Leath Tonino, somewhere in Nevada, photo by Sean Hirten
Leath Tonino, whose essay “RIP, Chuck, But I Doubt It” appears in NER 42.3 (and is posted on Literary Hub), talks with staff reader Belinda Huang about Charles Bowden, the importance of rambling, and two different meanings of the word “guide.”
Belinda Huang: “RIP, Chuck, But I Doubt It” speaks to the limits and potentials of that peculiar relationship between writers and readers—in particular, between you and Charles Bowden. The relationship starts when you first read his work in 2011, and continues after his death in 2014 into present day. What brought you to write about it now?
Leath Tonino: I got deep into Bowden’s work for a while, but that’s not the rarest experience for me—I often become obsessed with a single writer or subject or place and, like a dog with a bone, just gnaw and gnaw and gnaw. The thing that stood out in this case was that we were in e-mail correspondence at the time of his sudden death and planning to meet up for a conversation. Is my note sitting unopened in his inbox? How many e-mails are accidentally sent to the deceased every day? I found the situation fascinating and for a long while thought that it could launch an essay, like a research-driven piece on the intersection of our ancient animal lives and our new digital lives. What’s the deal with being a mortal body in an era when we are also disembodied online presences? So many threads to pull there, so many directions one could go.
But ideas for essays are also rather common in my life. I think of five things to write about with every cup of coffee that I drink and 99 percent of those ideas never receive a drop of ink. Learning that Bowden’s unpublished work was going to be brought out by University of Texas Press is what finally pushed me into action. Ah, the plot thickens. Now there are two stories, the Before and the After, with Bowden’s death and my unread e-mail to him serving as a hinge. I started scribbling and one thing led to the next.
BH: I see this essay in part as reaching back for the interview that never got to happen—the relationship survives and evolves, with you filling in Bowden’s side of the conversation with snippets gathered from e-mails, blurbs, interviews, and books. Was it important that you use Bowden’s own words as much as possible, even in the title?
LT: I’m just a freak for quotes, that’s all. For more than a decade now, I’ve pulled quotes out of every book that I’ve read and stuffed them into a humongous Word doc. If I sit down to write my own essay about, say, blue spruce or black bears or whatever, there are so many other voices to draw on, so much eloquence and thoughtfulness on tap. When I interview somebody, I try to include quotes from other writers in my questions so that it’s like there are three or four or five of us having the conversation. It’s basically an unquestioned assumption on my part that if I can seed other people’s words into the soil of my own stuff, I should, because then a more elaborate and exciting plant may have a chance to grow. Better yet, a forest can grow. A thicket.
Writing this Bowden essay, I was aware that the reader needed to get a feel for his style—I couldn’t just tell you about him, I had to show you him, too—and if a theme here is the dead author speaking from the grave, well, he’d better speak, yeah? Beyond quoting to achieve those two ends, there was nothing very strategic going on. The title was actually suggested by NER’s Carolyn Kuebler, my editor. I had named it “Thirteen E-mails,” or something equally bland and forgettable.
BH: Bowden’s own concept of his relationship to his reader—inviting the reader in, then nailing the door shut behind them—is powerful. Time and time again, you agree to be trapped in his “ghastly, illuminating, exhausting” work. What do you think keeps a reader coming back for more?
LT: I’m not big into analysis and picking apart stuff that I enjoy—it’s far more important for me to feel the heat coming off of the page than to understand why—but with Bowden a few things are obvious. First and foremost, it’s the prose style, which is musical and impassioned and quick and crazy and unpredictable, rich with sensory details and startling imagery. Did I say musical? Let’s repeat that: Music, music, music. Songs carry us along. They are irresistible. Rhythms and melodies intoxicate us, put us under a spell. Bowden is all voice. He raps.
The second thing is that he doesn’t bullshit the reader, by which I mean he refuses pat answers to unanswerable questions, refuses to explain away the simultaneous nastiness and complexity and confusion and joy of existence. In one of his books, he refers to thesis statements as opiates for the masses. What good is a thesis statement when we’re talking about the whole shebang, the nastiness and joy and everything in between? Who wants to replace the sprawling incomprehensible world with a cute little package wrapped in neat pink ribbon? Increasingly, I feel like I’m accosted from all sides by disingenuous language. Advertising, PR, politics, academia, the media—everybody’s always working an angle, trying to sell something or hide something, trying to coat reality with this veneer of phony words. All my favorite people, whether writers I’ve never met or close friends, are wanderers, questers, searchers who wear their befuddlement on their sleeves. I’m eager to shut the door and settle into sustained conversations with these people, even if the talk is grim.
BH: You speak of different kinds of loss in this essay: the “lostness” of our contemporary reality, that “any reader with a pulse ought to be struggling to confront,” and the loss of Bowden and his voice when he dies. In both cases, there are no clear answers, no clear path to understanding. Yet you find delight in this lostness, which brings a sense of levity to what could be a very serious topic. How do you maintain that perspective, resist the urge to seek definite answers?
LT: This is a wonderful question and I am honored that something I wrote could play a part in generating it. The question itself is way better than anything I’ll be able to say in response. Bullshitting, remember? We could sit and talk about this for hours, days, weeks, going in circles, arguing and laughing. We could dismantle and rebuild and dismantle again the entire notion of “definite answers,” the assumption that life is some sort of question in need of figuring out. I might mention the ancient Zen masters that I read. I might mention the Stoic philosophers that I read. But for me to try to speak to the subject authoritatively, as if I have a clue how anybody does or ought to handle this tension between lostness and foundness, confusion and clarity . . . c’mon! Call in the PR department. They’ll whip up a batch of bumper stickers, licketysplit.
I will say that my great passion—my consistent practice—is rambling. I bushwhack in the wilderness. I stroll city streets. Though I love maps, I almost never carry them in the field. Without plan or agenda or itinerary or objective or destination, I move through terrain. Come to think of it, I move through libraries in a similar fashion. Much of my life could be summarized like this: I’m not lost . . . I just don’t know exactly where I am at the moment. So perhaps this physical experience of disorientation, an experience in which there’s nothing to do but keep moving, put one foot in front of the other, allow things to unfold—perhaps this has been a training of sorts?
BH: Yes, this essay points to a relationship with nature and the outdoors as key parts of your life, something that links you and Bowden.
LT: All I’m going to say about this is that I walk thousands of miles a year wherever I happen to be, that Bowden was also an inveterate walker, and that the outdoors are everything. Literally.
BH: You call Bowden a “guide to twenty-first-century chaos.” Is that something you seek in your reading? You give a snapshot of your reading from the turbulent time of March to May 2020, from Alice Walker to Bashō to Howard Zinn.
LT: I don’t know why I read. Certainly, books are guides, but in what way? Guiding us where? Two different meanings of that word “guide” come to mind. On the one hand, you can get guided through and out of the maze, avoiding the monsters that dwell therein. On the other hand, you can get guided into the maze, i.e., you can be shown the lay of the land, monsters and treasure chests and princesses and all. I recently read Toni Morrison’s Beloved. I recently read Philip Gourevitch’s book on the Rwandan genocide. I recently read a collection of natural history essays about flowers and bees, pollination, evolution. I recently read translations from a Korean poetic tradition that dates back to the 1300s called sijo. These texts give me the world more than they instruct me on how to navigate the world. They put me squarely in the maze, which is where I already am, where I and everybody has always been and will always be, and in that sense they are guides.
A while back, I interviewed an old rock climber who authored the authoritative guidebook to the Wind River Mountains in Wyoming, a massive intricate rugged place. I was interested in the guidebook as a genre, a literary form, specifically in the balance that this guy had to strike between giving the reader, the aspiring ascendant, too much information and not enough information. He said that he was famous for being vague about routes and that this was a badge of honor. His goal was to get people into the thick of it, that spot where they have to figure things out for themselves. I mentioned Robert Frost’s great line about a guide who only wants to get you lost—a line that I quote in this essay—and he cackled with glee.
BH: Have you read Bowden’s third posthumous publication, Sonata, since writing this essay? What was your experience of that book?
LT: The publicist at University of Texas Press sent me a PDF of Sonata many months before the book was published, but I didn’t allow myself to read it. Instead, I waited for the hardcover to arrive in the mail, and then I waited even longer. Sonata was money in the bank, cash for a rainy day.
That day turned out to be Christmas, which happens to also be my birthday. Normally, I’d be hanging out with mom, dad, sister, niece, and nephew, drinking wine and doing puzzles and taking walks in the woods—normally, Christmas is not a day for reading—but due to the pandemic I was hanging out with just my girlfriend, and she’s used to my nose being buried in a book. I gave Sonata to myself as a present, you could say, and read all morning on the couch. Happy birthday to me.
Note that in answering this question I’m not offering anything about the content of the book, its subject matter and—oh, how I despise the word—its “takeaway.” What’s memorable and important is the experience of loafing around and abusing black coffee, a quilt heavy on my lap, cold sunshine streaming through the window, the deceased Bowden alive in my eyes and ears. Consider all the times in your life when you spent six hours with a buddy and had a blast. Was it because of the brilliant insightful things you and your buddy said or was it because a general mood of we’re-in-this-mess-together camaraderie was established? Books can edify. Books can entertain. But what about books that keep us company? That’s a wonderful gift. And again, it largely has to do with voice.
BH: Do you yourself have an “audience of one” in mind when you write?
Sometimes, sort of, it depends. Writing for glossy magazines, the editor can take on that role. Writing about my personal adventures in nature—climbing mountains in bad weather, stringing hammocks in the tops of tall trees, building a raft and sailing around on a giant lake for a month, sitting on a rock and staring at the starry midnight sky—I sometimes picture the sixteen-year-old kid I once was, a kid in high school who needs only the softest nudge in the direction of exploration and creativity and exuberant weirdness. For the most part, I probably don’t have any audience in mind. In the act of composition, the words are everything—it’s almost like they are the audience and I’m trying to not incite their wrath: You, Tonino, are an idiot. Use us better . . . or else! That said, I do think this whole “audience of one” notion is really cool. E-mails to my sister and a couple close pals are, I believe, the best writing I’ve ever done. Sometimes I’ll try to trick myself by putting a draft of some magazine assignment into an e-mail. It never works. Can’t fake the funk.
BH: Are you working on anything at the moment? Is there another book on the horizon?
LT: I’ve got poems and essays and magazine assignments and all sorts of smallish projects in the works right now, but what else is new? Writers write, and I’m a full-time freelancing fool. As for books, nothing is under contract at the moment, though I do have a whole bunch of stuff waiting in the wings, including multiple poetry manuscripts, a collection of adventurous outdoorsy nonfiction, a collection of strange contemplative desert vignettes, a collection of interviews with biocentric thinkers, on and on and on. I put a decent amount of energy into trying to get stuff into print, but on the whole it’s an icky facet of my life that I prefer avoiding. Better to take refuge in the act of writing itself. Plus, somebody’s got to squirrel away a bunch of material to be published posthumously, otherwise essays like this one that I wrote about Bowden couldn’t exist!
Belinda Huang is a writer, editor, and NER nonfiction reader living on Darug land in Sydney, Australia. She holds a BFA from Emerson College, Boston.