An Interview with Melanie Rae Thon, An Essay by Melanie Rae Thon

Charlie Kennedy

Melanie Rae Thon Cover

Melanie Rae Thon is the author of four novels, most recently The Voice of the River. She has won numerous literary awards and her fiction has been included in the Best American Short Stories series. She has taught in a number of reputable universities across America and currently resides in Salt Lake City, Utah. She will be reading at the University of San Francisco as part of the Lone Mountain Reading series on October 2, 2013.

Switchback: You've been described as "one of the most original stylists writing fiction today." What does the term "original stylist" mean to you—would you say this quality it true? Who do you admire as original stylists, and which stylists have inspired your own writing?

Melanie Rae Thon: Such a lovely thing for someone to say, but I’ve never used the word “stylist” to describe myself or anyone else, so I can only approach your question via several circuitous routes. The brilliant Russian psychologist L. S. Vygotsky believed that dialogue launches language, but that we come to know ourselves and our world through “inner speech,” a private language almost without words, a ceaseless stream of images and associations that approaches pure meaning. It is through this inner speech that a child discovers and creates her own identity and vision of the world.

Every moment of our lives we are barraged with an astonishing number of sensory impressions, most of which remain far beyond and below conscious awareness—but they spark responses, infinite webs, multiverses of “pure meaning.”

As a writer, I am always seeking ways to suggest and trigger these luminous bursts of memory and imagination as they are catalyzed by sensory, phenomenological encounter—the ways past, present, and future become one, are already one, a continuous flow between inner and outer worlds, again, inner and outer, the same, not separate—even as I understand it is utterly and absolutely impossible to represent them through traditional mimetic strategies.

The Diné say: That which is within one and that which surrounds one is all the same, and it is holy.

This semester I’m teaching Robert Alter’s stunning translation of Genesis and Stephen Mitchell’s translation of The Book of Job. No matter how many times I enter these texts, I’m transported and inspired by the dazzling economy of biblical narrative and poetry, its fusion of precision and ambiguity. Syntax, diction, sensory detail are all chosen and arranged with meticulous care, with unwavering attention to music and meaning, but the texts are also full of mystery, hidden depths and contradictions that lead to beautifully disparate translations and interpretations.

My dear and beautiful friend Mark Robbins once told me, “Writing is prayer, the dedicated concentration of your being on that which will help you become the person you know you should be. This is very close to the teachings of the Desert Fathers who described Lectio Divina, divine reading, as the meditative approach, “by which the reader seeks to taste and savor the beauty and truth of every phrase and passage. The writers who inform my writing are the ones who guide me toward a deeper contemplation of how I wish to live, to be, in the world. There are so many, and each is unique and important in his or her influence, but lately I’ve found myself reading or rereading something by Thich Nhat Hanh (the Buddhist monk) and John Berger every few months. James Agee, Tillie Olsen, and John Wideman help me understand the transcendent possibilities of inner speech and multivocal narratives, the importance of listening to everyone. When I enter the smoke and flames of Norman Maclean’s Young Men and Fire, I am transformed and inspired by his commitment to storytelling and research.

I could go on for days about books that inspire me to live fully, with compassion and curiosity and infinite wonder: the poems of Mary Oliver; The Spell of the Sensuous by David Abram; Of Wolves and Men by Barry Lopez; The Sabbath by Abraham Joshua Heschel; Touching the Rock by John Hull; The Gospel According to Jesus: A New Translation and Guide to His Teachings for Believers and Unbelievers, translation and guide by Stephen Mitchell...

The more books I list, the more I leave out! But all these texts and the multitude of others I find most compelling, most internally persuasive, are ones that work through both sense and sound (as I mentioned earlier). I’m going to send you my very short essay on that topic (“Music & Meaning”) for you to post.

SWB: Your novel The Voice of the River carries a certain elemental weight. As a teacher of Creative Writing and Environmental Humanities, can you explain the importance of your teaching in your work, and how it has impacted your prose? Does your work in Environmental Humanities aid your creative writing, and, if so, how?

MRT: My teaching and writing both emerge from my deepest concerns as a living being on this small planet in this vast cosmos. Every section of the novel is flooded with the perceptions of nonhuman beings. I found the research absolutely exhilarating. Humans have five million scent receptors in their nasal folds, but the average dog has 200 million. So the world a dog perceives is utterly astonishing. When I thought about Talia running along the river, I tried to imagine her experience: she smells fox and porcupine, hibernating bears, coyotes, squirrels. She feels the great horned owl watching her. As soon as I imagined the owl, I began to wonder about his perceptions: my focus shifted; suddenly he was sensing Talia, hearing her breath. An owl can hear a mouse tunneling under snow! So the breath of a dog must be a wild roaring. I love thinking about the environment this way, moving between beings, sharing their sensibilities.

One of my brilliant readers (Lance Olsen) refers to the point of view in The Voice of the River as “oceanic consciousness.” He means the perceiving consciousness embraces all living beings. This sensing presence swirls around a person, a bird, a bear, trillium blooming in dark woods, snow, stones, pines singing—moving closer and closer, loving that being tenderly, finally merging with another sensibility, perceiving and knowing as one, before swirling out again to embrace and love another. I’ve been moving in this direction for a long time, exploring the phenomenological limits of experience. Human beings are often inclined to privilege their own sensibilities. We touch the tree, but fail to acknowledge the tree is also touching us, perceiving us, responding to the heat of our bodies, drinking down the carbon dioxide we exhale, trembling in response to the rifles we fire.

Pondering this, trying to imagine the lives of lantern fish, a horse sick from locoweed, deer, newborn cubs, a dying pigeon, a family of crows from their perspectives transformed my way of living in the world. Doctor Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury says: Wilderness always speaks to human beings of Transcendence: in the widest possible sense it says, “You as a Human Being are part of a System which is not just about your needs and your concerns. Like it or not, you’re part of something immense and very mysterious.”

This belief is at the heart the novel. I hoped for the reader to share my sense of awe, to understand the story as ceaseless prayer, a celebration of life, all life, mystery and miracle within an immense animate landscape, a song of praise, the voice of the river.

We are part of the natural world! How can it ever be otherwise? Our bodies themselves are biotic communities. Only ten percent of our cells are human cells. The rest are microbes with whom we enjoy (mostly) blissful symbiotic relationships. Our bodies understand the environment, even if our sophisticated brains deny the importance of our exchanges with other beings.

Remnants of extinct retroviruses remain in our bodies, fossil records of the multitude of beings that influenced the course of our evolution. A fish that pushed itself out of the sea is our distant relative. The embryos of bats, lizards, birds, and humans are beautifully similar. There is an elegant African proverb: I am because you are, and you are because we are. I like to think of this idea in the broadest terms possible: we are all part of the jeweled net: nothing exists except by connection to everything else in the infinitely miraculous universe. We mourn intimate loss, the deaths of ones we love, the extinction of species, but we are exalted by the spiritual belief and scientific understanding that everything changes and continues.

Thich Nhat Hanh demonstrates this idea with loving simplicity. His example is a piece of paper, and he shows how all forms and forces in the universe are here: tree, soil, sun, rain—the logger who cut the tree, the wind that pollinated the wheat that made the bread that sustains him—all his ancestors are here, as are the worms who made the soil fertile. We can begin anywhere, with any being or any entity, and we will discover a web like this that opens forever in every direction. Every molecule, every quantum particle in the cosmos, every potent entity—from lightning to rain to dark energy—is a part of every form and every force. There is no such thing as “I,” no such thing as “other.”

It’s staggering to contemplate, liberating and deeply humbling.

SWB: What has your experience as a writer taught you that you teach to other creative writers?

MRT: For almost thirty years I’ve kept what I call my “Book of Wonders,” and I encourage everyone—not only those who think of themselves as writers—to fill their own notebooks with joys of every kind: photographs, collages, poems, quotations, overheard conversations, one’s own observations and speculations—anything at all that offers wonder or pleasure. There are no rules whatsoever. This is writing (and/or collecting) as daily prayer, as meditation, a way of paying attention and heightening one’s awareness, allowing the world to thrill and disturb us, evoking sensory impressions and vivid scenes and philosophical revelations that will continue to delight and destabilize us days or decades in the future.

On the morning news I hear that a man in Florida has been cited because five neighborhood children climbed over his fence to ride his 18-foot python! I read that human beings are the descendants of bacteria! Why are we afraid? Bacteria have been on earth for 80% of the planet’s history, 3.8 billion years. Humans have been around for only 0.003% of the planet’s history. There will be life on earth long after we are gone. Hallelujah!

I walk on Sperry Glacier with my sixty-two-year-old mother; I glide out on the frozen lake with my eighty-three-year-old mother. The time between these miracles seems no greater than the distance between where we were then and where we are now, ninety miles.

I speak with the pigeons by the pond. I try to learn their language. They have a bad reputation: “Rats with wings,” my friend Roy says. But they can fly eighty-five miles per hour, and their songs are gloriously soft, among the loveliest sounds I know: coo – cura – coo, coo – cura – coo.

Each moment of our lives is eternal, dense with sensation, saturated with the past and informed by intimations of the future, full of miraculous encounters with living beings and potent entities.

Michelangelo said, "Miserable mortals! Open your eyes!" I would say, "Belovéd ones! Open your hearts, your minds, your senses!"

The day the Chilean miners were rescued (13 October 2010), I had the astonishing revelation that everyone in the whole world who heard this news might be rejoicing at the same time for the same reason: for one moment, we were truly free of our separate selves, one open heart, delivered by love.

Everything we perceive invites us to tell its story.

As Ian McEwan says: Imagining what it is like to be someone [something!] other than oneself is at the core of our humanity. It is the essence of compassion, and it is the beginning of morality.

I see a pigeon dying on my porch the day before Christmas, deer up to their ears in snow, my father in his last bed, heart and lungs and liver failing: I am learning how to love; I cannot save them. In the park, a woman drags a drunken man into the grass, kisses her fingers and oh-so-tenderly touches his face before she leaves him. A coyote howls across the arroyo, and in delight, I answer.

Writing carefully about these things helps me remember, restores me to grace and gratitude, transports me to astonishment.

When I began composing The Voice of the River, my goal was to include every beautiful, transcendent thing I’d ever witnessed or perceived, from watching a tanager in flight to seeing my brother wash and bandage our father’s feet. We knew our father was dying, that the sores would never heal, but the action of love, the care, the gesture of healing remained essential. I didn’t want to write about my family, but I did want to explore what I’d learned about tenderness and surrender.

Keeping the “Book of Wonders” is at the heart of my work as a teacher and writer and living being. The challenge is to use what I’ve witnessed as a means of perception, a way of expanding my own sensibilities by observing and imagining the experiences of others. Marcel Proust says: The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes; in seeing the universe with the eyes of another, of hundreds of others; in seeing the hundreds of universes that each of them sees.

Our work on this earth is spectacularly unfinished.

Music & Meaning

Seventeen weeks in the womb, and now your ears are open, ready to receive, exquisitely developed. You live in a waterworld, immersed in vibration and sound: the unceasing whoosh of blood through the uterine artery, your mother’s heart and breath, the surprising syncopation of your own glorious heartbeat. You know the exaltation and pitch of voice: anger, fear, love, sorrow. Language to you is a polyphonic murmuration: when your father and mother walk through the park in early morning, you hear the sad, sweet burblings of doves, the roar of a train, the whoops of children.

You care nothing for sense and signification: everything you love is music.

Twenty years later you think you want to be a writer and teachers tell you it’s meaning that matters, the perfect words, the perfect order, and yes, of course it’s true, but as you lie in bed listening to your heart and breath, besieged by the songs of tree frogs and crickets, lulled by a rush of cars so far away they could be a river, you realize that what you want to write is a fugue, a sonata, a symphony.

We speak not only mind to mind, but body to body. Until each sentence sings, until your paragraphs pulse and reverberate, your beautiful thoughts are incomplete, your holy work unfinished.

I read each sentence aloud—twenty, thirty, a hundred times—seeking not only sense, but tone and timbre and rhythm, hoping that through the fusion of meaning and music my words can touch anyone, fetus or mother.

- Melanie Rae Thon

"Music & Meaning" was originally published in Architectures of Possibility: After Innovative Fiction, edited by Trevor Dodge and Lance Olsen. Bowie, MD: Guide Dog Books, 2012: 171 – 172.