Soul Burn Radiant: An Interview with Jo Ann Beard

by Marie-Hélène Westgate
August 6, 2012

Jo Ann Beard grew up in the Midwest and earned her MFA at the University of Iowa, where she worked as an editor for the physics journal. Jo Ann’s first essay collection, Boys of My Youth, was published in 1998. “The Fourth State of Matter,” an acclaimed essay about the University of Iowa shooting in 1991, first appeared in The New Yorker, and was later featured in Best American Essays. Jo Ann’s latest book, In Zanesville, came out in 2010. It tells the story of a fourteen year-old girl, a late bloomer; an awkward, often overlooked girl whose soul burns radiant and unforgettable.
Marie-Hélène Westgate: Did you have any pets growing up?
Jo Ann Beard: I grew up with a dog, canaries, finches, parakeets, turtles, and stray cats. The cats and the birds were not compatible with each other and the turtles with life in general. They were tiny and dear, though—turtles have good personalities.
MW: As a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up?
JB: I didn’t think about things like that. I wanted to be different. Not from my family, but from myself. I wanted to be someone who enjoyed things more.
MW: What did you pursue when you went off to college?
JB: I didn’t go off to college – I went a couple of miles away, halfway across the Mississippi River to Arsenal Island, where I worked for the US Army Armament Command (ARMCOM) as a secretary for the Vehicle Rapid Fire Weapon System (VRFWS). I had jobs in Logistics Management (LM) and Technical Management (TM) and I had a security clearance and I took a goodly amount of drugs, like most nineteen year olds in 1974.
MW: What did your family think of your creative pursuits?
JB: They didn’t recognize them as such.
MW: In those years you spent in Iowa, did you ever lose faith or feel you didn’t want to write anymore?
JB: I did give up at one point, when I just couldn’t get anything published anywhere. It was a half-hearted giving-up, because I thought the publishing world wrong and me right (this is the artist’s way) and eventually it came to pass that it shook down in my favor; though it might have simply been that I was more intent on getting in than they were intent on keeping me out.
MW: As a teacher who spends some time in New York, what are your thoughts on the literary community?
JB: I’m not really in a literary community, I’m in an academic community and it isn’t the same thing at all. But I like the literary communities my students make when they leave graduate school—where people host readings and wear great clothes and have expensive haircuts that they shouldn’t be able to afford on freelance salaries. I like that at the readings they have people playing music and singing who don’t necessary play or sing in real life, and how they read everything and think about it and judge it and feel agony over their own work. Last summer I gave a reading hosted by a former student at a small art gallery in Brooklyn. Small like a cell phone store in Delhi small. And it was a hot night in the city and everyone came in and sat on the floor, sweating, and they gave out popsicles.
MW: What did you expect would change when your first book was about to be published?
JB: I expected that I would feel a kind of relief. Like when you’re hiking and have to find a water source and it’s getting darker and darker and darker and you know you read the map wrong because it makes no sense anyway. You can’t read a topographical map because it’s just wavery lines. And then you miraculously arrive at the water source and you feel, more than anything, relieved that it turned out you could read the map; except you couldn’t, which means you got to the water by accident. And then you set up the tent and eat a cold dinner because you’re afraid of the stove, and then you stare up at the beautiful, beautiful black sky that makes you feel meaningful and meaningless at the same time and then you sleep. And the next morning you start walking again toward the next water source, but you can’t read the map.
MW: Can you tell me about your writing routine? Do you have any rituals?
JB: I have talismanic things that help, like tea and a plastic Slinky and binoculars and the birds that land on the wire outside my window. I’m close enough to see them perfectly, but I use the binoculars anyway, just for something to do.
MW: How do you see the world when you’re not writing it?
JB: As the most beautiful and glorious place imaginable. With woods and birds and turtles and the giant starry sky and nice people and the other kind who aren’t nice but who have their reasons and the raccoon who killed my ducks and now once a night comes up to the infrared camera outside the newly-secure enclosure and stares into the lens with his hair sticking up everywhere.
MW: How do you maintain such a calm disposition or, in the words of a friend: how does she stay so damn calm?
JB: It’s funny—your friend may think I’m calm, but my friend, the one I just talked to on the telephone, would never describe me that way.
MW: What would you tell emerging writers?
JB: Read more Annie Dillard and Joan Didion, and less stuff on the Internet. Take David Sedaris seriously. Take Susan Sontag lightly. Be passionate and unapologetic (especially if you’re female), be self-aware but not self-referential. I say that as someone who is constantly referring to myself (even in this sentence!).
MW: What are you reading right now?
JB: BEST AMERICAN ESSAYS 2011, which is exceptional. It was a very good year.
MW:What are your secret hopes for, say, ten years from now? If you could do anything or have achieved anything? Secret!
JB: Honestly, I just hope to be alive in ten years. If I am, I would like to have written another book, or at least some stories or essays that were good. If I am not, I would like to be in the woods across from my studio, with the birds and the turtles and the photogenic raccoons.


Marie-Hélène Westgate is the senior editor at Freerange Nonfiction. She earned her Masters of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from Sarah Lawrence College, and is currently at work on a novel. Her work has appeared in The Rumpus, Lumina, One Cool Word, and Freerange. Marie-Hélène lives with her partner in Brooklyn, where she spends as much time as possible locked alone in a room.