David Naimon: Today’s episode is brought to you by Jane Wong’s Meet Me Tonight in Atlantic City, a debut memoir about family, food, girlhood, resistance, and growing up in a Chinese-American restaurant on the Jersey Shore. Says Sally Wen Mao, “Meet Me Tonight in Atlantic City takes a father’s addiction to the prismatic casinos of Atlantic City and places it against a mother’s fierce, unsparing devotion and a daughter’s struggle to make sense of loss. I love the tenderness and ferocity of her prose, unsentimental and wrenching, that refuses easy triumph in its immigrant story and isn’t afraid of uncovering both beauty and brutality. Meet Me Tonight in Atlantic City is, at heart, a love story between Wong and her mother, Wong and herself.” Meet Me Tonight in Atlantic City is out on May 16th from Tin House and available for pre-order now. Even though today’s conversation is ostensibly about Melanie Rae Thon’s new novel, it really is a conversation that is deeply relevant for writers of any genre, both because Thon’s approach to language and story emerges from a poetics, a relationship to language that is non-connotative, preverbal, musical, and also because her ideas regarding the relation of memory to the imagination extend the questions of personal experience and autobiography in relation to the people or other creatures we create, and imagine on the page, whether “real beings” or made up ones. As If Fire Could Hide Us is described as “A love song in three movements,” and this description raises questions of what it means to write from love or toward love, and how doing so might change a story or the syntax of a sentence or line and what the implications are of being attentive to another, whether another human, someone we love or someone we fear, someone we’ve harmed or someone we’ve been harmed by, or to an animal, a plant, a rock, or to the wind, what being attentive to what Thon calls the ethics of perception might do to point of view, to character, or to plot. You’re going to soon experience firsthand just how generous, attentive, and loving Melanie is to every being in her stories, why she is, and to what end. She’s been equally generous to supporters and future supporters of Between the Covers. As I say at the beginning of every episode, every listener-supporter of the show gets the resource-rich email with each episode, an email that contains what I discovered as part of my preparation for the show, and suggestions of what to check out once you’ve finished listening. That’s true today also as usual. But because we talk about Melanie’s approach to how to teach writing, she has also given us two of her teaching documents, one called Memory & Adventure and the other The Gospel of Grief & Grace & Gratitude, as well as an extensive bibliography of some of the most important books for her. As if that were not enough, for the bonus audio archive, she contributes a craft talk. Most of the bonus audio archive consists of readings, really dynamic readings by past guests: Natalie Diaz reading Borges, Alice Oswald reading from The Book of Job, Forrest Gander reading a collaboration with a lichen scientist, Kaveh Akbar reading a poem he loves that nevertheless didn’t fit in his last book In Praise of the Laughing Worm. Occasionally, there are other things, perhaps most notably the long-form interviews with translators and more uncommonly, craft talks from Marlon James’ The 9 and 1/2 Rules of Seduction to Jeannie Vanasco’s How To Write Memorable Lines to today’s contribution by Melanie Rae Thon of her talk The Ethics of Perception. To find out about all the possible benefits of joining the Between the Covers Community and how to subscribe to the bonus audio archive, you can check it all out, all of this and more, at patreon.com/betweenthecovers. Now, for today’s episode with Melanie Rae Thon.
These stories are about to get unleashed. They’re about the wildness contained in all of us. “I think stories have some magical effect in the world. I think it’s really hard to live without stories and if somebody tells you this is the way you’re going to end up, you’re lucky if you can forget that.” “There’s me and then there’s writer guy me, and then there’s me working, which is the absence of me. It’s just a story.” “I had no idea how to write a novel. I didn’t know if it would ever come to fruition. I was working at a vet and lint-rolling puppy hair and cat dander off myself.” “They’re almost like really shy animals. They will come out of the woods but you have to stay very still and you have to pretend like you’re not interested in them.” “Artists tend to put their fingers in the wounds in the silences.” “I believe in the role of literature as a catalyst for dialogue and new forms of thinking.” “All the stuff I’m interested in is thrown into the washing machine that is my brain and it’s put on a spin.”
David Naimon: Good morning and welcome to Between the Covers. I’m David Naimon, your host. Today’s guest Melanie Rae Thon studied English at the University of Michigan, then pursued an M.A. In creative writing from Boston University. In the 90s, Granta named her one of the 20 Best Young American Novelists with her books in that decade including the two novels Meteors in August and Iona Moon, and her story collections Girls in the Grass and First, Body, the latter of which contains her most anthologized and taught story Xmas Jamaica Plain, originally published in Granta’s Best of Young American Novelists issue. Her works have appeared multiple times in Best American Short Stories, multiple times in the Pushcart Prize Anthology. They’ve won an O. Henry Prize and appeared everywhere from Ploughshares to Conjunctions. Her 2001 novel Sweet Hearts which received starred reviews from Kirkus, Booklist, and Publishers Weekly was described by the New York Times as follows, “In this novel, as in the most bracing of her short stories, Thon gives voice to the inarticulate, making vivid the yearning of those left out in the cold. Through the wildness and longing of her characters, she turns what could be a tale of grim endurance into a cry against forgetting.” In 2011, Graywolf released her new and selected stories called In This Light, and since then, her book-length work, including The Voice of the River and Silence & Song among others, has become more formally unconventional if also retaining a distinct thematic throughline of concerns. In fact, what Carole Maso says about The Voice of the River is true about both the work that precedes it and what has come to us since, “The Voice of the River is a beautifully written, deeply inclusive and profoundly spiritual work of art. I am moved by its great generosity above all, and its wisdom.” Melanie Rae Thon has taught at Emerson College, the University of Massachusetts, Syracuse University, Ohio State University, and most significantly at the University of Utah where she is Professor Emeritus and where she has taught in both the creative writing and environmental humanities programs. She has twice been a recipient of the National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship. She’s a winner of The Whiting Award, a Lannan Foundation Residency, and the Guggenheim Fellowship. She’s here today to talk about her latest book As If Fire Could Hide Us from Fiction Collective 2 in the University of Alabama Press. Mary Pinard says, “As If Fire Could Hide Us embodies a search for unconditional love as a healing force in a world that fractures and is fractured. These fictions test and extend the boundaries of loss and repair, darkness and beauty.” Paisley Rekdal adds, “As If Fire Could Hide Us asks its readers: What responsibility do we have to each other when, whether by accident or design, we commit great harm? Can we love strangers with the same depth as we love our family members and ourselves? And if so, what risks attend that love? As If Fire Could Hide Us is a work of great and radical empathy, a work of moral philosophy, a work of love.” Welcome to Between the Covers, Melanie Rae Thon.
Melanie Rae Thon: Hi, David. Thank you for that introduction.
DN: Your new book is subtitled “A Love Song in Three Movements” that you’ve described to me by email as three thematically intertwined movements that emerged from different time periods, each with its own distinct genesis. I want to talk about the story behind each movement’s origins, why and how you chose to place them together, what you mean by a love song and by a movement but first I wanted to start with the first movement called Orelia, in Hiding and what we encounter as we begin. The book opens like a poem or a fairy tale poem with white space written in lines, not sentences but then moves into an italicized address to Orelia, staying in lines but moving from the first person to the second person, then we end up in the mother’s point of view in third person, the prose now in sentences but periodically italicize phrases in lines will separate two paragraphs. All of this happens within the first four pages and remarkably without being disorienting. You said before, “I don’t advocate formal play for its own sake but as a means of intensification that slows perception and ignites ethical inquiry. This attention, this insane joy is the genesis, the heart, the hot core and dark energy of story,” and I feel like this opening is a great example of this. I feel right away both oriented and connected to voice, and also in a highly experimental space. I suspect it’s the voice that keeps us tethered, engaged, connected while formally everything shifts shape. But I’d love to hear both about your own relationship to the reader in relation to experiment and engagement, both acknowledging that these are often put in opposition, experiment, and engagement but also that opposition being something that I don’t think really stands up to scrutiny.
MRT: What an amazing question. In some ways, I don’t even think of it as experimentation, it’s what emerges from the material. When I first started composing Orelia, in Hiding, I never had a vision of the whole project when I started something. It’s always a process of discovery and this was a particularly long process of discovery. I conceived of the story in 2014 and the first ideas about the story were not about how I would tell it. The ideas came from I guess I’m going back to your genesis question here now, it came from a story I had heard about a young girl who had been assaulted and her throat had been slit actually, and they found her days later miraculously alive and obviously, the assailant had not expected her to survive that. I’m always really curious about who people will be afterward. It’s not the assault that’s so interesting as it is, who was the person before and who is that person afterward. I think of someone who goes through a very, very long recovery. Someone who’s had their throat slit obviously is going to be in the hospital for months and months, and months probably, and probably not able to speak for a long time. I should mention that the girl in my story does not have her throat slit, this was not the story that came to be but more that question of who you are before and who you are afterward. The voice that originally came to me was that opening voice that you describe as a kind of fairy tale. I love that description. That’s a beautiful description of it. I hadn’t really thought of it that way but I think that’s really accurate. I was stuck on that voice for a long time because shortly after I conceived of the story, I became very ill and could not work on it for years actually, so it was a story that came to me in different pieces. I had a box where I kept scraps of paper with notes for the story and they came from all different points of view of not just Orelia but a voice speaking to her, and that second-person voice you describe that comes very quickly and that is also italicized, and lineated, that voice I think of as the angelic. I don’t mean that in a religious way. I mean it as a kind of presence hovering above her like herself, the presence of herself, leaving herself, watching herself, and protecting herself but also the voice of the person who has recovered, the person who has survived that extreme experience and can tell the child who’s left in the forest about how she gets out of this. All of that happens in three pages, right? [laughs]
DN: Yeah. It’s really miraculous, the opening of this book. I think you must have an attraction to the number three as this book has three movements. You have an epigraph to your book Silence & Song that’s an unattributed Hasidic teaching that goes, “There are three ascending levels of how one mourns: with tears ~ that is the lowest ~ with silence ~ that is higher ~ and with song ~ that is the highest.” When we first long ago now decided to talk together for the show, you sent me this amazing package of your back catalog, both well-known books and lesser-known chapbooks but you also provided me a bird’s eye view of your career, with you organizing your life as a writer into three phases. I wondered if you could touch upon not necessarily the specific books but the qualities of those three phases for you in light of this question around form and experiment, and also voice and engagement.
MRT: I think I’ll start in the middle with the movement from Girls in the Grass and Meteors in August to Iona Moon which was my third book. I didn’t know that Iona Moon was going to be a novel when I first started out. Actually, two of the Iona Moon stories are included in Girls in the Grass, so I was already starting to work on that. But I’ve come to think of movements in my writing as the convergence of rupture and rapture. What happened while I was working on Iona Moon, I had a really profound rupture and that was a physical rupture, and also a neurological rupture which was I had Graves’ disease which is an autoimmune disease which causes hyperthyroidism and hypermetabolic state. I wasn’t diagnosed for over a year, maybe a year and a half, and that causes physical heart palpitations, heart racing, sweating, hyper anxiety. I think of it as having an anxiety attack for a year and a half, that sense of your body being out of control but what was happening neurologically during that time was also out of control. My neural networks were firing at this extraordinary pace, so I was getting an incredible amount of heightened sensory information, heightened memory, and heightened connection between events. I was crazy, basically. I was crazy. [laughter] I also think of it as being on an LSD journey for a year and a half. It was really unstoppable. It was a bombardment. But I realized during that time, I was writing hundreds and hundreds of pages in my own notebooks because I was just having these hyper sensations. I realized that if I had that kind of experience, everyone did, not all the time obviously but everyone had access to that kind of neurological explosion where everything becomes heightened, everything becomes connected. My process really changed while I was working on Iona Moon and that process was suddenly, I was composing hundreds of pages for every person in my book, every cow, every potato in my book. [laughter]
DN: Every potato. [laughter]
MRT: My mom said to me, “How do you know so much about potatoes?” [laughter]
DN: That’s wonderful. Do you want to speak about the way things have changed, say since Sweet Hearts 20 years ago, and what we’re reading now?
MRT: Sweet Hearts was 20 years ago? That’s terrifying. [laughter] I think that one of the things is I’ve begun to use the page more, both as a visual cue and as an oral cue so that I’m expecting the page to have an effect. I was down at Brigham Young University recently talking with a group of students and they asked me about the use of the colon in The 7th Man, which I thought was amazing to, “Why are we focusing on the colon?” [laughter] I turned it back on them, I said, “Before I answer that as the writer’s authorial voice, you tell me what your response to that was,” and one of them said, “Well, it invited me to read more as if I were reading poetry.” I thought, “Well, what does that mean to read more like poetry?” I think one thing is it slows the reader down, and also says, “It’s okay if you need to read this again. I think also the colon suggests that there’s something unsaid, there’s something in that space between the colon, then what looks like the next stanza really,” and another student said, “Well, I realize that as I read, I was going deeper and deeper, and deeper into the speaker’s consciousness.” That was marvelous. What a great idea that is. A third student said, “I had the sense that the colon means that the things on both sides of the colon are equal.” I should say this piece, The 7th Man, has commas and colons. That’s it. “On either side of a colon, there is something equal,” is what the student said. I started to realize that there was this egalitarian vision of everyone in the piece, that there was no stasis, there was no single point of view that it kept moving and moving through one portrayal after another.
DN: Well, I’ll just mention to the listeners who haven’t read the new book that The 7th Man, which we’re discussing at this moment, is the second movement of the book we’re discussing today. But let’s hear the opening to the first movement, Orelia, in Hiding, so people can hear this shift between three voices, three points of view.
[Melanie Rae Thon reads from her latest book As If Fire Could Hide Us]
DN: We’ve been listening to Melanie Rae Thon read from her latest book As If Fire Could Hide Us. I wanted to spend some time with polyvocality and what it achieves because the way you use it has many implications. Passed Between the Covers guest, the writer Lance Olsen once described the point of view in your novel The Voice of the River as, “Oceanic consciousness,” a term that he’s used elsewhere to also describe Virginia Woolf. You said in response to this term applied to your work, “He means the perceiving consciousness embraces all living beings. This sensing presence swirls around a person, a bird, a bear, trillium blooming in dark woods, snow, stones, pines singing—moving closer and closer, loving that being tenderly, finally merging with another sensibility, perceiving and knowing as one, before swirling out again to embrace and love another.” Just as an interjection, that reminds me to you describing that second-person voice as the angelic voice, that seems somehow connected. In that interview, you also quote from Jim Corbett’s Goatwalking this line, “Love doesn’t split into loving and being loved. The love of God is God’s love. Beyond that, the highest wisdom is Silence.” But thinking of Lance’s term for you, “Oceanic consciousness,” Lance has a question for you where he asks you about another way he likes to describe your work. I have no idea if this other way that he proposes is connected to oceanic consciousness for you or not but here’s Lance’s question.
Lance Olsen: Well, hi, David. Thank you for all the incredible work you’ve been doing over the years. Melanie and I are in total agreement that you really are the best interviewer out there. The research you do, the delicate and careful readings that you do are just amazing, and best questions ever. Melanie, Poet Laureate of the heart, thank you for all the work that you’ve been doing over the years. We’ve taught each other so much. Let’s see. My question really goes back to the walks that we’ve been taking lately as As If Fire Could Hide Us came to fruition and it revolves around us trying to get a way to think about your philosophy these days. I’d love to hear you talk more about the term I came up with which is pantheistic physics. Yes, I won’t take any more time setting things up, rather just take that any direction you’d like, perhaps seeing how it grows from a novel like Sweet Hearts where it’s definitely present into As If Fire Could Hide Us. Thank you, guys.
MRT: Thank you for that question, Lance. I didn’t know that we would be conversing today. [laughter] I really love the idea of oceanic consciousness and the way that is expansively broad and expansively deep. I think that was really so much a part of The Voice of the River, of moving between different kinds of not even ways that we normally think of point of view but I think more of co-perception in that novel that we’re traveling with the dog who’s smelling the other creatures and the owl is hearing the mouse tunneling under snow. There’s this sense of movement between sensibilities that’s really fluid. I think that what comes into it with this idea of pantheistic physics is something that embraces more of the convergence of the spiritual with the actual scientific. I think As If Fire Could Hide Us engages with those two things, much more passionately, much more overtly than really anything I’ve composed before, especially the Orelia, in Hiding section, but the other movements as well take on questions of spirituality in conversation with questions of science, so there isn’t really any separation between those two. I think that’s really become my vision now.
DN: Well, I think you’ve partially answered my next question but I really like Lance’s choice of pantheistic also because one way I think polyvocality manifests in your work is in evoking an ecological consciousness which you’ve just described really well about The Voice of the River or if not an ecological consciousness, a sense that the story is being made not just by humans. Even in the opening four pages that we heard where we switch between first, second, and third person, we also from the first words, “I remember birds or the shadow of birds, hundreds of hearts trembling through my body,” you have a sense that the story is moving forward by the hearts of these birds within the eye of the narrator and it made me think of a recent conversation I was watching between the poet Alice Oswald, and the playwright Katie Mitchell where Mitchell begins by talking about how she’s wanting to put on a performance of Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard but from the perspective of the trees. They spend much of their time together imagining and puzzling out how that might happen, also of course acknowledging that it’s happening for a human audience so that puts certain constraints on what they might imagine. At one point, Oswald says that she thinks many of the characters in the play already talk like trees, their speech circling back on itself, and only a couple of them are moving forward with a linearity of more of a tree-felling nature, then she says, “I think humans contain inside them a vegetable language, a mineral language, an animal language and poetry, in particular, can evoke these other languages.” But I wondered if you could speak to how there is or if there is an ethos or politic to your including animals and birds so ubiquitously in your work or whether it is rather something you simply discover yourself doing in the process of writing.
MRT: First, I want to say that Alice Oswald quotation, it’s just beautiful. That is so gorgeous. I love that. It really has become an ethos. We’re part of something. We’re not the center of it. I often taught a class with a subtitle, The Ethics of Perception, the Politics of Attention, and the Responsibilities of Representation. When I think of those terms separately, when I think of the ethics of perception, I think we really have a choice about literally how we perceive the world. Do we perceive these other beings as being part of our being or do we perceive them as being somehow separate? I think for me, everything is relational, everything is interdependent. Thích Nhất Hạnh talks about this really beautifully and really simply in The Heart of Understanding. He talks about a piece of paper and how a piece of paper is connected to everything in the cosmos, so you can’t have a piece of paper without having a tree, without having a logger to cut the tree down, without having wheat to feed, to make bread to feed the logger, without clouds to bring the rain, without the soil. You can take anything however simple it is and expand it out to include the entire cosmos. I think that what I’ve been wanting to do in my work more and more is make it increasingly expansive so that ethics of perception has to extend to other beings as they might perceive everything else, not just how they might move back and forth between the human beings but how they move between one another. In Orelia, in Hiding, there are references to the mycelium and that’s an underground network, the underground fungal network that is communicating between trees and how that corresponds to how human relationships work, how animal relationships, cellular, or even atomic relationships.
DN: That’s wonderful. We have another set of questions for you from the Poet Paisley Rekdal.
Paisley Rekdal: Hey, Melanie, it’s Paisley. Two questions which I think are related. The first is what is it about poetry, specifically lyric poetry that works so well with the ecological concerns of this novel? The second question is I can’t think of another writer that has changed her voice so much over the course of her career and poetry is one of those things that has really changed your writing. Your novels and your essays are now erupting with lyricism and all sorts of levels. Can you talk a little bit about that evolution and what it means to turn to poetry after spending all your life as a fiction writer? Thanks. Bye.
MRT: Thank you, Paisley. It’s nice to hear from you. I think those questions are connected. I think what you ask about lyric poetry and how that might facilitate the kinds of ecological concerns that I have, I think that just how things look on the page are signals to the reader. In lyric poetry, or really many different kinds of poetry, there is that white space. What happens in the white space? I think what I’m hearing in the white space is what cannot be articulated. That when there are lines on the page, you see a block of prose perhaps or you see lines and the lines are like slats, and the slats are the places that you can see through and there something can be said, “Oh, I can glimpse that. I can say that. I can engage with that. I know what’s happening.” Then there’s this opaque place where I have limitations as a human being. I can’t really know what a bee is sensing. I can begin to know. I can do that through research. I can think about, “Oh, a bee has two compound eyes with 6,900 separate lenses. What does that look like?” [laughter] I can begin to imagine that space but I can’t really fully articulate what that space is. I think more and more, I see that that’s always true, that’s true of human beings too. We think we know what language is, we think we know how to articulate everything we’re thinking but we’re only really grasping a truly small amount of that. If Paisley doesn’t mind and David doesn’t, I might take a sideways leap which is Lev Vygotsky, the Russian psychologist, has this great idea about inner speech and that inner speech is really the ceaseless stream of ideas, emotions, perceptions we’re being bombarded all the time. We’re constantly editing our perceptions because we would explode or implode if we could actually access all our perceptions at once, so we’re constantly editing down seeing 10% of what we could actually perceive and that’s happening with all our senses. As that continues with that ceaseless stream, it’s also memory and imagination, so we cannot access that. As soon as we try to access it, we’re slowing that down, we’re making it comprehensible in language and that’s what we’re extracting and putting on the page, not that ceaseless stream which is extraordinary and impossible to know. That’s part of the lyric poetry too is saying there’s so much more that is unsaid in that space. I guess in moving from the voices that Paisley talks about, it’s partly just carving that out more and more, and saying, “Here’s something suggestive. What does that stimulate in you, the reader? What’s this conversation going on between us?” Because the scriptures on the page are just the scriptures on the page unless the reader also comes to that with a fully imaginative sensibility.
DN: As a segue into talking more about poetry and syntax, and also maybe leaning a little more into the questions of the unsaid and returning to Lev Vygotsky’s notion of inner speech in relationship to composing and editing, I was hoping you would read another passage from the very early pages in the book. Our main character Orelia is a twin but her twin dies in utero and this part is a part that’s narrated by her from within the womb.
[Melanie Rae Thon reads from her latest book As If Fire Could Hide Us]
DN: We’ve been listening to Melanie Rae Thon read from her latest book As If Fire Could Hide Us. Part of why I wanted you to read this is because of the trans-species aspect of it but also because I wanted to talk more about poetry or to talk more about language and music, and you often bring up fetal development when you do. First, I’m going to read something Daniel Green wrote at Full Stop in his review of your book Silence & Song, something that I think can speak for this new book as well, then I’m going to juxtapose that with something you’ve said about your own work. First, this is Daniel Green, “Thon’s prose is pervasively rhythmic, achieved through tonal modulation of both sentence length and sentence types, modulations that give the prose its kinetic quality,” then later he says, “This free interplay of prose and verse also itself puts into question the very distinction between the two, between ‘poetry’ and ‘fiction.’ I do not believe that Thon wants to turn fiction into poetry, nor simply to write ‘poetic’ fiction. Instead, she works to erase the boundaries altogether, leaving only the act of writing, which through its aesthetic ordering (whatever name we want to give it) can make us briefly aware of the potential consonance of existence.” I really like thinking of your trans-species sensibility with this notion that you’re trying also to eradicate genre boundaries too. Here are your own words about your writing that I think echo what you just read in your new book where the narrator hears the low ripple and hum of her father’s voice from within the womb, this is you speaking, “My own writing grows more spare, more elliptical all the time, closer, I hope, to the music of poetry. At seventeen weeks, the ears of the human fetus are open, ready to receive, exquisitely developed. We awaken in a waterworld, immersed in vibration and sound: the unceasing whoosh of blood through the uterine artery, our mother’s heart and breath, the surprising syncopation of our own miraculous heartbeat. We know the exaltation and pitch of voice: anger, fear, love, sorrow. Language to us is a polyphonic murmuration,” and a different version of this that you wrote but in the second person, you end it by saying, “When your father and mother walk through the park in early morning, you hear the sad, sweet burblings of doves, the roar of a train, the whoops of children. You care nothing for sense and signification: everything you love is music.” Thinking of this, I think of Nina Schuyler at Fiction Advocate quoting you and saying, “When I’m imagining a story, I try to envision and enter a whole environment, full of living beings—not made of human language. In fact, making sentences is extremely challenging for me. It’s not how I understand or perceive the world. I go back to the Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky, who talked about inner speech, which is beyond language. We are constantly experiencing a ceaseless stream of impressions and associations and imaginings. Initially, I’m letting everything spark simultaneously.” Thinking of all of this, I’m wondering if we could spend a moment with inner speech beyond language and how you honor it while also writing sentences. What is the process for you of composing and listening a fashioning inner speech into prose on the page?
MRT: Yeah. That’s a great question. Thank you for that question. Just in that passage, that inner species part of it, I go back to an impression which was my brother had a science fair project when he was about 12 years old which would mean that I was about five, and his project was the fetal development of chickens. [laughs] He was breaking an egg open through each day of development and what I realized as he was doing that experiment, it was my Darwinian moment where I understood, “Oh my gosh, these could be the fetuses of anything. They could be chickens, they could be lizards, they could be human beings, they could be bats.” It’s the same revelation that Darwin had and that’s a lovely comparison, Melanie and Darwin, right? [laughter] But it’s a memory that comes without language. It’s not a conscious thought that I was having. It was more an awareness and apprehension. I’m often trying to extract how can I say what has just whooshed by in an impression. It’s always false to represent inner speech, so I’m always representing some small part of what I’ve understood in the, I don’t feel I’m answering this question very well, David. [laughs]
DN: Well, let me ask you about something you said about revising because there’s this mystery between wanting to honor something beyond language in language. You’ve said, speaking about revising, “I read a sentence again and again, 10, 20, 50 times and the sound of the sentence comes to me in the re-reading. And something else happens, something incredibly potent. I feel the sounds at the visceral level, in my bones vibrating, my stomach contracting. When I get the pacing right, I hear it externally and internally. Yes, I want the image to be exquisitely precise, but I also want the reader to absorb it at the level of the physical body.” I’m curious about this process. Is this something you’ve always had an ear for or something that you learned, something that someone taught you? If it’s the latter, what was the learning process like of coming to this place of learning how to attune your ear to the sound of your sentences on a vibratory level?
MRT: No one taught me that unless it was something I absorbed via osmosis or maybe everyone taught me that. [laughter] Yeah, I think that’s true. No one taught me and every one taught me that. I think really that process of reading, rereading, altering words, trying to get the sound and the sense to come into a chord somehow, I want that perception to be absolutely right. I want the sense to be right. I want the reader to be traveling with me at an intellectual level. But when I’m reading it aloud and over and over again, I really am feeling it in my physical body, so if I’m not getting the rhythm right, if the music is off, I feel that, as I’ve said, in the stomach, in the bones, in the chest in the way that my head is vibrating to that music, that there’s something about that language that is pre-verbal or beyond language that is communicating at a really physical level and that I think that’s what happens out in the world as well as in my own separate—well, I don’t even think of anything having a separate body, so we’ll just scratch the separate body concept—but when I’m out in the world, the world is vibrating and perceiving me and responding to me. I’m walking under the trees and the trees are sucking up my carbon dioxide, thank goodness, and giving me back oxygen. That is all happening at a non-verbal vibratory level. Not that it’s always a vibration that I’m feeling but some sensory perception that is outside of language. I don’t have to be conscious of that gift of oxygen that I’m getting, that it’s just coming to me so then how do I translate that into an experience that is verbal? How do I say that? How do I find perspective from which to say that? Whose perspective is that shared enterprise?
DN: Well, I want to return again to Daniel Green’s review of your previous book and hear your thoughts about something that he says. He says, “De-centering of plot is characteristic of all of Thon’s fiction,” and also, “The reader is made constantly aware that language, not story, is the irreducible medium of fiction, that ‘what happened’ is only the beginning of the explorations a work of fiction might make. Thon is interested in the long reach of events, the mental afterimages they leave, the attempt to reckon with their consequences.” I wondered both what you think of that take of your relationship to plot and also if someone were to ask you what movement number one of your three-part love song, what it’s about on the level of story? What would you say this first movement Orelia, in Hiding, which is about two-thirds of the book in length, is about?
MRT: I did write a description of it that talks about the plot. Plot is such a plotting word. It doesn’t have the lightness of travel that I think of as the travel through a story. But I always do have a sense of travel and I always map out a very meticulous timeline, so I could give you a moment, well, not a moment-by-moment but an hour-by-hour description of what’s happening in a very linear way. But that’s not how we experience time, that’s not how we experience memory, that it’s always swirling in and out of different time frames, different perspectives, different impressions of what has actually happened. Those two are somewhat in conversation with each other. This is the trajectory, and that’s more a word that I would use, this is the trajectory, not so much the plot. But the trajectory is this 12-year-old girl is left alone in her house, her father’s 227 miles exactly South doing a salvage operation on a sailboat that’s sunken off the coast of Oregon, her mother is at work, her mother is at the lab, her mother is with her mice which she has to stay with during this time. She can’t just stop the experiment she’s doing and come home. She has to finish the experiment, make sure her mice are stable and okay, so Orelia is alone in her house and she just decides, “Time for an adventure. I don’t want to go to bed. I did the other thing. I ate my dinner and now I’m going on an adventure.” Her neighbor’s garage door is open, so she takes the bike that’s there, the mountain bike that’s there and she sets off and bicycles under the bridge actually to Seattle to Pioneer Square. Once something is set in motion, the next and the next and the next and the next thing become inevitable. There’s this Hopi idea, the indigenous people, this idea that things are manifested or manifesting. Once something is set in motion, it’s manifesting and there are choices made at every juncture along the way. One of the choices that Orelia makes that she doesn’t know what will become of this but she chooses a particular truck because she can get into the bed of the truck under a tarp, so that’s the truck she chooses, so then she’s on to the next part of her adventure and things become ever more perilous along the way. Each choice makes a difference.
DN: I want to add one detail to your description of the scenario in the first movement of the book, not to talk about it now but as a placeholder to return to. You mentioned the mother works with mice and I’m just going to add that she transfuses them with human plasma. It’s something I want to return to and talk to you about later but for now, I’d like to move to section two and talk about the qualities of your work that I think are even more essential in defining than what we’ve discussed so far. In this second section or the second movement is called The 7th Man, which you’ve already talked a little bit about already, and you have an essay online called Blood on Fire: Notes on the 7th Man where you say, “Forty years I’ve been contemplating this story, trying to tell it more than twenty.” Then later, “Through my decades of exploration, I’ve read dozens of books, thousands of pages in journals and newspapers,” and then you provide this extensive list of sources that were part of your 40-year contemplation of this piece with books by everyone from Atul Gawande to Albert Camus, Bryan Stevenson to Maggie Nelson. Introduce us to The 7th Man, its distinct genesis for you, and why it has had a grip on you for so long.
MRT: I think that genesis was in 1976, I think I’ve got the year right on that when Gary Gilmore murdered two men in Utah and there had been a moratorium on the death penalty. I thought the death penalty was gone from the United States and I was horrified when it became clear that Gary Gilmore was going to be executed. Part of that was just this weird thing. His name was the same as my brother Gary. My brother was nothing at all like Gary Gilmore, there wasn’t any resonance there, but it was just the name that made me take that leap to think, “This is someone’s brother. This isn’t an isolated person who’s done this awful thing. This is someone who has relationships. Also, this is someone who’s been a child.” If I make that leap to thinking of my brother, then I think of my brother as a child and then I start thinking of Gary Gilmore as a child. Even now when I say that, I’ve got this heart-clenching feeling that has stayed with me. Then much, much later, almost 20 years later, I read Shot in the Heart by Mikal Gilmore, which is in fact, Gary Gilmore’s brother. That resonance came back. The genesis was 40 years before I composed the piece but then that desire to make something of it came when I read Shot in the Heart. I think I’d been trying to write something short before that, that I really wanted to engage with the death penalty somehow and I didn’t know what point of view I would tell that from. I thought a great deal about the family of the perpetrator, the families of the victims, and then I heard Witnesses to an Execution, a piece that’s online. I hope it’s still online and that people can access it. That was from multiple points of view of people who had witnessed, some of them hundreds of execution, some of them were journalists who had witnessed hundreds of executions. I started thinking of it as a polyvocal piece, I thought, “Oh, I’m going to write this from all these different perspectives in a very ‘postmodern’ kind of way.” But then it all started to come to me in the voice of this one prison guard who’s on the strap-down team and part of that came from Lethal Theatre by Dwight Conquergood, and I hope this is still online as well. But in that piece, he talks about the performance of the death penalty and I was so struck by that. Once again, my body clutches up when I think of it that people actually practice to do the execution, to execute the execution, and there’s a kind of choreography that has to take place because a person who’s been executed may respond all different ways. They can completely fall apart or they can be coerced to take it like a man, walk like a man, retain your dignity to the last moment. That language that’s used to make a prisoner cooperate in his own or her own execution really startled me and made me think about execution in yet a different way which was this performance. What does it do to you to perform again and again, practice again and again, and then actually execute the execution, what happens to the people who participate in that? Then moving out from that to think about who doesn’t participate in that? Who is not involved if we are part of this United States where the death penalty is legal? Are we not also participants in this process? My vision of the piece kept exploding in my mind and I wanted to include everything. Then finally, it came to me in the voice of this prison guard on the strap-down team but I hope that possibility of it seeming polyvocal, because so many different perspectives are included, is somehow maintained in the telling of it.
DN: Well, as you mentioned, the protagonist is on the strap-down team, he’s been involved in 131 executions, and this six-man team rehearses between executions to hone the choreography of the team. As part of that, each member takes a turn playing the condemned, the “7th man.” Already, they each in a way imagine themselves as this condemned person literally putting themselves in his place in this practice space. But after witnessing a prolonged execution, one that takes almost two hours, the identification he begins to feel with all the men killed becomes more existential, uncanny, and transformative rather than merely practical and performative as if anyone could be this condemned man: his own father or best friend. It’s almost a mystical epiphany and I feel like this is a key to something at the core of your writing across books and I wanted to spend time with a variety of aspects of this. First, I wanted to start with the types of characters you choose to portray. They are often not citizens in good standing. They are often homeless, addicts, or thieves, people who have killed or might have killed, they might be victims of incest or perpetrators of it, they might be disastrous parents or terrible partners, or people on the outside for other reasons; from a disability like the deaf narrator of Sweet Hearts or from racism, colonialism, and cultural genocide, and perhaps, some of these people are not unlike the people our protagonists in The 7th Man is expected to kill. Before we talk about what relationship your work has to these characters and what relationship you put us in with regards to these characters, talk to us about why you are attracted to characters on the margins of normative society, both what attracts you to them personally. I know you have a story for instance about your own life connected to the fictional boy in Sweet Hearts, but also philosophically, why and how you find these are stories that you want to center in your fictions.
MRT: I’ve been thinking about a language for that and I would say I’ve had poetics of witness. Part of that began really early for me. I was about 16 and a friend of mine stole the floodlights from a funeral home and they ended up being worth more than $500 so it was a felony offense even though he was a child and his parents didn’t want to have him living with them, didn’t want to have him on a kind of probation with them, and so he got sent to a juvenile detention center on the other side of the state. When he returned, he obviously had been beaten or had beaten himself perhaps in solitary confinement. I don’t know what happened to him but he came back brain damaged, severely brain damaged, and his parents still wouldn’t take him in and so he was the first homeless person I knew. He lived over the gully from her house. I saw him one day walking and he didn’t speak anymore. I was driving, I stopped the car, asked him if he needed a ride somewhere, and he got in the car with me but he wouldn’t sit in the front seat because he was ashamed of his body, of his smell, and of his condition. I knew him as a boy. I knew him as a person I loved and he came back in this way. I saw very explicitly how someone could be cast out and what happened to someone who was cast out. Whenever I’ve encountered that since then, I’ve always wondered what’s the story behind this person. This person didn’t end up being on the margins of society by accident. Things happened and things happened in childhood. Things happened because of certain kinds of laws, because of certain kinds of parents. So what’s the story here? I want to find out what this story is.
DN: Well, I think the power, intensity, and uniqueness of your stories comes from the way you approach these characters. Ultimately in a similar way, I think to your protagonist in The 7th Man completely putting yourself in their shoes without judgment. The stories paradoxically are always both very death-haunted and almost impossibly full of life. Sometimes this connects us to trans-speciesism, a body still alive that will soon be dismantled by any number of creatures to become them. Sometimes it creates almost ecstatic moments like when Louise in Sweet Hearts is bleeding out after she’s been shot and you dilate her final minutes into an entire world in a way that is really jaw-dropping. But sometimes the way you bestow grace on everyone in your stories, even when they themselves continue to perpetuate in real time the horrors that they do, is unsettling. To be clear, it never feels like the stories are endorsing anything but the world is also not judging either. If I imagine an omniscient Creator of this world, it feels in a way like they are an observer of everything no matter how heroic or monstrous, seeing everything one way or the other with understanding and with love. I can’t decide whether this is a world without morality or a world of the utmost morality, if this is a world infused with the divine or a material world where everything always ends up inevitably harming everything else as a matter of course. It often feels like both just as the man in The 7th Man isn’t only imagining every condemned man as every man he knows, he is also imagining every victim as his mother, his wife, and his child. I wondered if you could speak into your worlds in relation to good and evil, the moral and the immoral in relation to justice, in relation to your own life philosophy in this regard.
MRT: Thank you for that question and I’ll see if I can answer by going in different directions. One of the things that I’ve thought about a lot is moral luck. The way that moral luck works philosophically is you’re driving a car, you’re impaired in some way—and this comes straight from the philosophical description of moral luck, this isn’t my own invention—you’re driving the car, you have taken drugs, you’re just tired, or you’re drunk, and you get home safely, you don’t know how you get home safely but you just get home and you go to sleep. Or you’re driving the car in the same condition and you hit another car, people are injured but not severely. There are repercussions from that and maybe you get a fine. Maybe you even go to jail depending on who you are. Once again, moral luck is at play. Who are you? Are you from a certain class? Have you committed other crimes? What kind of repercussions do you face from that? You’re driving the car, you hit a pedestrian, and the pedestrian is killed. There’s a whole other cascade of repercussions that happen because of that and it’s all luck. One time you get home safely and another time you kill someone. It’s just luck in that case and yet the repercussions of it that you face in terms of society and in terms of your own experience of that, whatever kind of guilt you take from that, whatever kind of suffering you take from that, whatever kind of suffering you cause, it is luck. That seems astonishing to me that all of that is in play every time we’re out in the world. Every time we’re out in the world at all, we can harm or be harmed and we don’t have control over all those circumstances. There’s that aspect of it for me that is about how that cascade starts to happen. In the case of my friend who I was describing, part of the misfortune of that was that his parents wouldn’t take him back after he stole the floodlights and he ends up brain-damaged and then homeless for the rest of his life. My sister and I often talk about this, how lucky we are that we didn’t get caught for our crimes. It’s not that we didn’t commit crimes, it’s that we didn’t get caught for them. If we had been caught, that we came from a certain kind of family that would have protected us, that we wouldn’t have ended up in those circumstances. That’s part of my vision as well in terms of judgment. It’s like why do some people suffer so much, get blamed so much for their crimes, and also why are they so unfortunate? But I do also believe spiritually that everything has some part of the divine. I’m guessing that’s going to make some of our listeners uncomfortable to think about but I really do have this sense that there are holy sparks everywhere, that Rabbi Luria was right that somehow, everything is invested with the divine, that there’s nothing that’s separate from the divine, and that it’s our responsibility to restore that, to repair that, to see that. Sometimes repair isn’t possible in the materialistic world but repair as listening, repair as witnessing, repair as describing, repair as standing by while it happens, that is an important gesture in the world.
DN: Similar to the Hasidic epigraph from your book Silence & Song, you often have epigraphs from spiritual mystics. In this book, you have an epigraph that is a Sufi prayer The Heart Breaks And Breaks Until It Breaks Open, which reminds me of what you said at the very beginning about rapture and rupture, and I wonder if sometimes repair is through rupture. It’s also a sentiment you echo when you were talking to Hannah Tinti about your story in her magazine One Story, a story called Letters in the Snow, which is written as letters from the perspective of a thief, letters of apology that feel almost like love letters to the people she’s stolen from but that the people themselves who are being addressed likely won’t read because this thief is lost in a snowstorm and this could be really her last testimony before she dies of exposure. You say in that interview, I think similar to the Sufi prayer, “I’m hoping Nicole will teach me. I don’t think we can experience mercy or believe in grace unless our hearts break open. That’s what’s happened to Nicole.” And you, as you’ve already done today, also frequently mentioned the writings of the Buddhist monk Thích Nhất Hạnh. I didn’t know if anything came to mind when you reference that some listeners today might not like this notion of the world infused with spirit, but beyond your epigraphs, I don’t think you normally explicitly name it as such, I think you have enacted in the way you make ordinary things spark, but is there anything new that comes to mind around spiritual teachings in relationship to world-building for you?
MRT: What comes to mind, it’s another instance of rupture and rapture, my father had his first heart attack in 1974, and then in 1977, he had bypass surgery, had four bypasses, and then in 1989, he had five more bypasses, the second bypass surgery, and then he didn’t cross over until 2001. But I think there was this constant awareness of death being very close even though it started in 1974 and really even before that. But I was really fortunate in that we, meaning my siblings and mother and I, always thought that he would die and we wouldn’t be there. In fact, we were all there for the final 13 days of his life on earth. During that time, he was in the hospital, we kept hoping we would be able to bring him home on hospice care but he’s in hospital, and I kept thinking, “All we have to do today is come here and love.” By here I meant to his room, but then after he crossed over I thought, “What does that mean to come here and love? What does it mean to go into my classroom and love? What does it mean to go to the grocery store and love? What does it mean to go to the park and love? What does it mean to go to a faculty meeting and love?” [laughter] Because I wanted to live that way. That time with my father had really compelled me to articulate what it was I wanted in my life and I wanted to come here and love, and that meant to the page as well. I don’t think that was necessarily a change in my work. I think I’ve been doing that to some degree but I did it much, much more consciously. Then five months after my dad crossed over, I fractured my pelvis in three places and I was delivered to extravagant pain. It really kept me pressed down for a long time. Once again, I couldn’t write during that time and I immersed myself in spiritual texts. I couldn’t read anything else, and spiritual texts from all different practices, so not just on one tilt and I really did that to survive. I tried to think of ways to bring that into the writing afterward. But as an infusion, not in any kind of polemic way, not in any kind of preachy way because I didn’t feel that was true to my vision at all, but how is it that everything can become a spiritual text, not just ones that are overtly labeled that way?
DN: Well, on the launch day for this book, Lance Olsen posted on Facebook, “As If Fire Could Hide Us argues both through its form and content that we all exist in mesh now, enmeshed in hurt, hope, grief, astonishment, and complex acceptance that we always can and always should search for ways to tell ourselves and our worlds anew,” which made me think both of your quoting of an African proverb, “I am because you are and you are because we are,” and also what you discussed earlier of Thích Nhất Hạnh from The Heart of Understanding of looking at a piece of paper and building the cosmos out or finding the cosmos in. As a preface of some more questions I have about finding the world or the universe within anything, I was hoping we could hear another passage. This is a passage from the first movement again but it’s an interesting and evocative passage in this regard.
[Melanie Rae Thon reads from her latest book As If Fire Could Hide Us]
DN: We’ve been listening to Melanie Rae Thon read from her latest book As If Fire Could Hide Us. Part of why I wanted you to read this, returning us to the mother who transfuses mice with human plasma, who also seems to be facing a moral quandary about what she’s doing as she’s doing it, is for a whole bunch of reasons: one is medicine is something that reoccurs in your fiction in a general way I think. I think of the hospital janitor and first body who, when people are making fun of a 350-pound-woman’s corpse and he’s told he can just shove the body into a corner, he wants to treat her with dignity because, “Nobody loved you or in the right way.” He’s a laughing stock afterwards. But also much like this woman putting human blood into mice, organ donation between humans occurs again and again in your work including in the third movement of this book called The Bodies of Birds where a freshly dead girl killed in a crash who has donated her organs says, “I surrendered all I knew—heart and lungs, discs of the vertebrae, the dark secret of spleen, unscarred skin—corneas, pancreas, the delicate bones of my ears, my impossible love, all I had to give—kidneys, liver, veins, cartilage—I offered the gloriously pliable tissue of my thighs, a song moving through the spaces between cells, consciousness unstrung, bowels un-spooled—continuous, miraculous, the bodies I am tonight, uncontained by multitudes.” Which connects to the child’s body on the forest floor in movement one who, in a different way, is offering her organs to the earth, “Quiet as stone you lie, a body now for other beings: blooming out, blossoming into—your hair lines their nests; your blood sustains them—nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, iron—your cells enter the mycorrhizal mind—giving up, giving over—a child unborn feeding stars, feeding microbes.” But the mystery of bodies and identity I think is taken to its most extreme and mysterious in Sweet Hearts where a man with severe burns on his hand and arm has his hand sewn into his own chest because the doctors say, “When burns are this bad, sometimes only your own body can heal you.” You also have something similar in your essay 7 Reasons to Tell a Story in 2011 where there’s a line, “In a tent, in a field hospital outside Baghdad, Jodee Beddia’s surgeon cut a piece of bone from her skull so her swelling brain wouldn’t kill her. Sewed it inside my abdomen, she said. To keep the bone alive. So nobody would lose it.” It’s not really a question, it’s more of a curiosity about these strange self-healing surgeries and the desire to have a mother character also doing these interspecies transfusions.
MRT: First of all, those things are all true, and isn’t medicine miraculous? [laughter]
DN: That’s wild.
MRT: Yeah. A friend of mine, actually my aunt, told me about a man who had been packing gunpowder and there was an explosion and he was very badly burned. His child was killed during the explosion and so there’s this double horror going on. But the hand was so badly burned that they literally did sew it inside of his body so that it would heal. I’d never heard of anything like that before but in fact, skin transplantation is one of the more difficult things that skin is always rejected, there are multiple problems with organ transplantation. But with skin, if you transplant someone else’s skin onto you, it may help it heal for a while but that skin is eventually sloughed off. The only way to heal really is, if you’re really badly burned, to do this radical intervention. Of course, you can’t do it with all body parts. That obviously wouldn’t work. That became really a guiding idea for me in Sweet Hearts was what does it mean to sew a hand inside a body in terms of the child in that story who ultimately commits murder? What would it mean for us to sew him back inside our family, our community, our lives so that the idea that begins in a medical place has this larger philosophical implication? What does it mean to not just accept someone but sow him inside of us? What was the other example?
DN: The Iraqi.
MRT: Oh, yeah, and that was true too. I saw that on 60 Minutes, this woman, because it’s a field hospital and there are all sorts of chaos going on, they really don’t want you to lose that part of your body and also because that will keep the bone alive on that journey and so it literally was sewn inside of her both to keep it attached to her body so they wouldn’t be separated but also to keep that bone living long enough for it to go back in her skull.
DN: I’d like to make a first step toward talking about how you teach writing but first I want to take what Paisley describes as your act of great and radical empathy back into language and syntax, and back into your notion of these three parts of the book being love songs and each section of the book as a movement rather than a chapter. I feel like on the level of story, nothing is portrayed as ordinary in every day, or perhaps like Thích Nhất Hạnh, you look at any given thing and excavate until you find its extraordinariness but also feel like nothing seems ordinary because of the language, which remains at a high intensity throughout a given book of yours as if you refuse each sentence being ordinary. To constellate this with some things you’ve said, in Sweet Hearts there are the lines, which I wondered if they were in ars poetica, that go, “There’s no safe place in this story. I don’t want to be the mother of lost children. I don’t want to be the boy raised in a cell, or the sister who loves him. I don’t want to be a good samaritan, one of those kind strangers who tries to help us.” Then the Eduardo Galeano epigraph to your collected stories which goes, “Does the light descend from the sky or rise out of us? That instant of trapped light … reveals to us what is unseen, what is seen but unnoticed… . It shows us that concealed within the pain of living and the tragedy of dying there is a potent magic, a luminous mystery that redeems the human adventure in the world.” Then in your essay All Life is Love, which is partly about the death of your father, you quote Annie Dillard who says, “Assume you write for an audience consisting solely of terminal patients. That is, after all, the case, what could you say to a dying person that would not enrage by its triviality?” In that same essay, you say that surrender to love has become your life quest. Long ago on The Write Question Podcast, the interviewer asks if anyone has ever told you that reading your stories is like watching a disturbing movie through a glittery gossamer curtain, and you say that writing them is closer to rapture. That is what the reading of them feels like to me, that every sentence is elevated and it creates this sense of exquisiteness that is often incantatory and beautiful but sometimes almost unbearably painful in that meaning is everywhere always, and also there’s no place that’s safe. You’ve said that love, not art is the purpose, that witnessing, rendering, and imagining stories for some is the path to that, and your Hasidic epigraph that put the highest level of mourning song makes me curious about how you take this unique approach to language, do you teach others to write as love songs or do you teach differently because you’re teaching to others? But if you’re helping them write love songs, how do you begin to do that?
MRT: I hope so much that I might encourage, inspire, love someone in writing love songs. [laughter] I think, in fact, many of my students have taken that on, maybe all of my students have taken that on, wouldn’t that be miraculous? But I created a series of experiments, I call them experiments. I’m very insistent on this. I don’t call them exercises. Exercises are like calisthenics or like something you do in the process of getting ready to do something else so I call them experiments because experiments really are the thing, you’re already on the path and this comes from just a multitude of sources. But I finally created this huge monster-in-a-box kind of document that I call Memory & Adventure. I try to articulate in that the steps that I go through really or that I have gone through. I don’t go through them moment by moment, step by step anymore when I’m working but I tried to go back through my own work and my own span of work and give others those possibilities. It starts out with three questions that actually come from Anna Deavere Smith and her one-person plays and the interviews that she does with people. The three questions to break down syntax, those three questions are: have you ever been close to death? Have you ever been accused of something you did not do? And what were the circumstances of your birth? It’s amazing what possibilities can come out of that and the questions got bigger and bigger and bigger for me. I add about 30 questions to each aspect of that. But then the other aspect of it is what moments of wonder have you experienced out there in the world, the privacy of your home, in the darkness of your dreams, in the wonder of your dreams, what have you experienced that made you feel exhilarated? Then to move between those lists, and I just have the students brainstorm and brainstorm and brainstorm, and it only takes about 10 minutes in the classroom and most people get stuck on “Have you ever been close to death?” because I encourage them to think about that, not just have you been with someone you love while that person is crossing over, but have you witnessed the death of a beloved pet? Have you witnessed the death of a saguaro, of a glacier. In my lifetime, the glaciers in Glacier Park have died for the most part. That’s where I grew up, very close to Glacier Park. Have you eaten a potato chip today? If so, a potato has died for you. [laughter] Have you devoured an egg or a pork chop? Something has died. People usually really go off on that and then for moments of wonder, anything at all that has given you exhilaration, and it might be something really small and it might be something profound, but anything that creates exhilaration, and to bring those things together and then to start doing research on them. This is where I talk about rapture. Again, rapture comes into my language a lot but the rapture of research and discovery, everything you imagine, everything you’ve experienced, you can do research about that thing. I’m doing research on the saguaro and I’m finding out all these fascinating things about saguaros, but one of the things that I discover along the way is that saguaros are often stolen when they’re about 7 to 10 years old, they’re just perfect for landscaping and so people go out and steal saguaros and then sell them to the landscapers so you have this perfect 7 to 10-year-old saguaro in your new residential environment. They started putting microchips in saguaros out in the desert so that they could be trapped. Who knew? [laughter] There’s always something miraculous to be discovered.
DN: Well, you shared with me some of your teaching documents including the one you just referenced, Memory & Adventure, and a lot of the exercises, I think most of the exercises involve mining one’s own autobiography for experiences and details. You’ve talked elsewhere about how memories, how they used to be thought of as wired into the brain in a fixed and a static way, are actually destabilized when they’re reactivated, that they’re put into a flexible and vulnerable state, and you say, “In other words, every time you remember an episode of your life, you are reinventing it: embellishing, deleting, altering it through fusion and imagination. If you cannot imagine, you cannot remember.” I guess I wondered in the spirit of that, how you contextualize these exercises of autobiographical memory in relation to writing one’s fictional stories. I know you aren’t saying that they should simply be transposed from oneself into a fictional character like the mother in Orelia, in Hiding putting human plasma into a mouse. How do you take these exercises of biography into the world of the fully imagined or how do you teach that?
MRT: Yeah. Thank you for that question because I think that is a really essential part of my practice. Once again, I want to go back to the Iona Moon experience that I had, which was that phenomenal revelation to me that my own memory, sensation, associations, impressions, dreams, speculations, and perceptions were endless, endless, endless webs of experience and understanding that was possible for anyone. With my students and until or with anyone I’m thinking about writing with, that experience, unless you have that experience for yourself, I think it’s really hard to appreciate how miraculous every living being might be. I’m thinking first you have to go to your own experience and say, “Oh, my gosh, this is endless. Once I start doing a brainstorming on have I ever been close to death, suddenly, I’m writing a list of a hundred things.” Well, that’s true for every single being, human and otherwise, but it’s different for every single being. It’s not my list taken into another person, another quasi-fictional person, it’s an entirely different list. That’s what’s exciting to me is to say, “Okay, I’m not writing about my experience, I’m writing out of my experience.” Anna Deavere Smith talks about that as the gap between so I think of it as this holy space where something else can take place where you can do that writing experiment, “Okay, now I’m going to do this writing experiment for someone I love, someone I know something about. I’m going to do this writing experience for my brother,” and when I do that for him, I know some things about him but there are also mysterious things about. I do that writing experience. Then I do it for a stranger like someone I see, someone who has something that makes me curious about them, some external feature that makes me curious about them, and I start imagining, “Okay, what’s that person’s list?” Then I do it for someone I’m afraid of, someone who has scared me, someone who’s threatening, someone who’s dangerous. Certainly, there are many dangerous people as you’ve noticed in my fiction, what’s their list? It is this kind of movement further and further out of the self but not starting in the self but rather starting from what do I notice, what do I observe about that other being, and how can I then enter through that pathway?
DN: Well, one of my favorite details from your teaching notes is that you split your readings in class between readings of literature, readings of spiritual texts, and readings of science. I think all three of these, you can see great evidence of in most of your writing. You see how much you love to employ the different musics of these worlds, the different vocabularies of medicine, biology, or of religion and spirituality. Thinking of these three types of prose you teach and returning to the three movements in the book and how each has a distinct origin, and each movement being considerably shorter than the previous one, talk to us about the final 18-page section or movement, The Bodies of Birds, and tell us why you see these three separate movements with three distinct origin stories all arising at different times as pieces that should be juxtaposed and moved through like three movements within one piece of music rather than three stories in a story collection.
MRT: The Bodies of Birds comes out of The 7th Man. In The 7th Man, there’s a moment, and I don’t know how many readers would notice this, but Valen is the prison guard, the member of the strap-down team is in his car, another car passes in the lane next to him and there’s a family in that car, a father, a daughter, and a baby. He’s wondering, “Oh, my gosh, is the daughter a much younger wife?” He’s hoping that it’s a daughter so he’s thinking about the relationships between those people in the family and he starts to imagine or hear what the daughter has heard in terms of music. They’re passing and then that’s the car that’s in the accident and that’s the girl who becomes the organ donor in the third movement so there’s this very direct relationship between movement two and movement three even though it takes an incredible leap in terms of subject matter, focus, vocalization, and detail. But there are all these echoes going on as well so the father in The Bodies of Birds works in a slaughterhouse and that is obviously echoing with the animal experimentation in Orelia, in Hiding, and also in the slaughter of human beings both in terms of murder and in terms of the death penalty, in terms of legal homicide and illegal homicide. I think that there are many kinds of embedded echoes going on, and certainly medical questions and theater. There’s performance going on in all of them too. Really, in my first concept of them being connected and in one piece, I was thinking of the performance aspect, which really gets downplayed in Orelia, in Hiding. When I first conceived of that project, I was thinking of a much more foregrounded aspect of the theatrical performances of what had happened to Orelia, like the TV movie, the journalistic report, or the fictionalization, and that became a much shorter part of Orelia, in Hiding, but that final section where the stories you read won’t tell you this or the people who talk about it aren’t saying this and so there’s that juxtaposition between what’s performed and what really happened. Obviously, we’ve talked about the theatrical aspects of The 7th Man. But in The Bodies of Birds, there’s the medical theater and what’s happening on the surgical table and also what’s happening in the ICU where the body is being kept alive. There’s a kind of theatricality to that as well of the way that the blood pressure has to be maintained and the oxygen has to be maintained even though they’re going to cut off life support, even though she’s brain dead. There’s a performance of keeping her alive. There are other kinds of medical things going on. In the performance of The 7th Man, part of the theatricality is making execution look like a medical procedure. It’s just wild like wiping the arm with alcohol before the meal is put in, which is going to be an injection that kills the person. It’s just madness. Also, the harvesting of organs from the pigs in Orelia, in Hiding is comparable to the harvesting of organs from Anika Vela in The Bodies of Birds.
DN: Well, let’s go out with a final reading from The Bodies of Birds.
MRT: Let’s do that. That sounds fabulous. [laughter]
[Melanie Rae Thon reads from her latest book As If Fire Could Hide Us]
DN: Thank you so much, Melanie Rae Thon. It was a real pleasure to spend this time together.
MRT: Thank you, David. It’s been great and you are the most marvelous reader and the most amazing researcher. I’m so grateful.
DN: I’m grateful too. We’ve been talking today to Melanie Rae Thon, the author most recently of As If Fire Could Hide Us. You’ve been listening to Between the Covers. I’m David Naimon, your host.
Today’s program was recorded at the volunteer-powered, non-commercial, listener-sponsored, full-strength, makeshift home office of me, David Naimon. For the bonus audio archive, Melanie contributes a reading of her craft talk The Ethics of Perception. She has also offered two bundles of signed books from her back catalog to two new supporters of the show. These join many other possible gifts and rewards of joining the Between the Covers Community as a listener-supporter including rare collectibles from past guests, a Tin House early readership subscription getting 12 books over the course of a year months before they’re available to the general public to a bundle of books selected by me and sent to you. In addition, every supporter can join our brainstorm of future guests and every listener-supporter receives the supplementary resources with each conversation, which this time includes two of Melanie’s teaching documents, one she developed over many decades. You can find out more at patreon.com/betweenthecovers. Or if you prefer a one-time donation, you can do so via PayPal at tinhouse.com/support. I’d like to thank the Tin House team: Elizabeth Demeo and Alyssa Ogie in the Book Division, Beth Steidle in the Art Department, Becky Kraemer and Jae Nichelle in Publicity, and Lance Cleland, the Director of the summer and winter Tin House Writers Workshops. Finally, I’d like to thank Imre Lodbrog and Barbara Browning for creating the outro. Their album Imre Lodbrog et sa Petite Amie can be found on iTunes and Barbara Browning’s trove of ukulele covers can be found at soundcloud.com/barbarabrowning.