20 Questions for Eula Biss

December 15, 2016

Photo credit: John Bresland

Asked by David Trinidad 

Editor’s note: This is the first in what will be a series of twenty-question interviews conducted by David Trinidad.

What is your first memory?

My memory is very visual, very dependent on sight, and I remember even abstract things, like facts that I’ve read, by their position on the page of the book where I first read them.  (Many hours of my life have been spent paging back through a book to find something that I know I read on the third to last line of the left-hand side of one of the 300 pages of that book.)  I have a jumble of blurry memories from before I was five, including the birth of my sister, the most significant event of my early life, but when I was five I had surgery on my eyes and that’s where my most vivid memories begin.  The first of those is really a memory of seeing clearly, a very bright memory of the experience of sight.  The content of the memory itself isn’t very interesting.  I remember riding on my father’s shoulders, eye-level with a decorative band of triangles, circles, and squares that ran across the top of the hallway of what was probably the children’s wing of the hospital.  That’s it—basic shapes in primary colors that looked, to my new eyes, utterly fascinating.

What was your childhood like?

It was a great, aimless childhood.  I spent a lot of time wandering through the woods and fields where I grew up, examining mosses and smelling the bark of trees.  Those woods and fields felt endless at the time, but they were just slim tracts of wasteland under the flight path of the Albany airport by the Mohawk River in upstate New York.  I was a weird kid and I had a Bartleby attitude toward elementary school—I preferred not to go.  My mother indulged this preference fairly generously.  She diagnosed me as an artist, so I was given lessons in calligraphy and sculpture and drawing and painting, starting in first grade.  There were some years of chaos and bewilderment, too, but I was a lucky kid.

About On Immunity: An Inoculation, you once told me, “I feel like I came up to the edge of my abilities with that book.”  Can you say more about this?

When writing is going well for me, I think that might just be what it feels like!  But, yes, I was handling a lot of information in that book, much more than I’d ever tried to handle before.  And I was learning immunology from the ground up, reading textbooks while trying to refuse technical terminology in my prose.  I was also writing the longest continuous work that I’ve written so far, which really isn’t saying much, as On Immunity isn’t very long or very continuous.  But the length of the essay was challenging.  And the structure of that book demanded that I understand not only what I was saying at any given moment, but also how it related to what I had already said and what I was going to say.  But maybe it wasn’t the edge of my abilities that I arrived at so much as the edge of my comfort.  In writing On Immunity, I discovered that the loose, associative, highly intuitive approach that had served me in the past needed to be, to some extent, abandoned.

Eula Biss tending the garden of poet Robyn Schiff (Photo credit: John Bresland)

Eula Biss tending the garden of poet Robyn Schiff (Photo credit: John Bresland)

You’ve also said, “A book isn’t worth writing unless you can be hurt in its reception.”  Can you elaborate?

I might feel this way about all communication.  Is there anything worth saying that isn’t dangerous?  I can’t really imagine writing a safe book.  If you have something to gain from being understood, then don’t you have something to lose by being misunderstood?  Most books get both understood and misunderstood if you’re lucky.  If you’re not lucky, you just get misunderstood.  I can’t make staving off misunderstanding my mission as a writer, that project is way too boring, but I still feel hurt when I’m misunderstood.

What is your favorite movie and why?

Oh, David, I don’t know.  I used to love Purple Rain, but I just watched it again after Prince died and was a little mystified about why I had loved it so much when I was eighteen.  I guess I just loved Prince.  I still love him.  But they throw a woman into a dumpster in that movie, and Prince is a prick!

I know you are an avid gardener.  Can you talk about this passion and the pleasure it gives you?

It’s a good counterpoint to writing, a way to balance time sitting indoors with time moving around outdoors, but that’s not the whole story.  I like being with plants—I like watching them and listening to them.  It’s meditative, and it’s recuperative for me, as I’ve never really gotten used to living in the city.  My mother gardened throughout my childhood, too, and it’s a way to touch that former life.  You once told me an anecdote about some cousin of Dickinson’s saying, “Poor Emily, with all that time to herself.”  When Emily’s sister reported this to her, she said, “But it’s all I ever wanted.”  Gardening is a way for me to give myself time to myself.  It may not be all I ever wanted, but I do want it.

What does “Eula writing” look like?

It looks a lot like doing nothing.  The thing I call “work” and have made my life’s work looks nearly identical to doing nothing!  When I’m at the beginning of a project I can appear to be doing something, as I’m usually talking to people and looking for the right books and engaging in some recognizable research.  And at the end of a project, I’m at my computer all day looking like a regular office worker, forgetting to take breaks to eat.  But in the middle, where the work really gets done, I spend a lot of time in reverie.  Just sitting, not doing anything.  Looking out the window.  Having a cup of tea.  Walking to the lake and back, maybe.  I seem to need to achieve total stillness, but the stillness is so deep that when I’m in it even I become convinced that I’m not getting anything done. . . .  And this nothingness keeps me so busy that I can’t do anything else, either.  I can hardly get my child to school on time and I forget to pick up groceries and my credit card payments are late.  My only excuse for all this is a reverie.

Have you ever communicated with the dead?

I’m not sure.  The dead can be so inscrutable.  I’ve encountered ghosts.  And I’ve had some dreams that told me the future, though I didn’t know I’d seen the future until the future arrived and looked like my dream.  But mostly my dreams don’t foretell the future so much as they rehash the past.  I talk to old friends quite a bit in my dreams, which can feel like communicating with the dead.

I know that you’re currently working on a book about debt.  What drew you to this subject?

Buying a house and taking out a mortgage are what really got me thinking about debt, though I’ve been in debt since graduate school.  My student loans didn’t change the way I lived, but my house and my garden are real luxuries, and I have this lingering sense of dis-ease about how I acquired these luxuries—like I bought them with fake money, and someone might discover my ruse.  If the problem of debt was merely financial, it wouldn’t have held my interest as long as it has.  Debt, along with owing and lending and paying, is a powerful metaphor for all sorts of interactions between people.

What interesting discoveries have you made in your research?

I went into my research with the impression that debt was modern, but it isn’t.  What’s new, at least in American history, is debt that is, in itself, a commodity.  Individual consumer debt can be bundled together with other debts and bought and sold.  Like my mortgage.  I just learned this from a lecture by Louis Hyman, who teaches a class on the history of capitalism.  David Graeber’s great book Debt: The First 5,000 Years was, in its entirety, a revelation for me.  Debt, in his telling, isn’t a personal financial failure so much as it is an essential component of a certain kind of economy.  Even societies that don’t have a market economy have debt, though it takes on forms that might seem strange to us.  I keep thinking of a society Graeber describes where it is considered rude to repay a debt.  In this society, most everyone is connected through a complex web of small debts, and canceling a debt to another person is like signaling that you don’t want anything to do with them anymore.

Wallace Stevens wrote, “The world is at the mercy of the strongest mind in it whether that strength is the strength of sanity or insanity, cunning or good-will.”  Do you agree with this?

No.  And I think there’s something sinister to the thought, something that smacks of a Darwinistic apology for the way power is leveraged, which generally has nothing to do with the strength of anyone’s mind.

What are some of the disappointments you’ve experienced as a writer?

I’ve had three major disappointments, one for each time I’ve finished a book.  When the proofs of the book arrive in the mail and I have to admit that this, what I’m holding in my hands, is the book I’ve written, I feel a sharp stab of disappointment.  I keep hoping, right up until the proofs arrive, for a better book than the one I’ve written.  The finished product is never satisfying.  It’s always disappointing.  I expected more.  But then that feeling passes and I find my way into some new project.  The book I’ve finished remains dead to me, but not painfully disappointing or embarrassing, just dead.  Or lifeless, really.  A book is only alive for me when it’s still in progress.

What are some of the joys?

The joy, for me, is all in the work.  Maybe deep pleasure is a more accurate term.  It certainly doesn’t look like joy when it’s unfolding, but I feel very alive and attuned to the world when I’m working, and that’s pleasurable.  The process of discovery, of deepening understanding, of creeping toward clarity, is a tremendous pleasure, too.  I once had a student who was a composer, and at the beginning of one class, we had a conversation in which we discovered how much the sensation of composing, as he experienced it, felt like writing, as I experienced it.  This was exciting to both of us, but another student who overheard us talking said, “If it makes you feel like that, why do you do it?”  She was talking about the confusion, the painful uncertainty, the self-reprimands, and the frustration that she’d heard us describe.  All that, I’ve realized, is pleasurable for me too, in a way.  I just like to feel, even when what I’m feeling is hard.

What was the last dream you remembered?

Oh, a strange one!  I dreamed that I saw, in a magazine, a kind of sculpture, or maybe a very fancy goblet made of frosted glass in the shape of a potato dancing between two plump tomatoes, cancan style.  The potato was having a great time.  (I promise you, I never dream like this, though I do have gardening dreams . . .)  I wanted it and decided that I should buy it, even though it seemed very impractical.  Then I saw the price, $288 dollars!  No, there was no way I would buy it, but then it danced toward me and filled my vision, this weird, happy, expensive glass potato!

What was the last book of nonfiction you read?

The last book I read was unpublished, a long essay by the poet Lisa Olstein about pain and Joan of Arc and migraines and House, the television show, among other things.

What did you honestly think of it?

I enjoyed it hugely.  It was still unfinished when I read it, but it was really great nonetheless.

Why aren’t you on Facebook?

I don’t seem to need it.  I try to conserve my time and energy for things that feel essential, or at least pleasurable.  I’m aware that a lot of those things, like gardening, may look like a waste of time to other people, so I try not to disparage other people’s pleasures.  But I do make an effort to protect myself from getting drained by relatively brief or shallow or performative encounters.  Those sorts of encounters just don’t feed me.  I like intimate encounters.  Close encounters!  I far prefer to interact in depth, in person.  Or at least on the phone.  I have an antiquated love for telephone and radio that probably comes from those being the dominant technologies of my childhood.  I may be the last remaining person who still listens to the regular old radio, the kind you have to turn a dial to tune.  It’s awful, really, and I often have trouble finding stations that play anything unpredictable.  Sometimes they all seem to be the same station.  I know there’s superior technology for the enjoyment of music out there.  But I’ve spent enough hours driving across the Midwest listening to the radio to be rewarded with a late-breaking appreciation for Fleetwood Mac.  So who am I to judge the merits of Facebook?

Can you tell me something that you’ve never told anyone else?

Sure, David, I’ll tell you.  But I’m not telling everyone.

Is there anything you wish I would ask you?

No!  You’ve asked everything!  I just wish I could ask you a question.

What does it mean to live a literary life?

Oh, I think you know better than I do.  Honestly.  That’s my question for you!

Eula Biss’s latest book is On Immunity: An Inoculation (Graywolf Press, 2014).  She lives in Evanston, Illinois.

David Trinidad’s latest book is Notes on a Past Life (BlazeVOX [books], 2016).  He lives in Chicago.

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