Featured Authors: An Interview with Ashley Butler

The variations of style and content throughout these essays are quite broad and inventive. Can you talk about how you decided on the structure for this collection?

I’m often not aware of what an essay is about until after it’s been written and I’ve had some time away from it. The overall structure of the book became more obvious after Anechoic was written. After a while one essay or inquiry just seemed to follow the next. I’m also grateful to many readers for helping the collection find a form.

The five senses become characters in their own right by the end of this book.  Sight, for example, makes several appearances. In the essay “Causality:Casualty” you state, “Believe me when I say, one must remain hidden in order to maintain the feeling that one sees completely.” Could you further discuss the significance of the senses, specifically sight, in this collection?

Bentham’s Panopticon: that circular building whose circumference is lined with cells and whose center is occupied by a tower in which a guard turns to survey the prisoners. To some extent, what one sees is determined by expectations of the larger community or culture in which an individual finds herself at a given point in time.  Art historian Jonathan Crary reminds us that “sight is an historical activity”—a rose is a rose is a rose. We write to write ourselves in the process of writing.  Sight is a means and not an end.

Relativity plays a large role in this collection. A favorite quote in the collection is from Goethe when he writes, “No one who has never seen himself surrounded on all sides by nothing but the sea can have a true conception of the world and his own relation to it.”  Could you talk about what this quote means to you and what it means to this collection of essays?

In “Italian Journey,” Goethe begins by telling us how calm and quiet the four-day boat trip from Naples to Palermo is and only then does he mention the adverse wind and how he’s been violently seasick.  From the simple line of the marine horizon, he writes, he’s found another approach to his landscape painting.  It’s as though by being at sea (unencumbered by trees, hills, etc) he might realize some presentation of a limit beyond the body.  And this would be available only to the eyes. In Dear Sound, and in writing in general, I think openness is important, that is, to try to make a space so something can pass through.

Throughout this collection, you explore the lives of pioneers, specifically pioneers of space, speed, and science. How did you approach your research for these essays?

I spent a lot of time in archives and special collections.  The research for Anechoic took a year and a half though very little of it was included in the essay.  In some ways, the research became more about the obsession to know, to find some meaning in, or to somehow objectify, the feeling of absence.  For the other essays, the research served slightly different purposes though it’s always used to think through a more subjective inquiry.

Along the same lines, of all the famous explorers and scientist, etc., that you researched for this book, including the likes of Houdini, Yuri Gagarin, and Nikolai Federov, who was your favorite subject and why? What is it you hope to learn or convey by these stories of great exploration?

Tsiolkovsky drew up plans for an elevator between the earth and outer space—one long wire anchored in the sea and stretching up through the atmosphere. For his ideas Tsiokovsky risked being exiled or labeled mad/unsound, etc and thus considered less than human, or less civilized. Although he was ridiculed at the time, some of his ideas may not seem as radical or unusual now. In Dear Sound, the scientists offer another way to think through the essayist’s relationship to grief and the unfounded hope that the dead could send messages by making a light flicker, etc.

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