Eula Biss is the author of On Immunity: An Inoculation, which was named one of the 10 Best Books of 2014 by the New York Times Book Review, and Notes from No Man’s Land: American Essays, which won the National Book Critics Circle Award for criticism in 2010 and was the winner of the Graywolf Press Nonfiction Prize. Biss’s first book, The Balloonists, was published by Hanging Loose Press in 2002. She has been the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Howard Foundation Fellowship, an National Endowment for the Arts Literature Fellowship, and a Jaffe Writers’ Award. Her essays have appeared in The Believer, Harper’s, and The New York Times Magazine, among others. Biss holds a B.A. in nonfiction writing from Hampshire College and an M.F.A. in nonfiction writing from the University of Iowa. She teaches at Northwestern University and lives with her family in Evanston, Illinois.
BARTELS: How did you begin writing nonfiction?
BISS: I began writing nonfiction by writing poetry, which is nonfiction in the sense that it’s not fiction. I earned my undergraduate degree in nonfiction under the mentorship of three poets: Martin Espada, Deb Gorlin, and Paul Jenkins. I studied the tradition of prose poetry in college and I was writing what I called prose poetry by the time I graduated. I thought of myself as a poet, and my community was a community of poets—that hasn’t changed. My transition into writing essays was fairly organic. The prose poems I was writing gradually became longer and longer, and heavier on information. There’s a fine line, if there’s a line at all, between a 3,000-word autobiographical prose poem and a short personal essay.
BARTELS: I’ve heard your first book, The Balloonists, described as a book of poetry. But if the line is so fine, do you really see it in that genre?
BISS: The shelving designation of The Balloonists was poetry, but it was written in prose. And it got reviewed as both fiction and nonfiction in addition to poetry. Genre designation doesn’t matter very much to me, as a writer or a reader. I think genre is as much a lie as gender is. But I wear the clothes of a particular gender and, as a writer, I wear the clothes of nonfiction. I like how vast and messy and difficult to define the essay tradition is, and I have always been drawn, even in poetry, to information and argument. My relationship to information as an essayist is something like the poet’s relationship to received form—the imperative to be accurate in nonfiction can be a productive formal constraint, not unlike the imperative to work within fourteen lines in a sonnet or within seventeen syllables in a haiku.
BARTELS: So how did you decide to pursue an MFA in nonfiction as opposed to one in poetry?
BISS: The first time I applied to graduate schools I applied in poetry, despite the fact that all my work was in prose. By the time I applied again, I was applying to programs in nonfiction and programs that would allow me to move between genres.
BARTELS: Your ability to move between genres is something I admire about your writing. Your incredible book, On Immunity, seamlessly weaves together historical facts, cultural commentary, and your own personal story of becoming a new mother with an infant needing vaccines. How do you understand the different genres within nonfiction, and do you approach writing passages of researched nonfiction differently than you approach writing passages of personal nonfiction?
BISS: As a teacher, I sometimes talk about sub-genres of nonfiction as a pedagogical tool to help students think about certain features of the work we are studying, but I understand sub-genres, like genres, as false categories. There’s long-form journalism, for instance, that looks identical to personal essay. There’s memoir that is also art criticism. There’s literary criticism that is essentially memoir, sometimes unintentionally. I think of lived experience as a form of research, so I don’t treat passages that are drawn from lived experience differently than I treat passages that are drawn from other sorts of research.
BARTELS: I love the idea of lived experience as a form of research. Part of why I found On Immunity so compelling was how you wove your own experience into the book. What makes you decide to include or not to include your own story, and what do you think the role of the writer should be in a work of nonfiction?
BISS: My work in On Immunity was driven by an exploration of ideas, particularly ideas that I found difficult or vexing, and in each of the thirty sections of that book I had to determine what the best approach would be to the ideas that I was exploring in that section. There are many sections that I wrote and rewrote in several different ways. For instance, the section that talks explicitly about paternalism in medicine was initially a fairly abstract section that drew primarily on the work of various philosophers. I rewrote that section because the problem at the heart of paternalism still seemed remote and incompletely illuminated. When I rewrote it, the section became one of the more narrative sections in the book, a retelling of my experience of seeing my young child through surgery.
I think it’s a mistake to believe that any writer is not in her work. Think of all the painters who rarely painted self portraits but are, nonetheless, instantly identifiable by their sensibility. Cezanne, for instance. A writer’s assumptions, values, and preoccupations are always there on the page, with or without the first person.
BARTELS: I couldn’t agree more. I feel like it’s disingenuous for a writer to pretend that she is not present in her work, regardless of whether she is using the first person “I” or not. Though working to be aware of my own preconceived notions and assumptions is something I find challenging when I am writing. What has been challenging for you about writing nonfiction specifically, and about writing in general?
BISS: Well, the act of writing is itself deeply challenging for me. Then there are all sorts of auxiliary challenges. Lately I’ve been challenged by balancing my impulse toward argument with my impulse toward poetry and the lyric line. There’s no direct contradiction there, just a complicated dance.
BARTELS: What has been rewarding about writing nonfiction?
BISS: Doing work that is endlessly challenging is rewarding, and it is also something of a luxury. I find my work as a writer, no matter how difficult it is, unfailingly interesting. And I feel fortunate to be part of a community of writers who enjoy the use value, to borrow Marx’s term, in writing that may have little exchange value.
BARTELS: Well, I, for one, enjoy the use value in your writing. Your essay “Time and Distance Overcome” is the most startling, breathtaking essay I’ve ever read. I was amazed at how you were able to move from the history of telephone poles to the history of lynching in the United States—it surprised me, but it also felt like a completely natural transition. Are you a discovery writer, figuring out where your essay is going as you write, or do you plan out your essays before you begin?
BISS: I sometimes get tempted to plan out an essay, but my plans never pan out. I originally envisioned “Time and Distance Overcome,” for instance, as a warm, light essay that would celebrate our efforts to connect with one another. That was before I searched the phrase “telephone pole” in the New York Times archive and read through a litany of news accounts of lynchings from telephone poles. That essay became, then, essentially a record of my research experience.
BARTELS: That explains the feeling of discovery I had when reading that essay for the first time. But when you are writing an essay that starts in one place and ends up somewhere else entirely, can you sense when your readers are following you versus that feeling when you think your readers are following but they’re not?
BISS: When I’m revising a work, I ask a trusted friend or two to read it for me, and that helps me gauge where my leaps of logic might be too wide. But readers are, in my experience, diverse. Some will follow and others will not.
BARTELS: Fair. I guess you can’t control how your readers perceive your work once it’s out in the world, any more than you can control how people perceive you as a person. When it comes to perception, how do you think being a woman has factored into your experience as a writer?
BISS: I’m not much more comfortable with gender as a category than I am with genre as a category. And it is probably my experience with gender that makes me suspicious of genre. I’m frequently uneasy in the category of woman, but my lived experience of being received as a woman has informed my writing. In particular, sexism has been an important template for helping me understand racism. The two are distinct, with distinct histories, but there’s enough commonality to offer me a way in.
BARTELS: And how has the experience of writing nonfiction impacted your life as a writer and also a person?
BISS: Well, as with your question about gender, I’ve lived my entire adult life as a writer. It’s probably fair to say that every aspect of my life, from my finances to my friendships to my moments of personal joy and despair have been shaped by my work. My writing has been an education, in that I am usually engaged in some sort of research for my work, and, more importantly, it has been a place to think. The pleasure of living a life of continual learning and thinking is something I owe to my work.
BARTELS: Finally, what is a favorite passage (or some favorite sentences) of nonfiction by a woman writer?
BISS: I’ve had the last lines of Joan Didion’s essay “On Morality” in my head for a long time, though they faded for awhile, but in this past week following the presidential election, they have resurfaced:
Because when we start deceiving ourselves into thinking not that we want something or need something, not that it is a pragmatic necessity for us to have it, but that it is a moral imperative that we have it, then is when we join the fashionable madmen, and then is when the thin whine of hysteria is heard in the land, and then is when we are in bad trouble. And I suspect we are already there.
E.B. Bartels is from Massachusetts and writes nonfiction. Her work has appeared in The Rumpus, The Toast, The Butter, xoJane, Ploughshares online, 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.