Jo Ann Beard Relies on Sheer, Bold Determination to Write

September 28, 2011
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Jo Ann Beard Relies on Sheer,
Bold Determination to Write An exclusive Authorlink interview With Jo Ann Beard,
author of In Zanesville and Other Tales

By Ellen Birkett Morris
October 2011

In Zanesville cover
In Zanesville
by Jo Ann Beard

Buy this Book
at Amazon.com

For writer Jo Ann Beard memory is the catalyst for creating work that is more concerned with truth than fitting neatly into genre categories.

“For me, stories begin with a fragment of memory, always visual and always with some kind of emotional tug that I don’t fully understand.”
—
BEARD

“For me, stories begin with a fragment of memory, always visual and always with some kind of emotional tug that I don’t fully understand. Writing is the way I try to figure it out,” said Beard.

She followed up her well received first book, The Boys of My Youth, a collection of essays about growing up in the 1970s, with a novel, In Zanesville, a coming of age story set in the Midwest in the 1970s. The books are similar in subject matter and, to some degree, stylistically.

“I care less about genre than about writing an entertaining story that feels like it has some universal meaning. My writing is storytelling – I tend to write scenes and create a narrative, whether it’s fiction or nonfiction; I understand stories best through scene,” she explained.

Beard was a student at University of Iowa on her way to earning a BFA in painting when she took a writing class.

Beard followed up her art degree with an MFA in nonfiction writing from University of Iowa. When she began to work on fiction Beard had to change her approach to her material. “In writing nonfiction, you have to train yourself away from flights of fancy. Of course, because of my background and nonfiction orientation, I had to keep reminding myself that the characters weren’t me and weren’t my friends and that they, in fact, could do anything I wanted them to do.”

Beard worked to transform her experience through imagination.

“I wanted to tell a story, which was very, very loosely from my life, a story that bumped up against the edges of what really happened. I needed to push my characters past that old truth and into the realm of another—more interesting—kind of truth.”

The result is an engaging novel that follows an unnamed narrator as she deals with family problems, tries to find her place in the social scene, negotiates friendship with her best friend and starts interacting with boys.

The narrator’s intellect and ability to make connections between ideas and images makes her journey more than just a typical coming of age story. Beard has a deft hand when it comes to using the slang of the period and capturing the cadences of teenage talk.

It took Beard five years to write the book. During that time she would spend four to five hours at a time at her desk hoping to immerse herself in the narrative.

“You still need to show up every day, even when it takes years; there is no room for impatience with this stuff,” . . .
—BEARD

 

 

“You still need to show up every day, even when it takes years; there is no room for impatience with this stuff,” said Beard. “I do lots of draft in my head, which is why my writing process looks a lot like dozing off in a chair.”

She relied on her own memory of what life was like during the period when writing the book. Her research consisted of looking up song lyrics and information about television shows of the time.

Her challenge in writing the book was “just getting it done.”

“It takes good old-fashioned determination and willpower to sit there for x number of hours and see what happens. Often nothing happens. Other times, I get bored and start tinkering. Then I sink down into the story, only to yank myself out of it when inspiration occurs,” said Beard. “Inspiration feels like nervousness.”

She admits to being fascinated by how difficult it is for her to push herself into that place where she can access the story, describing at as more laziness or recalcitrance than fear.

“Writing on that level doesn’t feel particularly pleasant, so I tend to avoid it,” said Beard.

When the book was done she worked with Editor Asya Muchnick of Little Brown and Company to put the finishing touches on the manuscript.

Beard met her first agent at a writing conference while in graduate school.

“She took an interest in me, though I didn’t have much writing. We stayed in touch. When she left the business she passed me on to another agent at Sterling Lord Literistic,” said Beard.

“. . . making art in whatever form is absolutely the best way I can spend my time.”
—BEARD

 

 

When asked about staying encouraged as an artist, Beard posited her belief that “making art in whatever form is absolutely the best way I can spend my time.” “My part of the job is to write the best book I am able to write if it takes 5, 10, or 20 years,” she noted.

She also advised writers to find outside encouragement from an agent or – even more important – a writer’s group to talk about literature and get feedback on the process of writing.

Beard is currently working on a young adult novel.

About Jo Ann Beard

Jo Ann Beard is the author of The Boys of My Youth and the recipient of fellowships from the New York Foundation for the Arts and the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation. She teaches nonfiction writing at Sarah Lawrence College

About Regular Contributor
Ellen Birkett Morris

Ellen Birkett Morris is an award-winning writer whose work has appeared in national print and online publications including The New York Times. She also writes for a number of literary, regional, trade, and business publications, and she has contributed to six published nonfiction books in the trade press. Ellen is a regular contributor to Authorlink, assigned to interview various New York Times bestselling authors and first-time novelists.

 

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This post was written by Ellen Birkett Morris