In the Virtual Actual World: A Conversation with Jo Ann Beard

March 9, 2021   •   By Rachel DeWoskin

THE WRITING IN Jo Ann Beard’s new collection, Festival Days, can feel more real than reality. Reading the final moments of the book’s third essay, “Cheri,” which is about what Beard describes as “someone saying good-bye to her own life,” I felt like I was dying. Remember that cliché about how we can’t die in dreams without dying for real? It’s not true, and reading this book is like dying in a dream, imagining so precisely that imagining becomes feeling and feeling becomes experiencing. Happily, Festival Days also gives a sense of what it might be to live forever, because something in Beard’s syntax is immortalizing. The boundaries between her and her characters (best friends, strangers, family members, husbands, murderers, ducks, dogs, herons) are as porous as the ones between her writing and her readers. You keep falling in. Other people’s memories accrue power until they’re your memories:


[T]he sullen face of a beautiful girl framed in a Dairy Queen window; the chrome-and-tan dashboard of an old Beetle, rearview mirror draped with Mardi Gras beads; a gnarled and mossy live oak standing in the middle of a chicken-scratched, red-dirt yard; and once, amazingly, what had to be her own tiny feet, grasped and lifted into the air in the classic pose of a diaper change.


Those baby feet in the air? All of ours, kicking.


I met Jo Ann Beard in 2014 when we were both at the writers’ colony MacDowell; she was working on Festival Days during long days in the glass library, and we spent some of our off hours together walking the grounds or driving around in her car, looking out the windows. Sometimes we were buying things, although I can’t remember what. Mainly I remember how surprising Jo Ann is, how generous, how suddenly and inimitably funny. Sometimes she seems so calmly observant as to be vulnerable; often she is as sharp-eyed as one of the beaked birds she writes into being. She’s also softly glamorous, a word she reserves in her work for long-eared dogs and wide-eyed deer. She loves animals so much that her writing has made me love them, too, even made me feel I always loved them, just didn’t realize it until her work pointed out what certain things mean. Her writing is the meaning, so it makes sense that it would shape not just what we’ve seen (or thought we saw), but also change us.


The writer Lucy Grealy once remarked after being asked how she remembered so much of the detail in her memoir: “I didn’t remember it. I wrote it.” An acute quality in Jo Ann Beard’s work makes the stories feel lived, even alive, as if they are still happening. Sometimes, as writers, we see things for real only once we are writing them, and Beard’s title essay distills this fact beautifully. In it, she travels to India and back, and is at once in her mind and memory and also here, for us, making meaning:


Otherwise, we were seeing and absorbing, no comment about the staggering cows, the children running through traffic with their hands out, the seemingly whole litter of puppies that had been driven over on the road, a scene of such carnage glimpsed for a total of three seconds of my entire long life that I looked through it and beyond and not until this moment, a long time later, am I remembering it with any sense of what it was.


Jo Ann met me in a virtual room just now, and I asked her about Festival Days, truth, imagination, empathy, animals, America, and the world. She was in her house in New York, access to her barn studio blocked by a blizzard, and I was in front of a sliding glass door in my parents’ living room in Michigan, snow on every side of both of us. Our conversation gave me a jolt of rare hope in this catastrophic era. Right away, I brought up some lines from Festival Days about Emmylou Harris: “How when she says the word interstate and her voice throbs, you realize that she can bring her emotions to anything, even something as bland, unchanging, and featureless as an interstate highway.” I said, “That’s how I think of your writing in Festival Days, that it can do that, too.”


And here’s what she said from there.


¤


JO ANN BEARD: Hearing you make that comment about Emmylou Harris and the interstate made me instantly remember the moment I wrote it, thinking: Is it schmaltzy to talk about Emmylou Harris in an essay? Then deciding well, if it is, somebody will tell me. And now’s when they’ll tell me about it because that essay is the only thing in the book that hasn’t been published before now. Everything else was written and went out into the world, some of it a million years ago, and you know how this works — you’re lucky if one person mentions it. They don’t even say, “I read it,” they just go, “Oh, I saw you had a piece in Tin House.” So, to hear you mention Emmylou in the context of my essay … warms my winter heart. Almost the way this strange ginger stuff that I’m drinking is warming my heart, except more of a cliché.


RACHEL DEWOSKIN: I’m happy to be grouped with the warming ginger beverage. It’s funny that so much of Festival Days has lived in the world already. Reading the pieces together, they feel outside of linear time, like you describe in “The Tomb of Wrestling”: “Something weird was happening to time — it was swirling instead of linear, like pouring strands of purple and green paint into a bucket of white and giving it one stir.”


That’s really a nice thing to hear. A lot of the time I spend working on something is just the thinking time, as opposed to actually-writing time. Each essay and story represents a chunk of my life — usually years. “Cheri” went on for so long that the people I interviewed had more or less given up on me, and “Werner” the same thing. But I like living inside the piece for a very long time, with these interesting, imaginary people. Even though Werner was real during our interviews, once I started writing he felt imaginary to me. I took pains not to run into him or interact with him, because the Werner in my imagination was much more vivid than a real flesh-and-blood person could ever be. I don’t know why that is — why the writing part of my life is actually clearer to me than the day-to-day things that happen to me in my life. At least one section of “Festival Days,” the essay, was written when I was at MacDowell with you — spending all my hours sitting in the pretty library every day and trying to conjure words out of the air. When I remember MacDowell now, it’s always the library I recall, and maybe the path through the woods where I saw a porcupine. I can get keyed up and distraught at art colonies, trying not to lose my mind. Well, you saw me.


That makes me think of the moment in “Festival Days” when you’re back from India, thinking about India, realizing what things mean as you create them in the writing. I took that to be a distinction between seeing or experiencing something and actually writing it — that meaning is in the writing. Or put another way, the writing is the thing.


The writing is the thing! I try to explain that to students sometimes. To use myself as an example, there’s another moment in that essay where I’m in Tucson with my friend Mary and awake hyper-early in the morning, trying to quietly make a cup of tea without waking her up. And I’ve been thinking and thinking about Gram Parsons, maybe because of having been in Joshua Tree and seeing the little hotel where he died, and then listening to Emmylou sing, and then just dwelling on heartache. Anyway, I saw a scruffy coyote trot through the yard, looking guilty as anything, and in the writing of that moment — not in the moment, but later, in the writing of the moment — I put him together with Gram Parsons. It had nothing to do with the moment that I was standing in that kitchen — it was writing. In the moment, I was waiting for my tea to brew and trying to keep from waking Mary. The coyote just was there. Later when I wrote it, I had to make him mean something, but in the real moment he was just himself. There’s like a membrane you have to push through in order to reach into that other world.


It’s like what Lucy Grealy said about her memoir: “I didn’t remember it; I wrote it.” This important distinction between observing or remembering things and writing them.


Lucy was so uncompromising and truthful about writing; she found it very difficult. But in terms of that distinction between the lived-in moment and the writing of it, “Festival Days” (the essay) conveys maybe too much of the bad mood that I was in when I was in India. Why was I in a bad mood? Because my friend was dying, and because her doctor warned me not to let her eat any street food over there because she could be swept away by a simple stomach bug. And I remember standing in the hospital corridor and thinking, correctly, that the first thing she would do is eat street food. I was afraid the whole time we were there that she’d get swept away by a samosa, so a lot of what is extraordinary about India maybe didn’t come through in the piece. The startling beauty of the landscape, the light, the kindness of the people, the marigold blossoms floating in bowls.


But the beauty did come through. And what was revelatory about the beauty was its relationship to fear. I’ve been crushed this last terrible year by having over and over the realization that beauty is something we experience acutely because we can’t keep it, because we’re afraid, because we’re about to get swept away, whether in India or in somebody else’s collection of essays. We can’t hold on. I found so much of the book compelling because of the proximity of beauty and terror. I was especially terrified reading “Cheri,” and wondered how you possibly imagined and wrote it.


It was a long time ago, not long after her death, and I had a friend-of-a-friend relationship with her daughter Sarah. I wanted to write Cheri’s story because that idea, of a daughter having to say goodbye to her mother in that way, and for Cheri to have to say goodbye to her own life. I guess I wanted to imagine my way through it, all the way to the end, even though the end is imagined. Cheri Tremble was incredibly strong, and brave, and so were her loved ones; they walked with her as far as they could and then they had the courage and love to let go when she asked them to. It’s mighty, that kind of love.


Cheri went all the way to her moment of death and then through it. Whereas Werner went all the way to his moment of death and got a reprieve. Which is why I was interested in that story — I wanted to imagine what it feels like to come all the way to the end and then have to figure out how to go on. It’s not really in the essay, but there was such a demarcation between the before and the after for Werner, and some of that was physical, like the horrible things that happened to his body, but some of it was the result of realizing in a purely visceral way that it’s all luck — good luck or bad luck — whether you survive a crisis. Whether you are swept away by a fire or cancer or a bite of something fragrant that you get on a street in Delhi.


How do you imagine the lives and minds of other human beings? Like the moment in “Werner” about the bird, and the “titanium white,” you move from the inside of his mind to the inside of yours in a single sentence.


The essay was also about what it means to be an artist trying to survive in New York. So the titanium white was a way to establish that. The bird is interesting — I thought I imagined it and Werner believes that he actually saw it. Perhaps both are true, but it isn’t in my notes.


Reverse engineering?


I thought I invented it, but Werner remembers seeing it.


Well, that’s profound, because writing is truer than fact.


And easier than real life. In the case of Cheri Tremble, nobody knew what happened after the door closed behind them, but what we do know is that Kevorkian was warm and caring, he demonstrated concern for her comfort and her suffering. With all the media coverage of Kevorkian, it was easy to forget how dire it was for the people who went to him for help.


I think it must be a transcendent honor to have somebody else imagine and immortalize that moment of your own life when you can’t. When I die, I hope you write my experience.


It was fascinating for me, and an honor, to get to know this person after the fact. I knew her stomping grounds — Iowa City, Brooklyn — and I was deeply familiar with the people who had loved her, because they were not that different from the people I love and who love me. Midwesterners, who feel things very deeply but aren’t inclined toward drama.


Seriously, I found that so humanizing. And both particular to her and universal in its nonfiction-ness. Likewise, “The Tomb of Wrestling,” which is a short story, fiction. Does that distinction matter?


You know, I do think it matters, but I don’t know how it matters, and I don’t dictate that for myself. “The Tomb of Wrestling” feels autobiographical, but the premise is not. Nobody’s ever attacked me in my house, and I’ve never hit anybody with a shovel. But the bones of her life, those are mine.


The plots I write are utterly fabricated, but the emotional arcs of my novels are all my autobiography, no matter how far-fetched.


Yes. As you know from your own fiction, you become the characters in order to write them — to see and feel what they are seeing and feeling. In that story, I’m also the stranger.


You’re also the duck. You write animals with as much care as you write human beings.


I really believe in anthropomorphizing animals. It’s the only way we will, as a species, begin to treat them with respect. Let’s just go ahead and imagine our way into the lives that they lead, it might help us be more humane to them, you know, to say, if I were a chicken, I probably wouldn’t want to be in a cage that’s the same size as my body. Or if I were a pig, to spend my life in confinement, unable to turn around, smaller than my body. If that’s anthropomorphizing, then let’s do a lot more of it. We can go even further and imagine that an insect, a frog, a wren has its own destiny, if not its own personality. I mean, not everything has to have a personality. But who’s to say they don’t?


It seems like part of an organic project of yours to imagine your way sympathetically into the minds and perspectives of things you are not. How are you both so present, as Jo Ann, as the narrator, and also so often able to dissolve so that others in the work are observing and being observed. Is that a result of years of percolation? And if so, how many years on this book?


Well, if you actually count, the Cheri Tremble piece I started in 1999, and “The Tomb of Wrestling,” I probably began in about 2000 and finished a few years ago. So I wasn’t always working on it, but I went to a lot of art colonies in the summers, and I would always be stuck on what to work on, and would invariably go, Oh, I’m gonna work on that piece I was working on last year. And then I would pull it up on my computer and feel like: Hello, old friend. In a month or six weeks, I’d put it away again.


How come?


Well, that particular piece was confusing to me because I started it on a whim, and then I had to problem solve it for about 20 years before I could figure out the strange psychology of it. Of a home invader, of a woman who doesn’t seem to have a cell phone to call the police, of the dogs. But mostly I had to understand why she chose fight over flight.


The birds warn her not to go back in, but I thought, Well she has to because rage, because as you write, “Her neck, her dog, her flowers.” It’s emotional propulsion maybe more than plot, but as with the teenage friend who pummels the guy in the car threatening to rape them, I didn’t question her motive even a little.


In that particular hitchhiking memory, while I was quietly trying to figure out how to talk them out of hurting us, it was my friend Elizabeth who decided to fight. Maybe I learned it from her — how to have a heroine who isn’t afraid to take a whack at a guy’s skull. That’s how the story dreamed itself into being: Cleaning out my trunk, I felt the heft of that little shovel and the first sentence was born. Then everything had to conform to that idea, that Joan was a person who would do something like that. So it was an occasion where I had to learn more in order to understand the story.


Does that work, the learning? We learn more about ourselves to get the pieces, and then the pieces give us an understanding of ourselves, or of the world. I hardly understand the world right now. What is happening? And what can we do — about America, about so much division, injustice, loss?


What a mess, right? But also a good mess, because things are changing so rapidly.


Are you hopeful?


I saw a photograph recently taken in a city somewhere and I couldn’t figure out what I was looking at — these neon stripes on the pavement that people were walking on without seeming to notice. And then suddenly the colors resolved themselves into giant letters that said BLACK LIVES MATTER. I just watched a documentary last night about the riots in Los Angeles in 1992, and the only way I could get through it without sobbing was to remember that street I had just seen in the photograph, and the letters resolving themselves into words and the people on the street, running errands or whatever, absorbing the message consciously and subconsciously. So things don’t change and don’t change and then suddenly something happens and change is afoot. That’s why it feels so strange that we’ve all been holed up for this momentous year, coming out of our hibernation for the most extreme reasons.


It’s surreal how much meaning leaving our pods now has, how difficult it is.


I can’t believe I’ve stayed home for an entire year. But I also feel appalled by the way the pandemic has allowed us to descend so completely into the matrix so that we live inside screens. I mean really, I live inside a screen, that’s where the world is for me. I know screens are helpful, blah blah, and have gotten us through this. That’s why I’m addicted to screens. And I don’t think it’s good and it isn’t helpful for writing and it doesn’t further enlightenment for me.


Can it change? What if you go back out into the natural world and shut your screen? 


Well, yes, theoretically. But it’s an addiction — and that’s not by accident and it’s not some inherent weakness in me; it’s that these devices were designed to become indispensable and addictive. I’m constantly restricting myself, emptying the bottles down the sink, as it were. Because I know it’s leeching some quality out of my life that used to be there and I miss it.


What if the addiction to screens is actually one to human connection, though, since it’s our only way to find each other now? Maybe we won’t feel as addicted to the virtual world when we have our real one back?


Right, I agree. And maybe I’m at a phase in the pandemic where I feel a kind of existential boredom and stasis. I stare into the screen just trying to find something that I can engage with. But by engage, I mean watch. It feels so incredibly passive.


I know. I’m so sick of it. But maybe boredom will be what we needed. I’m always telling my kids when they’re bored that Annie Leibovitz once said she became a photographer because she was so bored looking out the car window on long trips with her parents. We hate and fear boredom in America and try to do anything to avoid it. I do this, too.


Well, you know that might be the reason that it’s really hard to write in this culture. When I used to drive to and from work and listen to CDs all the way, the music would inspire musing which would inspire writing ideas. And now I listen to podcasts, some kind of talk thing and I’m absorbed in their ideas instead of conjuring my own. I don’t live in that world of the imagination that I used to, but I would love to go back there because ultimately it felt so much more rewarding. I was happier. Right now, I’m just trying to keep my wits about me, but it feels like it’s gone on too long now. I’m in the more or less final phase of my life, and this is what it looks like?


I know it’s not up to me, but I hope you live at least 50 more years.


You get to a certain chapter and you go, Oh, I’m almost done with the book, how sad. And when you’re this age, you can’t fool yourself into thinking the book won’t end.


So maybe this is the climax right now, and the denouement is going to be beautiful.


It feels like it has the potential to be that, but I want to stay cognizant of where I am on the continuum, too. You know, always be aware.


¤


Rachel DeWoskin is the award-winning author of Two Menus: Poems (The University of Chicago Press, 2020); Banshee (Dottir Press, 2019); Someday We Will Fly (Penguin, 2019); Blind (Penguin, 2014); Big Girl Small (FSG, 2011); Repeat After Me (The Overlook Press, 2009); and Foreign Babes in Beijing (WW Norton, 2005). She is an associate professor of Practice in the Arts at the University of Chicago, and an affiliated faculty member of the Centers for East Asian Studies and Jewish Studies.