Unsettle Genre

By  |  February 4, 2015
Gander on Ezra Pound Weg near Brunnenburg castle. Photograph by C. D. Wright, courtesy of Forrest Gander Gander on Ezra Pound Weg near Brunnenburg castle. Photograph by C. D. Wright, courtesy of Forrest Gander

A conversation with Forrest Gander


“As soon as we come into contact with the sacred, we’re face to face with death and we have to ask ourselves who we are.” That’s Les, speaking in Forrest Gander’s first novel, As a Friend (2008). It’s a defining line of inquiry in his work. Love is sacred to Gander, as is longing. Vulnerability, landscape, poetry, pain—these draw his characters, and readers, to the edge of the void.

Born in the Mojave Desert and raised in the Southeast, Forrest Gander is the author of two novels, ten poetry collections, and numerous translations and essays, and he has been nominated for the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award, among other honors. Gander’s genre-bending books—which often feature collaborations with other artists—are driven by a powerful curiosity and hum with rich, associative thinking. At once granular and expansive, Gander writes after what he calls “our inner selves, that holy knot that gives us a hold on what we actually feel,” with the conviction that nothing less than life is at stake.

His latest novel, The Trace, came out with New Directions in November 2014. This conversation began shortly thereafter in a bookstore in Brooklyn, over mescal in plastic cups. Largely unremembered by the interviewer—aside from the worm Gander insisted I eat—it unfurled via email in the subsequent weeks.


The Trace tells the story of a scholar, Dale, and his wife, Hoa, a ceramicist, following the elusive path of the American journalist Ambrose Bierce into the Chihuahuan desert, where he disappeared just over a century ago. Can you talk about about Bierce, what drew you to his story, and how it informed or inspired the novel? Was Bierce a starting point, for you, or did his tale unfurl at once with Dale’s and Hoa’s?

Well, the Bierce story is so compelling. An American writer at the height of his fame (for his Civil War stories, his horror fiction, his hilariously acerbic Devil’s Dictionary, and his cranky journalism for the San Francisco Chronicle) decides, at the age of seventy-something, to saddle up a horse and ride into Mexico to cover the Mexican Civil War, maybe get an interview with Pancho Villa. He doesn’t speak any Spanish and, as the biographers say, he disappears “without a trace.”

It wasn’t until after I’d been writing for a while that Bierce tore into the story. With a couple of poets, John Balaban and Brian Turner, I found myself driving from Marfa, Texas, into Ojinaga, Mexico, a place I’d passed through before without paying much attention to it. Coming upon the ruins of the old fort in Ojinaga, I suddenly remembered one of the theories about Ambrose Bierce’s disappearance. And I began to imagine that Bierce’s trajectory through Mexico, which is conjectural, of course, might offer a promisingly ill-starred route for Hoa and Dale.

So Dale and Hoa came first? Did something draw you to the desert as the site to explore their grief and their strained marriage? There’s a great counterpoint in the book—their path, and the presence of a murderous psychopath. Did you know where you were going as you wrote—how they would cross paths—or were you writing in the dark?

I’ve been traveling widely through Mexico over the past few years, taking notes. So as the idea of the novel developed, yes, with Dale and Hoa, a couple trying to re-float themselves after their lives have foundered, I knew the landscape where I wanted the story to take place—a landscape as raw and full of ache as their insides. I spent weeks in the desert tagging rattlesnakes with a group of UTEP herpetologists, exploring caves, sucking juice from cacti, hiking for miles off trail, and slowly I worked through many of the situations that the characters of the novel experience. Meanwhile, neighbors of my friends in Mexico were kidnapped. Another friend who works as a therapist was dealing with the widow of a man who was kidnapped, killed, and hacked to pieces, even though the family had followed all the instructions they were given. The car with the money on its way to the kidnappers got caught in traffic. Drug violence is surround sound in Mexico. I wasn’t sure what would happen between Dale and Hoa and the thugs, but I knew their traces would cross.

They start out in the weird West Texas town of Marfa—a divisive place, I think. What’s your take on it?

People like to dump on Marfa for the perceived “preciousness” of its arts culture, as though arts culture is only authentic when it happens in—well, New York. But Marfa’s a very interesting place to me. The cemetery in Marfa is, of course, two cemeteries—the ragged side with dirt and patches of weeds that look like armpit hair and crosses made from chair dowels and two-by-fours, and the other side with marble angels and urns and cut grass. One has Mexican names and the other, gringo names. Ambrose Bierce might be buried there in an unmarked grave—but on the Mexican side. There’s a strong Texas ranching community in Marfa that runs up against the arts scene that draws in tourists, bohemians, collectors, and curators from New York and everywhere else. There are generations of Mexican-Americans who still tend to be situated on the south side of the railroad tracks, but who are thoroughly integrated into the town’s businesses. There’s an active Border Patrol station—though not nearly as active as the ones to the west—whose agents, the ones I interviewed and met with, are mostly of Mexican descent. Then there are the mysterious lights, the cave fenestrated landscape, the barbed wire, a pair of great horned owls in residence at the courthouse, fossils and rare gems in the vulcanized badlands. It’s a place of dynamic contradictions.

As in real life, the desert of your book is alive, shifting, breathing. The presence of the land is insistent and menacing—but it seems more of a character than a blunt antagonistic force. Your first novel, As a Friend, is about a group of surveyors, literally plotting and graphing the landscape, which seems to have a similar bearing or influence on their lives. What is the role of geography or landscape in your work?

As you probably know, I have a degree in geology, and it’s long seemed to me that our emotions and thinking maybe even our speech patterns and certain rhythms of perception, are subtly informed by the landscape or urbanscape around us. I remember hiking alone through the mountains of Big Bend and coming across a sign on a remote trail that advised: If you glimpse a mountain lion in the distance, don’t bother to try to be quiet and get away. It’s been watching you for at least the last half hour. The world is involved in us experientially, physiologically, psychologically. I’m given to paying attention to those tensions and interconnections in my writing as in my life, even while I’m lousy at paying attention to more basic things, like remembering anniversaries or names.

2015 02 04 McElwee Gander3The landscape of the Texas-Mexico border near Marfa. Photograph taken from a bi-plane by Forrest Gander

I kept thinking of the old-school anthropologist Gregory Bateson. Ever hear of him? He’s a madman who will jump from the anatomy of shark scales to a passage from Hamlet in a breath—all to describe what it’s like to live in the world. In a similar way, you’ll tear apart a Yuca plant to show its insides, and then obsess over the mechanics of sound waves and how they wriggle their way into the human brain—but the end result seems to be a deep sense of your characters.

Feeling is the driving force for me. As Ezra Pound has it, “Only emotions endure.” But I love the complexity of feeling, and I’m fascinated by how it may be connected to neurology, to our surroundings, to memory. To get at the fullness of it, I try to channel the languages of science, intuition, sensation—the way Herakles (not comparing myself to Herakles) bends several rivers into one gushing force to clean out the Augean stables (not comparing my novel to horse shit)—to bring to the reader some sense of the fullness of a moment, even sometimes its boring component. A number of anthropologists have been signal to me. Kevin Dwyer, for instance. I teach the marvelous Gregory Bateson in my “Ecopoetry” classes at Brown. And Clifford Geertz; his insistence on “thick description” is profoundly influential.

My favorite thing about Bateson is that he was married to the anthropologist Margaret Mead—speaking of strained marriages, she had four of them. There’s an interview I love in which she’s asked why all her marriages are failures and she says, “none of them was a failure.”

The novel, as you write it, is a kind of marriage. And if you finish, it divorces you and stands apart. Beckett’s “No matter. Try again. Fail better.”

Your novels are about artists. As a Friend excavates an enigmatic heartthrob poet named Les. The Trace lets us into the heads of a scholar and a ceramicist, always throwing and firing clay. They’re deep thinkers, versed in jazz, well-read—in fact you seem to explore reading as a mode of being. But your characters somehow never feel like mouthpieces for your own ideas. Can you comment on this? Is it just easier to write about smart people?

I love that story of Mai Zetterling, the great Swedish director best known for her feminist, innovative films. Given an opportunity to cover any Olympic sport, she chose weightlifting. Her fans were baffled. What’s up with that? I hear her response, in an English thick with Swedish accent: “I am not in-ter-rested in sports. I am in-ter-rested in oob-sessions.” I too am most interested in characters who have obsessions. And as we all know from experience, when you are completely focused on something, you find that everything in the universe is linked to it. The deeper you go, the more expansive and interconnected it becomes. That’s what I think you were saying that draws you, and me, to Gregory Bateson.

You’re a prolific poet and essayist, and both of your novels press and complicate formal boundaries. As a Friend is composed in tight, atmospheric vignettes that spill over into a widow’s heartbroken jottings—a rough-hewn sort of poetry—and the final section is an interview transcript. The Trace has similarly episodic, if more expansive, prose, and each chapter starts off with a poem. Can you tell me about the conflation of form, if it exists, in your work, and what it means to you?

I’m interested in the whole hog of writing—poetry, essay, prose, translation. I remember that somewhere you describe yourself as “not being otherwise conversant with poetry,” but my grandfather stomped through the apartment reciting 19th century verse and my mother read me Poe and Sandburg when I was a child. Much of what I’ve come to love—Edmond Jabès, Eliot Weinberger, David Markson, Basho’s Back Roads to Far Towns, C. D. Wright’s One With Others, Ondaatje’s Collected Works of Billy the Kid, or Anne Carson, for instance—unsettle genre. A lot of my own recent writing concerns border crossing. It seems in keeping with my inclinations that the forms for my writing also come to cross borders. I think if I have anything to offer the genre of fiction, it will probably derive from my experience as a poet.

Is it safe to say that poetry has always come first for you?

Poetry came first to Roberto Bolaño, and he always said he admired it most, but he was a better novelist than poet. Poetry came first to Michael Ondaatje, and the novels he’s come to write, which are beautiful novels, are clearly marked with footprints from that first stomping ground. I cut my teeth on poetry and that experience puts a unique pressure on language for me, no matter the genre in which I’m writing.

As far as form goes, I forgot to mention photography and drawing, which feature in a number of your books. Your Pulitzer-nominated, rule-breaking poetry book Core Samples of the World, for example, is a dialogue, of sorts, with images, supplied by well-known photographers, from various corners of the world. Do you have anything to add about the visual dimension or collaborative dimensions of your work?

My most recent collaborations have been with the artist Ann Hamilton and with the Japanese post-butoh dancers Eiko & Koma. Eiko and I are working on something now that will premiere this year in the Museum of Memory and Human Rights in Santiago, Chile. I feel that collaboration offers an exemplary social model at the same time it activates creative possibilities that wouldn’t come about independently. Core Samples from the World is, essentially, a book of collaborations and border crossings. By giving up the imagination of total control, by making myself vulnerable to what is not mine, I’ve often been prodded to discover a language beyond my own limited capacity to describe experience, maybe a language underneath description.

How does your translation work fit into this?

I’ve been reading the neurobiologist Daniel J. Levitin this week. He writes that “Empathy requires the ability to switch between different perspectives on the same situation or interaction.” There’s something not unlike that process that happens with translation, which I think of as more of a spiritual than a transcriptural activity. You have to get clear of yourself to really hear the music of someone else’s mind. Perhaps this is especially true of translating poetry. And then, of course, you return to yourself with all the tricks you’ve learned and all your craft to try to make something in your own language that can communicate something of that music. We’re living in an age when borders and translation have become the major metaphors in philosophy, literature, and politics. I think everyone is invested in seeing how the “all this” fits together.

So is this an empathic project for you?

You mean living in the world? Yes.

To bring it back home, you’ve also worked with the Virginian photographer Sally Mann. I understand that you were born in the Southwest and raised in Virginia. Is a connection to the American South important to you and your work? You’ve named a few already, but have any other Southern artists been important influences?

It’s weird isn’t it, the pull our roots have on us? Although I’m there every few weeks now to help care for my aged mother, I haven’t lived in Virginia for thirty years, but that landscape—the Blue Ridge, the Shenandoah Valley, Panther Falls—is in me forever. I was raised in a house of women—my mom and two sisters—and in the summers I went to a camp in Rockbridge County, Virginia. Sally Mann went to the same camp, but during the session for girls. Cy Twombly lived in the closest town. Other Southerners like James Agee, C. D. Wright, Frank Stanford, Clyde Connell (who is a woman, incidentally, and a fantastic artist), Deborah Luster, and John Ehle have been absolutely critical to my sensibility.

I was born in the Mojave Desert and my mother always talked about it with a keen nostalgia. I find myself, especially these last ten years, making trips to deserts—the Sonora, Chihuahua, Sahara, Atacama, Taklamakan—and writing about deserts more and more. As you note, perhaps the major character in The Trace is the desert itself.

It’s a place where European heat tourists die in their cars. Overgrown with jimson weed, populated by UFOs: Does the Southwest count as the South?

I think most people would say No way; different regions, different heritages. But Texas, for example, is a big place, and it makes room for both South and Southwest. East Texas links up to Mississippi culture and ecosystems. Mance Lipscomb is from there. There are Victorian mansions, a history of slavery, and Macroclemmys temmincki, the alligator snapping turtle. Seems Southern to me.

2015 02 04 McElwee Gander4A cemetery stone in Marfa, Texas. Photograph by Forrest Gander

John McElwee works in book-to-film development in New York. He last wrote for the Oxford American about the Blue Monday Shad Fry in eastern North Carolina.