The incredible Jo Ann Beard makes the leap to fiction
by Jo Ann Beard
Little, Brown and Company
$23.99 List Price
Jo Ann Beard is primarily known as a writer of that somewhat stigmatized genre, creative nonfiction. But what is creative nonfiction? How does it differ from the ineffably hipper "new journalism"? Same reliance on the stylistic techniques of fiction, but no facts, only memories and musings? Is "creative nonfiction" just the academy's mask for much-maligned memoir? For the fact is, those graduating from an MFA program like the University of Iowa's Nonfiction Writing Program, as Beard did in 1994, will likely need a day job. Beard, for one, became managing editor of the university's space-physics quarterly. She liked the comfort of it, and the flexible hours, and then on a day she left the office early, an unhinged Ph.D. student shot and killed the journal's editor—her close friend—as well as five others.
The essay Beard wrote in the wake of the tragedy, "The Fourth State of Matter," shows just what creative nonfiction can do. It makes a point of delineating first the quotidian bleakness of her recently separated life, and only then the shooting that bursts in on it. We meet her incontinent collie; then, obliquely, the future victims in her office building: "Space physicists, guys who spend days on end with their heads poked through the fabric of the sky, listening to the sounds of the universe, guys whose own lives are ticking like alarm clocks getting ready to go off, although none of us are aware of it yet." Visually acute, intensely personal, and all the more affecting for being emotionally muffled, the piece, which was published in the New Yorker in 1996, launched Beard's