In the second installment of her series of interviews with women who write nonfiction, E.B. Bartels converses with historian and journalist Andie Tucher.
Andie Tucher is the author of Happily Sometimes After: Discovering Stories From Twelve Generations of an American Family and Froth and Scum: Truth, Beauty, Goodness, and the Ax Murder in America’s First Mass Medium, which was the winner of the Allan Nevins Prize from the Society of American Historians. She served as a speechwriter for Clinton/Gore ’92, an editorial associate to Bill Moyers at Public Affairs Television, and an editorial producer of the ABC News documentary series The Twentieth Century. She currently teaches in the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia University.
EB: What drew you to writing nonfiction?
AT: It sounds odd to say I write nonfiction because I am fascinated by the stories people tell about their lives, but those stories––especially the ones told by ordinary people who don’t have access to the traditional channels of communication or power––have been the focus of my work as both a journalist and a historian. Societies as well as people create stories to explain things to themselves and others––perhaps the way things are, perhaps the way they aren’t. And even if the stories include inventions, distortions, or embellishments, they are always in the service of some truth important to the teller. I explore those truths. So: I write nonfiction about a kind of nonfiction! Besides, I’ve never been able to invent anything that’s half as interesting as the world that’s already here.
EB: Does being a woman have anything to do with your desire to write nonfiction?
AT: When I was growing up, if you were a girl and you loved books, of course you wanted to be a novelist, or a poet, or maybe a dramatist. No girl I knew dreamt of the day she’d publish her first nonfiction, and it seemed almost perverse to be interested in something that named itself after everything it was not. I think the perverseness is what first appealed to me and what eventually led to my fascination with the volatile boundaries between the “non” and the otherwise.
EB: What do you feel makes your nonfiction uniquely your own?
AT: Everything I write is informed by the ideas, voices, inspirations, arguments, graces, and griefs I have encountered in the thousands of books I have read—devoured—since the days when I taught myself to read on my own.
EB: When did you become interested in writing books yourself?
AT: I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t. I think my first book was a sequel to our “Sally, Dick, and Jane” primer, in which they all go to the circus and almost get eaten by a lion. It was intoxicating to realize I had as much power as any grown-up author to direct the fates of those poor, hopelessly dull siblings, though I did allow myself to show them mercy in the end.
EB: What are the challenges of writing nonfiction as a woman?
AT: At times it’s been very hard to stake out a place as a woman historian rather than a women’s historian—as a scholar who happens to be a woman, I mean, rather than a scholar expected to write about women. When I was in graduate school the pressure was very strong on female students to make up for all those decades of having been left out of the standard histories by spending all our time and energy putting ourselves back in. Of course historians must strive to tell an inclusive story, but for me that means taking a wider angle of vision, not confining myself to a different corner.
EB: Which women historians—or women’s historians—have served as your role models?
AT: One of the first books I read as a historian-in-training that made me think “Yes, I want to do that!” was Natalie Zemon Davis’s Return of Martin Guerre, a brilliant mining of archival sources to explore a complicated, multilayered case of imposture in sixteenth-century France. She knows how to hear the stories of ordinary people long gone.
EB: Do you have a favorite passage of nonfiction by a woman writer?
AT: From One Writer’s Beginnings, by Eudora Welty: “Mrs. McWillie never scared us into grammar, of course. It was my first-year Latin teacher in high school who made me discover I’d fallen in love with it. It took Latin to thrust me into bona fide alliance with words in their true meaning. Learning Latin (once I was free of Caesar) fed my love for words upon words, words in continuation and modification, and the beautiful, sober, accretion of a sentence. I could see the achieved sentence finally standing there, as real, intact, and built to stay as the Mississippi State Capitol at the top of my street, where I could walk through it on my way to school and hear underfoot the echo of its marble floor, and over me the bell of its rotunda.”
– E.B. Bartels is from Massachusetts and writes nonfiction. Her work has appeared in The Toast, The Butter, xoJane, The Rumpus, Ploughshares, and the anthology The Places We’ve Been: Field Reports from Travelers Under 35, among others. E.B. has an MFA from Columbia University, and she runs an interview series on Fiction Advocate called “Non-Fiction by Non-Men.” You can visit her website at www.ebbartels.com, see her tweets at @eb_bartels, and read her haikus about strangers’ dogs at ebbartels.wordpress.com.