Reading with... Tessa Fontaine

photo: Claire Marika

Tessa Fontaine's writing has appeared in PANK, Seneca Review, the Rumpus, Sideshow World and elsewhere. She holds an MFA from the University of Alabama and is working on a PhD in creative writing at the University of Utah. She also eats fire and charms snakes, among other sideshow feats. The Electric Woman: A Memoir in Death-Defying Acts (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, May 1, 2018) is her first book. She lives in South Carolina.

On your nightstand now:

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel. I'm almost done with this one, and truthfully, I'd like to hide out for a few days so I can finish and then immediately reread it. A traveling symphony and band of Shakespeare performers journey together after a flu epidemic has wiped out most of humanity, and the novel amazingly weaves the stories of a handful of characters pre- and post-epidemic. I love the way the characters diverge and then reconnect, and how at the center of it all, this human need to perform and tell stories and see art connects people to one another.

The Secret Lives of Color by Kassia St. Clair. My mom was a painter, but beyond that, she was a lover of colors, so I (have been forced to?) pay a lot of attention to color. This book gives little histories to 75 colors, with anecdotal stories about the ways we have revered them or used them or the mythos behind their naming, like Dragon's Blood, a shade similar to maroon, in whose description we get a brief history of dragon-sightings. I like to read this book before I go to bed, especially if I've been reading Shirley Jackson or something and have scared myself awake.

It Had Been Planned and There Were Guides by Jessica Lee Richardson. I've read this collection of stories before, but wanted to revisit this one story, "Not the Problem," about a lonely grandmother who befriends a family of talking spiders. The writing is so weird and beautiful, and it's fabulist in a way that makes it ring perfectly true. This book plays with short story forms in wild and wonderful ways.

Favorite book when you were a child:

The Patchwork Cat by William Mayne, illustrated by Nicola Bayley. This illustrated book is the story of the cat Tabby whose favorite old quilt is thrown into the garbage. She follows it out and takes a nap on it, only to find she's been dumped into a truck and taken to the dump. She must carry the quilt in her little cat teeth on an arduous quest back home. The illustrations are so evocative--both gorgeous and emotional. I still perfectly remember the cat's pained face as she is dragging that blanket home, her furrowed eyebrows, her matted, garbage-laden fur--and also her determination. Apparently, I was so obsessed with reading this book at a friend's house when I was young that her parents just sent the book home with me one day. Persistence!

Hatchet by Gary Paulsen. As a kid whose parents divorced when I was very young, the story of a boy flying between newly divorced parents whose plane crashes in the woods had the perfect emotional grounding. And then the real tale is about how he survives alone in the wilderness! It's great, with the kind of gore and terror that kids love--like the scene where Brian (still remember his name without looking it up, thank you very much) has to dive into the sunken plane to retrieve supplies and sees the bloated, drowned pilot still buckled in. Maybe I should blame more of my darkness on Gary Paulsen.

Your top five authors:

This is so hard to choose, so I'm going to qualify this by saying that this is my list of the moment:

Toni Morrison: her books have blown me away at every stage of my life that I've read them. Ok I'd probably always choose her.

Tana French: she both reveals so much in her books but also maintains mystery that makes her books so propulsive.

Jesmyn Ward: both Salvage the Bones and Sing, Unburied, Sing are two of the best novels I've ever read, and the collection The Fire This Time: A New Generation Speaks About Race, which she edited, is dynamite.

Stephen King: he is, of course, the master of horror. One of his lesser-known books, Lisey's Story, is one of my favorites of all time. And On Writing is fantastically helpful and funny. When I need a treat or reward, I read King.

Robert Hass: I fell in love with Hass's poems when I was in high school, and they still strike me as some of the finest poetry I've ever read. They are not easy, but they are fairly accessible, and they are funny (like his poem about nose-picking called "Shame: An Aria," which is total genius), and sexy and smart and deep and happy and sad.

Book you've faked reading:

I've never read War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy, but once someone told me it was foolish to be a writer without having read that book, so I said I had, and he asked me something about it, and I excused myself for the bathroom.

Book you're an evangelist for:

Lately, Things That Are by Amy Leach. This collection of essays begins with some subject matter from the natural world and through a series of amazing and unexpected leaps, connect disparate ideas and objects and animals in such a way so as to make me feel as if everything in the world is new again.

Book you've bought for the cover:

I have a collection of the old Oz series by L. Frank Baum (and then others, over the years), most of which I haven't read, but they have gorgeously illustrated covers. I have them in a glass case and display them like fine china.

Book you hid from your parents:

Somehow I got my paws on the techno-thriller The Andromeda Strain by Michael Crichton in third grade. It was a hard book to read--each page took me a long time to decipher--but I was so enthralled by reading something I probably wasn't supposed to be reading that I carried on until at least page 60, which took me probably two months.

Book that changed your life:

The Mistress of Spices by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni. This is the first hardcover non-children's book I ever had, purchased at a reading of hers I accidentally stumbled into with my mom. We didn't have much money, and it was a big deal my mom bought me this book. I loved it first for that preciousness, and then once I read the book, I loved it like a limb. The language is poetic and stunning, there is sex and magic, and it absolutely changed what I, as a 12-year-old, thought was possible to make happen with words. I think it might be the moment that I knew I would never stop writing.

Favorite line from a book:

This line, from the poem "From Blossoms" by Li-Young Lee:

"There are days we live/ as if death were nowhere/ in the background."

I liked it so much I quoted it in the speech I gave at college graduation. It made me feel very wise.

Five books you'll never part with:

House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski: so weird, so formally creative, so mysterious and compulsive. I treasure the object.

The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien: one of my favorites of all time. A circular, nonlinear book about war that blurs some interesting fiction/nonfiction lines.

The Chronology of Water by Lidia Yuknavitch: a stunning, heartbreaking memoir of loss and swimming and finding air with language that makes and then unmakes itself.

Coming Through Slaughter by Michael Ondaatje: this is a near-perfect book. The imagined life of a New Orleans jazz musician we know very little about. It's written in fragments and operates like a mystery at times. So good.

Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O'Dell: this was another early favorite. It follows the story of a Native American girl learning to survive alone on an island. She is bold and brave and miraculous.

Though to be honest, this list really includes about a thousand books.

Book you most want to read again for the first time:

The Round House by Louise Erdrich. At the heart of this novel is a mystery--who attacked Joe's mother? But the book is far from simple. It's set on the edge of an Ojibwe reservation and dives deeply into questions of sacred spaces, land legality, spiritual travel, familial healing, racism, sexism and the moments when we cross our most important thresholds. In addition to the urgency and compulsion of the story, the writing is so, so, so damn good. It's a perfect mix of wanting to turn the page faster to know what happens and wanting to slow it all down to enjoy the ride. Erdrich is a wonder.

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