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? Continue reading
Looking for something to read over the holidays? Hey, the New York Times 10 Best Books is a great place to look!
Pour yourself a nice mug of hot cocoa and get cozy to read about everything from, oh…uh, a collapsing marriage (Dept. of Speculation, Jeny Offill) or a family’s disintegration after a horrible tragedy involving a child (Family Life, Akhil Sharma), or a story collection about the devastating impacts of the Iraq War (Redeployment, Phil Klay).
Hmmm. Okay, well how about the one about the blind girl and the Nazi (All the Light We Cannot See, Anthony Doerr)? Or, uh, maybe the one about a female novelist who didn’t publish anything until she was almost 60 (Penelope Fitzgerald: A Life, Hermione Lee)? Okay, okay — here’s a “spellbinding blend of memoir, science journalism and literary criticism” about….oh….vaccination (On Immunity: An Inoculation, Eula Biss). Probably don’t want to bring that up at dinner. Same goes for the one about Israel and peace in the Middle East (Thirteen Days in September: Carter, Begin and Sadat at Camp David, Lawrence Wright).
What about the one titled Euphoria? That sounds nice. Oh, looks like it’s about another marriage breaking up. Alright.
I guess it could be worse. We could be among the irreplaceable habitats and species whose destruction has been chillingly documented by Elizabeth Kolbert in The Sixth Extinction. Jeez. What else is there? Oh, perfect, Roz Chast’s graphic novel about her parents’ decline into infirmity and old age: Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?
A lot of nonfiction books feel inevitable. Someone was bound to write them. If Walter Isaacson hadn’t written the definitive biography of Steve Jobs, someone else would have. But there are some nonfiction books whose very concept would be unthinkable without the peculiar interests and intelligence of their author. Books that are as strikingly unique as the person who writes them. Books like On Immunity by Eula Biss.
The unlikely premise of On Immunity is that vaccination—yes, like the shots you received when you were a kid—is the key to understanding all kinds of cultural and ethical issues, like public health, citizenship, motherhood, immigration, even the Revolutionary War and Count Dracula.
Biss starts small, with her own pregnancy, a germ of a child growing inside her. She writes powerfully about the physical trauma of childbirth and the madness of trying to protect a child from all sorts of dangers, seen and unseen.
Immediately after my son’s birth, in an otherwise complicated delivery, my uterus inverted, bursting capillaries and spilling blood… I woke up disoriented, shivering violently under a pile of heated blankets… I was too weak to move much, but when I tried I discovered that my body was lashed with tubes and wires—I had an IV in each arm, a catheter down my leg, monitors on my chest, and an oxygen mask on my face.