Author of KU’s first common book shares thoughts on writing, college, Kansas and more

The author: Eula Biss

AGE: 35

FAMILY: Husband John Bresland, a nonfiction writer and video essayist, and son Juneau, 3.

LIVES IN: Rogers Park, Ill. “We still live in the same apartment, the same building, that I wrote about in ‘Notes From No Man’s Land,'” although the rapid gentrification has slowed.

EDUCATION: Bachelor’s degree in nonfiction writing from Hampshire College in Amherst, Mass.; Master of Fine Arts from the nonfiction writing program at the University of Iowa in Iowa City.

EMPLOYMENT: Writing instructor at Northwestern University.

ALSO WROTE: “The Balloonists,” 2002, a series of narrative prose poems about family.

HOBBIES: “My days are really simple. I’m either writing or I’m outside with my son at a park or a beach or a playground.”

Common books around the nation

Many colleges and universities have programs that promote the reading of a common book. Below are some selections from around the nation.

University of Tennessee: “The Accidental Asian: Notes of a Native Speaker” by Eric Liu.

Cornell University: “The Life Before Us” by Romain Gary.

Duke University: “State of Wonder” by Ann Patchett.

Smith College: “Dreaming in French: The Paris Years of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy, Susan Sontag and Angela Davis” by Alice Yeager Kaplan.

University of Florida: “The Dressmaker of Khair Khana” by Gayle Tzemach Lemmon.

University of Kentucky: “The Unforgiving Minute: A Soldier’s Education” by Craig Mullaney.

University of North Carolina: “The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains” by Nicholas Carr.

University of Wisconsin: “Radioactive: A Tale of Love and Fallout” by Lauren Redniss.

Kansas State University: “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” by Rebecca Skloot.

Ball State University: “Where Am I Wearing” by Kelsey Timmerman.

Kansas University has chosen Eula Biss’ collection of essays “Notes From No Man’s Land” as its inaugural common book. Biss, who teaches nonfiction writing at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., will be visiting KU in October. She took some time this summer to speak with the Journal-World about her work and the honor of being chosen for the university’s program.

Your book “Notes From No Man’s Land” is critically acclaimed and has won a number of prestigious awards, including the Pushcart Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award. Is it a special kind of accolade to have it chosen as a common book that 5,000 or so people may be reading and discussing?

EB: Yes. It means that a whole community is going to be discussing it, and that’s pretty incredible to me. It’s really exciting to me to think about such a large and diverse community engaging with my work.

You will be coming to Kansas in October as part of the book program. Have you been to Kansas before?

EB: No, I haven’t. Well, I’ve driven through it. I’ve driven across the country a number of times, but it’s not the same. I’m really excited to come out there.

Lawrence is very similar to Iowa City, in terms of student culture. In one of your essays, “Is This Kansas?,” you’re very critical of that student culture (the substance use, the rowdiness) and at the same time sympathetic to what you see as the powerlessness of undergraduates. I would think that for an undergraduate reading this book there’s an invitation to self-scrutiny, but also maybe a call to arms?

EB: I definitely feel strongly, even now as a professor, about the ways undergraduates are made powerless or taken advantage of within the institution. But that essay is a tricky one because I’m simultaneously commiserating with the students and examining the ways in which they aren’t really treated like other minority groups that are arguably more powerless in our society. A lot of the examples I use in that essay are how students do a lot of things that other minority groups do in this country. For example, students live many of them to a house. Lots of immigrants do that, but when immigrants do it, it’s often targeted by laws and communities. When students do it, it’s just part of the college experience. It’s not seen as a kind of cultural violation.

There are several mentions of Kansas in your book: the lynchings in the “Telephone Poles” essay, the Laura Ingalls Wilder material in the title essay, and then the essay “Is This Kansas?” Does Kansas have a kind of metaphorical/literary significance to you?

EB: Yeah, it does. And it has a lot of dimensions. Part of it is going back to Laura Ingalls Wilder being representative of the American frontier, but also being symbolic of the Heartland. More than Iowa or Illinois, where I’ve spent my time in the Midwest, I think Kansas is thought of as the quintessentially Midwestern state, and that’s part of how it made its way into that essay “Is This Kansas?,” which is really about Iowa. The idea of how the Midwest defines itself is really important to that essay, and that’s part of how Kansas crept in there. And I’ve seen this a few other places, too, like the book “What’s the Matter with Kansas?” isn’t really about Kansas, but it is about how people think about themselves.

Why did you pick that as the title of that essay?

EB: Part of it, I was thinking of Dorothy’s experience of being caught up in a tornado and suddenly finding herself in a strange land where odd things happened. People wore emerald glasses and a ventriloquist stood behind a screen, and a lot of that “Wizard of Oz” stuff is very evocative for me of what it feels like to begin to see behind the screen a little bit, in any place, but that’s how I felt when I was living in Iowa. The double meaning for me was also about how the Midwest defines itself and the reluctance of people in Iowa City to admit that looting had happened there after a bad storm as well as in New Orleans after a very bad storm. It seemed very connected to the stories the place wanted to tell about itself, so that question “Is this Kansas?” I was thinking of as a question about Iowa too. Is this the Midwest? If we don’t act the way we imagine Midwesterners act, is that where we really are?

What advice would you give to incoming college students? In your book you said you were impatient and argumentative in the classroom and were “the very kind of student whom I now dread.”

EB: (laughing) The advice I would offer is for those students entering into a liberal arts education to really use what the liberal arts have to offer, which is exposure to a lot of different areas of thought. Now that I am where I am in life and working on another book, I often have regrets about things that I didn’t study as an undergrad. I studied a whole bunch of obscure material. I wish now that I’d taken a lot more coursework in the natural sciences and even in the social sciences. Most of my coursework was in the arts and humanities, and I think one of the beauties of a liberal arts education is that you can work all over the place and come out with a really broad base of knowledge. I see some of my students really taking advantage of that, students who double major in geology and English or applied math and English. But it’s harder now. Students are more and more encouraged to specialize and spend a lot of time in one area and to be thinking as soon as they enter college about the usefulness of their degree and what kind of work they’re going to go into, and I think it’s still really useful for us as people who have unpredictable lives ahead of us to know a lot about a lot of different kinds of things.

You went as an undergrad to Hampshire College (an experimental college in Massachusetts where there are no grades). Do you grade your students at Northwestern?

EB: Yeah, I do, and I’ve occasionally voiced the desire to have all writing courses taught on a pass/fail system, and whenever I bring that up I’m told resolutely that that is not a possibility and will never happen. I would very much like not to work with grades. I think there are some situations where they are pedagogically useful, but in the vast majority of situations I don’t find grades a very useful tool for teaching, and I think that they’re often really distracting for students — from the things I want them to be paying attention to and thinking about. Grades can limit ambition in that once a student is satisfied that they’ve done what they need to do to get an “A,” there isn’t a whole lot of incentive to do more, even if their abilities allow for it.

Was there a particular book that made a big impression on you when you were in college?

EB: You know, the work that I began reading in college and have continued to read and reread, over and over, for the last 15 years is Joan Didion’s “Slouching Towards Bethlehem” and “The White Album.” She’s been an incredibly important writer to me and I first encountered her work as an undergraduate. … My essay “Goodbye to All That” is a rewrite of Didion’s essay (of the same name). That essay is very much in conversation with her and her work. Thinking about New York and thinking about narrative, but also thinking about a subject that I feel almost belongs to Didion. It’s a subject that she’s worked over so much, which is how do the stories we tell ourselves affect how we live, and that question of hers is actually all over my book.

Have you ever met her?

EB: No, and it’s funny, I have no desire to meet her. I feel like I’m still working on getting everything I can get from her work. I feel like her work has so much to offer that I hardly need the real person.

Do you have any other favorite essayists?

EB: Oh yeah, a lot of them, and a lot of poets that I like too. I started off also writing poetry so have had a lot of interaction with the poetry community, so there are probably as many poets who are important to me as essayists. James Baldwin has been really important to me. “Notes of a Native Son.” And Adrienne Rich, a poet who’s written some very beautiful essays. Charles Simic also. Amy Leach whose book (“Things That Are”) just came out. She’s a friend of mine but has also had a lot of influence on me as a writer. Her work is really interesting and exciting to me.

The dedication of your book is very poignant: “To my baby, who doesn’t have a name yet.” Were you expecting at the time or was it more metaphorical? It makes a nice bookend opposite your final essay “All Apologies,” where you allude to an unknown relative with whom you nevertheless have a deep connection.

EB: Yes. I was, for most of the time I was doing the finalization of the book, expecting. The book, as much as it’s thinking about race, it’s also thinking about kinship and family … and how we name each other.

What are you reading right now?

EB: A lot of things. The book that I have open in front of me, on my desk as we’re talking, is called “The New Jim Crow” (by Michelle Alexander). It has a lot to do with what I was writing about in my last book. I’m using it also as a reference for the new book I’m writing, which is about medical controversies in public health … I thought I was doing science writing, that I was doing something totally outside the sphere of my last book, but it’s turned out that many of the same ideas have surfaced in this work. Race and privilege have turned out to be very relevant to this issue of public health. And then there’s the base question of what we owe each other, how do we protect each other, how do we take care of each other in communities; all those questions that I was thinking about in “Notes from No Man’s Land” are coming into this new work a lot.