Interview: Sandra Beasley
Written by Andrew Keating
Cobalt: So, Don’t Kill the Birthday Girl… first venture into memoir/non-fiction?
Sandra Beasley: I took a couple of creative nonfiction workshops while in my MFA program at American University, each time making it a point to say to my teacher (the wonderful Richard McCann), “Now let’s be clear: you’re not luring me over to the dark side.” I was quite stubborn in choosing poetry over prose. But eventually I realized that some of the stories I wanted to share were being shoehorned into verse, rather than being a natural fit. So my nonfictioneering really started with the Washington Post Magazine, where I got the chance to contribute to the “XX Files,” a series of 800-word columns (at least in my case) from the perspective of a 20-something, contemporary city girl.
Cobalt: You use your own experiences to enlighten the unaware to how debilitating severe allergies can be, which makes this book read as half-memoir, half-educational text. What were some of your objectives in writing this book?
Beasley: The world does not need another navel-gazing memoir; it was so important to me to share stories beyond my own in this book. My generation’s experience is very different from that of someone born now with food allergies, or a mother to a child of that cohort, so interviews were an important element. I needed to tackle peanut allergy, even though I’m not allergic to peanuts. Also, there is a lot of really compelling science (protein shapes and epitopes) and quirky cultural history (Henry Ford’s obsession with the soybean) that is relevant to the issue of food allergies, but not part of the casual consciousness of someone living with them. So I wanted to acknowledge a “search” for understanding, including such journeys as the AAAAI Conference in New Orleans, that would let me organically introduce those discoveries and tangents.
Cobalt: What are some of the key differences in your experience with the publishing of non-fiction versus poetry?
Beasley: Oh, it’s night and day. The world of poetry publishing is driven by an aesthetic impulse to play, paired with the desire to pleasure, inspire, and throw back a scotch with your friends in craft. The world of nonfiction publishing is driven by an impulse to tell a unique story, and the desire to win over an relatively anonymous public. But that doesn’t mean that the latter has any lesser number of talented, smart people working hard and out of a genuine love for literature. I’m finding the two genres balance each other, actually. The strategist in me enjoys moving a nonfiction book through the world. The artist in me will always take refuge in poetry. Either way, nothing beats walking into a random bookstore in a new town and finding your work on the shelf, and I’m exceptionally lucky to have two publishers–W. W. Norton for poetry, Crown for nonfiction–that have that power and reach.
Cobalt: You have been widely recognized for your work in poetry. How has the reception of this book differed from the reception of your poetry?
Beasley: When I was in Mississippi this past summer, I learned that my book had ended up on the pages of PEOPLE. I was driving to my then-boyfriend’s gig in Tupelo that night, and on the way to the show I dashed into a WAL-MART, found a copy (poor Amy Winehouse was on the cover; she’d just died), and made the woman working the register turn to the page and look with me. That doesn’t happen with poetry. Though poetry has its own wonders; I never knew just how many people had a passion for the capybara until “Unit of Measure” appeared in the 2010 Best American Poetry.
Cobalt: What advice would you offer a poet who is attempting to write a work of prose for the first time? Did you seek advisement in that process?
Beasley: I got an incredible bit of advice through a random conversation with Philip Lopate, the renowned essayist, who happened to be in DC for a Writer’s Center anniversary. I’m on the Center’s Board, and we hosted a brunch for him in tandem with his reading. We crossed paths, cradling our mimosas, over by a huge pan of frittata that had been cooked by the wife of the Board chair. In lieu of small talk, I 1) expressed my huge admiration, and 2) babbled about my insecurities. I had just signed the contract on Don’t Kill the Birthday Girl – 60,000 words due in a year – and I told him I wasn’t sure if I could really balance the science, cultural history, and personal story in the way I’d told the publisher I could. “Just pursue your interests, no matter where they lead you” he said. “If you show why it is genuinely interesting to you, the reader will follow.” Those words gave me so much room to explore, to dare, to wander. I owe him one.
Sandra Beasley’s most recent book is Don’t Kill the Birthday Girl: Tales from an Allergic Life, a memoir and cultural history of food allergy. She is also the author of I Was the Jukebox, winner of the Barnard Women Poets Prize, and Theories of Falling, winner of the New Issues Poetry Prize. Other honors for her work include selection for the 2010 Best American Poetry, the 2010 University of Mississippi Summer Poet in Residence position, a DCCAH Artist Fellowship, the Friends of Literature Prize from the Poetry Foundation, and the Maureen Egen Exchange Award from Poets & Writers. She lives in Washington, D.C.