Interview with Amy Leach

by Fleur Van Woerkom

Amy Leach grew up in Texas and earned her MFA from the Nonfiction Writing Program at the University of Iowa. Her work has appeared in The Best American Essays, The Best American Science and Nature Writing, and numerous other publications, including Granta, A Public Space, Orion, Tin House, and the Los Angeles Review of Books. She is a recipient of a Whiting Writers’ Award, a Rona Jaffe Foundation Award, and a Pushcart Prize. Her books are Things That Are and The Everybody Ensemble. Leach lives in Bozeman and teaches creative writing at MSU.

Inscape: How much research did you specifically do for your most recent book, The Everybody Ensemble?

Amy Leach: For three of the essays (the moose, the goose, and the mesquite tree) I did a lot of deep and specific research, inspired initially by the extreme lives of all of those subjects. I pursued those topics particularly through reading library books, textbooks, and abstracts. For other essays, I used research that had accumulated over the years, which had lodged in my imagination. For the essay “The Land of Importunity,” I was interested in the bird called the solitaire. I was interested in its name, the solitariness of this bird, and I started researching the now-extinct bird (kind of like the dodo that lived on Mauritius island). However, so much of the research came from journals of this Huguenot who had been exiled from France to an island. He kept a journal of all the animals he saw on the island, and the more I read his accounts of the solitaire, the more I was interested in him. It turned into an essay about this man who was subject to historical forces and fell in love with these animals that are now mostly extinct. 

Inscape: What were your favorite topics to research for the book?

AL: I think, again, I was inspired by animals and plants living extreme lives. The mesquite tree sends its roots 160 feet down into the desert to look for water, and the moose has these 70-pound antlers it carries around on its head that are so heavy it mustn’t lower its head down to the ground for fear it will never raise its head up again! These little goslings, who three days after they’re born, have to jump off a 400-foot cliff in Greenland before they can fly. I don’t know if I was consciously pursuing extreme lives, or if it was something I was subconsciously attracted to—it was interesting to me in my life at the time, which felt kind of extreme. I read about blueberries, and how they nourish everybody. One of the themes that guided my sensibility throughout the writing of this book was the idea of something that supports everybody and makes no distinctions between person or animal. I’m trying to celebrate everybody, if that’s possible!

Inscape: You mentioned this book was a response to the extreme things in your own life. What were those extreme things in your life?

AL: Well, we moved to Montana, and Montana is such an extreme place. It’s so extremely beautiful, so extremely cold! Because of the high altitude, the sunshine feels very extreme. Also, I had my little babies influencing me, and babies are very extreme!

Inscape: How does your environment affect your writing? Are there any environments that inspire you more than others?

AL: One interesting thing that happened when we moved to Montana from Chicago was that I felt like I wasn’t able to write for a while. As beautiful and inspiring as Montana was, I felt like I couldn’t write because I didn’t need to! Chicago is beautiful in its own way, but I felt like when I wrote my first book I was largely living in my imagination. When I moved to Montana I felt like I didn’t have to live in my imagination anymore. I could just go out the back door and revel in the mountains, the stars, the creeks, and the wildflowers. That was one surprising way in which my environment did not inspire me to write. But after a while I got over it. Towards the end of writing this book, I was kind of running out of time. I had to produce two essays in two months, which is like warp speed for me, so I tried something that I hadn’t tried so much in the past: writing about what I actually knew. We’ve gone to Yellowstone park so many times since we’ve moved here, and while I usually write about things that I don’t know (so I can learn about the panda bears or the jellyfish), those weren’t things I was encountering in my personal life. But because I didn’t have as much time to research these last two essays (I had a deadline coming up), I thought, well, I know a lot about Yellowstone! It was a new experience, to write about something that I did have a relationship with, and it came quite quickly. This experience also kind of inspired my next book, which is much more writing from experience than writing from research.

Inscape: What’s your next book about?

AL: It’s more about babies, and music, and religion. The things that I constantly think about all day long. I thought, Hey, I’ll try writing about the things I actually think about all the time!

Inscape: What was the timeline like for writing and revising The Everybody Ensemble?

AL: It really sped up. For a while I wasn’t writing at all. “Green Man,” the first essay I wrote for this book, took me about two years, due to many factors. “Pedestrians” took about five months and “The Benevolence of Blueberries” took three months. They sped up as I gained my momentum back. The whole thing took five or six years, including editing.

Inscape: What helped your momentum pick back up?

AL: I think . . . my children started going to daycare. That’s probably the main thing. And, because I was paying for daycare, that really put the pressure on; I wasn’t just going to come home and twiddle my thumbs. That pressure really made me sit down and write every morning, and then writing every morning turned into a habit. Nowadays, I have a little bit more time, and I could sit around and twiddle my thumbs. But I don’t, because I have that habit built up, so what else do I do? I sit down to write, and inspiration may or may not arrive.

Inscape: Your essays in The Everybody Ensemble feel very cohesive. Were all the essays written with the intention of being published together, or did any of them start off as solitary essays?

AL: Because I had published a previous book, I think I was hoping that they would coalesce into a collection. However, I didn’t have any conscious themes or orders in mind when I was writing them. That they were cohesive—and thank you for saying that—was kind of accidental, or not accidental, but you access these sensibilities when you write that might not be conscious otherwise. That’s a fun thing about writing: accessing things you wouldn’t otherwise access. So, while I didn’t set out with a plan, a design, or a formula, I did find my mind going back to the same place. It’s really exciting to write like that, where you’re discovering your obsessions as you go, rather than starting out with a blueprint and trying to adhere to it.

Inscape: How has your writing style changed over the years?

AL: When I started writing in Iowa, I used a lot of levity. Over time, I’ve learned to combine levity and gravity. It’s a good combination for me. If I write just with levity, I’m spinning out into space; if I write just with gravity, it’s just heavy. Over the years, I have tried to combine those two. Also, there’s probably more me in this book. In my first book, I was trying an experiment where I kept myself out of it, at least overtly. I was behind the curtains, and I was just pointing at the panda bears and the jellyfish and the porcupines—pay no attention to me! It was a good experiment, because it was a way to keep my own conventions out of the work. But with this book, I learned to trust my own thoughts a little more, and it was just easier to include my own thoughts and experiences in it. It’s quite an exercise to keep yourself out of something, and I think I just got a little older and a little tired of that exercise. It was a good exercise at the time, but if you persist in any exercise longer than you need to, it can just turn into artifice or a gimmick. 

Inscape: Are there any habits you try to avoid in your writing?

AL: I think you have to just write it all down, and then look at it, and say, “Whoops!” I feel like writing crystallizes all of somebody’s strengths and faults. You get to know yourself. The strengths are what you keep, and, hopefully, the faults are what you delete. It’s a fascinating process. I was mostly trying to write this as a book of praise, but I also found that criticism comes very naturally to me. Criticism was something that I tried to retain as long as it wasn’t facile criticism—if I felt that it was criticizing things that I do feel are small minded, literal minded, and lopsided. But I tried to take out the facile criticism that’s easy and automatic. I also try to erase all conventional thoughts. Writing allows me to see those thoughts. There those thoughts are on the page, and I can take them out. What I love about writing is that I can think the way I want to think because I can see all my thoughts there on the page. I can see my thinking; I can see where I’ve gotten into easy thinking, and I can take it out. It’s a very long and arduous process (to think hard thoughts and new thoughts) and it does take a lot of writing, erasing, and rewriting.

Inscape: Who are some of your favorite authors or books?

AL: One writer who influenced this book quite a lot was Walt Whitman. I think I contracted the impulse to celebrate everybody from reading Leaves of Grass—where Whitman has long lists of different people, angels, animals, moss, worms, ants, and the spirit. Whitman puts them all in the same list, where there’s no hierarchy. He celebrates them all equally.

Inscape: Is there any specific message that you hope readers take away from the book?

AL: I think . . . the message of appreciation, and celebration. I don’t really write for a message, I write for myself. If someone else finds a message in it, then hooray! One thread I tried to follow was confusing certainties. A lot of the things that I’m celebrating, like babies, music, and donkeys, are really beautiful confusers of certainty. Thinking about a message is kind of like thinking about God’s “message” in the book of Job. Job and his friend were engaged in a long academic conversation, and they wanted answers. Then, when God suddenly entered their conversation, God didn’t deliver a message. All He talked about was donkeys, baby goats, and baby ravens. So, maybe my message is that I’m trying to emulate God, in His non-message, in celebrating plants and animals, creation, clouds, storms, and rain.