Joni Tevis is the author of two books of nonfiction, The Wet Collection: A Field Guide to Iridescence and Memory, and The World Is On Fire: Scrap, Treasure, and Songs of Apocalypse, both published by Milkweed Editions. Her essays have appeared in Orion, The Southern Review, The Oxford American, Poets & Writers, DIAGRAM, and elsewhere. The winner of a Pushcart Prize and a National Endowment for the Arts Creative Writing Fellowship, she is at work on a new book of nonfiction about music, destruction, and iconic American landscapes.
1. What writer do you want to be when you grow up?
Joan Didion. Whenever I hear The Doors—“L.A. Woman,” “Light My Fire”—I think not of the Lizard King but of her, sitting in the studio, noticing everything. Counting the knobs on the mixing board (seventy-six), the Siberian husky named Nikki with one gray eye and one gold. Hard-boiled eggs in a paper bag.
2. What’s your favorite thing you’ve ever written?
I wrote an essay called “What the Body Knows” that means a lot to me. Writing it allowed me to return to a place and time I can’t get back to any other way, and to share that experience with other people—including myself, here, now.
3. Who do you trust with your drafts and why?
Dear David, my husband & best friend. I met my ideal reader, and friends, I married him. It works because I can tell him what I need—whether it’s “I need to know what doesn’t work here” or “Tell me this is fab. I can’t take advice on it quite yet.”
4. What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever gotten?
Oh, Jack Kerouac, there you are: ““Hell man, I know very well you didn’t come to me only to want to become a writer, and after all what do I really know about it except that you’ve got to stick to it with the energy of a benny addict.”
5. What’s your go to recommendation to read when somebody says “I’m not sure about this whole nonfiction thing?” Why? What do you hope it shows them? What about it excites you?
I love Lynda Barry—the quality of her line, the generosity of her prose. I love reading her drawings and gazing at her sentences. I’ve been teaching from What It Is lately—the whole book is full of writing exercises and collage and memoir—and it’s big-hearted and inviting and fun. This book helps me remember that “I don’t know” can be a mantra and a magic spell, allowing us to write our ways into (and out of) memory.
Also, stop whatever you’re doing and read this terrific essay immediately: Jacob Baynham’s “Jerry’s Dirt,” which recently appeared in The Georgia Review: Proof that details matter. The stuff of life!
“Distilling the essence of an anthology, any anthology, is really hard to do, especially in the compass of 2000-3000 words, and even tougher if the collection is composed of disparate essays, as BAE is. What I had initially regarded as authorial sloth—commenting on one or two or four favorite authors from the designated volume—may well be a survival mechanism for the authors of such expeditious blogs written under time pressure, the collection’s crunchy crudités—bell peppers, jicama, sugar snap peas. These are choices of passion, craft, and topic: Amy Leach on Charles Simich (1988); Joni Tevis (1990) and Craig Reinhold (1998), both on Annie Dillard; David L. Ulin (2011) on Susan Straight’s enactment of racial profiling in “Travels With My Ex.” Stephanie G’Schwind’s (2009) civil rights discussion centers on Gregory Orr’s complicated “Return to Haneyville,” which not only lays the ghost of his traumatic civil rights kidnapping in 1965 but is ultimately suffused with joy, “’Joy is my body’s primal response to the enormity of the gift it has been given—a whole life! A whole life was there waiting for me the day I left this town’” (ED 12/17/15).”
As was observed by Colin Rafferty, Chelsea Biondolillo, Brian Oliu, Christopher Cokinos, and Joni Tevis during AWP’s 2015 panel “Everyday Oddities: Natural Facts and the Lyric Essay”: “the lyric essay is deeply under theorized.”