By Leslie Lindsay
Marvels and miracles. Mothers and daughters. Life and death. I promise, THE ELECTRIC WOMAN will stun and captivate you and then you’ll want to read it all over again. Tessa Fontaine is hear chatting about joining a traveling side show, her love of writing, her favorite M&Ms and so much more.
I am such a sucker for a fabulous memoir so when this one came knocking, I was mesmerized. And it’s so well-written, THE ELECTRIC WOMAN (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux May 2018) practically sings; I cannot stop thinking about–and talking about–this book.
Tessa Fontaine expertly braids two tales of death-defying acts into one bold, remarkable narrative–that of her 2013 season with the World of Wonders, the last official traveling sideshow in America and that of her mother, who suffered a severe stroke in 2010. Her mother is told countess times, ‘this is the end,’ but she is determined not to let go of this world.
On stages all across America, Tessa is eating fire, charming snakes, and performing as the electric woman–but she’s thinking of her mother–who is on here own ‘world tour,’ of sorts to Italy, a place she and her husband longed to travel. But she’s voiceless and in a wheelchair and maybe she won’t come back.
I fell in love with Tessa’s determination, her willingness to ‘hack it,’ and I was so in awe of her writing and how everything she wrote–the carnies, the misfits, the grit–tied in so effortlessly. This would be no easy feat as the emotional and physical breadth of THE ELECTRIC WOMAN encompasses so much, including a touch of brain science and biology.
This is an enthralling read and will have you pondering your own capabilities, how much you love, what you might be able to withstand, and those brittle relationships that hinge on trust and forgiveness.
Please join me in welcoming Tessa Fontaine to the author interview series.
Tessa, welcome! I am raving over this book. I mean, wow. I think I know what was haunting you when you set out to write THE ELECTRIC WOMAN, but can you tell us more about what was going on during that time?
Thanks, Leslie. Two and a half years before I joined the sideshow, my mom had a series of massive strokes that left her unable to walk or talk. It happened at the same time my family lost their house, so in many ways, everything got thrown upside down for me. I was overcome with grief. My mom wasn’t dead, but she also wasn’t the person I knew before.
At first, I hope the book could be a distanced, journalistic account of America’s last traveling sideshow, but the monster living in me disagreed.
I felt like a starving, razor-clawed beast was living inside my body, flicking my heart and tearing at my guts to get out.
I’d never felt that before, that obsessive, relentless drive to tell a particular story. The sideshow was inexorably tied up with the story of my mom’s long illness—and watching her suffer, trying to help, failing to help, rethinking the risk we choose for our bodies, all of that was part of my sideshow story. That’s one of the things that struck me so much about the sideshow, that there were these extraordinary performers choosing to do dangerous acts and assume risk over and over again, acts that are sometimes painful—and how surprisingly parallel that was with the way my mom had to suffer in her various therapies as she worked so hard to try to recover, and then chose to suffer as she and my stepdad decided to take a long-delayed trip around the world, from which nobody thought they’d return. That suffering was necessary for the eventual wonder.
“This is the story of a daughter and her mother. It’s also a memoir, a love story, and a tale of high-flying stunts. It recounts an adventure toward and through fear as Tessa Fontaine performs as an escape artist, fire-eater, and snake charmer with the World of Wonders, a traveling sideshow.”
Your mother’s first stroke was in 2010. You joined the World of Wonders in 2013. The book came out in May 2018. I’m curious how long it took you to actually write. It’s a loaded question, I know…but can you give us a sense of the timeline?
Sure thing. While I was on the road with the show in 2013, I took obsessive notes. I wrote a few short essays there that were published while I was with the show, sort of “Notes from the Road,” but really I finished the season at the end of 2013 with just a pile of notes. It took two and a half years for me to write the book. I started when I got to the PhD program I was beginning, at the University of Utah, in the beginning of 2014. I finished in 2016, and worked on edits for a year with my glorious, brilliant editor at FSG, Jenna Johnson. Then, once a book goes into the publishing pipeline, it’s a full year after you finish final edits before the book comes out.
And the World of Wonders! I am so intrigued and worried and fearful of the feats you endured. That snake! The fire! You had absolutely no training in any of this beforehand. Can you tell us why you choose the carnival and why you didn’t just run away screaming?
Years before I began writing THE ELECTRIC WOMAN, before I even knew that the sideshow I’d eventually join, the World of Wonders, existed, I was obsessed with sideshows. My stepdad told me stories about a very early friendship he had with a retired sideshow performer, a little person, whose mother had been a bearded lady. I had no idea what path would unfold when I started doing my own research, even when I joined the show. But I followed my obsession. My mom’s stroke and suffering was another obsession. It was a very hard, very painful obsession that was a big part of my daily life. Nothing I wrote could be separated from it, because it was the defining lens of my experience. I like to think about writing in terms of obsession, because the things we’re genuinely interested in, delighted by, the threads we tug and tug reflect our particular way of thinking—and that is one of the things that makes reading so exciting. But to get back to your exact question—I think not running away is the whole point of the book for me. Yes, feats in the sideshow are scary and painful and things it would be obvious to run away from. The same is true for helping your mother’s severely disabled body get on and off the toilet. But you don’t run. You stay with the pain. You stay with the danger. You stay with the love.
You met so many bright, colorful personalities during your time with the World of Wonders. Are you still in touch?
I’m still in touch with a number of the performers, yes! And one of the greatest parts of being on book tour has been seeing some of them pop up at events. I’m so in awe of the performers. And the show still tours around –everyone should follow the World of Wonders on Facebook, and go see the show!
And yet you’re a writer at heart. You teach and are working on a PhD in creative writing. I could ask what advice you’d give to writers…aren’t you glad I’m not? Instead—have you always wanted to write? And how do you keep the saw sharp? What inspires—and challenges—you?
I’ve always wanted to write and I’ve always written. When I was very young I wrote cautionary poems about guns, and then about being a two-inch tall fairy and what I would use each kind of plant and food item for. Like, acorn: hat. Carrot stick: sled. I wrote the beginnings of a lot of novels in elementary school full of plot twists involving amnesia and diamonds. And then plays featuring circus-performing insects who live in grocery bags. And on and on. I’ve always felt that I understand the world and myself best through writing it down. I’m not a great oral storyteller. I’m mediocre at talking about myself. But I’m happy to write and write, either making things up or processing the facts of the world as I understand them. I keep the saw sharp by always using it. I usually write five days a week, even if it’s only a little bit, even if it’s terrible. I read constantly. Reading books keeps me wanting to write books keeps me wanting to read books keeps me wanting to write. I’m inspired by learning about weird things in the world around me. Like that birds see in UV. Like the way kid logic works when they’re solving problems. Like obsessive subcultures such as the sideshow. I have the same challenges as most writers, which is a pretty constant crippling self-doubt. But I think that’s ok. It’s annoying, but it keeps me having to ask if what I’m working on is worthwhile, is carefully rendered and thought-through.
What do you hope others take away from THE ELECTRIC WOMAN?
To scratch a wild itch. Do something bold. Sit still with a person who can’t be in the world the same way you are—an older person, a person with a disability, a person you haven’t spent much time with. Talk to them. Go forward with a thing that’s important to you, even though it is painful. It won’t stop being painful. But you just do the thing anyway.
What’s next for you? Are you working on another novel-length book? Something else?
I’m working on a novel! It’s dark. I tried to write funny animal stories instead, but they didn’t pan out.
Tessa, this has been so fun. Is there anything I’ve forgotten to ask, but should have?
You forgot to ask about my favorite kind of m&m! Peanut.
Also, one more note: we need all kinds of people to write all kinds of stories to ensure that there isn’t one story that seems like the only story out there. So keep writing. Keep reading. And always read more than you write.
For more information, to connect with the author via social media, or to purchase a copy of THE ELECTRIC WOMAN, please visit:
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: 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.
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.
Raised outside San Francisco, Tessa got her MFA from the University of Alabama and is currently a doctoral student in creative writing at the University of Utah. She has received awards and fellowships from Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, The Taft Nicholson Center, Writing by Writers, Squaw Valley Community of Writers, and more.
She has taught for the New York Times summer journeys, at the Universities of Alabama and Utah, in prisons in Alabama and Utah, and founded a Salt Lake City Writers in the Schools program.
Around the country, she has performed her one-woman plays in theatres ranging from New York to San Francisco. The scar on her cheek from a 2am whip act is slowly fading.
You can connect with me, Leslie Lindsay, via these websites:
- Facebook: LeslieLindsayWriter
- Twitter: @LeslieLindsay1
- Instagram: @LeslieLindsay1
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New York Times Editor’s Choice * Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers pick * Amazon editor’s Best Books of 2018 (so far) *
Amazon Best Book of May * iBooks Favorites: MayRefinery29 Best Books of May* A Patch Book You Need to Read in May * Mag the Weekly’s Reads of the Week (Pakistan) * San Francisco Magazine Memoir to Read Right Now * A New York Times “One of Ten New Books We Recommend This Week” * Publisher’s Weekly Starred Review
[Cover and author image courtesy of FSG and used with permission. Image of author eating fire retrieved from author’s website on 9.13.18]