C. James Bye is the Editor-in-Chief and of Knee-Jerk Magazine and co-editor, with his wife, of the anthology, The Way We Sleep. He received an MFA in Writing from Columbia College Chicago and is currently a Communications Manager at Michigan State University. C. James is currently seeking representation for More Like a Siren, Less Like a Bell as he works on a second novel that features time dilation, a talking cat, a nudist colony, and an alien computer that talks like John Malkovich and wants to rule the U.S., tentatively titled Amerigo Round. His music has been featured in the Chicago Shakespeare Company’s 2011 production of en route and by the sketch comedy group Comedy Coven.
Here, he talks about the struggle of using food (and beer) as motivation for writing, “quirky peanut butter sandwiches”, and, somehow, protective eyewear.
On his all-time favorite meal:
Lamb and mint jelly is an old favorite, but I probably haven’t had it in five years or so. I have no idea how to cook lamb properly. I’ve never tried. I’m thinking about it now as I write and honestly wondering if I could do it on my Foreman, which I’m now realizing, the fact that I would even consider that means that I shouldn’t even ever try to make this most wondrous of meals because I’d just, like, completely, completely ruin it for me forever and in every way.
On what the light looks like during his favorite meal of the day:
The best meals are always around sunset. Or at least it seems that way because I associate sunset with warmth, so I’m really just thinking of summer dinners. Which means eating outdoors and large groups of friends and refreshing, citrusy beers and seafood and more seafood. I’ve been really lucky to enjoy a lot of sunset meals on beaches, from California (family trips) to North Carolina (my honeymoon) to Lake Michigan in between (living walking distance from the beach for ten years between Milwaukee and Chicago) and even a few in other countries (although March in Ireland has nothing to do with sun or warmth, as far as my memory goes, all these things are clumped together somehow).
Pavement named their final album after this time of the day—Terror Twilight—because apparently it’s the time when most traffic accidents occur, with the sun low and in everyone’s eyes. So, to enjoy that lighting, you have to remember to bring sunglasses. My wife hates mine. She calls them molester glasses. But she’s generally very supportive in most areas of my life outside of protective eyewear.
On snacking while writing:
I do love that scene in Adaptation where Nicholas Cage is trying to write but instead ends up debating with himself about whether he should get a muffin to motivate him to write or if he should force himself to write and then reward himself with a muffin, and either way, what kind of muffin should it be? That definitely resonates with me, even though I don’t snack while writing.
Having a beer though, that’s a different story. And then there are internal debates about, when I finish one, do I need to get to the end of the page or the chapter before I can go grab another. Or should I take a trip to the fancy beer store to get fancy beer the next time I get stuck on a passage as a little thinking break? If I really wanted the fancy beer though, why didn’t I prepare and go get it on the way home from work before writing? God, I’m the worst. Why am I even trying to write when I’m so very clearly the worst at everything?
On his go-to late-night snack:
Toast. Toast with anything. Honey. Jam. Cream cheese. Cinnamon and sugar. Peanut butter (more on this later). I love toast!
On his food quirks:
I kinda hate butter (accept on toast, and that’s only sometimes), and I’m not a big fan of things like cooking sprays, so for a long time I refused to grease my pans in any way when cooking. So I resigned myself to wasting and scraping away whatever was cooking at the bottom of the pan as it inevitably stuck and burned there.
I also enjoy quirky peanut butter sandwiches: peanut butter and fried egg (a recipe from a book I read in middle school about a high school swim team who ate it for protein boosts) and peanut butter and pickles (a recipe of my grandma’s who apparently also regularly prepared PB & radishes sandwiches for my mother’s lunchbox, but that one wasn’t passed down to me). I eat the “worst” thing on my plate (or at least most of it) first so I can save the best for last. I prefer to dip hamburgers in ketchup rather than pour it on. I eat the tails on shrimp because my grandfather did the same and said it grew hair on your chest (it worked, by the way). I have to eat and swallow the entire fortune cookie before I read the fortune or it will be a negative fortune, not that I care if it is, because I don’t believe in such things.
On his final meal request:
Why am I struggling with this question so hard? Probably something to do with my innate fear of death. Even though I always tell myself I’m not at all afraid of death, as I believe it’s just an end and when it happens, it happens and I won’t really know it and that’ll be it.
But if I’m honest with myself, the end of all things and the nothingness is equally terrifying to, say, believing in a torturous or uncertain afterlife. So maybe it’s less about being okay with death and more about hoping that ideally I don’t see it coming so I don’t have to stew on the fact that, ugh, I’m dying and soon it will be the end of everything I love about life. And if that’s true, then knowing that my death was inevitable following the last meal in question, no matter where it was, no matter whom I was with, no matter what I was eating, I wouldn’t be able to enjoy it.
Maybe if I set up a scenario where my family and all of my best friends and the people I love and trust most were the ones I chose to eat with and if I chose a location that lent itself to escape and maybe selected food that could conceal tools useful to my escape, then I could come up with the answer to this question. But come to think of it, if I were to escape, it wouldn’t be a last meal, would it? But, if it’s really the fear of knowing I’m about to die more so than the actual going through with dying that I have a problem with, maybe I could enjoy the meal if I knew I was going to be able to escape. But then, unbeknownst to me, while my family and my best friends and all the people I trust most are enjoying our miraculous escape, a meteor is crashing down toward our getaway car. I don’t see it coming. My loved ones survive—they didn’t sign up to answer this question. I die. Unexpectedly. End of all things.
In that case, there’d be a variety of IPAs and cheeses. And lamb and mint jelly. And toast. Oh, and meatballs made from my mother’s recipe. I could go out on that.