An Interview by Heather M. Surls
Having reviewed Tevis’s first book, The Wet Collection, two years ago, RedFence writer Heather M. Surls sat down (via Skype) with the author to talk about the artistic process and, of course, her second book of lyric essays, The World Is on Fire (Milkweed Editions, 2015).
RedFence: Something that struck me in The World Is on Fire, and also struck me in your first book, The Wet Collection, is your insatiable curiosity. You’re always investigating something. The first thing that comes to mind is how you followed The Scissorman (an artisan who travels around the city sharpening scissors for salons) for a day to learn about his work. And so I wonder, were you particularly curious as a child?
Joni Tevis: I think so, but maybe all children are. I mean, it didn’t seem unusual to me then. And it doesn’t seem unusual now. But there’s so much interesting stuff out there that as an adult now . . . I think it’s very helpful to have that kind of a guiding star because I can just follow something that interests me. I can research, I can learn more about it, I can talk to people who are doing it, I can try to flesh that out.
I used to worry, like in graduate school, that I would run out of things to write about, like stories from my own life to write about. I just didn’t have them. But if you’re curious about other people, like the Scissorman, or the auctioneer, or people in the demolition derby, or the workers at the textile mill, there’s always more to learn and to work through. So it’s been a good way to approach life.
RF: How do you choose what to be curious about, if that makes sense?
Tevis: You can’t choose it. I think it really is whatever the heart loves, you focus on. When I was writing the book, I didn’t know what it was going to be about until I was two-thirds of the way through it because I just followed what was interesting to me. I would just follow an image or a body of knowledge I didn’t know about—I would follow that, write about that, be delighted by that, take pleasure in writing about that. Then, once I had a good bit of material, I could find my theme: “Okay, this is what I’m about.” But I really followed the subconscious mind first for a long time. The first book was that way too.
RF: You have a small daughter, and you teach creative writing at Furman University. How do you make time for your writing? Is there a certain time of day you write? A certain place?
Tevis: I do it whenever I can. You know, on days when I’m not teaching, I really try to set those aside as writing and research days. I tend to be very protective of that time, I really try to use that time. I don’t get online until I’m done working for the day or things like that. But I really feel like I can write anywhere, and I want to always be writing and thinking or otherwise I’m just not happy. But in a way I think it’s been good to have a demand on my time because it makes you very aware [of] where to deploy time and resources.
RF: At RedFence we really like coffee and tea. Do you require either of these in your creative process?
Tevis: (laughing) It’s very nice to have it. If I’m at home, I will have it. But if I’m in a place where I go to work, if it’s at our public library, they have an archive room where you can go in and work and I like it. The internet doesn’t really work there, and there are librarians to help with esoteric things, so I go there and write a lot. For the South Carolina room, I will give up coffee or tea. It’s sure nice to have it, but I can do without it.
RF: So, focusing on The World Is on Fire now: you cover a huge range of topics in that book, from atomic testing in part one, to the death of a textile mill in part two, to your experiences with birth, infertility, and miscarriage in part three. And I really found part three the most compelling, because it was so personal, but also things that so many people experience. What was it like for you to write about such deeply personal topics? And what gave you the courage to do that?
Tevis: The book works as a kind of exploration of what it means to live in a haunted world. You see that in the beginning with the Winchester piece: “Is the house haunted? Is she haunted? Do we haunt her now by going and invading her space?” That first essay really sets up some of the concerns of the book, and then with the atomic stuff you can see where not only is the landscape haunted by the atomic work that we did, we’re haunted by it physically. And the third part is really about our bodies being haunted by the experiences we go through. I wasn’t consciously thinking about any of that while I was writing it.
So, the essay with the Alaska stuff, I did probably 60 drafts of that to try to get it right. But it was very fulfilling and joyous work to write that. But then the miscarriage essay and the infertility essay, I didn’t really think that I would write those or share those with other people at least, but then I sort of found that I had to to make sense of those experiences for myself. And I wrote them thinking the fiction in my mind that I would not share them with anybody. I would write them for myself. And then once I wrote them and revised them and revised them and revised them again, I thought, “These really fit with the rest of this book.”
And so then it became time to share them with my first trusted reader, with my husband, David. We married in graduate school, and he’s a wonderful writer in his own right, so I knew he would tell me if they worked or not, and then to share with my editor at Milkweed. And once I shared it with them, I felt they could give me honest feedback. I put it out there, and I hope that it will help us begin talking about some of these things that we don’t really talk about and that so many families go through. And I hope that it will help people—and I say people—it’s not only women who go through this, it’s also the people who love them—to feel less alone in it. And if that happens, great, I will feel very grateful for that. But primarily I wrote them for myself to help me make sense of some hard experiences.
And it’s sort of fun, technically, to see what you can make the material do. Once you get stuff down, then you think, “How am I going to shape this in a way that will be interesting, different, and will challenge me?”
RF: I like how you dive into primary sources in many of your essays, which gives them a lot more depth and substance than just a personal essay or memoir. Do you enjoy this part of the writing process?
Tevis: Oh, yes. And that’s the great thing, too, about teaching an area that you’re interested in writing about. So I taught this course on atomic literature—this was four years ago at Furman—but it made those students also dig into the primary materials. In a way it was like a literary criticism-slash-history seminar. So that was really enjoyable, because you just don’t know what you’re going to find. And a similar thing happened with the Salton Sea essay. I’d gone to the Salton Sea thinking, “I’m going to see what I can see there,” and it was in the research process later that I found out that Paul Tibbets had flown these practice runs over the Salton Sea and dropped the dummy bombs into it. I could not have known that before I started the process. So I think there’s such energy to be found in following the subconscious mind, the unconscious mind, whatever you want to call it, and not overthinking it, but writing from a place of intuition and pleasure and then revising it with these others sources in mind and seeing how that changes it.
RF: Something I need to work on in my writing.
Tevis: Yes, but do it for fun. Do it not because you need to or you should—do it because it’s interesting and you feel a pull toward it.
RF: I also really respect your treatment of religion in your work. Sometimes you retell Bible stories or even quote verses from the Bible, but without an ounce of preachiness. Can you tell me a little bit about how religion and faith play into your writing?
Tevis: I would say they are my guiding star in a lot of ways. They’re just a part of my core self, and they have been since I was a little child. The Bible is the book that we knew best growing up. I read it all the time, I still read it every day. You go back to it again and again, and you find different things every time you go back to it, so that’s very helpful. And then, trying to interpret it, interpret my own life through its content, led me to retelling some Bible stories in the context of my own life. And that’s been very helpful for me, personally. And I’m glad to hear it doesn’t feel preachy, because I would never want that, but I do love it. I love it, and I love not only the message of it but the language of it, so on a lot of levels.
RF: How would you compare your two books, The Wet Collection and The World Is on Fire, and have you changed as a writer since the one was published and then the other?
Tevis: Well, you know, I’ve been rereading Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life, and she says you can take years to complete a book, so the writer is not the same person in the end as she was in the beginning, and I feel that to be true for myself. So The Wet Collection—it took me about seven years from start to finish—and so too World on Fire. I think some of my habits are the same, my habits of writing, revising, researching, traveling. On the surface those things are the same, but I do think that The World Is on Fire is maybe bigger in some ways. I mean, physically, it’s bigger, it’s longer. And I’m excited about doing some of the longer pieces. The first book had a few of the longer pieces, but there are more of them in the second book. So that’s been exciting to me, to think about how to sustain the reader’s interest over a long piece that’s not narratively driven. I’ve been working a lot more with shape, and having shape carry that weight that usually narrative would provide. The Buddy Holly essay is one example: it is not primarily narrative-driven, it’s collage driven and connection-driven and that kind of thing. So, yeah, that was very fun to be challenged by that, and I’m sort of pushing myself more with that.
The World Is on Fire is available for purchase on Amazon.