Writer on Fire
By Linnie GreeneJune 15, 2015
THERE’S HOMESICKNESS THAT SMARTS, and then there’s the kind you carry with you like an ember, so hot it burns. I left North Carolina for the Bay Area in January, and soon after, a friend sent a copy of Joni Tevis’s The World Is on Fire: Scrap, Treasure, and Songs of the Apocalypse. For a few difficult weeks, I carried it around with me like gospel, and huddled in a corner seat on BART, on my lunch break, in bed, on days off in Mountain View Cemetery, I read it and found home again. In these essays, which bounce between the Salton Sea and Patmos, Greece, Greenville, South Carolina and the cavernous California home of rifle widow Sarah Winchester, Tevis shows us worlds in the midst or aftermath of upheaval — her own body’s treachery as she tried to conceive; the atomic flakes that rained on John Wayne as he filmed The Conqueror after bomb tests miles away; a well-loved jukebox in the age of the iPod. The World Is on Fire roots itself doggedly in each place it visits or inhabits, but returns, ultimately, to Tevis herself, whose keen sense of empathy deems worthy even the most forgotten, abandoned places. She gives voice to the echoes of empty Southern textile mills, which dotted the landscapes of both of our childhoods, and to histories both personal and national. Here is the secret Tevis knows: that the selves we shed like snakeskin have something to tell us. Look through the View-Master and see a still of what once was; linger there. You might learn something important.
As with the best books, I see the world and myself differently in the bright flare of Tevis’s essays. I called her one morning in April to talk about the time we both spent in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, the best chicken sandwiches in Oakland, California, writing and revising, atomic literature, and the meaning of apocalypse.
LINNIE GREENE: One of the things that struck me about this book was that it seemed like a reckoning — the theme, I think, has to do with a sense of reconciliation, of coming to terms. How do you think the essays speak to each other? Did you always envision them as a collection, or did their commonalities emerge over time?
JONI TEVIS: They definitely emerged over time. The first essay, the Winchester piece (“What Looks Like Mad Disorder”), was also the first that I wrote. When I wrote it, my husband and I were between jobs — we were really kind of rootless, wanting to be rooted. I’d just finished The Wet Collection, which came out in June of 2007. Then that July we went out to visit our friends in Oakland — we had the legendary chicken sandwich at Bakesale Betty — and we went down to San Jose to the Winchester house. I just thought, “Well, this will be a wacky thing to do.” I do a lot of things like that. I’ll think, “Oh, this will be a fun little lark,” but then end up being really moved by it in some way, or bothered, or needing to further investigate. That happened at the Winchester house: I took all these notes and when I got back to Chapel Hill and started teaching and had more time, I began unpacking the house and researching the nails, the barbed wire, the whole Winchester story. And with the other essays I just kind of followed things that I was fascinated by, though I didn’t really know where they would go until I finished them. It wasn’t until late in the process that it all came together with any kind of arc. That happened with the first book, too. I like to go into the work looking at one little facet of something and then I try to be open to the surprises that come up along the way.
In so many of these, you move beyond historical and geographical facts to extrapolate about the human lives that underpin them. Talking specifically about the Winchester essay, which I first read first in last summer’s Ecotone —
In that essay, the house acts as an extension of Winchester herself, and you bring the reader in close, to the point that we see her eating dried apricots and talking to soothsayers. How did you walk the line between fact and speculation? Did you give yourself any hard and fast boundaries, or was that balance intuitive?
That’s a great question — it gets at something important about nonfiction. When I was an undergraduate, I was an English major and a history major. So — I want to get at the facts as far as I can discern them. With the Winchester piece, that meant doing a lot of research. As I said, I could find out a lot about the materiality of the house. I could find out about the stained glass windows; I could find out about glass. But the hard thing about Sarah Winchester herself was that she didn’t leave much behind. She left the house — and there are some historical facts, of course; but even those have been embroidered and mythicized by the company that owns the house now. They really play up the ghostly quality of her life and the hauntedness. I didn’t want to take that at face value. I also didn’t want to project too much on her. So I tried to stick to what could be known. Like the apricots: she did have these orchards — and she dried them. She was a great businesswoman. It seemed like an easy leap to assume that she tried her own wares. The fact that she had this will that she signed 13 times, that’s fairly verifiable. But when I was projecting (in any of these essays), I tried to signal with phrases like, “I wonder if…” or “Could it be that…” or “Maybe…” It’s true that I couldn’t help but see myself in Sarah Winchester. But a lot of it is fact-check-able. As the poor fact-checkers at Milkweed will tell you.
But that’s one of the great things about writing nonfiction. You find out things you didn’t know before, and if you put them in context, they become more than coincidence, and they can add a lot of power to what you’re writing about.
How does your training as a historian effect the topics about which you choose to write, especially things like the marbles in “Pacing the Siege Floor” — topics that many of us would overlook?
My training comes in when I’m doing the research. With the choice of subject, I just follow whatever catches my eye. We went to the glass factory when I was a kid. I was always fascinated by marbles — by the glass, but also by the intersections between art making and factory work, which my Dad has done all his life. As a historian I’m trying to get to the bottom not only of how marbles (and glass) are made, but to investigate the stories and rituals that have grown up around glass-making for around 800 years. I want to share that stuff with people, y’know? It’s just too good.
When you’re describing Doom Town, for example, in “Damn Cold in February: Buddy Holly, View-Master, and the A-Bomb,” instead of just mushroom clouds and men pushing buttons, you zoom in on the less historically recognized players, like tourists, workmen, and John Wayne in a shower of atomic snow in The Conquerer. Why those particular people? What about them spoke to you?
Part of it comes from my own class background, which I’m really proud of. My Dad started off pretty low on the totem pole. But by the time he retired, he owned his own factory. I respect that — the hard work, the tenacity, and the smarts. Too often we take for granted the things that occupy our lives. Someone went out and cut the tree that became the lumber that made your desk chair; they planned what it would look like. There were machines that someone else built and maintained, and now you have this object that’s part of your daily life. Think about all the people who made it. I want to give respect to them, because that’s hard work and a lot of times it goes unnoticed. It’s also a great opportunity, as a writer, to say, “In a way this chair is a synecdoche for a lot more.” It’s a useful commodity, but it also gives you a kind of locus into a way of making and living in the world. You start to realize that all this stuff that furnishes your life can also furnish your process. You can write about it, investigate it and learn more, and make all these things more meaningful.
Reading these essays, I was reminded a lot of a great line in Kerry Howley’s Thrown, which is about MMA — unrelated, but similarly wonderful nonfiction written by a woman. She says, “It was as if someone had oil-slicked my synapses, such that thoughts could whip and whistle their way across the mind without the friction I'd come to experience as thought itself.” The connections you make between seemingly far-flung subjects seem really effortless. I’m thinking specifically of Buddy Holly and Liberace and the atom bomb, Freddie Mercury and fertility, Fairyland Caverns and fallout shelters. How intuitive were those connections? Were they indeed effortless?
They were intuitive for me. With the Buddy Holly piece (“Something Like the Fire”), I was trying, partly, to write about the A-Bomb, but I think, at its core, the A-Bomb is beyond human understanding. We can understand its physics; you can understand what it looked like if you were there, and the price we’re still paying for it. But there’s still something fundamentally unknowable. I thought, “How can I put other things from the same period in relationship to it,” like Buddy Holly’s tragic early death, the hula-hooping fad, and the View-Master, which I love. You could write a pretty short piece just about View-Master images. You could write a piece just about Buddy Holly. But when you put them in relationship to each other, they spark. You get energy from them that you wouldn’t have gotten if they were alone. I tried to do that in my first book too, The Wet Collection — at the time, I was thinking specifically about Joseph Cornell. He made these small sculptures in cigar boxes. (Sometimes bigger, but not a whole lot.) You wouldn’t think this cutout of a parrot and a wooden ball and a steel rod would have anything to do with each other. But within that tight frame, he arranged them so that they really do speak to each other. I thought in the first book, “Wouldn’t it be fun to write really short essays that contain seemingly disparate objects that could generate that energy? What if I did that instead of something plot-based?” For this book, it was, “What if those pieces got longer?” You still have your pressurizing frame. I wanted it to still have tension without being totally dependent on plot.
They feel very tight to the reader. On your website, you talk about a class you teach on atomic literature. If the atom bomb is beyond human comprehension, what’s that class like?
I’m so glad you asked. I love this class, and I don’t teach it often because it’s really intense. It’s a senior seminar for English majors who are about to graduate. In a way, I teach it as a kind of cultural history and literature/literary criticism class. We start off with Ferenc Morton Szasz’s The Day the Sun Rose Twice. It gives them a basic history for the Manhattan Project, the first atomic detonation, which is coming up on its seventieth anniversary. We read oral histories of the women of Los Alamos, because they often get overlooked. Some of them were physicists in their own right, and some of them were partners to physicists, and that’s a fascinating window into that particular time period. We read some natural history of the desert southwest. We read a wonderful poetry collection, Judith Vollmer’s Reactor. That’s interesting because it moves into nuclear power — not only its wartime uses but the peaceful ones, too, and how all of that has a cost. We read About a Mountain by John D’Agata. And we read The Road. Cormac McCarthy doesn’t come out and say it’s atomic, but come on — it probably is. We read some cultural histories. There’s this nice collection Scott Zeman put together that includes articles about the mushroom cloud as kitsch, and how the a-bomb shaped suburbia in the ’50s and ’60s. Then we read this book about fallout shelters, and some legal history of down-winders. I really love this class.
If you squint and ignore the ramifications of nuclear testing and globalization, the pieces in The World Is on Fire could be travelogues. Have you always been attracted to writing that roots itself in place? How did you decide where you’d go or latch onto stories that seemed worth writing about?
It was just intuitive. I just followed my gut. If there’s a place that seems interesting, and I can get there, I will get there. The experience of travel opens us up to other possibilities. You start making connections you wouldn’t make if you were at home. I don’t know what I’m going to find, and I don’t know what it’s going to turn into. Sometimes it doesn’t turn into anything. There were places that I visited that I thought I would write about, like the Greenbrier Hotel in [White] Sulphur Springs, West Virginia. I went there thinking I would write about the fallout shelter that was there for Congress. It was fascinating, and something may yet come of it, but not for this book.
Do your ideas or inspirations hit you before or after you get home?
I tend to take a lot of time to revise, but if I go someplace and I think I’m going to write about it, I’ll take a bunch of notes. Then, as soon as I can, I’ll type those up, and start to think about possible research leads. That all happens pretty quickly, but the revision takes a lot longer. I tend to revise things 30 or 40 or 50 times, so that’s why the book took seven years to write. The first one took seven years too. I love revision.
Is that part of why you appreciate the shorter form, because it’s something that’s more manageable to refine?
I think so, but short forms are tricky because to try to hit something at 750 words — that’s tough. If you’re not careful it can seem slight. That’s why I love reading journals like Brevity, where people are really nailing it in just a few pages. In some ways I think those pieces can be harder to write.
And it looks so deceptively easy.
It’s like when you watch a figure skater land a triple-axel. Man, when they do it, they can really do it. It’s just so impressive. It takes one second, but the practice that led up to that one second took years.
On a different note, in this book, I think that you capture the South better than any contemporary writer I’ve read, at least in recent memory. I also grew up in Carolina textile country, and the descriptions in “The Lay of the Land” and “Warp and Weft” especially rang true. How do you feel that the literary world perceives the South? Are you ever frustrated by those perceptions? Do you want to change them?
I absolutely do. I think it’s too easy to make a caricature of a place, whether it’s South Carolina or Minnesota or Oakland, California. Take my hometown (Greenville, South Carolina) — for a long time I felt like we’d been overlooked, and our experiences weren’t out there in the way that I wanted them to be. That’s changing now, but I wanted to do my part to help share those stories. When people think of the state, they tend to think of the Lowcountry, like Charleston. It’s beautiful, but that’s not home for me. Home is the mountains and textile mills and the way that we speak; our accent. It means a lot to me that you would feel that all that comes through.
I’m glad! Was there pressure as you wrote these essays? Were you worried about getting it right?
I really wanted to do it and I felt grateful to have the chance. I wrote for myself but it feels like a real blessing to be able to write about home and to have folks want to read about it.
In a lot of your essays, it feels like you’re shining a light on certain stories that other people might neglect or overlook.
I remember when I first got turned on to poetry and I read Philip Levine’s “What Work Is.” Of course he was writing about the factories in Detroit, but I thought, “Here’s someone who’s writing an experience that I know, that I haven’t seen represented on the page.” That was so exciting. Or like B.H. Fairchild’s The Art of the Lathe, which is still a book I love and go back to. I’m just so impressed with his poetry, how he was able to give a clear and respectful picture of what life in the factories was like. I would love to think that I am working in that tradition in any small way.
One of my favorite lines in the book comes from “The Measure of My Days (Buddy Holly Reprise)”, in which you’re visiting the plane crash site and you write, “I’d wanted to leave an offering myself – a pinch of dusty dirt from Lubbock, uranium crumb, an irradiated dime (circa 1959) from the lab at Oak Ridge, a hammer from that old schoolhouse piano. Nothing felt right. What we abandon, someone else must face.” Are you fearful of the future and the legacy of the atomic bomb?
I think it’s something we have to reckon with in any way that we can. I think, in a way, that it’s like climate change and terrorism and racial and gender hatred. This is what we have to deal with — so knowing that, how can we do our best to make things better? It can be overwhelming, but I don’t necessarily feel fearful, because I think, too, there are consolations — moments of gratitude or beauty. The lilacs are out; you’re appreciating that — these little moments that pass us by every day. We can try to appreciate those.
Thinking about the title of the book, especially the subtitle – “Scrap, Treasure, and Songs of Apocalypse” – that last word, apocalypse, sounds like such a final pronouncement. How do you feel about the book’s tone?
Let me start off by asking you — as a reader, because you can read it in a way that I can’t, how would you describe the tone?
One of my favorite things about the book is that it’s so hard to describe — that it defies genre. I think about that essay on the Salton Sea (“Ten Years You Own It”), which is about such a devastated landscape, yet there’s obviously still some kind of attraction there. The best I can do is to say that a depressed and beleaguered person who still finds beauty in the world is telling the story.
[Laughs.] That’s fair. I hope that there are moments of humor in it, too.
I want people to think about apocalypse not only as a final thing, but as an unveiling. It doesn’t have to be permanent. And in a way we all have these little apocalypses in our lives. They might not be things that 50 million people share, but we still have to reckon with them. I don’t want to sound like Pollyanna and say, “All these apocalypses have happened to me, but they made me a better person!” I don’t know about that. But they are events that we need to investigate and grapple with in some way. I think about it in that sense — an unveiling, but not necessarily permanent or earth-ending.
A lot of these essays effortlessly wed the personal to the global. Was that difficult for you? Was it scary to think about baring personal details?
This book does feel more revelatory in some ways than the first. I tend to not want to share too awful much. The miscarriage essay was hard for me to write. But then I thought, “You know, so many people go through this.” I say people advisedly — it’s women, but it’s not only women — it’s people of all genders who love women, and it’s a hell of a thing for anyone to go through.
So this book was your way of grappling with things?
It was, and I wrote it for me, but the pleasure of revision and reading it aloud and seeing if the sentences sing is something that I want to share with other people.
And what do you hope your readers will take away?
Well, I think about the way some of the essays work — when you put different elements in relationship they can illuminate each other. I hope the book can help people to do that with their own lives and stories — and with each other — so that they will feel less alone.
LARB Staff Recommendations
Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?
LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Please consider supporting our work and helping to keep LARB free.