Interview with Greg Payan
Please Stay: A Brain Bleed, A Life in the Balance, A Love Story
Reviewed by Rebecca Pauba for Reader Views (5/18)
Greg Payan was born and raised in Queens, NY. While currently working full time as a journalist, fate intervened when his then partner, now wife, was struck by a sudden brain hemorrhage one April morning in 2014. He detailed the health crisis in his memoir, “Please Stay” (2018), his only full-length book.
Greg attended Long Island University – C.W. Post (’92) and graduated Magna Cum Laude with a degree in journalism.
Welcome Greg and thank you for being with us today. What is “Please Stay” about?
Please Stay tells the story of Holly, a 39-year old college professor struck down by a sudden, near fatal brain aneurysm. Readers learn about her through letters sent by close friends and former students, who sent memories to be read at her bedside while she was on a respirator, fighting for her life. These heartfelt notes described the impact she had on their lives.
Told primarily through texts, emails and social media messages exchanged during the crisis, Please Stay calls readers to question their own legacies and celebrate the love of the people in them.
What inspired you to write this book?
When Holly was recovering there were few books on aneurysms and recovery. Of those that were out there, none that I was aware of had been written from the perspective of the caregiver and I also felt Holly’s story was quite remarkable. Not enough people know about brain aneurysms, and yet hundreds of thousands of people worldwide fall victim to a ruptured brain aneurysm annually so I thought it would serve a pretty underserved group as well.
What has writing “Please Stay” provided in the way of emotional healing?
I wish I could say that it’s provided emotional healing, but as my wife can confirm, I’m still pretty neurotic when it comes to worrying about her on a daily (if not hourly) basis in spite of her successful recovery.
What kinds of reactions have you received from readers about your “Please Stay?”
That’s been the most enjoyable part of publishing the book. While you fully expect family and friends to like the book and support you, seeing strangers appreciate what you’ve put out there has been really wonderful. I feel it’s a different sort of book in that by using the actual communication to tell the story, you get a very raw, and very real look at what is happening in a health crisis.
I think those who have read the book have also been really moved by what others wrote to Holly when they thought she might die or be left with brain damage as a result of her bleed. When someone you love is confronted with death, and you get the opportunity to tell them what they meant to you, you get to see what you truly mean to others. The book illustrates that in a visceral way.
What are some of the most surprising things you learned while writing your story?
I think the actual process of writing the book and how maddening it is to get the structure and flow where I wanted it to be. While much of the book is the actual texts and e-mails and other correspondence from that month in the ICU, adding the remainder in a format that advanced the narrative was extremely difficult. Trying to find the right balance of what should be added and what should be left to stand on its own was very challenging.
Talk about the techniques used in presenting the story. It’s a very intimate delivery, using emails and texts to bring the audience directly into the journey – what prompted you to use this method?
I’ve always loved non-fiction and also enjoy the voyeuristic aspect of a diary. In many ways, all the correspondence saved on my phone and on computers during that time was a diary of what truly goes on in a life-threatening situation – some of it heartbreaking, some riveting, and honestly, some rather mundane. I thought it was a very engrossing way to tell a story if I had the ability to recall my thoughts and feelings as things were happening when it was happening to fill in the gaps with additional text.
How did the correspondence from friends and family affect Holly’s treatment and recovery?
I romanticized the concept of those notes potentially aiding her recovery, but I think in the end it helped me more than anyone. During that time, quite simply her brain was not working. I thought maybe the notes could help her fight; reading these beautiful letters to her telling her not to die but looking back it didn’t. First, I did not realize what state of consciousness she was in, but also, she did not need any help fighting for her life. Holly didn’t need anything to motivate her to fight to live, however beautiful they may have been. She was going to fight with every ounce of her being regardless. Nowadays she reads them, and she’s moved to tears, but not then. She often compares reading them these days to being able to attend her own funeral.
And what did those messages mean to you?
As mentioned above, they meant a lot to me. Not so much in giving me strength, but in seeing how much she meant to others, as well as to me. I was grateful in that moment that regardless of what state she came out of the ordeal in (if she did), that she had left a legacy.
Aside from the personal messages, you also provide medical information to the reader about brain aneurysms. What are you doing to spread awareness about this condition?
I raise money for the Brain Aneurysm Foundation annually in the walk they sponsor near my home, where her surgeon actively participates. I’ve also spoken with The Lisa Foundation and The Joe Niekro Foundation. I’ve encouraged them to use Holly’s story however they wish to raise awareness, but we haven’t really found the right vehicle yet.
What do your lives look like today? How have your perspectives changed?
In many ways our lives are the same, in spite of every statistic saying they shouldn’t be. Holly just finished her 6th year as a college professor and just began a sabbatical so she can do research and write her second book on comparative pilgrimages. While I am incredibly grateful for her having made it through this ordeal largely unscathed, emotionally I’m a different person. My emotional scars are pretty severe from having lived through what we did as I note in the book’s epilogue. That said, aside from my anxiety, we’re grateful that we really haven’t had to modify our lives as a result. Our lives are very full.
What advice can you give to people about navigating through life’s challenges?
Wow, I’m not sure I’m the right person to give advice but I’ll try. What I think I did well was taking care of myself as best I could during this whole ordeal. I spent countless hours at the hospital, but I also worked whenever was appropriate. I also distracted myself by going out with friends and family. I never sat vigil for days/nights on end. I made sure I got some space and tried to stay healthy. In doing so, when I was taking care of Holly, she got a better version of me than if I let this consume me every waking hour as she was in the ICU hooked up to all sorts of machines. Going through something like this takes so much emotional strength, that if you don’t take care of yourself and rely on others, you’re not being the best you can be for your partner or family member.
Would you encourage memoir writing as a form of healing?
While I can’t say my putting this story out was a form of healing, I think for others it certainly could be. I think if you have a story to tell, that’s worth sharing that others can benefit from reading, then yes, absolutely.
What’s next for you? Do you see yourself writing another book?
I’m very proud of the finished book, but I don’t think another one is in my future. I think this title is a bit of an ‘evergreen’ sort of book that finds an audience over the next few years, so I hope I can focus on getting as many people to read it as possible and also to raise awareness about brain aneurysms.
Do you have a website or blog where readers can learn more about you and “Please Stay?”
I have a Facebook page for the book where there are dozens more photos than I was able to put into the book due to limits from the publisher. I encourage people to check it out.
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
I’m just grateful for the opportunity to speak about the book and hope that readers continue to find hope in what I’ve put out there and that, as one reviewer noted, it encourages them to think about their lives and legacies.