On Eating Fire, Following the Research Trail, And Enduring, Enduring, Enduring: A Q&A with Tessa Fontaine

 credit: Annie Agnone

credit: Annie Agnone

BJ Hollars

During my time at the University of Alabama, I had the pleasure of sharing the classroom with nonfiction writer Tessa Fontaine, whose debut memoir The Electric Woman, has received rave reviews from Kirkus Reviews, Publishers Weekly, Vogue, among many other venues.  Additionally, her book been named a New York Times Editor's pick, as well as a Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers pick.  Which is the long way of saying: I’ve got some pretty talented friends.  On October 19, Tessa will host the program “Recklessness, Obsession and Wild Abandon” as part of the Chippewa Valley Book Festival’s annual dinner at The Lismore Hotel.  Purchase your tickets here.

Read on to learn more about Tessa, her writing, and the books that inspired her own.

 BJ Hollars: In graduate school, your work explored an array of topics—from Alabama ghost stories of hoboes riding the rails to Jacques Cousteau.  Did your interest in immersive journalistic techniques, such as joining the last sideshow, seem like a natural progression, or were you spurred to action due to your mother's health issues?

 Tessa Fontaine: I love writing nonfiction because it gives me permission to follow the trail of something I find interesting as deep into the story as I can go. That's what I loved about those earlier nonfiction projects I was working on, and it's the same thing that prompted the beginning of my investigation into the sideshow. But I think my mom's illness—and her impending trip to Italy, from which I didn't think she'd return—that gave me the final push to actually join up with another life entirely. I didn't really know much about immersive journalism before that, but I was hungry to be swallowed by another world, since the one I knew seemed to be falling apart. 

BH: Over the years, I've regularly taught your essays with students, and they're always astonished by your bravery.  Specifically, your willingness to leave school to pursue a life wholly unknown to you.  Can you describe those first moments when you transitioned from graduate student to fire-eating bally girl?    

TF: The transition from graduate student to fire-eater wasn't immediate. In graduate school, you are valued for your brain, for what kinds of things you can think and write. In the sideshow, while quick wit and a fast tongue are important, the most fundamental skill was a physical ability to endure. So I found myself, in my first few days out with the sideshow, still trying to define myself and connect with people by how I could talk about myself, by my accomplishments. But there was always work to be done. Packing and scrubbing and eating fire. So I quickly adapted, understanding that the way to be valued out on the road is to eat fire with such confidence and allure that the audience can't help but buy tickets for the show inside. To work for hours putting up the circus tent without complaining that you're too tired, or the sun is too hot. It was a shifting of work values and skills, neither one better than the other, but a definite rearrangement. 

BH: In writing about learning to eat fire, you note, “The only way to do it is to do it,” adding later that “There is no trick.”  For me, this seems an apt metaphor for many of life's difficulties.  (Robert Frost's line "The only way out is through" also comes to mind.)  When grappling with the loss of your mother, did you find yourself experiencing a similar sentiment?  Does grief, too, transcend the notion of a trick?     

TF: I think grief absolutely transcends the notion of trick. In the face of a profound and sustained loss, as was happening with my mom for years, there's an understandable desire for things to change. For there to be some shift, some miracle, some departure. I came to understand why so many people find themselves alienated from their loved ones in the face of a long-term debilitating illness—choosing to be distanced. While my mom was sick, I kept waiting for something to change, and the heartbreaking and exhausting reality that she wasn't going to get better was almost impossible to accept. But ultimately, that's all there was to do. There was no trick, nothing to make it easier or faster. There was just this: endure, endure, endure.

BH: Some have compared your spirited prose and adventurous spirit to memoirist Cheryl Strayed's work, in particular, her bestselling book Wild.  Did Strayed's work—or the work of other writers—inform The Electric Woman? 

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TF: Yes! I love Cheryl Strayed's spirit and am honored to be compared to her. I think stories of people—especially women - doing physically amazing things are some of my favorites. I had a lot of other books open near me while I wrote The Electric Woman as well—Lidia Yuknavitch's memoir The Chronology of Water, Justin Torres' novel We the Animals, anything by Anne Carson, Jazz by Toni Morrison—I keep a pretty wide array of books open around me and imitate their prose as best I can. 

BH: What don't readers know about your book or your experience writing it?

TF: For me, writing is one of the greatest exercises in empathy. To write the characters in The Electric Woman, I had to think of them as both real human beings, and also characters, versions of the real people, since it's impossible to show all of who someone is. And to do that, as is necessary with a fictional character as well, you have to show all sides—the good, the bad, and the ugly. The lovely things they do and their flaws. I think it helped me become a better person— to have to think through a person's best sides as well as their mistakes. It created such a swell of empathy, and I'm very grateful for that.