Congrats on publishing your first book, The Electric Woman: A Memoir in Death Defying Acts. How exciting! It must be wild to walk down the street and have people recognize you and take pictures with you and stuff!
That’s never happened.
Hm. Even when you stand in a bookstore and hold the book up in front of your head so a passerby can see that your face matches the face on the back of the jacket?
Right. Not then either.
I guess I’ll change my line of questioning, then.
WHY did you write this?
That’s more like it. I felt like a starving, razor-clawed monster was living inside my body, flicking my heart so it raced and tearing at my guts to get out. I’d never felt that before, that obsessive, relentless drive to tell a particular story. At first, I hope the book could be a distanced, journalistic account of America’s last traveling sideshow, but the monster living in me disagreed. The sideshow was inexorably tied up with the story of my mom’s long illness—she suffered a massive stroke that left her permanently unable to speak or walk—and watching her suffer, trying to help, failing to help, rethinking the risk we choose for our bodies, all of that was part of my sideshow story. That’s one of the things that struck me so much about the sideshow, that there were these extraordinary performers choosing to do dangerous acts and assume risk over and over again, acts that are sometimes painful—and how surprisingly parallel that was with the way my mom had to suffer in her various therapies as she worked so hard to try to recover, and then chose to suffer as she and my stepdad decided to take a long-delayed trip around the world, from which nobody thought they’d return. That suffering was necessary for the eventual wonder.
Why DID you write this?
Did means the writing of it is past, and while that is true, it is also not entirely right. In some ways, I don’t remember writing The Electric Woman—I know I did, obsessively, for two and a half years, and yet there are only a few shimmering moments of writing I remember, those rare unicorn experiences where a section comes out almost fully formed, as close as I have ever gotten to what people mean when they’ve captured the muse. But where are all the other memories of writing it, all those hours at the desk/couch/in bed/in a coffee shop/scribbling something on the back of a receipt while I’m in an airport bathroom? If they happened in the past, why aren’t they stored in my memory? Maybe writing occurs outside linear time. Though the book is now published and past the point where I’m allowed to make edits, I am still thinking about experiences I recount in the book, and the way I recount them, and why. Did I do a fair enough job? Would I recount them in the same way now? Why did I include that dull sentence? Why didn’t I remember that rain created suction in the tent stake holes? I think it would be interesting if a writer could edit and rerelease their book every few years. Not interesting to readers, probably, and a real nightmare for publishers, but certainly interesting to think about how a writer would choose to tell the same story differently over the course of their life. Though there’s an idea that we all just write our same obsessive story again and again. And maybe I’m already doing that. The novel I’m working on now has some parallel obsessions. Shit.
Why did YOU write this?
Although it’s a memoir, I think the book is mostly about other people: my mom & stepdad, and the sideshow performers. I am the physical connection point between those stories, but it was through watching their bodies, through understanding the historical context of sideshow performers who came before, and trying to understand who my mom was when she was a young woman and when I was young—the ways I’d misinterpreted her, perhaps—that the stories felt impossible to separate. We are each capable of writing our own exact stories. That’s the loveliest thing about teaching—the privilege of watching people find ways to tell theirs. But to get back to the question—I doubted myself a lot. Though I was made to write by my nasty internal monster, I was often not sure if a certain story was mine to tell. Would my sharing this particular story, I’d wonder, bring harm to this person? Did this person know I was taking daily notes? Is this little anecdote necessary for the larger story? And though those questions were anxiety-producing, I think they’re a necessary part of the process. To be an ethical writer, especially of nonfiction, questions of voice and agency are constant companions.
Why did you WRITE this?
Ok, ok, I’d love for this to have been a painting. Or TV show. Or graphic novel. Or poem. Or Broadway musical. Or movie. Or podcast. Or radio drama. Or series of greeting cards. If I’d had the skills to transform the medium in a way that better suited the story, boy howdy, I sure would have. But I don’t know how to sing opera, or paint with watercolors, or make Claymation well enough to tell the story. So, I wrote the damn thing.
Why did you write THIS?
UGH. I really tried not to! I wanted to write comedic stories about animals, like David Sedaris. Writing should be fun, I think sometimes, wiping tears from my cheeks and wine from my chin. But what writing should also be is married to obsession. I like to think about writing in terms of obsession, because the things we’re genuinely interested in, delighted by, the threads we tug and tug reflect our particular way of thinking—and that is one of the things that makes reading so exciting. An example is Amy Leach’s book of essays, Things That Are, which my friend Nate described to me as “nature essays on acid.” It’s perfect. Each little essay follows a series of acrobatic leaps of logic that make each sentence feel surprising and delightful, so the pleasure in reading comes not just from the subject matter, but also from the way we follow Leach’s logic between ideas as she connects disparate objects we’d have never put together ourselves. Years before I began writing The Electric Woman, before I even knew the sideshow I’d eventually join, the World of Wonders, existed, I was obsessed with sideshows. My stepdad told me stories about a very early friendship he had with a retired sideshow performer, a little person, whose mother had been a bearded lady. I had no idea what path would unfold when I started doing my own research, even when I joined the show. But I followed my obsession. My mom’s stroke and suffering was another obsession. It was a very hard, very painful obsession that was a big part of my daily life. Nothing I wrote could be separated from it, because it was the defining lens of my experience. But maybe a few projects down the line, I’ll get to those comedic animal stories.
Can you do a cartwheel?
No. Why would you bring that up?
TESSA FONTAINE is the author of The Electric Woman: A Memoir in Death-Defying Acts, a Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers pick, Amazon Editors’ Best Books of 2018 so far, New York Times Editor’s pick, and more. Other work can be found or is forthcoming in Glamour, The Believer, LitHub, FSG’s Works in Progress, Creative Nonfiction, The Rumpus, and other fine publications. She won the 2016 AWP Intro Award in Nonfiction, and has taught for the New York Times summer journeys, at the Universities of Alabama and Utah, in prisons in Alabama and Utah, and founded a Salt Lake City Writers in the Schools program. She lives with her fella and her fine pup in South Carolina.