Features / In Their Own Words

IN HER OWN WORDS: Jo Ann Beard

In Monday’s profile, Amy Day Wilkinson looked at Jo Ann Beard’s career-making essay “The Fourth State of Matter” and the precise artistry of Beard’s essays and fiction. Today we continue the conversation with Amy’s recent short Q&A with Jo Ann, along with some additional insights from Jo Ann’s previous interviews on writing, jobs, family, and “The Fourth State of Matter.”

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Spring 2014 Snapshot:

Amy Day Wilkinson: Do you have any spring rituals?

Jo Ann Beard: Right now where I live there is still snow on the ground, so my spring ritual is to stare desperately out the window and wait for something green to happen. One good thing is letting the ducks back on the pond again once it melts. They charge across the surface flapping and quacking and then they have indiscriminate sex and then they eat grubs out of the mud. Rinse, repeat, all through the spring, then the summer, then the fall, until they get locked up again. You can’t find a better creature than a duck.

AW: What’s something you read recently that you can’t stop thinking of? Something you recommend to friends?

JAB: I just reread Blue Nights by Joan Didion. There is a particular line in that book that floats through my mind at random times during the day and makes my heart pound. I won’t say what it is, because here it would just look like a sentence. But it isn’t.

AW: Can you tell us about a current project, writing or otherwise?

JAB: I don’t like to talk about my current writing, for fear of ruining it further, but I can talk about an otherwise project I’m involved in—trying to find a home for a shelter dog named Flea. A black pit with the best outlook, he’s almost duck-like in his joie de vivre, even though he was starved down to nearly nothing and left tied to a fence with a ribbon. (Update: By the time you are reading this, Flea will be Harold and will belong to the writer Alice Mattison and her husband, Edward.)


“I discovered writing in my early 30s, as I was finishing my undergraduate degree in art. A fiction class I took on a whim was what did it. Though recently when I was visiting an old friend, she dug into her closet and pulled out a flannel bag filled with notes and letters from me, beginning in seventh grade and ending when email was invented. Each one was like a little essay, what can I say. The bag itself had leopard spots and matched a sleeping bag my friend used to bring to sleepovers; I remembered it a lot more clearly than I remembered the person who had written all those notes in class and all those Selectric Typewriter letters from whatever office she/I was pretending to work in.”  —from interview with Astri von Arbin Ahlander at The Days of Yore


“The idea is that you have to fully imagine what you’re trying to write. The writer has to see everything: you have to see not just the highway but what’s beyond the headlights, what’s standing out in the trees; you have to know what earth looks like from the point of view of the stars; you have to know what lily pads look like from underneath, from the perspective of a fish on the bottom of a pond.”  —from “A Conversation with Jo Ann Beard” by Amy YelinThe Missouri Review, Spring 2011


“[I]f you’re fully seeing/imagining/remembering during the act of writing a story, there’s something profoundly unsurprising about psychological truth. We may interpret something as a surprise, if we’re reading, but for the writer there should be no real surprises; if you’re writing the truth (and even fiction writers must write the truth) everything that happens should be absolutely inevitable.” —from “The Nicest Person Michael Lewis Has Ever Met: A conversation with Jo Ann Beard” by Michael Lewis, FUGUE #35, Summer/Fall 2008


“When I write about my parents, my siblings, my ex-husband, my friends, I’m using them to illustrate a story I’m telling. So even though you try to make your characters three-dimensional, you’re folding them into your own narrative. And I don’t think anyone wants to see themselves depicted only in terms of someone else’s story. So, no. My mother would probably not like the reductive way in which I used her character or her interesting personality to line my own writing nest. But that said, she would have been happy to know I’m published and am teaching writing at a good college.” —from interview at The Missouri Review


“I had thought that I wouldn’t write another book. I was happy writing shorter, experimental essays. But an editor approached me to write a ‘YA’ book, and the idea of a novel for teens appealed to me. I ended up writing what became the first chapter of In Zanesville, and I really, really liked it. The editors didn’t like it; they thought it was too violent. By then I was already hooked. I didn’t feel it was a good idea to try to control where the narrative was going, but instead to follow it.” —from interview with Melissa SeleyBOMB, April 26, 2011


“I don’t make life choices, I operate more short-term than that. I never chose to be a painter or a writer; those things chose me, and then, in the case of painting, unchose me.”  – from interview at The Days of Yore


“I liked all books about dogs and horses and about what we called tom-girls back then. Girls who weren’t constrained by things like petticoats and hair ribbons and what boys thought of them. My favorite childhood books were the same ones that my character reads, including Look Homeward, Angel, which struck me deeply at the time. When I went back and read it during the writing of In Zanesville, I saw why: it is rather florid, in the best possible way, and the mother character had my mother’s name.”  —from “Written into Submission: An Interview with Jo Ann Beard” by Erin BermanSwitchback


“I teach writing because I need a job and it’s the job that gives me the most pleasure. I love literature, I love talking about writing, ideas, language, images—this is vastly and constantly stimulating to me—and I learn how to write better by immersing myself in these things, and by talking to colleagues and surrounding myself with art and artists. It’s easy in this culture to zone out, to sink into the too-much-information world of flickering light […]

What my students teach me is everything. About writing, about creativity, about the scope of human experience.”  —from interview at FUGUE


“The advice I would give to my 14 year old self would be this: Spend more time with your mother, allow yourself to love her more fully, and to tell her so. Notice what she says and what she wears and go sit in the kitchen while she’s cooking and talk to her, see how elegant her hands are as she lights her cigarettes and arranges the ashtray. Inhale the wonderful secondhand smoke.”    —from interview at Switchback


“Let’s just say I struggle with my writing, period. The endings are probably the easiest part—you know, that moment when you realize, ‘Oh, my God! I’m actually getting out of this thing!’”—from interview at The Missouri Review


“The first story I wrote was set in a post-apocalyptic Iowa City, about having to put your dogs to sleep because you don’t want them to be left roaming the smoking ruins after you have succumbed to radiation sickness. (It was the ’80s.) It had King Tut in it, and cavemen. The second was about a very wealthy little girl who poisons her grandparents by putting pesticides in their pudding. It had lions in it.

You can understand that I didn’t publish for quite a long while.” —from interview at The Days of Yore


 

Click here to read Amy Day Wilkinson’s feature on Jo Ann Beard.

Bloom Post End

Homepage photo credit: Jennifer May Lores

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