The Edge of a Life: Jo Ann Beard Interviewed by Chelsea Hodson

On writing about assisted suicide, taking time to study the consciousness of mushrooms, and freeing herself from the labor of the sentence.

Festival Days6

In the titular essay for Festival Days (Little Brown), Jo Ann Beard writes, “I’m tired of trying to describe things that aren’t describable, so just trust me: when I swung back onto the Taconic and pressed the pedal, a wormhole opened up and my car entered it.” This is the kind of bold and curious voice that readers have come to love in Beard’s writing, and this collection—twenty-two years in the making—is an absolute marvel.

In her essay “Cheri,” Beard tracks the final hours of Cheri Tremble, a woman who died with the help of Dr. Kevorkian. When I asked Beard what drew her to this particular story, she said that a friend of a friend had told her, “They drove from Iowa City to Detroit and the entire time Cheri had her face in her hands.” That single image—the face in her hands—resonated so deeply that Beard decided to explore her story in more detail. Another essay in the collection, entitled “Werner” after the central character, similarly uses facts to create a narrative around someone’s proximity to death—except Werner survived the fire that threatened to engulf him. Beard told me, “I wanted to imagine my way into what it would feel like to go all the way to the end, almost through the door, and then step back and have your life.” 

This level of intensity is something that seeps into every piece of Festival Days—in the author’s note, Beard clarifies that some are essays, some are stories, and some are essays in “their own secret ways.” Genre is not important here, because, as Beard demonstrates in her writing, life as we know it is full of bizarre, sad, beautiful, unbelievable, indescribable things—events that transform our real lives into surreal experiences. 

—Chelsea Hodson

Chelsea Hodson BOMB is celebrating forty years this year and some of the interviewers are asking questions that the subjects have answered in previous conversations that ran in the magazine. In a 2011 interview with BOMB, you were asked this question that I’m going to ask you now to see how your answer has changed: are there any writing rituals you follow? 

Jo Ann BeardFirst thing I like to do, even if I only think I’m going to write for a short period of time, is block myself from the internet using Freedom on my computer and lock up my phone in a kitchen safe, as though it’s a package of cookies. I set both timers for eight hours, even though I’ve never written for more than two hours in my life. The minute I seal myself off, I feel flattened and sorrowful, with a whole eight hours ahead of me in which I have to be in my own company. And then I think, Well, if I’m not going to exist for eight hours, I might as well just sit here and stare out the window, look at the trees and the hawks and whatever else is in the big field. Eventually some idea will snag and then I start writing. Or not, but either way I’ve been in my own head, and seen the airy world out my window. At the very worst, I’ve enjoyed a friendship with myself for a few hours, instead of tending to all the friendships, imaginary and real, that exist inside the various screens. 

CH Do you want to hear what your answer was in 2011? 

JB I do.

CH You said, “My studio looks out over a big field. At certain times of the year, different birds migrate through, so I can spend all of my writing time looking through binoculars; which is actually every bit as good as writing. Although, you don’t feel a sense of pride about it.”

JBI have become more verbose, but thankfully I didn’t contradict myself.

CH I suspected your answers might be somewhat similar, because I remember when I was a student in your workshop at the Tin House Writers’ Workshop, you encouraged us to spend some time spreading out around campus to be alone and just think. 

JB It’s interesting because that workshop was six years ago, and now the idea of just sending students outside to sit in a lawn chair and think—even though essays are about thinking—seems like a radical idea.

CHTotally. I’m also curious if you feel that your writing process has changed over time. If I’m remembering correctly, you spoke in our workshop about how you labor over each sentence as you go, as opposed to someone who writes very quickly and cuts later.

JBI’ve never been good at revising and I’m not good at pouring the words out, generating pages to go back and work with. My process is more painstaking, as in taking pains to get it right the first time. Not really the ideal way to write, because it’s so slow, and the gratification is delayed sometimes for years. What I’ve always said in the past to students, and to other people who have asked me, is that your writing process is like your fingerprint; you can’t change it. But then I remembered that people do change their fingerprints—thieves mostly—so I decided a couple years back that instead of claiming it was unchangeable I would change it. And I kind of did. I still only go forward in whatever I’m working on, but I go forward much faster than I used to. That’s my new fingerprint. 

I think I believed my own bullshit because I liked the pat sound of it, and the image of the fingerprint, and also because it let me off the hook. Like I could be saying, “Writing is harder for me than it is for you, Chelsea, so therefore, I—the great stalled-out, backed-up writer—can’t do any better than a sentence a week, in between watching hawks and going for walks and driving to Target to buy socks.”

Blond white woman smiling in the sunlight, in front of a wooden structure.

Photo of Jo Ann Beard by Franco Vogt.

CHWe were speaking earlier about this idea of “doing nothing,” being alone with oneself. What do you think this does for the writer’s mind? 

JBBeing on sabbatical for a year, and having it coincide with a pandemic, means that I’ve had some stillness imposed on me. I’ve spent a lot of days just thinking about things, or wandering around not thinking, just looking, being bored and aimless, but in a semi-deliberate way that involves noticing my own consciousness and reading about the consciousness of the creatures around us—of mushrooms in their elaborate and sensitive networks, of trees and forests, of chimpanzees, octopuses, birds, dogs. 

Now that I’m kind of moving into the final phase, it’s interesting to think back to the other parts of my life, when I was always striving, in a mild, Midwestern way, toward the future. I had goals that were reachable, or not, but they kept me focused and occupied. Maybe they were like, “I want to finish this story and then I want to publish it, and then I want to be the person who published a story.” Or, “I want to have a relationship with this person and then we’ll buy a house and grow a garden.” There are a million different permutations that take you from childhood on through middle age, but when you get past middle age it all changes. You’re not living for the future anymore because you’re in it, you arrived, the car has stopped and it’s time to get out and stretch your legs, take a look into that deep chasm you drove so far to see. 

CHThis brings me to a theme that has a strong presence within Festival Days—proximity to death. People coming close to the edges of their lives in one way or another. Is this a subject you were conscious of as you wrote the pieces in this collection, or is this something that you noticed as you began putting them together?

JB I was from a young age aware that not only was our existence finite but that there was a deep and profound meaningless to it as well. You live and you die and you suffer plenty along the way. Even when I was a little girl who was made to go to Sunday school and listen to all the lessons, I always knew none of their happy crap made any sense. When you’re dead you’re dead, and the same holds true for Jesus. They didn’t like me at Sunday school.

CH Yes, but at the same time, the proximity of death lends a kind of heightened sense of beauty to many of the scenes that take place in Festival Days. Because death exists, we can appreciate life, just as we can only experience joy because we have experienced pain. That kind of thing. There’s something wonderful about writing down the things that happen within that finite amount of time we’re given. 

JBThat’s what I’m trying to work on. You just put it into words for me. In all of my time of sitting and thinking this last year, I’m trying to make sense of it all. Just for myself, so that I don’t go into the dark in the dark. And that idea of all of us being part of something larger, that doesn’t have to do with consciousness. Consciousness ends. But our part in whatever this is all about morphs into something else. Like your body gets put in the ground and it becomes part of that network of funghi that grow from your tissues as they decay. So I’m trying to find a way, after all these years of thinking about death and feeling swamped by it, I’m trying to find a way to think that it’s OK, and even more than OK. That you have your turn and then you have to get off the planet. It’s time for other people to be born and do their thing. It’s hard to get kicked out, but certain things make it feel more palatable. Like, your body starts to break down. You get tired. You don’t always have a way to fight the sorrow.

CHDo elements of violence and maybe even cruelty interest or inspire your writing? I’m thinking about “Tomb of Wrestling” from Festival Days, in which a woman, “Joan,” uses a shovel to protect herself from a home intruder. Is there something about that kind of violence that allowed certain memories of yours to come through?

JBI’ve never really experienced violence toward my person, and the story really stemmed from the shovel anyway; it was really just an attempt on my part to loosen up. I was getting so frustrated with my stuck writing style, every sentence so labored. I was speaking to someone I respected, and was sort of putting a good spin on how long it took me to write things. And he said, very gently, “You know, it shows—your writing can seem labored over.” And I knew it was true. I couldn’t see it in my own work, because who can, but I’ve seen it in other people’s work, the beads of sweat. I thought, I don’t want this. I thought, I want to write a piece that’s just really fast. Not that I would write it fast, because I didn’t think I knew how to do that, and I didn’t. But that all the action would take place over about five minutes. And the period of time that she’s standing in the kitchen, in my mind, is about five minutes. Everything else gets folded into that five minutes. So the story was more about learning how to write more fluidly than it was about violence. Although there is a considerable amount of violence in there, let’s face it. Anyway, that gentle but direct criticism, though it wasn’t couched as criticism, was really helpful to me.

CH Right, because that’s the kind of comment that makes you second guess that process that you were talking about, in which you just think, Well, I’m a slow writer. This is how I work. I put the beads of sweat in it.

JB My fingerprints. 

CH Right!

JBI usually don’t brook much writing criticism—I protect that part of myself. But every once in a while, somebody will say something in just the right way, and it gets in there and unlocks some door. See, writing will always be interesting to me, because even if life has no meaning, writing does. It’s all about discovery, personal and otherwise. 

Festival Days is available for purchase here.

Chelsea Hodson is the author of the book of essays, Tonight I’m Someone Else (Holt 2018)

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