Let me say first how much I love, love, love your book, the form of which seems to me to be triangulated somewhere between the points of essay and prose poem and speculative fiction. Can you talk a little bit about how you came to this particular form? Or, rather, how this project came to take this form?
Thank you, Lacy! I guess I came to the form of my essays accidentally and little by little, not having any form in mind to begin with and trying different things out, sometimes going off the deep end with speculative-fiction and off the other deep end with word-yoga, learning from my immoderation how to moderate myself. Immoderation is a good instructor.
I would never call your work immoderate; actually, it strikes me as extraordinarily precise. Who says that it’s immoderate? Also: word-yoga? Talk more about that, please. [End Page 167]
Oh, I would call myself immoderate in some of my discarded writing, certainly, but I would also call immoderation a good way to expand the repertoire. One time I was experimenting with sentence structure and turning every sentence every which way until all the sentences had their ankles folded around their necks and their noses in their knees. It was fun to write and horrible to read—poor uncomfortable sentences—and I had to rewrite the whole essay more sensibly. But after that I was more syntactically flexible for having gone to such extremes.
I love that, and I think we see that flexibility in Things That Are: no two sentences sound the same; no two paragraphs lead the reader down the same intellectual path (and there are many rich and rewarding intellectual paths!). And yet, despite this diversity, it all comes together to sound like you and only you—cohesive, certainly—but there are also all of these great linguistic treasures that we, as readers, get to discover throughout—sentences that are long and winding, stretching out for half a page, “with their ankles folded around their necks,” as you say, but also sentences that are short and precise and perfect. What are some of the other exercises you use to get writing, or to “expand the repertoire”?
Well, imitating sentence patterns I find in poetry or old books, letting musical rhythms get under my skin, and, most inspiringly, research—learning about different ways that animals and plants live. I guess it’s related to what I see you doing in your book—that is, imagining life from the perspective of others, especially your father, and thereby learning to truly identify with him. I love that attempt to understand another person, and I love trying to identify with the assorted characters of creatures, from the solitary and ascetic panda to the gregarious and voracious goat, and all the animals and plants who persevere in all their miscellaneous ways. Learning about them expands not just my repertoire of words but also my thoughts and sympathies. I do aspire to have miscellaneous sympathies as well as to persevere in my own ways.
Yes, perseverance seems to be a unifying theme in your book. But also, I would say the ability or inability to adapt. One of my very favorite essays of yours, what for me was the most hair-raisingly beautiful, was “Please Do Not [End Page 168] Yell at the Sea Cucumber, ”especially near the end, when you’re talking about “the brainlessness of the box jellyfish,” and how that brainlessness might be the result of that creature having evolved “tremendous powers of sight,” since the box jellyfish can see both hyperacutely and hypersensitively, and yet it is physically impossible to process vision in both of these ways. You conjecture that the...