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Interview with Melanie Rae Thon

A native of Montana, Melanie Rae Thon is an award-winning short story and novel author who lives in Salt Lake City and teaches at the University of Utah.

Interviewed by Whitnee Forest

Inscape Journal: I love your view, expressed in “The Gospel of Grief & Grace & Gratitude,” of writing as a practice of recognizing and restoring the things we love. In your piece, you give some examples of things you’ve recorded in your daily “Book of Wonders”/”Gospel.” What advice would you have for writers looking to keep their own “Book[s] of Wonder”?

Melanie Rae Thon: In A River Runs Through It, Paul Maclean, Norman’s brother, expresses the importance and magic of attention beautifully: “All there is to thinking is seeing something noticeable which makes you see something you weren’t noticing which makes you see something that isn’t even visible.” Writing, like prayer, must be a daily practice. By practice, I also mean ritual. For more than thirty years I’ve kept what I once called “Image Notebooks” and then “Books of Wonders.” Later, during a period of severe illness, I found a new name: “The Gospel of Grief & Grace & Gratitude.” Now, I am simple and call this work “The Notebooks.” My students often prefer to call their books “Trash Diaries” (a nod to Lance Olsen). You can google “Junk Journals” and find gorgeous artistic interpretations.
I have no rules or purpose: my apocryphal gospel includes songs of loons and visions of owls, flowering saguaros, hungry grizzlies—the last words of my father’s last days—my sister Wendy playing Beethoven on our grandmother’s piano. A hurricane splits trees, opening a smell deep and dense as the earth’s consciousness cracked open. My brother kneels to wash and bandage the open sores on my father’s feet. At twilight, soft copper light holds my sister Laurie as if it has chosen her above all others. Yes, we are safe now. A grasshopper leaps in the lake, and my mother calls me down to the dock to save him.
The key is to pay attention to anything that delights or scares or mystifies or astonishes or exhilarates you—and then try to bring this observation into vivid, evocative, communicative language. You might also wish to include photographs, collages, drawings—poems by yourself or others—news or science articles—anything at all that sparks and amplifies and intensifies your experiences—anything that deepens your engagement with the vast, animate, absolutely miraculous environment everywhere around and within you. Even in our short span of years, evolution is possible! May our spirits evolve through the enlivening of our senses!

IJ: You’ve published novels, short fiction, poems, and essays. How do you know when a story or meditation has the potential to turn into a more sustained narrative versus a piece of short fiction?

MRT: As long as a piece of work sustains my curiosity and passion, I know it can continue to blossom—and I can continue to flourish—through research, imagination, and exploration. This does not necessarily mean the piece will be larger in the end—it may grow into several separate pieces in disparate forms or shrink back into something much smaller because my contemplations and investigations help me understand what is essential. The thirty-page story “Necessary Angels” began with more than four hundred pages of exploratory notes. Many times I’ve composed an entire story to gain enough understanding to write one paragraph.

IJ: Your writing does a lovely job of looking “through and beyond” the body. I’ve noticed that the acknowledgement/awareness of our bodies can be something we tend to shy away from as writers and academics. How do you maintain the body as a present force in your writing, and what does that do for your work?

MRT: We all have utterly unique ways of knowing the world—the cosmos—through our singular bodies. No two people see or hear or taste the same things. One friend tells me cilantro tastes like gasoline to her. Another says that when she takes off her glasses and looks at Christmas lights, they prism into spectacular shapes and colors. Some bodies are caught in constant pain; some move lightly through the world. One friend learns to fly on the trapeze, another eats fire. And those are just human beings! Imagine the ways an octopus or a bee or a saguaro knows its world through a particular body in a specific environment. Learning about different bodies has been one of the most thrilling aspects of my research and my life.
We may have twenty or more senses, including “thermoception,” the sense of heat (or its absence) on our skin; “equilibrioception,” our sense of balance, which is determined by the fluid-containing cavities and crystals in the inner ear. (Ask anyone with vertigo how important this is!) We experience “interoception,” any awareness originating from a sensory receptor inside the body: flutter in the belly, twist in the bowel, muscles tightening after a surge of adrenaline, a flood of internal warmth from throat to toe after eating spicy food.
Animals sense things we usually don’t: sharks have electroception, which allows them to sense electric fields. Birds and insects use magnetoception to navigate using magnetic fields. Fish deploy echolocation and the lateral line (a system of sensory organs) to perceive pressure, motion, and vibration. Owls and deer hunt or feed at night using infrared vision. The blind sometimes have “facial vision,” awareness of the shape and size and weight and movement of objects based on the shifting pressure hey feel against their faces and skin and bodies.
What about “kinetic empathy,” the sense that when you witness something, you “feel” as if it is happening to you? This may be physical (you watch someone fall and scrape skin on gravel and you flinch in pain), or emotional (you see a teacher ridicule a classmate and feel the burn of humiliation, a feeling that has physical and spiritual components). We all have mirror neurons in our brains that give us access to these sensations.
I am always asking myself how I and the living beings I love and all the beings I imagine might be knowing themselves and their worlds through nonverbal or pre-verbal languages.

IJ: This is a somewhat selfish question because it’s something I’m very curious about right now: What does the process of revision/rewriting look like for you? How do you know when you need to let go of a piece (either to lay it aside or try to publish it)?

MRT: I think of my dear friend and former student Mark Robbins who describes the process of writing as prayer: “for isn’t this what prayer is: the dedicated concentration of your being on that which will help you become the person you know you should be?”
As long as I continue to learn from my explorations of a piece, as long as I believe they are helping me become more aware and compassionate, more curious and kind—more joyful—more alive and enlivened, awed and bewildered, I know the piece is not yet done finding its way through me.
Our work can always be different, but not always better. At a certain point, I realize I need to remember, imagine, research, and experience other beings and the worlds they inhabit in order to discover new ways to crack consciousness open and love with ever greater abandon.