Jo Ann Beard is a straight genius when it comes to observing and rendering observations with a twist. In Festival Days, her recent collection of essays and stories, skinny, Upper-East-Side trees are “scrawny and impervious, like invalid aunts”; an electrical cord catching fire is a “sprig of cloth-wrapped wire [that] sizzled and then opened, like a blossom.” Beard won lifetime fans with her 1998 nonfiction debut, The Boys of My Youth. It included “The Fourth State of Matter,” which ran in The New Yorker and managed to be about many disparate things: a mass shooting, friendship, divorce, plasma of both blood and space, dogs (“The dogs are being mild-mannered and charming; I nudge the collie with my foot. ‘Wake up and smell zee bacons,’ I say”). It’s hilarious and tragic and often lands on writers’ lists of favorite essays.
In Festival Days, Beard returns with her immersive, high-stakes storytelling. “Cheri” follows a terminally ill woman who obtains the services Dr. Kevorkian. Small, striking details set the scene—the light through the “parchment lampshades” of a cat’s ears, train tracks “unspooling like a grosgrain ribbon.” Beard illuminates what’s essential about her subjects; Cheri, sick as she is, registers others’ kindness: “She reels from it sometimes, the mute commiseration, the gestures of support and assistance so subtle she barely recognizes them as such.” In other essays, there’s a battle royal among ducks, coyotes, and weasels, written with Annie Dillard-esque love and attention. We read about the crappiness of ex-husbands, the salvation of friendship. All are threaded with a killer sense of humor (“‘We discussed you.’ ‘You don’t disgust me.’”) and a continual ability to delight.
Beard teaches at Sarah Lawrence College’s MFA program, where I studied with her in the early 2000s. The Millions talked with her about how she’s doing, her great love of tobacco, and mycological wonders.
The Millions: Animals—whether it’s a dog with an “aging dog-actress face” and “long glamorous ears,” or a horse who “noticed for the millionth time how small his stall was compared to how large the world,” or the starving, holy cows of India who “may not get eaten but they also don’t get fed”—play starring and supporting roles in Festival Days. How do animals find their way into your work, and what do they bring to a story?
Jo Ann Beard: Well, we live alongside them. Whether it’s domesticated animals we have curled up on our sofas, or the squirrels who move the nuts around between the trees that shade our houses, or the cattle who are forced to graze on our public lands or wander India’s busy streets, or the carriage horses whose lives are made up of endless trudging and standing, or the birds who flit or the bats who soar or the feral cat I’m watching right now out my studio window—a thickly furred yellow striped one who is barely more than a kitten but a ferocious one. I saw her stalking a wood duck out in the wetlands. The wood duck looks like a decoy of itself, but she’s half-starved and was all focus. It was a terrible thing to see; no positive outcome possible. The duck got away, of course, it wasn’t going near the reeds, and so she continued starving. You might suggest that I feed her but I can’t, because one of my dogs thinks of cats the way the cat thinks of a wood duck. So, I guess animals find their way into my work because they find their way into my life. Even if it’s just a scrabbling sound in my walls, or a yellow blur way out there, stepping quietly through the reeds, trying not to splash.
TM: In your essay “Werner,” the scenes describing Werner Hoeflich’s plight—he’s trapped in a building that’s quickly going up in flames—are mesmerizing: “With this nearsighted, close-up view, he could see smoke curling up through the floorboards, black specks inside the tendrils like a flock of birds banking and moving together.” How did you learn about Werner, and what were the unique considerations of telling his story?
JAB: The unique consideration wasn’t the story on the surface—for all its dire nature, it was a fairly simple narrative—but the underlying story. About what it means to discover that death can be stalking us even while we are safely asleep in our beds, that there’s nothing we can do to avoid the randomness of a fire that breaks out deep in the walls. You can live your life as an artist, devoted to your work, and to the catering jobs that keep you afloat, but like the wood duck bobbing on the water, there could be a striped cat somewhere right beyond your view, and the cat might be hungry enough to get her paws wet just this one time.
TM: You told The New York Times that “every page of Merlin Sheldrake’s Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change our Minds & Shape Our Futures had something moving and new for me.” As a member of the New York Mycological Society, I was happy to see you were also entranced by Sheldrake’s work! What was something in his book that especially moved you?
JAB: I listened to the author read the book last summer. His voice was the perfect narration for the walks I was taking through the woods, nine hours over nine days, with me inside the invisible network of fungi. I spend so much time feeling like we’re all inside the Matrix, due to the fact that we are living these muted online lives. When you’re in the woods, you’re not only walking through the mycelial network, but you’re inside the overlapping network of the trees as well. All these separate-same beings communicating with one another through chemistry instead of words, while I was listening to Merlin’s words. I call him Merlin not because I know him, but because I love him, and because he’s a wizard.
TM: In Festival Days, you thank weed, which I thought was funny. Do you have any interest in talking about that? Maybe in light of New York’s recent legalization of cannabis?
JAB: Well, my version of weed—not in the essay, but in real life—would be tobacco. Some people, especially now that it’s legalized and artisanal, are becoming dependent on THC to get them through their days. I say, as a former cigarette smoker, you all have a long way to go before you can compete with tobacco. The best feeling I have ever had in my life, bar none, is waking up early, making a cup of coffee, and going out into the field to sit on the splintery Adirondack chair and have the first brain-whirling cigarette of the day. Such a feeling. Euphoria combined with vague nausea and self-hatred. I would give almost anything to have it again. Except my life, I suppose.
TM: You refer to Jonathan Franzen as your “imaginary friend,” and I think you, more than most writers, cultivate a sort of friendship with your readers.
JAB: I think a good book is always a good friend—when I’m reading something I like, especially a good long book like Franzen writes, I feel a kind of deep companionship. Not with the author but with the story and the characters and perhaps a little bit with the actual object and its cover, which sometimes includes the author’s face. When you’re slogging through your day, imagining what else is to come, and you remember that the minute all else is done you can sink down into your book like warm water, and be absorbed while you’re absorbing, is priceless, as they say in capitalism.
TM: Lawrence Weschler has said that he uses blocks to sort out the structure for his work. How do you create the structure for your writing?
JAB: The structure comes from the story, I’m pretty sure, not the reverse. I’m not aware of how it works, to be completely honest, and I like to maintain the sense of mystery whenever I can so I don’t analyze my own work if I can help it.
TM: You’ve got a big, loyal fan base. I’m sure many of them want to know how you’re doing, what’s going on with you, and your current dog/animal situation.
JAB: I have two dogs, Beatrice and Jet, both of them in late middle age and both of them looking at me right now. They have acres to run around in, but all they want is for me to take down the leashes so they can walk through the woods. I like to imagine they can hear the chorus of fungi and trees as loudly as I hear the spring peepers. Actually that last sentence was just writing, it isn’t really true. But what is true is that once a duck came flapping across our woods path—full disclosure, this was a while back and two whole other dogs—with a broken wing. Only not, it turned out: as the dogs tore off after it, I saw that it was leading them away from a nest. Chicks running every which way and the dogs never figured it out and never caught the mother. There have been other hysterical occurrences in the woods but they all involved me and my nemesis, the garter snake.