AUTHOR INTERVIEW with JONI TEVIS
This interview was done collaboratively: questions were devised by the entire editorial board, then put in a logical sequence. Edited by Hillary Walker and Sophia Myerly.
Moderator (Belle Allan): Joni Tevis is a former park ranger, factory worker, and seller of cemetery plots. She is the author of the recent essay collection, The World Is On Fire: Scrap, Treasure, and Songs of the Apocalypse, as well as the acclaimed book of essays The Wet Collection: A Field Guide to Iridescence and Memory. Her nonfiction has been published in the Oxford American, The Bellingham Review, Shenandoah, the Pushcart Prize anthology, and Orion. She teaches creative writing at Furman University and lives in Greenville, South Carolina.
As you might have gleaned from the title of her most recent book, Tevis is not one to shy away from big topics. In fact, she reaches her writers through a set of original details and imagery ranging from atomic bombs to her own experiences being pregnant. Joni Tevis embodies the part of creative nonfiction that really caught my attention. All her writing takes the big, scary things in life and in our collective memory, and wrestles them into something we can all talk about and understand, which is both brave and kind of scary. But perhaps the best way to introduce her is with these words from a review of The Wet Collection:
“The wonder of following a mind that works as beautifully as Tevis’ is sheer entertainment in the richest sense of the word.”
Runestone: The title of your latest book implies an active destruction, yet much of the content within deals with things of the past, be it history or a loss that strikes society – things that have already been destroyed or left behind. Could you talk a little bit about the book’s epigraph — “the rust and the dust hold tales untold” — and what led to deciding on The World Is On Fire for the title?
Tevis: “The rust and the dust hold tales untold” is a quote I found at a folk art installation, just north of Albuquerque, called Tinkertown.
The creator, Ross Ward, made rooms out of clay and bottles–like bottle houses, where you save old glass bottles and use them like bricks, so when the sun shines through them they glow. These are things that we’d usually just throw away and not think about, but Ward was able to make a home with his partner and make sense of his own life through repurposing these things. He created this art experience all “while you were watching tv.”
The title — The World Is On Fire. Titles are hard, just like endings are hard, but then beginnings are hard, and middles are hard. For a long time, I thought my collection’s title was going to be a one-word title. I was going to be like Mary Roach, who has great one-word titles.
I thought that the title of the book would be Boomtown. My editor at Milkweed, Patrick Thomas, said, “No, Joni, that’s not a title.” One day, I went over to the bookshelf at my house and randomly pulled down Winesburg, Ohio. I had read it years before, during college, and I never took notes in my books back then, but I had left myself one note.
It was in the front flyleaf, and said, “The world is on fire,” with a page number. There was a note from a younger version of myself, a kind of treasure I’d left. Later, I thought it would be perfect title, because “the world is on fire” could be destructive, but it may also be generative. It could be a way of looking at the world with fresh eyes to see the wonder and the danger that is in everything and everyone. Patrick thought The World Is On Fire was a better title too.
The moral of the story is to write in your books. You never know what gifts you might be giving your future self.
Runestone: You structure The World Is On Fire as if it were a play, with an overture, acts, and a conclusion. What compelled you to use this format to shape the narrative?
Tevis: How do you beguile the reader into opening the book and not being afraid when they see a list? If you have an essay collection, you need one clear narrative line to pull the reader through. Many of these essays deal with show, and what is reality versus what is a simulacrum of reality. I liked the shape of a play or opera, and I thought that structure could be a good way to divide the semi-thematic sections and reiterate the idea for readers.
Doesn’t everyone need an intermission sometimes? You need to get up, go get a drink, go outside, get some fresh air, go to the demolition derby — that’s your intermission, a sort of palate cleanser.
Runestone: In your essay, “What Looks Like Mad Disorder: The Sarah Winchester House,” the reader is brought along on the tour of this house with you, despite your acknowledgement that we are not necessarily welcome: “we are the crowd she never invited,” you write. Could you could talk about the tension between the responsibility to tell the stories of those who are gone and the hesitation to misrepresent those same people?
Tevis: All of us who write nonfiction have to grapple with that. If you write about a shared experience with a sibling, you both probably remember it differently. If you write about it and your sister writes about it, you’ll get two different stories. That gets into some thorny questions of what truth is, and how we can have integrity when dealing with varied perspectives.
For me, these questions presented some problems because Sarah Winchester was not only gone but didn’t leave personal documents behind. What right did I have to go through her house and try to retell her story? I just paid the exorbitant fee for the tour.
But I was not actually telling her story. I was, in some places, and I had some documents so I could fact-check. I realized I could start with my trip to the Winchester house and explore what had brought me there. I was really figuring out my own life, and from there I could do useful research.
If you think of the actual visit as the hub of a wheel, the research that followed became the spokes that radiate out from the hub. Some of the spokes in this essay include the history of nails, because you can date a house by the kinds of nails that hold it together. Other spokes include the kinds of wood that her carpenters used, the development of San Jose — the Valley of the Heart’s Delight, the great quake [in San Francisco in 1906], and strange behaviors of animals before and after the quake. I spent a year writing this essay, and I ended up with a hundred pages that were cut back to eighteen or so.
As I was investigating all of these things, I was projecting myself onto them and seeing myself in Sarah’s life. No matter what we write about, we’re showing how the narrator responds. We want to be respectful of other people’s’ stories as they intersect with ours, but also keep the stories artful in an authentic way. Fact check as much as you can. Fact check, fact check. Fact checkers of the world, we love you!
Runestone: “What Looks Like Mad Disorder” is the essay that stuck with me the most. The way that the story is woven in with comments and your own experiences. Can you talk about how you went about crafting it, and would you mind reading a small bit of it to us?
Tevis: You put your finger on one of the hard parts about writing that essay. It doesn’t have a huge narrative core. Really, what basically happens? Your narrator goes through the Winchester house, goes home, and is stressed about not having a good place to live. The End. So what? That was not the point of the essay. The point was to recreate that place as an act of empathy with Sarah’s grief over the loss of her child, as well as explore my own search for a home.
I settled on using a journey shape to move the reader through the essay. It’s a satisfying shape — we’ve used it as people for thousands of years. Exodus is a journey shape, The Lord of the Rings trilogy is a journey shape, the Odyssey, lots and lots of stories — you go out, then you come back home. It’s simple, but it’s elegant.
Within the essay, I tried to organize it as going from room to room, beginning with entering a little, off-kilter side entrance, then up the Easy Riser staircase, and into the Twenty-Five Thousand Dollar Storeroom. The center of the essay is the center of the house; the little séance room with the thirteen hooks and the three ways in, but one way out:
“Later, some witnesses told of hearing “an approaching roar” at dawn, or feeling a cold touch upon the cheek. Others said dogs pawed at doors and birds flew strangely; earthworms wriggled to the surface and tied themselves in knots. In the Daisy Bedroom, a fireplace shook loose and collapsed, and Sarah was trapped alone.
“Sarah believed she caused the quake,” our guide says. “She thought the spirits were rebuking her for spending too much time on the front part of the house.” So, the guide goes on, she ordered those rooms to be boarded shut and never went there again. No one danced across the Grand Ballroom’s smooth parquetry, no chamber orchestra warmed the walls with music, and no friend paused in front of the Shakespeare windows and asked Sarah what she meant in choosing them.
But the guide hustles us away too quickly from the earthquake-wrecked rooms, with their crumbling plaster and naked studding, lengths of ship-lathe and dusty little cobwebs. Light bends from a curved window. Torn wallpaper and scrawls of glue stain the walls, and I think of that old line from Pliny the Elder: “Hence also walls are covered with prayers to ward off fires.” The floor creaks companionably, and there’s no armchair to distract, just the bones of the tired old house. I’d stay here all day if I could.” (The World Is On Fire 13)
There’s a lot of research underneath all of these brief paragraphs. My tracks are pretty clear here if you look at them, though. I did a lot of research on what animals do before and after a quake, as well as Japanese quakes in the 90s. Some of the research was just immersive experience and note taking.
Runestone: Several essays in The World is on Fire also mention the atom bomb. What is it about this particular subject that kept making you go back to write about it?
Tevis: I grew up in upstate South Carolina in the late Cold War period in the early 1980s. When I was eight or nine years old, I was convinced that the world was going to end, and that everyone knew it. I buried the feeling for years because the Cold War ended, the Berlin Wall came down.
I had a position at Chapel Hill for a year, researching the Winchester essay, browsing through their libraries. I was looking for something else for the Winchester piece, but found a row of books about the atom bomb. One book pulled me, The Day the Sun Rose Twice, which was about the Manhattan project. It was like Winesburg, Ohio, that gave me the title for my book. If there’s something that pulls you towards something — a book, an idea, an overheard phrase, or anything — write it down and follow it. There’s something in you responding to that. You don’t have to figure out why you care about it, just follow it and it will reveal itself later.
I read it like it was a potboiler novel, thinking, ‘Oh so that’s how they built the bomb, wow… and they took bets on how much power would it have? Would we all be immediately be incinerated to cinders?’ I followed that until I felt like it played out for me. I explored the big image of the mushroom cloud obliquely. Because the atomic bomb is such a big thing, I think it is hard to look at it head on. Many things we want to write about are like that — life, death, birth, love, and loss are hard to look at directly.
If we look at something else that is connected and try to describe that fully, then we can kind of back into our real subject. While I was writing about the atomic bomb, I found myself writing about Liberace’s beautiful robes, because they were physical and I could describe them to my heart’s content as I tried to see why the subject mattered to me.
I wrote about the bomb because I couldn’t let go. Why not write about the things you care about, that obsess you, even if they’re weird? The weirder the better. For me, it was the atomic bomb. You should explore how you feel about your subject, even if there’s no ultimate answer to the questions that come from that exploration.
Runestone: In your book, you made connections between things that don’t seem to go together, like the atom bomb, and Buddy Holly, and Liberace. How do you go about making connections between these seemingly random subjects?
Tevis: For me it just takes time, time with the material. I’m a big believer in writing without a plan. I don’t outline beforehand. I don’t say what should I be writing, I just follow my pleasure. And then once I get a big, bulgy, puffy, messy draft I can go back and write a reverse outline and see what patterns begin to emerge. “Should I compress two paragraphs? Is there a place in paragraph two where I make a point, but don’t bring it to its fullest conclusion?” At this point, some connections will begin to emerge, especially when I move things around. You can do a lot with white space and juxtaposition.
Runestone: What kind of role does music has on your writing? Do you listen to music when you’re writing, or how else does music help you? How do you get away with using lyrics without getting in trouble?
Tevis: It’s good to mix it up. I haven’t been listening to music lately while I write but it might be good to try it in the future. Mark Doty said whatever your habits are, break them. If you usually work in a quiet library, go to a coffeeshop or vice versa. He also said if you normally write in long lines, write shorter lines. Try longer stanzas. The ekphrastic impulse is to look at another piece of art and describe and interpret it in order to deepen your original essay material.
The lyrics here are all “fair use.” People will sometimes ask about libel, but I let Milkweed Editions deal with that.
Runestone: In your interview with the Los Angeles Review of Books, you said that you revise a piece 30 or 40 times. Can you talk about what happens over those multiple drafts?
Tevis: Revision is not cleaning up after the party, it is the party. I love it. The first draft is the hardest because I don’t know where I’m going. I think of myself as if I were a potter. I go down to the riverbank and gather a lot of clay. Then I go back and shape it into a pot.
I’m a big believer in bravery over perfection. I get a big ugly draft, time, paper, and computer space, then I go back and make that reverse outline. As I see patterns that emerge, I might take a colored marker and circle things, trying different shapes as organizing principles.
A shape could be a journey shape. It could be a day in the life. It could be the four seasons. You could use a football game as your shape. You have pregame, first quarter, second quarter, halftime. Third quarter, fourth quarter, overtime. This is your shape, and the reader may not know it’s there but that’s ok. The reader will have that sense of you moving her through the material.
Runestone: How long do you need to reflect on something before you write about it? What is the role that travel plays in your work?
Tevis: I love going to places, especially weird places. I’ll go somewhere and take notes, and it may work for an essay, it may not. I’ll think that it’s just going to be a crazy little lark and I end up flattened by existential dread. The Winchester House was like that. When people ask if you should write about an experience immediately or wait to write about it, I say yes. I’ve always take a notebook with me, because if I don’t write down ideas they’re gone.
By the way, don’t worry about other people thinking you’re strange when you’re taking notes in a tourist trap — nobody cares. Everyone is so self-absorbed that it doesn’t matter. I try to be like a big old-fashioned satellite dish and just take in everything. That includes interpretive signs, the other people on the tour, bumper stickers on people’s cars, things that their bags say — anything. I love to eavesdrop and I will do it any place, any time.
Don’t worry if it doesn’t seem to relate. You will find out as you revise whether it fits or not. My notebook is very messy and scribbly. As soon as I can, I’ll get home and type out my notes, then make my research leads. I consider what could become the spokes of a hub and how to find out more information.
The Salton Sea essay was easy because I had the Richard Misrach photos to look at. I can look at those photos and describe what I see in them. Even though it’s factual, it’s not completely objective. You’re seeing the narrator a little more fully.
[reading from “Ten Years You Own It”]
“In the mid-1980s, Richard Misrach shot a series of large-format photographs of the Salton Sea. These images, collected in Desert Cantos, are dangerous viewing for those with a certain bent: they’ll put a spell on you. Take this one, “Diving Board, Salton Sea,””…and see how I’m really trying to be inviting there? Like “take this one.” Like we’re here together. Look at this thing with me, walk through these strange places with me. I want to beguile the reader, and be the trusted guide that will lead you.
“Take this one, “Diving Board, Salton Sea,” of an empty swimming pool with a diving board and a flooded horizon receding to the vanishing point. The floodwater surrounding the pool is a strange, limpid blue, with a depth impossible to divine. I’ve gone back to this image again and again, trying to figure out why it haunts me. Partly it’s the story that the empty pool contains; what turned a resort into a ghost town?
“But more than that, it’s something in the water. This is no ordinary sea, no ordinary sunset, and despite its calm surface, the water reminds me somehow of solvent, mercury thinned with gasoline. This is water with an opinion” (The World Is On Fire 70).
You can see how I’m describing the picture and revealing myself through it. The take-away lesson is that if you have an urge to go somewhere and write about it, you should do that. Go somewhere, take notes, see what comes of it, and then you can frame it with larger research.
Runestone: Your bio on the back of the book says that you worked as a park ranger, in a factory, and selling cemetery plots. Did you know throughout all of these jobs that you were ultimately a writer? And how has your work shaped your writing?
Tevis: I took them partly to write about the experience, and partly because I needed the money. For the cemetery job, I definitely knew I wanted to write about that because I had read Thomas Lynch’s The Undertaking: Life Studies from the Dismal Trade. That guy is a hell of a writer. He won the National Book Award for that book, which was about his experience working for his family’s funeral home. I moved to Houston and thought, “Well shoot, if Thomas Lynch can write about it, I can too!” My experience was much more brief than his, but I worked at the cemetery thinking, “I’m going to write about this.” I call the act of going and doing something with the idea of writing about it immersion journalism.
When I was a park ranger, I did it to have writing material, but also to get out of Houston in the summer. The heat there is intense, and it became kind of a do-it-yourself writers’ retreat. I’d applied to all the big writers’ retreats, but I didn’t get in. Instead I could make a little bit of money and have a retreat. When I arrived, there was nothing else to do but hike all day and lead programs, so when I wasn’t working, I wrote about those experiences.
I would recommend doing that in the summer. Pick a state where you want to live for a few months and apply for the interpretive ranger job. It gives you time to write and a way to focus.
Runestone: The Wet Collection was published in 2007 and The World Is On Fire in 2015. How did you grow as a writer in the interim and what led to the second book?
Tevis: I always wanted to write a second book, and now I want to write a third book. To me, it’s good hard work, and it helps me make sense of my life. I wanted The World Is On Fire to be longer, and many of the pieces are more lengthy than the ones in The Wet Collection. I wanted to see if I could create a longer essay that was not narratively driven, and still move the reader through it. In the first book I wrote a number of short pieces to see how seemingly different ideas or images could speak to each other in a close frame. I also did that in the second book with a larger frame.
Runestone: Could you talk about your journey to becoming a published writer?
Tevis: I went straight on to graduate school from undergrad. I was an English and History double major at Florida State, and then I went to University of Houston for my MFA. I was writing a lot and sending stuff out, and most of it was getting rejected. I think that’s par for the course. I kept the rejection slips, and had a stack of them for a long time. And finally I just burned them all. “Why I am I doing this to myself?”
Even now, if I get one piece accepted for every ten submissions, I feel good about the odds. There are a lot of good magazines out there, but also a lot of submissions. So don’t be discouraged if you get stuff sent back. You’re doing what you need to do. It’s also important to know the magazine you’re sending to, and to know what the editors are looking for.
Getting The Wet Collection published was a dream come true. It was my revised PhD dissertation. It seems like the dark ages, like I drew on stone tablets or something – but I printed out my manuscript on paper, took the bus to Milkweed, and walked up the steps. I slid it across the desk to the intern there and said, “I’d like to submit this.” I felt like a writer. I had this book-like thing that I handed over and I thought that nothing would probably come of it. I sent it out to four places, and Milkweed took it. So don’t be discouraged.
Runestone: In many of your online interviews you talk about the spark you feel when you’re writing. What would be the best advice you could give to other young writers to cultivate a spark of their own?
Tevis: Henry James was right when he said, “The artist is the one on whom nothing is lost.” How do we become that one on whom nothing is lost? How do we cultivate a habit of attention and awareness to the world around us? This habit is good for our writing, but also good for our souls. I will show you something from my notebook to illustrate my answer.
I got this idea from Lynda Barry, who wrote a book called Syllabus, which looks just like this composition notebook. She gets this notebook for all her students. It is El Cheapo. It is fifty cents. The pages want to be filled. Don’t worry about writing, you know, Moby Dick. Although we would all aspire to that. Just write. The pages want to be filled. Barry has her students draw a daily X. You make a big X across the page, and on the top triangle you write five things you did. On the left, five things you saw. On the right, five things you heard. This gives you the opportunity to eavesdrop productively — “I have to do it for class!” At the bottom, you draw a picture from your day. Now maybe you say, “But Joni, I can’t draw!” Don’t get too hung up on it, just have a good time.
Look, I’ve drawn some daffodils from my garden, because they’re already blooming in South Carolina. You will start noticing things you would otherwise forget. For example, here’s something I heard: a woodpecker drumming in the back yard. And something I saw: Sun in my watering eyes – I was running one morning. These are all little things, but when you write them down you will begin to see patterns of what you notice. By cultivating this habit of awareness and listening to your own still small voice, you will follow your own creative spark more fully and truly.
Runestone: What’s next for you?
Tevis: If I don’t have a project I feel a little depressed, so I want to write a craft book about the pleasures of research and revision. I believe that research is not procrastination, and if it is, you’re not doing it right.
Runestone: In the The Wet Collection, the word choices are kind of heavy whereas The World is on Fire is an easier read. What influences your writing style?
Tevis: I’m always seeking the right word for the job. It’s crucial to read your work aloud while revising. When you’re reading it aloud, you’re engaging another sense and you’re hearing it as well as seeing it. You can hear snags and places where words are getting in the way. I want all the language to sing, but I don’t want it to sound too pretentious either.
Runestone: When you wrote about the miscarriage and the harder stuff, how did you write through that?
Tevis: At first I did not think I was going to write about it; but then I thought, ‘You’ve written about all these other weird experiences you’ve had. If you are willing to let yourself write about the Salton Sea, Clear Lake, Liberace’s robes, piano manufacture, glass manufacture, auctions, the Scissor Man, the demolition derby and jukeboxes, can you not give yourself permission to write about this grievous experience in your life?’
I said, ‘I don’t have to show this to anybody, I can do this for myself.’ I wrote most of it in the archives in my downtown library, where the archivists know me but they don’t know me well. I always feel their good will toward me. I knew my friends were nearby, and I felt safe. I would write and cry; it’s important to do that. I got the draft down, and it was useful psychologically, mentally, and intellectually.
Then I said, ‘What if I sifted in other unrelated things that lead into the larger subjects that are hard to talk about?’ I thought about the Mutter Museum, La Specola, and the way those anatomical models were made. Once I had the opening draft down, I was able to revise it more logically into an artistic piece I could share with others.
Give yourself the space, the authority, and the permission to write what you need to write about. When it’s finished, you can choose to share it or not. You’ve acknowledged that it is worthy of your attention, and hopefully you got to the bottom of it for yourself in some way too.
Runestone: We already talked about the joy you get from traveling and noticing things, but I was wondering how you take those things and build them into a scene and place? When I was reading the essay about Buddy Holly and Clear Lake, there was a line about a convenience store with REDEMPTION written in big red letters. How do you pick the details that establish place?
Tevis: It all comes back to the habit of awareness and attention. Hopefully, as you’re going to a place, you’ll gather more details than you need. In the last essay of The World Is On Fire, I wrote about how scientists and artists at the Museum of Natural History made a diorama. They ventured into the field and gathered stuff–loads of grasses, buckets of dirt, and bags of stones and branches–and when they returned to New York, they used only a little fraction of it. All the other stuff they collected was still informative, like the details you collect but don’t use. You want to have a lot of stuff and select what you need.
Runestone: We have lots of people here who go to school, work, and parent. You are also a parent and have a job. How do you strategize to make sure you keep writing?
Tevis: I try to be strategic about how I deploy my time. I think about the fiction writer Ron Carlson, who spoke at a conference when I was teaching in Bemidji a couple years ago. I was convicted by his statement, “Internet play has done more damage to writers than alcoholism ever did.” He added, “If I have half an hour to write, I’m going to use that half hour to write, I’m not going to waste it on Google.” That all-seeing Eye of Sauron is always there, and it is tempting, and if you want to get anything done you’ve got to shut it off.
Carlson also said, “You know who comes into the room with me while I’m working on the story? Nobody. No one comes in the room with me while I’m writing. I also can’t leave the room. I might want to get up and make myself a cup of coffee, but I’m not going to do it.” His discipline resonated with me and that’s what I try to do.
If things are very busy, I say, ‘What do I need to do between today and tomorrow to be ready for tomorrow?’ Then I make a little list of the things I have to do, and I’ll allocate time to devote to each task. Do the writing first with your best energy, and then focus on your other tasks. For example, say to yourself, ‘From 10:45 until 11:45, I’m going to write.’ This is probably second nature to you, but if it isn’t this can be a way to get a lot done in a compressed amount of time. However, it only works if you’re not texting, on Snapchat, on Twitter, on Facebook, or any of that. I say this to myself too, because we all live in a fallen world. All we can do is the best we can.
Runestone: How has your life as a writer influenced your life as an instructor? You teach classes about many different topics and so the intersection between those careers is of interest.
Tevis: Writing and teaching often go together and draw from the same energy reserves. It’s important for me to have some distinction between them. If it’s a teaching day I won’t get much writing done, and if it’s a writing day I will not go into campus, if I can help it.
I try to model bravery and tenaciousness to my students so that they will go after the story and revise it multiple times. I want them to remember the idea is alive, that it might change as you write about it, but that’s okay. Don’t get too attached to your first draft because you have to let the idea live, shift, and grow.
I also look to my students, particularly when I was working on this book. I taught my atomic literature course in the senior seminar and it was heavy. In a way, it was a mash-up of a literature and history course. And in a way, it was like crowd sourcing, because many of the sources my students came across I was able to use for my book.
I also want to teach my students how to do a close reading. I want them, after our time together is through, to be able to take a piece apart and to use that text to make their own writing better. I want to give them the permission to take and write their own stories.
One of my heroes growing up was the songwriter and singer Tom T. Hall. We always listened to him in our house in the 70s. I loved how accessible his songs were to me as a first- generation college student. He went around to rural places and talked to people. I felt shut out of poetry at first, but I always understood country music. Hall would go on these weird road trips (you can see the influence he had on me), striking up conversations, and sometimes a song would come out of it. When I was a graduate student in Houston, I decided I would write Tom T. Hall a fan letter. He wrote me back and recommended the writing life to me, and said, “It’s a good life, follow it. It’s a good life.” I still feel the truth of that.
Here we are, talking about words together and sharing time together, and I never even dreamed I could do this in my lifetime. I’ve been fortunate and I’ve also been tenacious, and I would encourage that in everyone. Whatever it is that you want to do, go after it with a broad axe and don’t stop. It’s a good life.
Runestone: Both of your books were published by Milkweed. I’m curious about that whole process and what that relationship has been like, and how Milkweed helped your books become what you hoped they’d be.
Tevis: Milkweed has helped me a lot with putting my manuscripts in order. I think I’m better at the close-up stuff, at sentence, word, and paragraph level. For The World Is On Fire, my editor Patrick came down to South Carolina, met with my students, and talked about the editing process. I had various arrangements in mind for the essays in the book, all of which would have created different experiences for the reader. He had this piece of paper, which almost looked like a Delta flight map on the back of their Skyway magazine. There were little nodes — dots for each essay — and a couple words for what each piece was about on a deeper level. He would then connect the essays that had multiple nodes.
It was his idea to put all the atomic essays together. I would not have done that — I thought it was too much for the reader — but now I love it. He did a beautiful job, and Milkweed is so good with production. I love the cover! I love its flaps, I love its spine. Milkweed is a class act. Internships, you guys — apply, apply.
Runestone: Part of our curriculum at Hamline is to learn to write across genres. What drew you to creative nonfiction?
Tevis: When I went to Houston I was admitted as a fiction writer, but then I ended up writing a poetry thesis and a nonfiction thesis. I didn’t think I wanted to write essays because I thought they were only memoir. I thought, ‘Well what do I have to write about?’ I didn’t see at the time that you could follow any of your little or big obsessions. I love it now, and think that creative nonfiction is the queen of the genres.
“Please explain, Joni.” I’m happy to.
The essay takes the best of the other genres and makes it her own, with poetry’s attention to language, poetry’s associative leaps, and the importance of the narrator. Fiction’s scene making and character building is also part of the essay, and yet it has the space for research with the ring of truth and authenticity.
I think of the essay as the house with many rooms, like Downton Abbey but even bigger. In that great mansion there are rooms for memoir, the lyric, the mostly informative, the encyclopedia, the ode, the rant, and for the jeremiad. I love the essay for its flexibility. You read someone like Anne Carson, who is also a poet and loves the fragment, but her essays will blow your mind. You’ll see the horizon of the essay recede like a hundred miles. An essay doesn’t have to be narratively driven, or even be wholly comprehensible to be enjoyable. We can name many essay writers, and I’m happy to be at the table with them.