Stacey May Fowles is a novelist, sportswriter, essayist, and Room’s 2018 creative non-fiction contest judge. She received widespread acclaim for her passionate perspective on baseball and fandom in her 2017 essay collection, Baseball Life Advice. We had a chance to talk to Fowles about finding community in writing and what makes for riveting non-fiction.
ROOM: You work in both non-fiction and fiction. What makes you gravitate toward one form or another to tell a particular story?
SMF: I want to say something like intuition or gut here, or that the story “tells me how it wants to be told,” but I really don’t think it’s as profound or magical as that. Sometimes I just feel like working on one project over another, depending on mood (or more often, economic necessity). I’ve definitely been turning more toward non-fiction in recent years, especially since becoming a full-time freelancer and exploring the possibilities of sports writing. I’ve long talked about eventually writing a baseball novel, so maybe that’s a natural next step for me.
ROOM: Baseball Life Advice was in many ways a deeply resonant read for me. I didn’t know how much I needed to read another woman’s personal experience of being a sports fan. Have other female sports fans, journalists, or even athletes reached out to you with similar experiences since the book came out?
SMF: I think the most surprising and rewarding experience in the process of promoting Baseball Life Advice over the last year is how many people have let me know this game, or some other similar “frivolous” passion or diversion, ended up helping them when they desperately needed it. I’ve heard countless stories of how baseball acted as a reprieve when someone was dealing with mental illness, grief, tragedy, and loss, or how it brought them a genuine community when they were feeling lost or isolated.
As a writer, I’ve been very lucky to be on the receiving end of those stories, because I think we all long to play a part in deciphering human experience, to make sense of inexplicable feelings, and to offer people some comfort along the way. Beyond that, when baseball was “saving me” I felt very much alone, and to write this book and connect with so many people as a result has been an incredible, and maybe even healing process.
ROOM: What do you look for in a great piece of creative non-fiction?
SMF: There is a great deal of writing floating around in the world, and I think everyone likes to be surprised when they invest in a piece of non fiction, whether it’s innovation in form or content. We enjoy artistry but also clarity, a fresh way of looking at things that maybe we would not have previously recognized, or something that illuminates a broader human experience. The work that always sticks with me long after reading it is not necessarily around any specific subject matter I’m already intensely interested in, but writing that has compelled me to be interested. I often think about Sam Riches’ “Home Court: Filipino Hoops in Canada’s Frozen North” (which opens Best Canadian Sports Writing), an essay about a sport I’m not particularly invested in, but the story is so beautifully told, it always stays with me. It’s an amazing thing when a writer has you riveted about something you never really would have sought out on your own. It feels like a generous invitation.
ROOM: Which writers influence your own work?
SMF: When I first started out there were “famous” writers I looked up to, writers who at the time felt out of reach and otherworldly in terms of their accolades, talent and reputation, but more and more I look to my colleagues and my community for inspiration. Writing can be a lonely, punishing slog, and in some corners oddly/toxically competitive, so it can be easy to get caught in a self-deprecating loop. Nothing has been better for my work (and my mental health) than being around writers who are supportive of each other, who are willing to share the positive and negative realities of the process and the industry, and who champion each other’s writing and celebrate each other’s achievements. It’s healthy and good to be around people who are honest about how writing is really less about status, and more about hard (but rewarding) work. I’ve been very lucky to have benefited from incredible mentors and fantastic editors, and to bounce ideas off other writers in workshops and beyond, and I can’t think of a better influence than that.
ROOM: Do you have any advice for writers looking to enter the CNF contest?
SMF: You can always tell when a writer is sure of their own voice, enthusiastic about their subject matter, and strikes a nice balance between thoughtfully considering their reader and staying true to themselves. That kind of writing, in my view, is generally the very best.
ROOM: Can you recommend some CNF books or pieces to inspire writers looking to enter the contest?
SMF: Recent non-fiction books I’ve enjoyed include Kyo Maclear’s Birds Art Life and Durga Chew-Bose’s Too Much and Not the Mood. As for spring offerings, I’m really excited about Chelene Knight’s upcoming memoir Dear Current Occupant, Elizabeth Renzetti’s essay collection Shrewed: A Wry and Closely Observed Look at the Lives of Women and Girls, and Kelli Korducki’s Hard To Do: The Surprising, Feminst History of Breaking Up.
ROOM: What projects do you have coming up, writing-wise?
SMF: I’m currently working on a memoir for McClelland & Stewart, and editing an anthology with (the fantastic) Jen Sookfong Lee for Greystone Books on the ways in which we cope with trauma. But given by the time the contest deadline rolls around I’ll be a new mom, I’m looking forward to putting most of my energies into that for a while.
Alissa is a former Vancouverite now based in Toronto. Her work has appeared in Ricepaper Magazine, canlit.ca, 24 Hours Vancouver, and Room 37.3. She worked at Canadian Literature, a quarterly academic journal, where she helped research, write, edit, and code HTML for CanLit Guides, an online teaching resource for literature instructors. You can follow her on Twitter at @alissakeiko.