing, and I modeled it in my writing with them and for them.  I wanted them to write something they loved. The lesson I learned from them was that it was possible to do that, that everyone could write something they loved.

Christina: I chuckled at the description of the podcasts on your website: “Think of them as appetizers, as website antipasto.” If someone said to you, “You cannot think about food, write about food, or compare anything in your life to food,” what would you choose instead?

Rick: Music, definitely.

Christina: How does traveling fuel your creativity? Your writing process? Has COVID-19 impacted your writing negatively? Has anything positive come from the pandemic?

Rick: Well, there’s the thrill—and oddity–of the moment in travel. I’m sitting in the breakfast room of a hotel in Moab, wondering about people’s t-shirts.  Or noticing the eye glasses and haircuts of Chinese hipsters enjoying cocktails in Shanghai. Or eating eggs and truffles in Fossombrone, Italy. I try to capture the details. Fortunately I wake up early and have the habit of writing.  I’ve written through COVID, pretty steady. There’s probably been more home time, more time to write. It’s been kind of a boon.

Christina: If you didn’t write or teach writing, is there anything else you could envision yourself doing?

Rick: Yes, I would like to be a plumber. Or a math teacher.

Thanks to Rick for agreeing to this interview! If you know of an author who’d like to be featured in an interview (or you are an author who would like to be featured), feel free to leave a comment or email me via my contact page.

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