Narrative 10

We caught up with Jo Ann Beard as she marks the publication of her new essay collection, Festival Days.

1. Who is your favorite character in fiction; your fave character in life?

It’s a tie in fiction between Meg, the mother in A Mother’s Kisses, and Stern of Stern, both by Bruce Jay Friedman and collected together in one book. I tried to read it on a plane once, and the person in the next seat said, “You are alarming me.” That’s when you know the book is good.

In life, I guess it would be David Sedaris, whose persona populates his own pieces to the point where I feel not only that I know him but that he knows me, and that we get along really well.

2. A line (that you or someone else wrote) that continues to inspire you?

I’m not going to overthink this one—the first thing that comes to mind is a scrap of lyric from a Joni Mitchell song: “Long blue shadows of the jackals / Are falling on a pay phone by the road.” The album it can be found on came out in 1991, back when you had to pull off the highway and enter a little glass hut to make a phone call, and long ago enough that it should be erased from the database. It’s still vivid for me because of the image it conjures and the feelings that emerge from the image. The loneliness of a pay phone makes you imagine who is or isn’t calling whom, the wild and sinister beauty of the shadows with their pricked ears, and the endless desert highway (in my mind it’s a desert) stretching neither toward something nor away from something. The highway as an emblem of stasis instead of movement. She’s a good writer.

3. The story, book, or poem you wish you could read again for the first time? What did it teach you?

Lorrie Moore’s “People Like That Are the Only People Here” startled and thrilled me, and taught me that fiction could fully encompass nonfiction, creating a psychological truth that exceeds both. I would like to experience again the last sentence for the first time.

4. What’s a writing day like for you?

Turn on Mac Freedom for eight hours, put the phone in the kitchen safe and set it for eight hours as well. Take a nap, wander around, stare out all the different windows, try to get the safe open, sit down, eventually get so bored that the mind begins to create its own thoughts and images and puts language to them. Then just keep going until the timer opens the safe.

5. Your cure for when the spirit flags?

Follow the plumy tail of a dog on a trail through the woods.

6. Ten words you use most on the page? In life?

All ten of the words on the page would be variations on I. So that’s not good at all, and must be swept away with a stiff broom. In life, same thing.

7. What’s your current obsession?

Death. That hasn’t changed since I was five.

8. What’s the most useful criticism you’ve ever received?

Someone of note, in the early days, called my work prolix. I had to look it up. It was useful not because I stopped being prolix, but because I realized that a writing teacher could be wrong.

9. What did you know at age twelve that you wish you hadn’t forgotten; and/or what do you know now that you wish you knew then?

I wish I could tell her that we aren’t supposed to know why we’re here, that we just live until we don’t live anymore, and we never get to know the meaning. Which sounds harsh, I know, but she wouldn’t have thought so. For her it would have been a relief.

10. To quote Auden, “O tell me the truth about love.” We’re all ears.

It’s a practice, like yoga or meditation or writing. The more you do it, the better you get.

Finally, is there a passage from Festival Days that you’d like to share with our readers?

From the title essay:

The fever-dream primary colors of this Arizona rental, purple and green and blue and red, and the American Indian rugs and Moroccan rugs and the determined ceramic tchotchkes glaring from every surface. I thought it was nightmarish at first and it reminded me of something but not until this morning sitting on the bed did I realize that it reminds me of the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. Staying there in India, with Kathy. How kind our driver was to her, ferrying us across the countryside and so carefully attending to her needs while Emma and I were basically green from dogs-getting-hit-by-cars phobia and hunger. Although Emma had thrown in the towel instantly on hunger and was glimpsed grabbing fruit (fruit!) and other inadvisables off the very first hotel’s buffet table, and when I tried to stop her, she snarled, “I have to eat these,” which startled us both into laughter and then of course she and Kathy, who ate everything because she was throwing up all the time anyway, got massively sick and I lay in my quiet elaborate bed with nets and gold tassels reading Jonathan Franzen on an e-reader and listened to them puking up watery goat guts and yogurt in stereo.

The day we arrived at the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, there was a big ornate plywood sign outside that said ALL ELDERLY ARE WELCOME and we were like, What the fuck, now this? But they remembered Kathy from a previous stay, the two young guys who ran it, and they loved her, and she walked with her canes while Emma carried her satchel and they showed us to our rooms, and I went into mine, where the guy had put the suitcase on the bed, and as I unzipped and opened it, a little gray mouse came from nowhere and jumped in. When I went to turn around and leave, I noticed on the floor—which was beautiful old cracked tile with a thick Moroccan-style rug, just like here in the Arizona desert—that there was a little toad I could have stepped on. I picked it up and carried it out to the patio. Then I went over to Kathy’s room and told her about the mouse but not the toad. I said, “Do you think I should tell Emma?” and she said, “No! You shouldn’t have told me!” and we fell into hysterical fits on her big lumpy bed, which probably had its own resident mouse.

She was adamant that we had to eat the hotel’s food because the two young guys—both married, both with children, both in graduate school—were really excited about making dinner for us, telling us all about the movie that had just filmed there and about how they were having townspeople come to entertain us, their only guests, with music. So all along I had been drinking Cokes out of the can and eating hotel food from room service—frozen egg rolls and pizzas that they microwaved for me—but now I had to really give in and let go. The meal they made was the best I’ve ever had in my life, little bowl after little bowl of delicious vegetarian dishes that we didn’t even try to identify, and they made it all, so varied and filled with fragrant spices, in a kitchen off the patio. Afterward some men from the town came and played music for us—Emma, the good sport, danced—and then they put us to bed.

I huddled under a bunch of exotic-marigold blankets that smelled like mice and incense, still reading Franzen, my imaginary friend, and suddenly blam, terrifying me, and then blam, terrifying me again and again. All night. A horse and I shared an ancient wall and every time he had a bad thought or noticed for the millionth time how small his stall was compared to how large the world was, he would send a hoof out and punish our wall.

Next morning I got up really early and it was beautiful outside, warm and everything blue and sort of ruined-looking, the little courtyard with its rusted wrought-iron table and broken clay pots and feral cats peeking out from the foliage, and I saw a narrow crooked set of steps and climbed up and stood on a crumbling balustrade and looked at the blue, blue sky and a flock of green, green parrots through the crumbling archways. When Kathy came out on her canes I said, “Hi, I’m up here,” and she who could not climb said, “Tell me what you see,” and I described everything because I could see the whole little town, all the backyards, and how some people had goats tied on their roofs and other odd and (to me) terrible little details. I was standing up there when Emma came out and I talked to her too.

Emma and I were so sad about Kathy and communicated it without speaking, and our sadness, our worry, and our silent understanding became like another person on the trip. While I was up there, after framing myself under a broken arch against the sky so Emma could take a picture of me, I wandered along the back edge and looked down and saw—holy shit—the open-air kitchen in which the guys had prepared our dinner the night before. It wouldn’t be possible to describe even for me, the describer, but it was as squalid and rudimentary as anything I have ever seen, and I called down to Emma, “You have to come up here,” and so she obliged by climbing the little stone steps and I pointed down at the kitchen and she had a mute, smiling conniption while Kathy gazed peacefully up at us from her iron table with the broken clay pot and its tattered pink geranium. The silent person between Emma and me was freaking out, but not us. We were perfectly calm. We had the kind of look on our faces that my sister had when the team of doctors told my young nephew that he had cancer and it might be a kind that little kids don’t recover from. He had refused to listen to them and stared only at his mom, whose eyes were fixed on the doctors, her expression not worried at all, smiling almost. When the doctors filed out, my sister said, “Okay, Aunt Jo Jo and I are going to the cafeteria for malts. What kind do you want?” And this little boy who refused to look at or trust the doctors but trusted his parents utterly said whatever he said, chocolate. And when we got down the hall, Linda fell like a tree.

I got sick later from that kitchen; that delicious incredible Indian food was full of microscopic critters my body hadn’t met before. This American Indian house here in the Arizona desert is full of critters too; in the yard is a small sign saying BEWARE OF SNAKES.

From the ruins up on top of that balustrade, Kathy down below in her rusted chair, and Emma with her phone, framing me under that ancient broken arch with nothing but blue sky around me—in that rare moment I got to be the higher power, looking down on mice and friends.