One of the things I always liked best about Michael Bishop is that he came across as so supremely ordinary. A slender guy with glasses, short-haired, wearing button-down shirts, who ate tuna-fish sandwiches for lunch and was politely friendly to strangers.
Looking at him, you might not guess that he had an outrageous imagination or the gift of writing effectively about the darker sides of human life. And you definitely wouldn’t know of his wicked gift for satire, one that came through in most of his books.
You might not also guess just how much courage he had, but that was something else he displayed in the same quiet way he did most things.
Most of the remembrances I’ve seen of Michael, who died November 13, mention what a good human being he was, and that was very true. But if you’ve read his fiction, you are aware that there was nothing naive about his goodness. He knew the darkness of the world and was good anyway.
He was our first teacher at Clarion West in 1997, an excellent choice to ease us into that intense experience. That’s where I first saw his courage, because he not only challenged us all to write a flash fiction that week, he wrote one himself and let all of us read and comment on it.
That seems a small example compared to the way he spoke out against gun violence after his son Jamie was murdered in the mass shooting at Virginia Tech. He spoke to people who had the nerve to say to his face that his son would still be alive if he’d been armed.
I am not surprised that some people think that way, but I am still appalled that anyone would say something like that to a human being grieving such a loss. That Michael persevered in the face of such evil — and I have no other word for it — is yet another testimony to his courage.
He was, of course, a brilliant writer. I think Brittle Innings is my favorite of his books. That book combines his love of baseball — and he did love baseball — with his deep understanding of U.S. culture and, of course, with Mary Shelley.
There are very few people who could combine all those things, I think. I once wrote a flash fiction in which he was hired as the general manager of a flailing Atlanta baseball team, one that referenced the book. I think he appreciated it.
To me, he was a teacher, mentor, colleague, friend. He blurbed my first novel and later on asked me to blurb one of his books — a greater compliment.
He leaves behind a legacy of written words and an example of a life well-lived.
But he also leaves a hole in the lives of many of us. This is not new to me, now. One of the realities of getting older yourself is that you lose people and the number of losses gets larger every year.
This isn’t going to change.
All we can do is appreciate people and be supremely grateful for all the things they’ve given us.
Michael Bishop gave us a lot. We’ve all got a lot of work to do to live up to his example.