Amy Leach is the owner and operator of a million-watt imagination. Her new book of essays, Things That Are, is full of joyful, luminous pieces that stake out the territory between meaning, of one sort or another, and the physical world. We asked Amy about the book and its essays, several of which have appeared in Orion, ranging in subject from the emotional lives of mushrooms to the movement of the moon.
These essays manage to wring wisdom and poetic significance from the raw materials of scientific observation—like astronomy, mushroom taxonomy, and the behavior of panda bears. Where do these pieces tend to begin? With an eye-catching article in, say, Scientific American, or with some transcendent idea, like love or saintliness?
I don’t think I ever started with an idea. I’d assign myself a subject like the moon or mushrooms, sometimes arbitrarily, sometimes because I was smitten, and as I learned about the subject the ideas would emerge. I don’t know where ideas come from, exactly—if they are floating around in the mind waiting for a mushroom to attach themselves to, or if they are inherent in the material, and when one pays close enough attention to a mushroom one will discern its wisdom.
Can you say a bit about the structure of the book? It’s unique and interesting: there’s the “Glossary of Strange Beasts and Phenomena,” for example, and those gorgeous pen-and-ink illustrations…
I wrote these essays with little of the overall structure in mind, and I am grateful to my agent, Jin Auh, for helping me with the sequence, and Patrick Thomas, my editor at Milkweed, for helping me with sequence and shape. Patrick came up with the two sections, “Things of Earth” and “Things of Heaven,” which I like because they remind me of what Hamlet said to Horatio: “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” He also had me write the glossary, which was very fun, and found the illustrator, Nate Christopherson, to draw the enchanting beagles and bears.
It seems safe to say that these essays could not have been written without a glowing imagination, a quality that so often threatens to leave us in adulthood. How has your sense of imagination changed—or not—as you’ve gotten older?
The things that ignited my imagination when I was little—music and animals and language—still do. I will always be willingly and gratefully under their sway. Maintaining the imagination does not seem too difficult as long as one resists cheap commercial substitutes. Resistance is a useful skill, and no is a wonderful word.
What did it feel like to put these pieces together? Did they pour and bubble onto the page, or was there a lot of deliberation, honing, and sharpening involved?
Some of the essays did well up and pour forth, and that was exhilarating. Maybe it is more exhilarating, though, when the writing does not come easily, when you have to try and try and try before you find what you want to say. It is a joy to be a conduit, a stronger joy to be a participant.
So many of these essays feel like love letters to the physical world. Do you spend a lot of time outdoors, wandering and imagining and dialoguing with natural things?
I’ve always spent a lot of time wandering around, appreciating woods and stars and animals, but for part of the time when I was writing this book I lived in a big city, so “love letters” is a good description of what I was writing—praises of the wild beloved from whom I was separated. Of course the separation was not absolute; I was not in space; the weather in Chicago was wild as was the Pomeranian.
Often, writers say that they write books for themselves, or for an audience very much like themselves. Is that true for you? Can you describe your ideal reader?
I do write for myself. I write about subjects that interest me and make me think new thoughts; I am happy if someone else also finds them interesting. Anyone who enjoys my essays is my ideal reader.
Listen: Amy sets her essay “God” to a pared-down bluegrass backing: