The Spark is in What You Make of It: Interview with Joni Tevis
By Adam Kullberg
About Author Joni Tevis
Joni Tevis was born in Logan County, Ohio, and at five years old moved to upstate South Carolina, where she spent her childhood in the shadow of the Blue Ridge Mountains, surrounded by white, shortleaf, and Virginia pines. She attended Florida State University, where she planned to study music and become a band director. As an undergraduate student, however, she found herself drawn toward the liberal arts. After graduating with degrees in English and history in 1998, she was accepted into the University of Houston as a Master of Fine Arts (MFA) student in poetry and nonfiction. While at Houston, she spent her summers taking odd jobs, including short stints as a cemetery plot seller in Houston and a seasonal park ranger in South Carolina, Georgia, and central Oregon.
After receiving her MFA, Tevis continued on at the University of Houston to earn a Ph.D. in creative writing and literature. In 2003, she moved to Minneapolis, where she served as the Edelstein-Keller Discovery Fellow at the University of Minnesota’s Creative Writing Program and later, in 2006, was awarded the Minnesota State Arts Board Artist Initiative Grant. She credits these awards for providing her the support she needed to complete her debut book, The Wet Collection, which was released by Milkweed Editions in 2007 and re-released as a paperback in 2012. A finalist for the Minnesota Book Award and the Ohioana Book Award, The Wet Collection—a collection of 40 “stunning and intricate” lyric essays that interweave religion, memory, nature, women’s history, wry humor, found objects, and art—has been lauded by reviewers as “superb,” “innovative,” “deeply satisfying,” and “exquisite.”
After four years in Minnesota, Tevis relocated to North Carolina, where she spent a year as the Kenan Visiting Writer at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. In 2008 she moved to Greenville, South Carolina, where she currently teaches literature and creative writing at Furman University.
Tevis’s essays have been published or are forthcoming in a variety of journals and anthologies, including Orion, Fourth River, Oxford American, Shenandoah, DIAGRAM, The Bellingham Review, Barrelhouse, AGNI, North Dakota Quarterly, and Conjunctions. She is also a regular contributor of short essays for Your Day, a noontime program produced by Clemson University for SC ETV Radio.
Adam Kullberg: You have a lot of natural images and motifs throughout The Wet Collection—bodies of water, animals, the desert, for example—and at one point you say, “In the bad drought year I prayed for this: The violence of rain, to be alone in the wilderness when everything came crashing down.” Do you consider yourself a kind of “new” nature writer? Or how does the natural world influence the way you see memories, your subjective and objective sense of history? How does it affect your work?
Joni Tevis: I’ve always kind of resisted that term, “nature writer.” And maybe it’s not fair of me to do that. But I think people—and I’ve done this too—often think of nature writing as being kind of static and staid and old. And it doesn’t have to be. It really doesn’t have to be.
I have always liked going for hikes, going outside, thinking about what I’ll find there. I like looking for stuff. And although “nature writing” is kind of the soil that I’m growing from, I’d hope to be an essayist—and not necessarily just a nature essayist. Which is no knock off the exciting things people are doing now.
Adam Kullberg: Can you talk a little about where your inspiration for The Wet Collection came from?
Joni Tevis: It was really one piece at a time. The title essay came because I got to go to the actual wet collection at a museum in St. Paul, and I was fascinated with this image of dead things in jars. I had seen something similar at a state park in my childhood—just a couple mayonnaise jars with dead snakes in them—and I was always captivated by this memory because it’s awful, yet you want to look at it closely, and so this was an image that I’d been chewing over for a long time.
And then, when I was able to get to the Science Museum of Minnesota in St. Paul and see how people can extrapolate a whole world given this one little sample from one specimen, I worked and worked on that essay and it became the organizing principle of the book.
Adam Kullberg: Did you have any specific audience in mind when you were writing The Wet Collection?
Joni Tevis: I wrote it for me. And then if other people wanted to read it, great.
Adam Kullberg: Much of your collection deals with how and why we keep memories alive, and what we do with those memories, even if they’re not our own. In The Wet Collection, you have a lot of examples where you’re recreating, or reimagining, scenes that are based on real historical people and real occurrences. How much research do you do, and what kinds of research, to feel comfortable retelling a memory or a historical moment? And how do you know when to stop?
Joni Tevis: Well, for my first book, I wanted to expand my notion of what research was. So I would go and do these experiences with the idea that I would write about them. For example, becoming a park ranger—I did that in three different state parks: one in South Carolina, one in Georgia, and in Oregon. And I went just kind of hoping to see what would come of it. Not to mention it was my summer job, and got me out of Houston for a while during the worst part of the summer.
“Building a Funeral,” the cemetery essay, was also like that: I took a job with the idea of writing about it. And then, based on that body of immersive research and those details I got while being somewhere, I could track down things I didn’t know and do more traditional research to fill it out.
And as far as knowing when you’re done, that’s hard. But I think you just know it. Like, once you’re able to put it to bed in some way for your own self. It was like that for me in the essay about my granddad, “Beyond the Wilderness.” He died suddenly, and it was something that had always been a story in my family, so I had thought about it and gnawed it over for years. And when I finished the essay, got it where I wanted it, I thought: I’ve been able to make my peace with this event, finally.
Adam Kullberg: Do you feel like, when you conduct research, it takes time to digest that kind of information and write about it? Or do you write something and apply the research after the fact?
Joni Tevis: Both. First, because I really like revision—I mean, I’ll revise something 40 times. But I’ll also start with some little facet of something that’s interesting to me, try to get that down, and just see where it all goes. And then, later, I’ll go back and impose some kind of form or shape on it.
Adam Kullberg: Do you have certain overall themes, images, or a “big picture” in mind as you write?
Joni Tevis: For me, it’s important to not have too much of an arc in mind for a long time. I just write about whatever thing I’m obsessed with and eventually the arc emerges. I discover it as I go.
Adam Kullberg: You keep this great balance in The Wet Collection between modern and historical discussions, the technological and the natural. How do you keep that balance? And do you think about it as you write?
Joni Tevis: Talk to me about the technology you see in the book.
Adam Kullberg: I guess I’m thinking of the specimens kept in the jars—preservation, maybe, more artificial techniques and technologies we use to keep these things alive, different from how they would exist in the natural world.
Joni Tevis: Well, it’s hard because when you see something like a dead snake in a jar, or a bird in a dry collection when they pull it out from the shelf, it’s clearly dead. But there’s also something about it. You can hold it, turn it over in your hands, you can examine it very closely, and from that recreate a life. But the spark is gone. The spark now is in what you make of it.
Adam Kullberg: I like that idea of keeping the “spark” alive by finding a way to take ownership, or at least acknowledge, the histories that come before us. One of my favorite quotes from your book is, “Exile is a condition of the redeemed life. Remember: You find what you look for; when presented with a fragment, fit a builded life to it.” When or why did you decide to compose The Wet Collection in fragments, or short pieces, and how is the process of writing short nonfiction different for you than longer essays?
Joni Tevis: I really don’t think there’s all that much difference, for me, between the two. Sometimes you write a fragment that feels like it stands alone, and then sometimes, like with my Buddy Holly essay,a fragment seems like it needs to be braided with others.
For example, originally, in that piece, I had tried to write about hula-hooping. That’s one place where I started. And at the time I didn’t realize this was a 50s fad—I thought maybe it was, but I hadn’t yet put it together—and then I had this Buddy Holly story that had always fascinated me. But it wasn’t until I put Buddy Holly and the hula-hooping with the viewmaster that everything clicked for me.
Adam Kullberg: Is there a point when you know to put the fragments together into a longer essay, or maybe in an ordered form, instead of separately titled essays?
Joni Tevis: That’s something I’ve always wondered about: How much connective tissue do you need between fragments, and does it sometimes hurt to put in that connective tissue? For me, I think if you write a short piece and it feels slight, just a one-note thing, then maybe the time has come to either look at it more closely and see where the spark, the dynamic, is in it, or to ask yourself: Does this need to go with something else? Could this illustrate something bigger?
And, getting back to The Wet Collection, that’s why I liked including Joseph Cornell and his box constructions (“Ave Maria Grotto”). At the time I thought: Okay, what would happen if I put these two things that don’t seem to go together into one essay? If you get some juice off that, then you realize you’ve got one larger piece, and if not you can just take it back out.
Adam Kullberg: It seems like, with nonfiction especially, almost every choice made on the page is the narrator and the writer and the “I” working together, all at once—where everything a writer includes can operate as a sort of artistic instrument. Did you write The Wet Collection in fragments to convey something about your experience or specific themes?
Joni Tevis: Well, I’ve never really been able to write a straight story. I can see a part of something and a part of something else, and to me that’s more interesting than proceeding in a straight chronology. I think that’s why a lot of these started out as fragments.
Plus, personally, I’ve never been one to put too much of an “I” narrator into things. But I do think, particularly in nonfiction, a reader can appreciate that personal element by looking at what’s included—and what’s not included—in the final essay.
Adam Kullberg: What do you feel your main influences were—whether a literary journal, novel, memoir, collection—when writing The Wet Collection?
Joni Tevis: Well, when I was writingthe book, I was getting ready for my Ph.D. exams, so I was reading a lot of stuff. I was reading a lot of Southern environmental writing. A lot of American lit, you know, from 1700 on.
Adam Kullberg: What are you reading right now?
Joni Tevis: I’ve been reading a lot of Southern environmental lit, come to think of it. I like Orion a lot. And The Sun. I really like Lia Purpura’s new work—I like all of her work. It’s really good.
Adam Kullberg: I wonder if you feel like there’s a difference between Southern nature writing and nature writing you’ve experienced or read from other parts of America, the world?
Joni Tevis: Yes and no. The particulars are always going to be different.
It does feel very important to me now to write about South Carolina, especially the upstate, because we get overlooked sometimes. Not always, but sometimes. We have a lot of great people doing great work there, like John Lane, a Southern environmental writer. He publishes with University of Georgia and is great, great guy.
But usually people think of South Carolina and they think Charleston, which is several ecotones, and a four- to five-hour drive, away from us. And yet, upstate, we have these mountains, and we have these rare salamanders, and we have this rare endemic type of flower, the Oconee bell. We have our own unique environment and it seems important to celebrate that right now.
Adam Kullberg: What’s next for Joni Tevis?
Joni Tevis: Right now I’m working on a new essay collection which Milkweed is going to publish in the next year or so. The collection has to do with ghost towns, tourist traps, and atomic dread, and the pieces I’m still working on are what will fill out that arc. Because I grew up in South Carolina in the 80s, there was a lot of Cold War and apocalypse stuff on my mind all the time, partly because we went to a fundamentalist church, and there’s a lot of preaching about that, which hits you pretty hard. But it also seems very “now,” too, with all these “preppers” in the news. I can understand the appeal of it, honestly. There’s a part of me that loves to stockpile canned foods too. But then, when you really think about it, it’s so pointless. I call it the Las Vegas effect: The world’s going to end tomorrow, you might as well drink and gamble today.
I’ve also been researching caves for a course I’m teaching at Furman University. We’re reading Jose Saramago’s The Cave, and we just read The English Patient. I think caves really speak to this whole apocalyptic worry, too. Fallout shelter as cave. Cave of the Apocalypse. Actually, do you know about the Cave of the Apocalypse? It’s in Greece. In Patmos, a mile from where John the Revelator had his visions that became Revelation—according to legend. I mean, he only mentioned Patmos once in the book—“I John . . . was on the island of Patmos. . . .”—that’s all he says about Patmos. But I got a sabbatical and my husband, David, and I went there. And it was just this little cave. I mean, it’s very cozy, like a living room. A very cozy Cave of the Apocalypse. And in it you can see the three-part crack where supposedly the visions issued, and that spot’s shiny from millions of pilgrim touches over the years.
So I’ve been trying to get my head around that by reading a lot about caves and Revelation and people’s thoughts about Revelation, which you kind of have to be careful about, since it can get deep. The rabbit hole, you know.