Take an itinerant writer who’s worked as a cemetery plot saleswoman, a factory worker, and a park ranger. Join her for a rollicking ride around the country, around the world. Observe as she mines her fascination with abandoned places, with atomic dread, with the looming apocalypse of which her childhood pastors repeatedly prophesied.
Zigzag from a late gun baroness’s mansion to a desert town created expressly so it could be bombed, and from a man-made cave lined with fairy-tale dioramas on to demolition derbies, to shuttered textile mills and farmhouse auctions. Keep going. Settle into a soundtrack featuring the diverse stylings of Buddy Holly, Freddie Mercury, Liberace, Memphis Minnie, and Kansas Joe. Really tune into these sounds, these surrounding sights, their oft-forgotten voices and stories. Glean some of this writer’s Gandhi-portioned empathy, her sense of awe, her curiosities surrounding faith, decimation, loss, death, and infertility. Prepare to never view the world you live in, the places you go, in quite the same way.
This, anyway, was my experience of savoring The World is On Fire: Scrap, Treasure, and Songs of the Apocalypse (Milkweed Editions, May 2015), Joni Tevis’s second collection of lyric essays. With the linguistic flourish of a poet, the authority of a historian, the quirks of a professor, and the passion of a lifelong music-lover, Tevis wholeheartedly searches out the raison d’etre driving the diverse places, people, and concepts that fascinate her.
The result is twenty-one far-reaching essays that hit all the touch points—Tevis serves them up pithy and sprawling, dense and playful, intellectual and campy, ambitious and grounded. Each has the mark of an introspective thinker with a sharp sense of humor and a deep-seated respect for the historical, social, and geographical forces that make her subjects what they are. The reader is left with the distinct and pleasurable sense that within these pages, something weird and wonderful and necessary about our world is being preserved.
Because Tevis so deftly mines universal meaning out of wide-ranging topics, anyone who isn’t averse to thinking will be more than equipped to enjoy these essays. But Tevis’s mastery of the lyric and braided forms render her a must-read author for the many nonfiction scribes out there attempting to “go lyric,” or simply to better interweave narrative with imagery, with history, with anything. Being one among such experimenters myself, I was thrilled to get Joni Tevis on the phone. Tevis, whose motley career ultimately led to a position teaching literature and creative writing at South Carolina’s Furman University, graciously agreed to tell me how it’s done—how one cracks a nut of an essay idea, imbues it with the meaning, gives it shape, and finds its best form.
So many of these essays are based around your travels to bizarre, far-flung places—the Nevada Test Site, Rock City, the Sarah Winchester House, the Salton Sea, the Liberace Museum, Greece’s Cave of the Apocalypse, etc. How do you pick these places? Do you have any scouting criteria?
None at all. And there are plenty of places that I think will bear fruit, but then they don’t. If I do get an essay out of a visit, I generally don’t know what it’s really about until I’m back home and deep into the revision process. But I like to start from just a place of gut instinct, a subconscious tug to go somewhere. I didn’t know why I needed to go to the Salton Sea or to the Alaskan river I rafted down, just that those places held a charge for me. And if a place seems compelling or intriguing for whatever reason, I’ll just go there with an open heart and an open mind and take lots of notes. I eavesdrop on what people are saying and write down the bumper stickers I see. When I get home, I type up all those notes, and from there I see if I have any compelling research leads to work with. For instance, when I visited the Sarah Winchester house [the former San Jose, California home of gun baron William Wirt Winchester’s grieving and unstable widow], it was July of 2007 and I was just casting about. I thought it’d be this wacky place to check out. But as I walked through I thought, There’s something more here than just a tourist trap, which led to this book’s first essay, “What Looks Like Mad Disorder.” As far as I can manage, I try to approach all places without any preconceptions. I try to just go, and to be open and to question the place, but moreover, to question my own response to it.
Has a place ever surprised you? Been totally off-base from your expectations?
Yes! I thought the Cave of the Apocalypse in Greece [the basis of “The World Is On Fire: The Cave of the Apocalypse”] would be really spooky, but the cave was actually home-like and domestic—it could’ve been your living room, or a writing residency. It’s just a place, in a normal town where people are going about their lives. There are signs around town reading, “Cave of the Apocalypse … This Way,” so it was funny to see the apocalypse used directionally [laughs].
To what do you attribute your thematic fascination with the atomic age?
When I was writing the Rock City essay [“Beautiful Beyond Belief: Rock City and Other Fairy Tales of the Atomic Age”], I was teaching at UNC Chapel Hill, and I just loved browsing through the stacks at all the different university libraries. Once, when I was researching Rock City’s man-made grottoes, I saw this book sticking out of a shelf. It was The Day the Sun Rose Twice, about Oppenheimer and the Manhattan Project. The book was almost pornographic for me; it held this dark fascination. I couldn’t resist reading it, and I didn’t realize until I got deeply into it that when I was growing up, during the late Cold War, there were some moments, some moments between Reagan and Gorbachev in ’83 and ’84, when we came really close to annihilation. I think my present fascination stems from the fact that back then, I was watching the evening news with Dan Rather and really worrying about this stuff, but had no real way to get my head around it. I realized I’d always been fascinated and worried, but that it had kind of gone underground when the Cold War ended. It’s the danger of research—you never know what’s lurking around the corner [laughs].
You layer the atomic theme, and so many others, in such varied and unexpected ways—there’s the essay about Freddie Mercury and infertility, another about Rock City dioramas and bomb shelters, and then there’s Buddy Holly and the A-bomb, and Liberace’s concerts and the Nevada Test Site. Tell me about that Eureka! moment when you know you’ve landed on a great “braid.”
The research process is where those connections really come out. For instance, I’ve always loved Liberace, and I’d always wanted to write about his beautiful clothes. So that’s where my essay “Something Like the Fire” started—me just going to Vegas and trying to describe those clothes. It was a really fun exercise. But as I researched—a process that typically involves going through archival stuff and oral histories and old letters and catalogues and other ephemera—I noticed that more and more dates connected epic Liberace performances with simultaneous underground atomic testing explosions, which were happening just sixty miles north, in the Nevada desert. As soon as I made those connections, I knew something exciting was going to come out of it. And it wouldn’t have come out, if not for the traditional research component of my process.
The Salton Sea visit [recounted in the essay “Ten Years You Own It”] was the same way. I’d wanted to see it ever since reading Into the Wild, but the place itself was actually kinda one-note for me. But then when I began to investigate, I learned that dummy bombs had been dropped into the Salton Sea back in the forties! This is why I love nonfiction—the possibilities are endless. If you can take pieces of history and use them responsibly, it’s a good thing to do ethically—it keeps stuff from getting lost. On the other hand, it makes your work deeper, better. It’s another Crayola in your box.
Can you walk me through your research process?
I kind of self-taught, and I like for it to be an organic process. If I can find a useful book on something I’m investigating, I’ll read it and check out that person’s sources. I like using not only straight critical cultural histories, but also things like old catalogues—I recently researched using an old taxidermy catalogue. I also love old bound periodicals, and popular magazines. For instance, next to these articles about the exciting new atomic bomb, you’ll find ads for soap and beauty pageants and things like that. I also go to lots of jockey lots and flea markets and library archives. I’m sort of a research omnivore—I’ll look anywhere and everywhere.
Where does music come in? It’s such a recurrent theme in your essays. Are you a musician yourself?
Music definitely informs my writing process. I played the piano throughout my youth and still do. I also played the French horn throughout high school and college, and I thought that was going to be my life—I thought I’d become a band director. That could’ve been a great life, but then in college, English got me, so I started down this road, and ended up double-majoring in English and history. But still, I love music. It’s probably one of the art forms we’re most comfortable with; it just informs so much of our lives. We sing along to the radio without thinking about it. But if we investigate those songs that matter to us? That can be a rich vein of material.
Your essays are musical and lyric and immersive and historical and sometimes journalistic. I’ve never encountered work quite like yours. Who are your literary influences?
I so admire Melville’s Moby Dick. You can read it as a sort of immersive project, as Melville himself did serve on that ship, and as a long braid, too. It has a narrative structure, but it’s pretty short—Ahab wants to get the whale; that’s about all you have. But on that frame, you have all these great essayistic moments with Ishmael up there on the Pequod, just dreaming. In terms of actual essays, I love Annie Dillard. Anytime I reread “Total Eclipse,” I think to myself, This is why I wanted to get in this game. Along with beautiful, apocalyptic writing, you have these particular descriptions that really show the reader who Dillard is as a narrator—you get a sense of her through what she chooses to describe. I also love Anne Carson. I remember first reading Plainwater, and thinking, Okay, the horizon just moved back about three hundred miles for me, in terms of what the essay can do. Carson showed that the essay doesn’t have to be narrative, that you can use some other frame. She often used this journal shape, and then within those different boxes, she’d give you travelogue, Chinese wisdom, blues—all sorts of things. I also admire Amy Leach a lot. I love her use of language, and the sense of the narrator you get through her work.
As a reader, I felt totally guided by your trusted narrator. But most essays, even those hung on a narrative frame, are decidedly not about you. Is that a conscious decision?
Yes. For the most part I think about Annie Dillard—hers is a very creative, conscious narrator, but you don’t know everything about her. I usually tend to put myself closer to that end of the spectrum. But different essays call for different approaches—sometimes narratorial telling and revealing is necessary. In this book, I actually revealed more about myself than I ever had in the past. Take “Touch the Bones,” the essay about my miscarriage. I felt I needed to write it, and it wouldn’t have made much sense if you didn’t have a narrator there guiding you. That essay demanded a lot from me, narratively.
The essay about my struggles with infertility [“Somebody to Love”] was also difficult to write. I didn’t want that one to be plot-driven, didn’t want it to be determined by whether the various things I tried worked or not, didn’t want it to turn into Is the football team gonna win the big state championship? I wanted to offer some specifics of the experience without naming which interventions I tried—give a feel for the hypodermic needles, without saying specifically what I used. So, how to move the reader through the material? I ended up structuring it along the same framework as the titular Queen song itself, “Somebody to Love”—not that you have to know that for the essay to be successful. The piece, as I see it, starts off with an intro riff at the beginning, and then you get a bridge and a circle fifth progression close to the middle, when the essay gets very weird and very dark. And you eventually come back out of that and ramp up to a big, climactic finish—like the song. Not all of them have such thought-out shapes, but I thought that one really needed it.
Wow! So did you listen to “Somebody to Love” over and over again as you were writing the piece?
I’m not listening as I’m writing, but as I go through my writing space, I’m listening to a lot. All of this—going to weird places, listening to songs, research—it’s all for my own pleasure and enjoyment. When doing that nets enough material, I write it all out for myself, and revise if fifty times, and hope that someone else can get pleasure and enjoyment out of it—but I’m very selfish for the first 98% of the process. I love going places and just seeing what’s there. I love the particulars of any place I go, whether it’s here or elsewhere, because there’s always so much to see and do and unpack. Specifically the atomic stuff, which in a way is this well-kept secret. Once you know about it, though, you can’t stop knowing about it. I mean, we exploded over a thousand atomic devices sixty miles north of Vegas—it is staggering to me. Can you ever really apprehend it? Maybe not, but you can glancingly shed light on it. Once I knew about it, I just felt like I had to write about it.
I see what you mean about writing toward those topics that carry that charge for you.
I always try to find that place of heat, that little spark—whether that’s a literal place, or an image, or a question, or a moment in time, or an overheard conversation. Wherever that moment of heat is, that’s what I want to seek out. The first aspect is following that interest and that love and that passion—the meaning will come later.