“Frog Inspiration and Mouse Inspiration”: An Interview with Amy Leach06/04/2012
In Things That Are, Amy Leach examines the world’s wild creatures and fitful flora with a splendid medley of ocular instruments. Sometimes, palms and knees to the soil, she ponders the miniature wriggling of the earth’s smallest beasties with an oversized magnifying glass. Other times she dons a star-and-moon bedecked astronomer’s robe and peers at the heavens through an ancient clockwork telescope. And just as likely, Leach might consider the path of a plodding tortoise, undulating jellyfish, or glittering comet with a spyglass, a kaleidoscope, a pair of thumb-and-forefinger binoculars, a monocle, or a crystal ball. It isn’t necessarily what you see, but how you look at it.
Leach’s essays charm by looking at the more-than-human world from unconventional vantages. Here, Leach answers a handful questions about finding inspiration in the mundane lives of common critters, using and abusing her favorite words, and repopulating our dreams with fauna.
Milkweed: Your essays peer into the often-overlooked phenomena of the natural world; what do you hope your readers will gain from your writings?
Amy Leach: Someone told me that animals are disappearing from our dreams. It is sad, and impoverishing, that animals are underrepresented in our imagination, our art, and our lives. One of the things I was trying to do, in writing these essays, was furnish my own imagination with various creatures, various lives, various experiences of the world. This project brought me a lot of joy, and joy is what I’d hope to share with readers.
What is your favorite word, whether real or made-up? When you love a word, do you fill your pages with it or save it for the perfect moment?
My favorite word is dog and I could say it all day long, though I restrained myself in the writing of this book from sprinkling every sentence with dogs. It was interesting rereading the essays all together and noticing which words turn up repeatedly, like oblivious. I think I am always writing it down in my notebook as a word to use, oblivious to the fact that I have already used it many times. I also love the word sheep and am not temperate in using it.
Space dust, pea tendrils, frogs from Borneo, and the Earth’s mousy core—your essays range wildly between species and phenomena. Where do you pull inspiration from? Have you ever pulled a dictionary of natural history off a shelf, opened it to a page, and simply said, “I think I’ll write about the Pinwheel Galaxy today”?
A friend shipped me a 24-volume wildlife encyclopedia several years ago, and that has certainly provided frog inspiration and mouse inspiration. Sometimes inspiration came circuitously: the pea-tendril essay started out as a cabbage essay, and the panda bear essay started out as an essay about neutrinos, with panda bears as minor characters; in both cases I had to abandon my first subject for one that interested me more. Of course sometimes inspiration arrives more directly: seeing bright red mushrooms in the forest, squirrels chasing each other underneath ferns, moths walking across parking lots.
What about research outside the encyclopedia? Do you seek out natural phenomena off the page?
Writing each essay was its own complete experience. While I was writing “Silly Lillies,” I bicycled up to the botanic garden every other day to admire the huge ruffly lotus leaves and the pink water lily blossoms. For the writing of the “The Wild What,” I was in the Adirondacks where the stars shine unimpeded, and every night, after writing about the Great Bear all day, I could sit outside and appreciate the Great Bear itself.
The included “Glossary of Strange Beasts and Phenomena” contains entries that seem almost too fantastical to believe—did you invent any of these, or are they really all true?
Besides Planet Huffenpuff, I did not invent any of the words in the Glossary. But it was fun excavating old fantastic words and doing my part to restore to them their former privileges. Defining them, at the end of the book, took me back to fifth grade; I remember in fifth grade writing my own definitions of words; it’s as fun as it ever was.
Things That Are, Amy Leach’s first collection of essays, was illustrated by Saint Paul, MN-based artist Nate Christopherson. Read an interview with the artist here.
You can sample Leach’s collection with “In Which the River Makes Off with Three Stationary Characters,” an essay which features industrious beavers, stubborn salmon fry, and the summer-time strumming of a banjo.
Order Things That Are here.