Tessa Fontaine is the author of The Electric Woman: A Memoir in Death-Defying Acts, a New York Times Editor's pick, a Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers pick, an Amazon Editors' Best of the Month featured debut & Amazon Best Books of 2018 (so far), an iBooks favorite, and more.
This interview was conducted via e-mail by Lead Interview Editor Renee Rule. Of the process she said, “Tessa Fontaine’s memoir The Electric Woman is so unique in both its format and in the story it tells. I knew nothing about carnie life before reading this book, and it turned out to be such an interesting topic to delve into! It was a pleasure to get to interview Tessa and learn more about how this memoir came to be.” In this interview Tessa Fontaine talks about the publishing process, her reasons for pursuing a PhD, and carnie lingo.
Superstition Review: Your writing is so beautiful, and carries within it that incredibly appealing quality of being able to say deep truths in simple words. There are some wonderful quotes in this book that I can imagine floating around the internet or tattooed on people’s arms as standalone lines. One of my favorites, for example, is, “It’s impossible to listen to all the echoes of what might have happened without going deaf from the cacophony.” How do you achieve these eloquent gems of truth when writing? Does it come from a state of pure “flow”?
Tessa Fontaine: Thank you. That’s very kind of you to write! I think it is the writer’s job to press into the moments she is writing about, past the point of description or memory, to figure out what larger truth emerges. For example, there’s a scene in my book where I was describing the process of getting rid of some lotions. Since my mom’s massive stroke, she had acquired an unbelievable number of lotions—from various hospitals, as remedies to various ailments, and largely as gifts. People wanting to help, to offer a kindness. As I was writing about clearing out some of these lotions, stacking them in my arms to bring the unopened ones to a donation box, I didn’t stop once I’d reached the end of the physical description. By continuing to write into that moment it became clear to me that the act of carrying a precarious stack of lotions is just literally what it is, and a metaphor for trying to balance too much in difficult situations. And so I wrote into that image as well. I think that’s how those moments of simplistic truth arise—pressing into moments and images and seeing what emerges.
SR: The Electric Woman is your debut memoir. Can you talk about the publication process as a first-time author? What was the most rewarding moment thus far? How is it for you reading or hearing people’s comments on your work—comments they may never have imagined you, the author, would actually come across?
TF: When I was about ⅔ of the way done with writing the book, I sent a few query letters to agents, and was lucky to get some offers. I chose the person who felt like the best fit, and she’s been wonderful. After finishing a draft, she sent the book out to publishers, and I got to speak to a few interested editors on the phone and again, choose the best fit. Then I worked carefully with that editor to shape the book into its final form. I had a wonderful experience, and felt like I was always the book’s pilot. The most rewarding moments are hearing from people who have read the book and connected with it. It’s an incredible experience—to write an experience that is so personal, so individual, and to see the larger connective tissue it shares with so many other people’s experiences. It makes the world feel less lonely.
SR: I know that many doctoral students go on to become professors themselves. What do you plan to do with your PhD in creative writing? What inspired you to go after that degree?
TF: I love teaching, both in academic settings and in community environments. For five years I’ve been teaching in prisons and jails, and the great gift of that teaching environment is occasionally getting to witness a moment where a person comes to recognize their own intelligence. That’s the pleasure of teaching—helping to create the right questions for students to figure out not just what the answer might be, but that they have the capacity to think through it in complex and nuanced ways. As a teacher, it’s impossible to ever know enough. The same is true as a student. And a writer. Learning will always better us, whether in a traditional classroom setting, on the job at any assortment of workplaces, in conversations with those who are different, or from following an obsession into, say, a traveling sideshow. I pursued a PhD in conjunction with all those other kinds of learning in order to give myself many ways to think more precisely about the world, and I’m grateful for all those opportunities.
SR: Examples of the prevalence of the concept of “GTFM” in carnie culture and in the American psyche are sprinkled throughout this book. How did you handle the contrast between this profit-driven mentality and the preciousness of life, of family, of your own mother in a state of irreversibly damaged health?
TF: GTFM is carnie lingo for “Get the f*@#ing money.” It’s just capitalism, spoken more plainly than we usually allow for. I think all of us deal with the contrast between a consumerist culture, which greatly impacts our lives, and the intimacy of those we love, which may be at odds with that consumerism. With my mom’s illness, one of the early challenges was fighting through the way capitalism plays out in our healthcare system—what kind of care could she get, and what kind of progress would she have to show to continue receiving care. The answers to those questions were far more important to me than the economics behind the insurance industry. And yet we exist in a world with all those realities. So I think it’s a question we all have to try to balance, and the more we can tip the scale on the side of personal connection and love, the better.
SR: As you begin to take more and more to the sideshow life throughout the season, it seems to become part of your personality. On the phone with your parents, you write, “Nevertheless, I pitch my voice high and enthusiastic on the phone to match their spirits. I don’t want them to know my terror… taking a breath and channeling my stage persona, I tell them I’m proud of what they’re doing. The stage performer can be delighted for the adventures they may find." What are your thoughts on the idea of incorporating some of the basic tenets of show business into real life? What are the pros and cons of using this technique?
TF: The sideshow was a mega-exaggerated version of a life that was already familiar in so many ways, and that’s one thing I loved about it. We all present different versions of ourselves at different times—who we are with our teachers is different than who we are with our parents, our partners, our young siblings. In the sideshow, characters are exaggerated, and sometimes, in order to give another person some strength, we need that exaggeration. In the quote you point out above, I felt that if I’d let on to how worried I was for my parents, I would have added to their suffering as opposed to doing what I could to alleviate it. So in this way, I think show business was helpful. There are other times when I think it can become too easy to hide behind razzle dazzle and not be truthful with other people. I was guilty of this in the sideshow sometimes, and I’m still guilty of it from time to time. It’s easier for me to jazz-hands and say that things are fine than to take action, or tell an uglier truth. But I’m trying to be better. Maybe the secret is ugly jazz-hands?
SR: The format of The Electric Woman is very unique and engaging with the split at the beginning of each chapter between your personal family life and your personal adventure life with the circus. What inspired you to format the book in this way?
TF: The book moves between the two main narratives you point out—my life with the sideshow, and my family. Some chapters are all one or the other, while others move back and forth between the two. The sideshow story is largely chronological, so figuring out how that narrative would move wasn’t too tricky, but placing some of the family story within the sideshow story was harder. Some of it was associative—thinking about a moment from the sideshow that resonated with a moment from my family life. My editor was very helpful in this process. At the end of the day, though, it’s all about patterning. When you’re working on a longer piece, a long essay or story, or a book, being diligent about tracking when characters appear, what we learn about them, how long we are in each world, etc., will help any writer understand the patterns that make up the book, and when it’s time, say, to move to a different section. There’s more intuition than I anticipated.
SR: What does your writing space look like?
TF: It changes often! Because I spend a lot of time on the road, it’s in hotel beds or airplanes or cafes. When I’m at home, I have a little office with a desk and lots of bookshelves, and I write there often. I’ve got some big bulletin boards up that I use to tack up notecards with ideas or research or plot points, or to move narrative pieces around. Sometimes when I feel stuck, though, I like to physically change location. I get up and move to my couch, or dining room table. Sometimes bed. I write best when I feel like I need to leave somewhere soon—I think it puts a false urgency on the work, so sometimes I set up things to do that have that ticking clock. But I always have the internet shut off on my computer, and a notebook out beside me. That way, I can jot down things I want to look up as I go, without getting distracted by the internet holes I’ll inevitably fall down if I stop my writing to look something up. It’s also where I record ideas for future projects. Or draw little doodles. The notebook beside me right now has a drawing of a big huge bird with human ears on the side of its head. I have no idea why.