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'Festival Days': Jo Ann Beard’s Collection of Nonfiction And Fiction Is Nothing But The Truth

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Jo Ann Beard
Franco Vogt
Jo Ann Beard

Acclaimed author Jo Ann Beard is known for her mesmeric storytelling. In her latest collection, Festival Days, she brings us nine stories. Most are based on real people and events and a couple are fiction, but the collection itself reveals again the author's ability to build a story that grabs us from the beginning and never lets us go. The questions of fiction versus nonfiction fade away and leave us remarkable stories.

Highlights from the Interview with Jo Ann Beard

On the story "Werner," based on a real person and the incredible things that happened to him

Werner is a painter, and I met him at an art colony where he had occasion when somebody asked a specific question at the dinner table to recount a story about something that had happened to him years ago, which is an experience he had when his apartment building caught fire. And he had to make his way out of the building. And I asked Werner if I could, somewhat like a journalist, write that story. And he gave me permission to do so.

So the essay "Werner" is about Werner's experience, but infused with another person's imaginings of what happened. That's the easiest way. I know how to say it. Werner being a painter, being a visual artist, had a really fine visual memory of what had happened to him. And I did sit with him like a journalist for a number of days running. And I asked him almost a second-by-second accounting of what had happened to him, and Werner had a great memory.

It was a pivotal event in his life. He was laid up for quite a long time afterwards, which I think gives you the opportunity to cement the memories. Like if you're just trapped in a bed thinking and thinking and thinking about what happened to you. He really could tell me every single thing that I asked him. And so we spent days going over the events of that fire, and then we spent more time going over separate events from his earlier life, just so that I had a more three-dimensional picture of who Werner was before the fire happened.

On her love of stories

So I love reading novels. I truly love the form of the essay, but there were many years when all I ever read were short stories. I consumed collections of short stories. I was the first in line to get them. So there's something about that short form and the intensity of it that I agree with you is the very best thing to read. I love it. And I never thought of myself as a short story writer. And actually the two stories in this collection are based on my own memory and experience, even though nobody ever came into my house and attacked me and I didn't hit anybody in the head with a shovel, but nevertheless, those stories feel really autobiographical to me. I think I just turn everything into fiction. And when I'm writing fiction I turn everything into nonfiction. So I don't know if that's just perversity on my part or what it is. I'm trying not to question it at this point. It's hard enough to get the work done, you know, without trying to put those kinds of parameters on it for myself.

On working through the pandemic

I haven't taught since May [2020], because I had an either well-timed or ill timed sabbatical this year. But I did teach last spring over Zoom. When I came back from spring break, we all had to retire to our homes. And it's terrible for the students because you get, like, if you're going to graduate school, if you're going to get your MFA, you get two years out of your life where you're going to focus on this thing and you're going to make new friends and you're going to engage in this community and then to have one of those years be one in which you can't leave your house and you can't commune with people in person is really tough. So we have to feel really bad for them. But the other thing I was going to say is that this year hasn't been...I mean, every single aspect of this year has been intense, not just the pandemic, but all kinds of crazy stuff has gone on this year. All kinds of, you know, life-defining changes have happened. And I just want to say along the way, I've been watching the news, constantly reading the news, being tuned into everything that's going on, hiding in my house like everybody else. But somehow over the course of the last year, I have not managed to write anything, anything...

It's a confession. What can I say? Like other people I know are making really prime use of this time, but I mean, because there are so many things to talk about also. But I just have felt more stillness and I mean, that stillness... I don't know what that means. I'm not still, I'm lazy. I'm like sitting in a chair, like a lump with my laptop, you know, every day doing things that are stupid, like playing Solitaire. Okay. So that's the truth, but that's the truth of it. Well, while people are out, you know, marching in the streets and I don't know, destroying the Capitol and going to the hospital with, you know, COVID, I'm sitting in a chair somewhere with my laptop on my lap, watching the world unfold in front of me instead of being engaged in it. So I'm trying to get better about that now that it's all over. I feel like I have to retrain myself how to engage in real life and not just in screen life.

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Yvette Benavides can be reached at bookpublic@tpr.org.