Interview: Jo Ann Beard
Jo Ann Beard’s third book, Festival Days, is a truehearted work of art. Nine pieces lean into life’s difficult decisions and the daunting beauty within moments of uncertainty. Her writing masters precision in language, emotional urgency, and grief’s complexities. In “Last Night,” Sheba, her beloved and terminally ill dog, can’t stop spinning like a top. They try to sleep: “At some point I couldn’t help it and let my eyes close, and when I did, it felt like I was turning, too, our lives unraveling like a skein of yarn stretched from Ithaca back to Iowa.” Beard’s nostalgic, intimate, humorous, and surprising originality is fluid and mesmerizing. Trellised too, throughout the collection, are instinctual metaphors prompting texturized feelings, tributes to loved ones and, in “Close” and “Now,” homage to writing. “Lunch tastes better when you’ve been writing.” To read her work is to be within the world of “Beard-ism” where imagination, personal experience, and remembrance coexist without restraint of genre.
In our email exchanges, Beard’s nuanced responses buzzed with the delightful twists and turns of her thoughts, leaving me energized, thinking anew about writing and its vast potential. Her students include formidable writers: Melissa Febos, Melissa Faliveno, and T Kira Madden. Texting with Madden, author of Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls, about Jo Ann Beard’s influence on her work activated three undulating dots before this response:
Sometimes, reading my work aloud, I ask myself WWJABD? Could I read this sentence in front of Jo Ann? Would she think it was bullshit? Probably, but it helps me edit.
What would Jo Ann Beard do? WWJABD is now forever moored in my mind. Faliveno, author of the commanding 2020 debut essay collection Tomboyland, shared a memorable moment she’d had with Beard:
Jo Ann was my thesis advisor at Sarah Lawrence and the reason I went there. I keep an old marked-up copy of The Boys of My Youth on my desk at all times. Whenever I met with her I was so nervous—just sitting across a coffee table from your hero—it’s terrifying. And we’re both Midwesterners, which I’m sure made our meetings even more awkward. I’d started writing deeply personal and difficult essays in her workshops—stories I’d never written before. It was brutal. I went to see her, and she was drinking a cup of tea—and I said, “I fucking hate writing.” And she looked at me, deadpan, and said, “Oh yeah, it’s terrible.” And we both laughed, and a weight lifted.
Febos, author of Whip Smart, Abandon Me, and Girlhood emailed:
I remember once lamenting to Jo Ann how impossibly long it took to write my best work (I was probably thinking in months then, rather than the years I do now). She asked me to name a few essays that I truly loved, and whose depth I aspired to. I did, and then she asked me, “do you think that those essays were written in a matter of weeks?” Certainly not, I agreed. “It takes the time it takes,” she told me, and her words gave me tremendous relief, as they still do.
Beard’s love for elements of craft in prose makes our conversation a gift of Beard-ism. I’ve characterized her style as “vacillating blurring,” that echo in the way of lines, lighting, images, sounds, and words. Beard’s own litmus test for where her writing exists is when everything feels true to me.
Yvonne Conza: Does describing the internal thrum in your writing as “vacillating blurring”—time, emotions, and tonal thematic reverberations trading off between comedy, grief, betrayal, tragedy, survival, and more—feel accurate?
Jo Ann Beard: The phrase vacillating blurring makes sense to me, though I can’t say for sure that I do that; or anyway I don’t do it deliberately. But probably the best way for me to write is not to do it deliberately, but to do it in a sideways fashion, as personal exploration.
YC: Did that blurring dynamic start when you chose “Last Night” as the lead piece of the collection?
JAB: I guess I opened the collection with that piece as a tribute to Sheba, my dog, out of gratitude for her companionship. The day after she died, my Ithaca friend, a plant scientist and pilot, flew me over to Niagara Falls for lunch. I was always too terrified to fly with him—I felt (and feel) that you shouldn’t know the pilot of your plane, let alone be sleeping with him; it’s demystifying in the extreme. Also, he once asked me, over the engines, to “keep an eye out for other planes.” But that day I felt calm inside the deafening sound, just staring down at the landscape, the terrible lakes and gorges of Western New York, the snarling waterfalls. When we sat down to have our lunch, he said sadly, “You’re only flying with me because you don’t care if you die, right?” We had grilled cheese sandwiches, fries, and banana cream pie, then flew back, and by the time we got to the little Ithaca airport, I was terrified again.
YC: “The Tomb of Wrestling” scared the hell out of me. Its deliberate and precise unearthing of a mind in motion within a traumatic event is engaging and realistic in its detachment—and its ability to twine time—from a rippling exposure where past and present memories exist in a fogged coordinated telling. Do you see “The Tomb of Wrestling” as an essay or a story? Was there a particular line, or image, that influenced this story? What surprised you most about writing this essay?
JAB: “The Tomb of Wrestling” is a story, though except for the central premise, it is as autobiographical as anything I’ve ever written. It was influenced by a shovel that I keep in my car to move animals off the road, usually turtles, sometimes carcasses, and once a long black snake. The last was hard on me because the shovel is miniature, so I had to get right over the snake to hurry it along…a phrase which doesn’t mean the same thing here as it meant in the story. What surprised me most about “Tomb” was that when I read the first few pages to a friend, she burst into tears. It was nighttime and we were in her brightly lit art colony studio, surrounded by big paintings and by rows of abstract Polaroids she had taken of the statuary and shrubbery. This friend’s eye was such that she could spot the tiniest, pin-sized flowers and the most elaborate mushrooms under leaves and logs in the woods. On her table, along with paints, were feathers and mouse knuckles and a rock that looked exactly like a human skull, only small. She thought my story was nonfiction because I had forgotten to tell her otherwise. Everything feels true to me.
YC: Echoes in the way of lines, lighting, images, sounds, words, are fused throughout Festival Days. For example, the line, “Let the hammer work for you,” from “The Tomb of Wrestling,” then reverberates and pivots to, “Let the dogs work for you.” And lighting softly quilts into all the pieces. It’s never track, task, accent, pendant, or recessed lighting, but rather lamp, light bulb, or sunlight, conveying warmth, the time of day, and maybe coaxing a throwback tone. A sled, appearing in one story and reemerging in another, unifies the work into a conversational collection. The same is true for a parakeet, a dying dog, and various other particulars. How do you view the significance of echoing within writing? What impact does light have on material (as in if you have light then you have shadow/if you have darkness then you have humor)?
JAB: Well, I do truly believe in all that—and if you’re really doing your work, deeply immersed in whatever story or imaginative endeavor, you begin to see the connections that you normally wouldn’t notice. The repetitions, the echoes, the way light frames and informs our moods and our visual field, just like it does in a painting. But that said, there are certain things that mean more to me than just what they are on the surface, though I can’t always say why. But I have known some parakeets, and if you can be friends with a bird, if you can hold a bird—such a bizarre, beautiful dinosaur—and actually interact with it, kiss it, say, or whistle and have it whistle back, or have it walk along your shoulders and peer at the world from that angle, or accept your forefinger as a perch, or allow it to stab away at your earlobe, then you enter a realm of connection that is off to the side of human. I’m interested in a parakeet’s perceptions, or a turtle’s, or increasingly, as I grow older, how a tree or a rock or fungi experiences the world. This would be the moment to remind the reader of the singular rock my friend found, the one shaped like a human skull, illustrating object as metaphor, and vice versa. But it was real, too. My friend is gone, alas, but the rock remains. You can’t throw away a rock, you can only change its location.
YC: Is there a difference in thinking about the writing when you begin a piece, as in writing when you’re writing versus entering the pages with a technical mindset?
JAB: I don’t think I have a technical mindset available to me, though I know what you mean. I think about each writing opportunity—even this interview, for example—as a chance to figure something out that I didn’t know, or couldn’t quite see, before. It was fun, and moving, for me to remember how The Plantman flew me to Niagara on a day when I was willing to die from grief, remembering how we rose into the bumpy air in a rickety Coke can, being buffeted around. Seeing how the farms and meth labs just became roofs and then became less than that. The endless forests of New York State. So likely in that moment I was writing, in a different way than I’m writing now, but nevertheless writing. It’s how I relate to myself.
YC: The pieces “Close” and “Now” stood out for me as cohesive anchors and palate cleansers. Each provide a lens into the other work, but are serving a different purpose. What work were they doing for you as the writer?
JAB: To be perfectly honest, I just put together all the pages that I’ve been writing since I last published a book. Some of the pieces were fiction, and some were nonfiction, and some were neither and both. Both “Close” and “Now” were given as talks to writers, and meant to inspire questions and discussion.
YC: Which piece in “Festival Days” surprised you the most?
JAB: The story “The Tomb of Wrestling,” again, was surprising because of what I didn’t understand about it. Like, why she didn’t run away. I had to live longer by a decade or so, and think harder about it, before I understood.
YC: “Werner” and “Cheri” are pieces with facile blending and blurring of genres iconic to Beard-ism. As you stated earlier it isn’t deliberate, but done in a sideways fashion, as personal exploration. Can you say more about this?
JAB: That’s how a story about a separate human being, like Werner Hoeflich or Cheri Tremble, can begin to feel like memoir to me. Even though it in no way is memoir. But if you enter the dream sufficiently, you can mind-meld your way almost anywhere, into any sensibility. Once you’ve seen what a farm looks like from just under the clouds, you realize you can astral-project yourself into the point of view of whatever. I’ll repeat myself and say a turtle, or a big black snake on a cool day lying on a warm road. Depending on the time of year a cornfield from above will look like a patch of green or gold corduroy. The higher you go, the more it blurs, of course, but there is a moment where it can remind you of a Tom Petty lyric.
YC: In the piece “What You See Is Seeing You,” the character Joan has strong ties to Jo Ann Beard, the actual author. Both women are dog owners who moved from Iowa to Ithaca, endured a break up and breakdown, had fathers who never called the dog by her name, Sheba, love Jerry Garcia’s music, and have been employed as secretaries. A reader could piece together those brushstrokes of “memoir” morsels, yet the real percussive pulse is the connective human experience of love, loss, and death. Could you say more about this as it relates to “dynamic blurring”?
JAB: There’s some dynamic blurring in that, I think. In terms of Jo Ann writing about a character named Joan, there have always been people who call me Joan because that’s what Jo Ann looks like to them. I worked for someone once who nervously introduced me to a roomful of people as “Joan Clerk.” Doesn’t matter what I do, I’m always Joan Clerk.
YC: Your writing lures conversation to it because it’s genre-defying and avoids categorization. Is this of interest to you? Or, is it pure dullsville for you to talk about? Is there a way you’d like your work to be described?
JAB: I am extremely interested in this. It’s not dullsville at all. I don’t have an exact way to describe the genre I’m working in, and so I tell myself it’s enough to just do it. Like, this is an interview, but it’s also something else.
YC: List three local bookstores and what they mean to you as a writer and reader.
JAB: Prairie Lights in Iowa City, Oblong Books in Rhinebeck, and the long-gone Readmore Bookworld in Moline, where I grew up. It was in a strip mall near my parents’ house, and had a classics section, which is where I learned about literature, buying paperbacks of Madame Bovary, etc. I never once read a book that I didn’t like, because I didn’t know that you could not like a book. If it didn’t grip me, I assumed it was my problem, not the book’s. Even Kurt Vonnegut! I dutifully read his work, and came away nonplussed, but with myself, not with the books. It took me until now to realize that the store likely wasn’t owned by the Readmore family, but was a play on words. Like, literally: just now.
YC: What’s the last word-of-mouth book you read, loved, and passed on to someone else?
JAB: Austin Wright’s Tony and Susan, just this week.
YC: Have you discovered something from your students?
JAB: I have learned from my students a very simple and daunting fact: it isn’t the most gifted writer who succeeds.
YC: Has your approach to writing changed since publishing The Boys of My Youth? If so, how? If not, what has remained consistent about your process and why?
JAB: What’s consistent is the effort, I guess, because my process has changed somewhat. Even being able to complete this interview feels good to me; it’s yoga for the mind. Just remembering things and picturing them. Thinking about The Plantman in his plane, or my friend in her painting studio, or Tom Petty in his corduroy pants.
YC: What do you hope readers take away from Festival Days?
JAB: I guess the takeaway will depend on how well I’ve done my job, and if I truly have, then what you take away won’t really have anything to do with me. But that sounds lonely, and reading isn’t lonely at all—reading is where we join each other in the dream.
Jo Ann Beard is an impeccable, original writer. You can re-read her work endlessly, and always be galvanized and renewed by it. —Amy Hempel
JO ANN BEARD is the author of Festival Days, In Zanesville, and The Boys of My Youth. Her work has appeared in various magazines and journals as well as The Best American and O. Henry Prize anthologies. She lives in Upstate New York and teaches writing at Sarah Lawrence College.
YVONNE CONZA’s writing has appeared in Longreads, Electric Literature, LARB, BOMB Magazine, AGNI, The Millions, Catapult, Cosmonauts Avenue, The Rumpus, Joyland Magazine, Blue Mesa Review, The Adroit Journal, Ex/Post, and elsewhere. London’s Dodo Ink and Scotland’s Epoch Press have included her work in the 2021 anthologies Trauma: Art as a response to mental health and Aftermath.