Amy Leach’s first book, Things That Are (Milkweed Editions, 2012), is an exquisite collection of essays that artfully delve into the natural world, inviting us to see the interconnectedness among galaxies, people, birds, fish, and wild plants. Leach reflects rationally and meticulously on the fatality of living things, such as the moon, with its imperfect pace, as it orbits around Earth. All moons, we learn, will eventually drift away, or collide into their planet. Yet Things That Are is a celebratory book: of the intensity of language, and the unexpected ways in which life evolves into new forms.
Leach’s unique approach to writing is to blend research with philosophy. In 2010, she won a Whiting Writers’ Award—the prize is an early indicator of serious literary talent and previous winners include David Foster Wallace, Lydia Davis, and Jeffrey Eugenides. Amy’s essays have appeared in the Los Angeles Review, Orion, and the anthology Best American Essays. When we recently spoke, Amy talked about the prestigious prize and about assuming the identity of the subject you’re trying to write about. Below is an edited version of our conversation.
One of the remarkable things about your essays is their point of view. You don’t write about goats, you write from the perspective of the goat.
I’m not just trying to convey information. As wonderful and informative as documentaries are, their point of view is from an outside experience. What I’m trying to do—although it’s doomed—is to be inside, to imagine it can be attempted.
You seem to think like a poet, rhythmically, through these essays.
Sound is a huge trait of poetry—to concentrate on the music. Someone said that all art aspires to the condition of music, and I think I’m trying to be a musician in my essays.
What are your favorite things to read?
I love the Romantics and how populated that poetry is with plants and animals. I guess I do read antique sort of things. What I really love are Donne’s sermons, Milton’s prose, and Keats’ letters. They all seem to be importing their love of language into poetry, but I’ve always felt intimidated by poetry—its special skills.
Do any contemporary writers excite you?
Wendell Berry, and I adore Maurice Manning, and Marilynne Robinson. All of her writing seems informed by the grand beauty of the natural world.
The title of her new book is great: When I Was A Child I Read Books. What was the landscape like where you grew up in Texas?
In our backyard there were plum trees for climbing, pepper grass for chewing on. Beyond the backyard were mesquite trees, viney brambles, Indian paintbrush, fire ants and roadrunners and fireflies and world-ending thunderstorms. Texas smells wonderful. The ratio of persons to animals was very healthy.
It must have been very cool to meet your contemporaries—the new emerging writers—when you won a Whiting. What was that experience like?
It came completely out of the blue, of course. It’s one of those situations where you discover as you’re experiencing them. One of the things that I love about the award is that ten people win it every year—that seems to be one of the hallmarks of the prize. It’s a much wider selection of eclectic kinds of writers. The people who win it are so varied in how they think.
I just re-read the collection, and the range of different kinds of essays is refreshing. “Comfortless” is like a project Gertrude Stein would take on—a sculpture with words.
The little ones were written quickly and I had no idea where they were going. They surprised me as well. With “Comfortless,” there was an assignment to write an Op-Ed and I had no idea what an Op-Ed was. It ended up in an eccentric philosophical place.
Is “The Safari” a meditation about a future where animals have become extinct and exist purely in our memories?
I wrote this piece more by intuition than intention. I was in Kruger Park, in South Africa, watching animals and thinking about how the external world corresponds to the internal world—how our memories and moods are as varied, in temperament, as wildlife, and as wild, though we try to dominate and domesticate them through explanation.
Your stories express so much, yet they’re hard to sum up. They’re never just about the subject.
It’s more of a journey for me. I’m mostly writing to feel and to experience.
What book would you save in a fire?
Emerson’s Essays with all of Emily Dickinson’s poems inscribed in the margins.