Written into Submission: An Interview with Jo Ann Beard

Erin Berman

Jo Ann Beard is the author of the novel, In Zanesville, and a collection of autobiographical essays, The Boys of My Youth, as well as other works of fiction and nonfiction.  She lives in upstate New York and teaches at Jo Ann BeardSarah Lawrence College.  Switchback was fortunate enough to interview Jo Ann before her October 2 reading at the University of San Francisco.

Switchback: It has been 11 years since your last book, your essay collection The Boys of Our Youth was published.  When did you realize you wanted to start writing a novel and what was that process like for you?  Did your approach differ from your nonfiction work?

Jo Ann Beard: I approached In Zanesville like a memoir at first, but then realized that what I thought I was remembering I was actually more or less making up. The characters and the friendships were very familiar to me as was the setting, so it felt like it was my life, but in fact it wasn’t, it was my imagination.

SB: Your main character in In Zanesville offers a fresh voice, yet she still manages to fit into an “every-girl” ideal that makes her relatable to your readers.  How did you avoid the pitfalls of a YA coming-of-age novel?

JAB: I don’t know what the pitfalls are exactly, except a certain kind of explicitness, or a certain kind of adult agenda imposed on the plot, whereby the readers are expected to learn important lessons and grow from reading it.  My characters were learning and growing all the way through their story, but then so am I through mine and so are you through yours; we don’t really need to have those kinds of lessons embedded in our fiction.  Life is painful enough.

SB: Your writing in In Zanesville seems very aware of the passage of time.  How do you interact with time on a day-to-day basis?

JAB: The book is kind of moment-by-moment, I guess, in terms of its chronology; it doesn’t skip ahead at some points, but basically takes place in the summer, fall, and then winter of ninth grade. My own interactions with time can be adversarial.

SB: You have been praised for your spot-on dialogue in non-fiction as well as in the novel, where it flowed seamlessly.  Even the notes your characters pass to one other in class remind me all too well of high school.  Did you have any trouble getting into the high school mentality and using their patterns of speech?  Did you visit any high schools or just draw on your own experience?

JAB: My sister drove by our junior high and high school and sent me photographs of the buildings and grounds from the outside. It actually creeped her out, which I understood, and helped me remember the particular defeated feeling of walking up those steps and opening those doors. Even when you wanted to be there, which sometimes you did, there was an overwhelming feeling of uncertainty. Not only did you not know what the day would bring, you didn’t know what the life would bring; there was just so much up ahead and it didn’t seem at all hopeful. I always felt the weight of the future, even as a baby. I do now too. My past is light, though; I’ve written it into submission.

SB: Given one word to describe your own high school years, what would it be?  If you could go back in time, what advice would you give to the fourteen-year-old you?

JAB: My word would be a name, that of my best friend. We wore each other’s clothes and thought each other’s thoughts. I was never alone, except in the usual existential-despair kind of way, and she probably joined me in that as well. On second thought, she didn’t. That wasn’t her way. She lightened me up and I darkened her down; we were a nice combination.

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.

SB: Despite funny and endearing moments, the novel has a dark undertone starting with a violent case of domestic abuse at the beginning, and continuing with the presence of an alcoholic father.  It seems the characters experience domestic instability. Did you intend to write a book that demonstrates the difficulty of parenthood as well as the angst of teenage years?

JAB: My character actually does have a stable domestic life, but it’s true they are poor, she also has an alcoholic father, and she babysits for people who are violent, scurrilous, and interesting in other bad ways. Her father’s drinking problem affects the whole household, but so does his decency. My own dad persevered through his suffering (from addiction) and in fact had a very positive impact on his children and on the various other creatures who loved him. The day he was buried I sat on his back porch all alone, watching his birds empty the feeders for the last time, and at one point a black squirrel climbed the back steps and put his paws on the sliding glass door, peering in at me, waiting for the peanuts I was supposed to have spread along the sidewalk.

SB: Finally, do you think the main character ever leaves Zanesville?  I found myself hoping we would get to see her in Chicago, which makes me wonder if you would consider a sequel?

JAB: Yes, I think she is preparing to leave Zanesville all through the book and all through her life, even though maybe it won’t ever happen for her. You have to be propelled out and something has to do the propelling, like ambitious parents (which she doesn’t have) or money (ditto) or suffering. For now, all she can do is remain open to the possibilities that are presented to her in books, and by her teachers, and by her own imagination. Her art teacher tells her about an apartment building in Chicago that looks like a big ear of shucked corn. That one image—of an ear of corn turned into a high rise—might be just metaphorical enough to propel a smart, artistic girl out of her hometown and into the larger world. Or might not.

SB: Like your main character, you have mentioned in interviews that you read extensively as an adolescent.  What authors were you reading at the time of writing, or have you read lately, that have impressed or inspired you.

JAB: 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 read, 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.

SB: You are currently a professor at Sarah Lawrence College.  One of your former MFA students expressed to me, “Jo Ann is the best, she changed the way I wrote in the best way possible!”  As a fellow MFA student, I know that we treasure those mentors who can guide our writing in the right direction.  What is the most important aspect of writing that you stress to your students?

JAB: Well, I don’t think I guide the writing so much as the person toward the writing. I don’t know what that means, but maybe something about encouraging people to just do it, in the Nike sense. There’s a lot to be said for simply sitting down and getting your work done, putting the ass in the chair and the chin in the hand and just thinking for a while. Eventually, writing occurs. Honestly, my students are already good writers when they arrive; they just need to immerse themselves in profoundly good literature and then let it enlighten and influence them.

SB: In a recent article, when discussing losing faith during your time in Iowa, you were quoted as saying:  “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.”  Was there something specific that you recognized within your writing that allowed you to break into the publishing world?  Have your perspectives on being an artist in the publishing world changed since you have established your success as an author and career in academia?

JAB: Well, I did recognize something: That I cared so profoundly about literature and writing that even the argument I was having with the publishing world was compelling to me.  Even not being published had the word published in it, and so I felt like I had a little corner of blanket, so to speak.