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From fossils to the A-bomb: Joni Tevis writes a different kind of essay

The essays are short, just a couple of pages long, and loaded with the pressurized language of poetry.

Joni Tevis
Joni Tevis

When she was finished with her manuscript for “The Wet Collection,” Joni Tevis went straight to the Open Book building, walked up the stairs to the Milkweed Editions offices, and turned it in for consideration.

“I took the bus and walked my little bundle of a manuscript over and handed it in to the person at the desk,” Tevis said in an interview. “I felt like, ‘This is what writers do.’ It was just a great experience,” she says. Even better? Finding out that the press would publish it.

No, this is not the way most writers end up getting published.

The paperback has just come out — also unusual, for a hard-to-categorize book put out on a small press. But Tevis’ book found an audience with people who wanted something new.  

“A lot of people who like environmental writing picked it up, and liked it because I deal with those topics in a different way than most writers, and people [in MFA programs] like it because of what it does with form. I enjoy seeing the good read that they give it.”

‘Lyric essays’

The essays are short, just a couple of pages long, and loaded with the pressurized language of poetry. Each one is nonfiction, but a sort of electricity animates the writing. “I wanted to do something different with the essay form. I guess I was looking to write lyric essays — not dependent on narrative, but essays that read more like poems.”

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Tevis keeps her eye on nature throughout these pieces, writing about taxidermied bird specimens, fossils, and landscapes across times and history, but she isn’t talking about nature so much as recording human events superimposed upon natural places.  She moves across history, writing about the Roosevelts, the Alcotts, the Egyptians, the early settlers — some of whom are her own family. And she writes about the odd jobs she worked in her early 20s as she tried to find her own place in the world.

For three summers, Tevis worked as an interpretive park ranger in South Carolina, Oregon and Georgia, giving evening campground talks and leading hikes. “It was a great summer job and [it] let me try out living somewhere without any commitment. It’s sort of like academia in that way — you go anywhere for the job.”

One place she went was Minnesota, on a post-MFA fellowship; she was the Edelstein-Keller Discovery Fellow at the University of Minnesota. She stayed here for four years.

Now she’s back in South Carolina, her home state, teaching at Furman University and working on her next book, a collection of longer-form essays about ghost towns, tourist traps and atomic dread.

The mushroom cloud

“I’ve been really interested in place and the traces we leave on a place, the intersection of people and time. I think the A-bomb is in the zeitgeist right now. It’s in the new Batman movie; there’s a mushroom cloud at the end. It’s in Toy Story 3. It’s everywhere, we just aren’t talking about it,” she says. “I read somewhere that people are looking back at the mushroom cloud with nostalgia, as a ‘symbol of simpler times.’ I couldn’t let that go.”

In 2009, Orion magazine published Tevis’ essay “Fairy Tales of an Atomic Age,” and it sparked the beginning of a new book. Tevis dived into the literature, film and history of the atomic era, getting to know the topic’s often bizarre cultural history and the amazing characters behind the technology, including Robert J. Oppenheimer.

“He was a very tortured person, understandable, but very charming. I can just look at those pictures, and he is so elegant, so urbane. And I think, ‘Boy, that guy really must have known how to mix a martini.’ “