More Astonishing Than the Illusion: A Conversation with Tessa Fontaine about loss, writing nonfiction informed by field work, and her time with the United States’ last traveling side show.
Tessa Fontaine is the author of The Electric Woman: A Memoir in Death-Defying Acts, A New York Times Editors' Choice; A Southern Living Best Book of 2018; An Amazon Editors' Best Book of 2018; A Refinery29 Best Book of 2018; A New York Post Most Unforgettable Book of 2018.
Tessa spent the 2013 season performing with the last American traveling circus sideshow, the World of Wonders. Essays about the sideshow won the 2016 AWP Intro Award in Nonfiction, and have appeared in The Rumpus, Hayden's Ferry Review, Autre, and elsewhere. Other work can be found in Glamour, The Believer, LitHub, FSG's Works in Progress, Creative Nonfiction, The Normal School, Seneca Review, DIAGRAM, New Orleans Review, [PANK], Brevity, and more.
On May 3, 2019, Tessa Fontaine joined Interlochen Arts Academy Creative Writing students for a master class and reading. Interlochen Review editors Darius Atefat-Peckham and Lane Devers sat down with Tessa for a conversation about immersive research, the ethics of nonfiction, and obsession as a source of inspiration. Editor Poppy Rosales also contributed questions for the interview.
Lane Devers: When I read The Electric Woman, I noticed how each essay or chapter works stand alone and as a larger narrative. In class, we read versions of these chapters called “Dispatches From The Carnival,” published in places like The Rumpus. Could you speak a little on how you navigated submitting these essays to workshop and/or lit journals as stand-alone projects, and how they ended up becoming a part of this larger narrative?
Tessa Fontaine: Before I went to join the sideshow, when I knew that I was going to do it, I contacted Roxane Gay, who was the nonfiction editor at The Rumpus at that time, and said, “Hey, I’m going to go do this insane thing and join a sideshow, and I’m thinking of writing a series of essays, like notes from the road, while I’m out there, would you guys be interested in publishing these?” She told me she was very interested. The first one she published was “Dispatch from the carnival#1: The Trick is There is No Trick,” which is about a fire-eating class that I took before I joined the sideshow. That was the first stand-alone piece.
Before the book was published, I had five or six “Dispatches” up at the Rumpus, and then I also took just insane, copious notes the whole time I was out with the sideshow, so I also had hundreds of pages of notes to work from when I began writing the rest of the book. I think it was important to have a few key moments that I had already explored in those early essays, and also to look back on my other notes and think, “What are the most important events that happened out there?” You know, you end up with three hundred pages of notes, and it can be difficult to decide how to structure a narrative with that abundance of information, so those early essays allowed for a little bit more of an imposed structure on the insanity.
Darius Atefat-Peckham: Do you think the people involved in this project acted differently towards you since you’re a writer?
TF: I was treated a little bit differently for a number of reasons. First, I present as pretty “norm,” like they would make fun of me and say I looked like their dentist, or second grade teacher, or just a boring, “normal” white woman, which is not how a lot of people in the sideshow present. They present really differently, for chosen or unchosen reasons. So I was separate, I think, from the beginning, for a number of reasons that they thought were hilarious. I would be sent in to rent a car, or get a hotel room, sometimes, because it’s easier. As for being a writer, I was straightforward with them that that’s what I did, and that’s what I was, but it wasn’t something that I brought up all the time. I think it would have been awkward if someone said something and I was like, “I’m gonna write that down and put that in this book that I’m writing!” I worked as hard as everyone else in the cast, I participated in all the same things, so although I was a little bit separate at first, they eventually accepted me as a performer.
LD: We receive a lot of secrets throughout The Electric Woman, especially concerning the people working for the sideshow. How did you ensure that the real people in this memoir would be okay with how they’re being portrayed?
TF: I think about the ethics of writing about other people all the time, and it’s one of the really complicated parts of writing nonfiction. A lot of it’s in choosing what part of the story you participate in, and you can tell because you were a part of it, and what part of it is someone else’s story that you don’t have the access to tell, or that shouldn’t be yours to tell. So I thought about it a lot and, ultimately, the earlier drafts had more information—personal information—about other people. I like to write out the whole experience, and then to edit away more thoughtfully, and with more ethical intent. There were a few guiding principles that I thought about a lot. One of them was considering what information other people clearly chose to share with me, and shared with a lot of other people—stories that they shared publicly or even on stage felt like stories they were comfortable having out in the world.
I also followed this guideline: you should be willing to throw yourself further under the bus than you throw anyone else. There’s a character in the book, for example, Cassie, who I have kind of a difficult relationship with, and in the first drafts of writing about her, I noticed that I wasn’t writing very positively about her. So it was a really interesting moment where I had to stop and think—sort of the clashing of craft and human empathy—that in order to make her an interesting person, and an interesting character, she had to be well-rounded, because we’re all rounded, really; we all have good parts and bad parts. So I had to investigate my own culpability in the way that I was presenting her, and why my bias was at first leaning away from a fully rounded character. It’s also the way we gain empathy for other human beings. So, I thought about ethics a lot. Every nonfiction writer has to make their own set of ethical guidelines to follow, and I hope I will always continue to get better at that and grow throughout my writing life.
DAP: Can you speak a little to the process of organizing inherently faulty memory in comparison to something more objective like field notes and the ways in which The Electric Woman strikes a balance between the two?
TF: I hope it strikes a balance between the two. It’s something that I really like to think about because if we only rely on writing the cold, hard facts in nonfiction, one problem is that it means we are regurgitating known stories. And that can be a problem, because oftentimes the stories that are regurgitated are not told by people whose stories we want to tell. You know the saying - history is written by the victors. People in power are usually the ones who dictate the stories. So it requires a greater expansion of your imagination and a lot of craft techniques for you to figure out how to ethically invent information, or move beyond what you know, and do some research, but also use some of the same techniques from fiction to figure out what you’re doing and expand the story you’re telling beyond the obvious, the simple, the known. I absolutely try to balance the two out. On a very simple level, I think that, paragraph by paragraph, sometimes you can think of alternating known facts with more speculative or interpretive thinking. Ultimately I think that if you’re clear and up front with your reader about when you’re taking artistic liberties, and when you are stating something that you know to be true, then you’re in a pretty good position.
LD: We read your article “The Phone of the Wind” in class and discussed some of the ways in which the field work influences the voice of the piece, being more along the lines of something journalistic instead of memoiristic. In The Electric Woman, the sideshow-focused chapters can sometimes feel like more immersive field work. Can you speak to some of the different ways you portray being a passive observer of another culture versus having a more active role in The Electric Woman in the sense that you’re trying to become apart of the sideshow world yourself?
TF: For the field work that I did for “The Phone of the Wind,” I went to Japan, and I spent two weeks there. There’s no way to understand a culture, or a town, or a devastation, in that amount of time, it’s just an impossibility. In some ways, that provides you a distance that can almost be easier to write about, because you’re not deep inside the thing. You’re an outsider. I might have some emotional connection to what’s happening, but it’s not an understanding from the inside. So that provides more room for the actual description of the things that you’re seeing around you, and that does more work for a distanced writing perspective. With immersion, the benefit is that, since you’re physically participating in the activities, you also have the benefit about being able to write about the way your body is learning—not only the sensory experience of witnessing something, but also the doing of the thing, so the experience can be deeper in some ways. It also sometimes is an overwhelming plethora of information, and also you inherently change the story by being a part of it. For the “Phone of the Wind” piece, I certainly didn’t ever know enough about the story to influence it, I was just a person looking at it from the outside. I love all those approaches to nonfiction—seeing it from afar, going and doing it, writing about personal things, and expansively out from there.
DAP: Obviously the book following a sideshow explores illusion in a number of ways. You reveal the mechanics behind certain tricks, showing them to be less “tricky” than we originally might assume them to be as an audience, with the eating of fire in the prologue, for example. I’m curious about some of the ways in which this idea of giving away the secrets of a trade is in conversation with nonfiction as a genre.
TF: At first I was wondering whether the magicians would revolt if you revealed the magician’s trick. I wondered that about the sideshow acts. What I came to decide was true, and I think this was also true for the other sideshow performers out there, is knowing how acts like sword swallowing or fire-eating are done doesn’t lessen the amazingness of these acts. How they’re actually done is more astonishing than the illusion. For example, when someone swallows a sword, my impression before the sideshow was that there was a trick, like the sword collapses, and I thought the same was true for eating fire, like you must put something in your mouth to squelch the flame. And then you learn the trick - the actual way to do all of these acts is to just do what it appears you are doing, to swallow the sword or eat the fire, which usually means learning to withstand a little bit of pain. And you’re doing that anywhere from twenty to one hundred times a day. That’s astonishing. And to meet the people that were doing that, and had been doing it for years, and then to know what their life was like, living in the back of a semi truck and locked into the fairgrounds, felt like a level of amazement that was beyond the beginning illusion. I think that really is the joy and the beauty of writing nonfiction - you have the ability to pull back the curtain on something that seems un-understandable, or far away, or that seems like it has a shiny bow tied on it. And you can loosen the bow and peek behind to see what’s there. To me the sparkly-ness and amazement didn’t lessen in any way once I learned how things were done. It intensified.
LD: I was interested in the ways time was working throughout both narratives. At first it seems that both the stroke and the sideshow timelines seem to parallel one another in the sense that as we move later into the sideshow days more time has passed since the stroke as well, but there are other chapters more in line with the mother narrative that take us back in time before the stroke. With all of that in mind, how did you go about placing these chapters? Did you want there to be a specific feeling of progression and/or recession?
TF: The sideshow narrative moves more linearly. It largely moves through narrative time from the beginning of the sideshow to the end, with a few digressions here and there. I think of the narrative with my family as following more of an associative timeline. There certainly are some things that, when you’re writing, you need to put in as time-marker guideposts for your reader, so they know where in time we are. But I love that associative alignment allows for this strange representation of how our brains actually work. You’re doing something, and this thing that you’re doing reminds you of this other memory, and then this other thing you learned when you were five. There isn’t a way to collapse time in writing in the same way that there is in our brain. We can have a flash of a memory, and it might only take three seconds, and it’s hard to represent three seconds of time on a page, but I think being able to weave in and out of stories, for me, with one being more grounded and the other one being looser, allowed for more echoes between the stories, some of which are pretty direct, and some much more subtle. It gives more space for the reader to participate.
DAP: In your essays there are often subtle details or objects that return throughout the course of the book. For example, fishnets is mentioned in a list of memories you have of your mother, and is brought up again in in an essay where you are talking about the attire you wore in the sideshow. How did you see these smaller ties working in terms of the book’s collective narrative and emotional atmosphere?
TF: I think the beauty of being kind of loose or wild in parts of the narrative timeline is that you can allow something—like the image of fishnets, as you just pointed out—to become meaningful in ways that you don’t even know as you’re writing them. It allows for more space for the reader to make meaning, and to follow patterns. As readers we love books that do that. We have brains that are hungry for narrative, hungry for making sense of things, and we like to do some of that work ourselves. I was hoping to provide the reader with some space to figure out what some repeated images or language means.
I just learned this amazing thing called the Baker-baker Paradox. The idea is that if you have a character whose name is, say, Linda Baker, and you mention her in a story, it’s unlikely that your reader will remember her name. However, if you say ‘Linda, the baker’, and then you go on, it is much more likely that the person will remember that, because when we think about the activity of baking, we have all of our sensory memories of what baking and bake shops are. So we might think of a bakery, we might think about bread, we might think about cupcakes, we might think about a person we knew who was a baker, our own grandmother, and it opens up this different pathway in our brain that creates a much deeper and richer resonance for us. Sensory objects and associations create more layers of resonance for us as readers, which is kind of an astonishing thing to think about — that the act of putting sensory moments or references in your writing creates those layers. I didn’t know about the Baker-baker paradox when I was writing this, but I find it a very interesting illustration of that concept.
LD: Your writing often centers itself around lists—associative lists, schedules, and lists trying to uncover truths or personal motivations among other forms. What draws you to lists, and was this, in any way, a reflection of your writing process?
TF: It’s funny you say that, because I was just thinking about the fact that when I teach, my writing assignments often begin with list-making, and I was just thinking, “is that an insane thing to make people do all the time?” Maybe. But the reason I like to do it is that if you start a writing exercise with the first thing that comes to your brain, sometimes it’s a great thing to write about, but sometimes it’s not until you get to the third or fourth thing that you’re writing in a list that you get to something surprising. I think about it like this sideways slide into your brain, where it allows for these other associative memories, or trails of memory or information, to connect in ways that you hadn’t anticipated. A brain rerouting. So listing is a way of, one, getting at some of that less obvious information, and two—and here I am making lists, right—it is a really simple, organizational structure, that lets a reader know where they are. Which connects to thinking about confusion in writing. There’s productive confusion and there’s unproductive confusion. You don’t want your reader to have unproductive confusion where they’re like, who is this, and where are we, and what’s happening? But you do want them to have some productive confusion, where they’re trying to understand the connections between things, trying to make sense of what’s going on. I think listing and other structured forms like that allows for some clarity within which you can dive into creating productive confusion.
DAP: What were some of your literary influences as you began to write this book? Did this affect your voice throughout in any positive or negative ways?
TF: I did a ton of research. Outside of my own experience in the sideshow, I read a lot of books about the history of the sideshow, I looked at a lot of photographs of older sideshows, read a lot about the earlier sideshow performers who didn’t really have control of their lives, or were displayed without their permission, but also read about earlier sideshow performers who were incredibly empowered by being able to perform on the stage. I think that the further I got into the history, the more complicated the story was, which I was really interested in and happy to learn about. So the research was really important. Like most pieces of writing, my original draft was at least twice as long, and that was already parsed down from a lot of notes.
My literary influences are really wide, weirdly wild and varied. One of the books that I looked at a lot while I was writing is Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried, which is a book of short stories. What I love about that book is that [the stories are] circular, so they question memory, and retell some of the same stories over and over again. That was a really helpful way of trying to get at an experience that seemed inarticulate-able. Lidia Yuknavitch’s The Chronology of Water is a memoir that dives into incredibly deep material with absolute rawness in a way that I really appreciated and loved. I read a lot of Maxine Hong Kingston, who weaves in myth and personal history without privileging one as being more true than the other. I was in a PhD program when I was writing this, so actually most of what I was reading was prescribed by my professors as I was going through it, so a lot theory. But another book I reread a number of times is Justin Torres’s We the Animals. I also love Stephen King — I’m just a wide, wide reader.
LD: I was interested when reading the book in the contrast between the often self-inflicted pain many performers go through in the sideshow, and the opposing idea of attempt at recovery. Were these two stories something that you found inextricable from one another, and were you only interested in telling them together in relation to one another, or were there ever drafts where you wanted to focus on one exclusively?
TF: The essays that were published before I was really working on the book do have both of the stories together, stories about the sideshow and stories about my mom. However, once I finished the sideshow and started writing this book, I thought it was going to be a much more immersive, journalistic account of the sideshow, and that I was going to be more like a chronicler of what was happening with the sideshow. I certainly didn’t think I was writing a memoir. So I wrote maybe fifty pages or so of the book like that, and something felt really off about it, really dry, like I was recording the experience from afar. Even when I was writing about participating in some of the acts, it just didn’t have the kind of immediacy that the experience had for me, and [as] I started thinking about it more, I realized that my experience at the sideshow was completely texturized by what was happening with my life, and happening with my family, and so to try and separate those stories would have inherently lost significant pieces of both of them.
In that earlier draft I mentioned, which was much longer, it also had a lot less of stuff about my mom and our relationship in there, and then my editor eventually told me I couldn’t just half-tell this story. The two narrative threads--my time in the sideshow and my mother’s illness- felt linked in a way that couldn’t be separated, and that I also didn’t completely understand. They aren’t perfectly aligned with each other. They certainly have echoes, but they aren’t the same story, and they don’t reveal the same truths, and I think that’s what life is like—the stories that happen in the same time don’t necessarily match up in that way, but they are still meaningful together, inexorably linked. And one helps us understand the other.
DAP: When you were talking about your revision strategy, and how you edit, you mentioned that it was a really long book and that you had to shave it down. Do you think your next project will include the kind of experiences you wrote about in The Electric Woman, or any of those pages you may have shaved off, or any of the themes like ‘monstrosity’ or ‘adventurousness’ that we see, and do you anticipate the sideshow ever resurfacing in another narrative?
TF: I don’t think those shaved pages will appear. They feel like a beloved graveyard around this book. However, monstrosity will absolutely reappear. I think it’s one of my obsessive subjects. We all, as writers, have these obsessions, and we kind of write the same thing over and over again. We have these things that we’re trying to figure out, and for me monstrosity is one, and not just monstrosity, but particularly the performance of monstrosity, which sometimes is separate from monstrosity itself. It’s the way someone is performing it, or the way someone is attempting to make another person appear monstrous. You see this a lot in the way people write about race, gender and sexuality, or disability and illness. Similarly, while the sideshow itself may not actually appear again, performers appear all over the place in my writing. The novel that I’m working on right now is absolutely about performance, or maybe it’s not about performance, but performance is a really important part of it. A lot of that is from growing up as a performer, acting in a lot of plays and dancing in ballet recitals, [which] informed a lot about who I am and what I think about. But also there’s just something endlessly fascinating about the way that we present ourselves on stage and who we are separate from that. So those things continue to come up. And also, narrators who don’t necessarily have a clear journey, or whose motives aren’t entirely clear. That, I think, will continue to be an obsession of mine, because the narrators who are really sure of themselves all the way through and are brave and strong and learn a great lesson and then end happily, aren’t interesting.