"I’m not convinced that the questions that have been raised for me by the writing I love the most could be answered by the authors themselves." -- Eula Biss
Eula Biss, a 2012 NEA Literature Fellow, is so much more than a writer. Perhaps calling her a modern-day Cassandra comes closest to evoking the insightfulness of her creative work, except that instead of showing us the future, she spotlights uncomfortable confluences in the present-day, such as the early proliferation of telephone poles used both as a communications tool and as a platform for lynching African Americans. As Marion Wyce noted of Biss's most recent essay collection, Notes from No Man's Land: American Essays, in the Literary Review, "Biss’s undertaking, then, is to lead us into no man’s land by uncovering how we’re already there." Biss herself describes her work as being concerned with "what it means to lead a good life. 'Good' in the sense of rewarding or fulfilling, but also in the moral sense." For her work, Biss has garnered a Guggenheim Fellowship, as well as the Graywolf Press Nonfiction Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award for Criticism. Her essays have also appeared in The Believer, Gulf Coast, Harper's, and Best American Nonrequired Reading. This weekend, she will appear in the NEA pavilion at the National Book Festival as part of a panel on nonfiction writing with Paul Auster. We spoke with Biss by e-mail to find out how she got her start, who's in her "family tree of writers," and why literature matters.
NEA: What do you remember as your earliest experience of art?
EULA BISS: My mother wrote poetry when I was young--I have an early memory of the sound of her typewriter--and my father told me inventive bedtime stories. He also played the banjo, and my mother eventually became a sculptor as well as a writer. Art making was part of my daily life from a very young age and I still love that kind of everyday art making. Right now, for example, my neighbor Arthur is practicing his saxophone and I am listening to him play--that is the music of my afternoon.
NEA: What was your path to becoming a professional writer?
BISS: I had already drafted the manuscript that would become my first book by the time I graduated from college, but I had no idea what to do with it. The next decade--all of my twenties--was spent finding my place as a writer. For all those years I worked just enough to pay my rent and traded everything I could trade--health insurance, financial security, travel and adventure--for the time to write. I found a great community of fellow writers in New York, and then later in Iowa City. The editors at Hanging Loose, who were the first editors to notice my poems, also published my first book. That gave me the encouragement I needed to keep writing, though it would be another ten years before I felt that I had established myself as a writer.
NEA: Who’s in your family tree as a writer?
BISS: I feel a close kinship with James Baldwin and Joan Didion. William Carlos Williams and Adrienne Rich are more distant relatives. Anne Carson, Geoff Dyer, Marilynne Robinson, and Rebecca Solnit are like dear aunts and uncles. And I have a large, far-flung family of contemporaries--Amy Leach, Maggie Nelson, Sarah Manguso, John Jeremiah Sullivan, Claudia Rankine, Lia Purpura, Leslie Jamison, and so many others.
NEA: How do you define creative nonfiction? How do you describe your art practice?
BISS: I try to avoid defining it, and I’m fairly bad at describing my practice. I would like for the work I’ve produced to be my description, but I know that’s unwieldy. I guess I could say that I pursue questions that interest me in ways that interest me on the page, but that’s awfully vague. Phillip Lopate once wrote that part of the pleasure of reading a personal essay is the pleasure of watching a well-stocked mind grapple with whatever question or problem it encounters. That’s also the best description I can think of for my practice--my essays begin with a problem or a question that I must return to, and they grow as I learn more and think more and the question becomes more complicated.
NEA: Do you see yourself returning to a similar set of questions with each project?
BISS: I think there is a preoccupation, in all three of my books, with what it means to lead a good life. “Good” in the sense of rewarding or fulfilling, but also in the moral sense. My first book was concerned with marriage, my second with race, and this third book is concerned with health, but the question of what constitutes a good life is there in all of them.
NEA: The subtitle of Notes from No Man's Land is "American Essays." What is an American essay? What does it look like or contain? What doesn't it contain?
BISS: Notes from No Man’s Land moves across the American landscape, as I did in my twenties, from the East Coast to the West Coast to the Midwest. The essays are American essays in part because they are drawn from this landscape, and are in conversation with the particular cities and towns and neighborhoods that inspired them. They are also American essays because they are about race and racial identity in this country. The intricacies of racial identity in America are unique to this place and have a unique history.
NEA: What do you wish creative nonfiction writers were talking about more as a field?
BISS: One of the things I appreciate about nonfiction is that the field is so wonderfully wide and various that if you find the conversation lacking in one area, you are likely to be able to find a more interesting conversation elsewhere. I, for one, am quickly bored by conversations about the genre itself. Perhaps we should talk more about what we’re talking about? I am endlessly interested in the subject matter of the writers around me--here is Claudia Rankine writing about what it means to be a citizen, here is Amy Leach on the glories of the natural world, here is Sarah Manguso on the suicide of a friend, here is Maggie Nelson on being free, here is John Bresland on brutalist architecture, here is David Trinidad on Peyton Place, here is Rachel Webster on death, here is Brian Bouldrey on resurrection, here is Suzanne Buffam on pillows. Pillows!
NEA: If you could have five minutes with one writer and ask one question, who would it be, and what would you ask?
BISS: I rarely feel compelled in this direction--I mean putting the question to the writer rather than the work. And I’m not convinced that the questions that have been raised for me by the writing I love the most could be answered by the authors themselves. I once experienced a disconcerting moment when I was teaching a poem by Robyn Schiff, who is a very close friend of mine. As I read the poem aloud to my students I began to cry, not just because I was moved by the incredible artistry of the poem, which I was, but also because I had the sense that no matter how well I knew Robyn I would only ever encounter the part of her that made that poem through the poem itself. I felt, in that moment, very fortunate to have the writing of my friend as a way into her mysteries, not vice versa.
NEA: Fill in the blank: Literature matters because....
BISS: It does.
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