Amy Leach’s book, Things That Are, is a collection of essays that are equal parts nature writing in the tradition of Mary Austin and language play like that of Lewis Carroll. Her work has been published in A Public Space, Tin House, Orion, and the Los Angeles Review. She has been recognized with the Whiting Writers’ Award, Best American Essays selections, a Rona Jaffe Foundation Award, and a Pushcart Prize. She plays bluegrass, teaches English, and lives in Montana.
In this interview, Leach discusses using rare words, beavers as a proof of God’s existence, and why nature has captured her imagination.
To read Leach’s essay, “In Which the River Makes Off With Three Stationary Characters,” and an exercise on writing surprising descriptions, click here.
One of the most striking things about your writing is your use of diction. In this essay alone, there are words that I knew but had to stare at for a moment before I recognized them in their new form (chatterboxy, sagitaries, heptangularly), words I’ve probably encountered before but couldn’t define with any certainty (glogg, yawing, gobbets, saltarellos),and words that I thought you’d invented until I looked them up (truckle, mouldywarp, bladderwort, mudpuppy), and words that I simply had never seen before (frumentary). I was reminded of the writer Alexander Theroux, who actively searches for forgotten words and has said that he believes it’s the duty of writers to keep such words alive. This keeping-alive philosophy extends to his work, which includes a book, Primary Colors, with three sections about everything that is red, green, or blue. I wonder if you feel this same way, especially given the last chapter of the book, “Glossary of Strange Beasts and Phenomena”. Are you trying to save wonderful things (and with words, the effort and thought and experience that went into creating them) from oblivion?
I like the idea of rescuing words from extinction, of books being arks for drowning words; but I don’t know if my impulse is responsible enough for me to call what I’m doing a duty. I just enjoy words so long out of use they are almost nonsense again, as they were before they were used. English can be as fun as Jabberwocky.
As I reread the essay, I was struck by how much of it is purely informational: here is what beavers do, here is what salmon do. It’s not until the final section, really, that you put that information to work in a kind of argument. This runs counter to the usual structure of essays, which almost always contain some rhetorical turn after the first paragraph or so, a move to transform an interesting detail or anecdote into a thesis. But you don’t do this. The first four pages contain more and more descriptions of beavers. The next three are about salmon and their parallels with beavers. And then, in the last two pages, you apply these parallels to human experience, where the essay’s meaning—if we want to use that word—becomes clear. Have you ever gotten pushback from editors or your first readers, anyone asking you to use a more traditional structure?
I did want for the beavers to be beavers, for salmon to mean salmon, rather than being proof of a point. I remember, in doing research on this essay, watching a little video of beavers in the wild. Down below, in the comments section, there was an excited dispute over whether beavers proved the existence of God or proved the nonexistence of God. Nobody was excited about the beavers–just about their own opinions, which beavers happened to support. The beavers could have been wolverines or worms: the conversation below would have been the same. This seems to illustrate the philosophical peril of starting out with a thesis (opinion) and using the rest of the essay (the world) to prove it. This is how I often think–in a thesis-driven way–but it’s not how I want to think, and I love how in writing you can work out the way you want to think.
One of my favorite lines in the essay is this one: “The beavers’ reaction to the papal renaming highlights two of their especial qualities: their affability and their unyieldingness.” It’s so unexpected—even though the language is fresh and the opening situation (beavers being classified as fish) is almost fanciful, the descriptions of the beavers themselves are rooted in fact and observation. As a result, when I read the word qualities, I expected something about their physiology or behavior—anything but affability. It’s a word that seems to illustrate what you write at the end of the essay: that there is a kind of experience that “spills you into a place whose dimensions make nonsense of your heretofore extraordinary spatial intelligence.” Do you make choices (diction, sentence structure, details, metaphors) in your writing that aim for nonsense-making, or is this just an effect of your natural style?
I suppose it is natural, my affinity for nonsense. If you’re naturally a sensible person and you try by conscious effort and choice to be nonsensical, it may just come off as quirky, effortfully quirky. It seems best to stay true to your own nature, whether that nature is sensible or not.
Some of the essays in the book, like “Stairs,” are less about nature than human experience of nature and the world and experience itself. It makes me wonder if you can imagine a transition in which you begin to focus less on animals and plants and on something else (airplanes, societal structures). Or, do you think you’ll always focus on the natural world? After all, you live in Montana, where presence of the natural world is every bit the equal of the human presence.
I wrote most of the book while I was living in Chicago, brimming with airplanes and societal structures–so these were the last things in the world I wanted to spend time thinking about. Where one’s real life is not swamped with airplanes and society, one could possibly afford to devote more imagination to them. Though I expect it will always be the green things and the creatures who have my heart, for they are real.
Michael Noll is the Editor of Read to Write Stories.