When were you happiest?
This fall—after I’d turned in my copy edits and before my book came out—was the happiest time of my life. I basked in the pure joy of knowing that I had showed up to a really, really hard process over many years, and that I’d done the thing I’d always meant to. Not only had I written the book—which so many writers never actually do—it was good. It would do the things I wanted it to in the world. I slept and wandered the forest around my house and cooked and spent time with my sister and recorded my audiobook and watched the first good reviews roll in, and the trauma of the writing process (and the experiences in the book) peeled off my body. I looked suddenly ten years younger. I could run again, and did, up and down the mesas near my home. And then on my book launch day, Lightning Flowers was on the homepage of the New York Times and my voice was on NPR’s Fresh Air. My family and I screamed together as my book shot up the Amazon charts. That week my chicken laid her first egg and someone inquired about the film and TV rights. It was everything I ever dreamed of.
What’s your guiltiest pleasure?
Spending too much money at farm-to-table restaurants. I’m an okay cook, but not an excellent one, and I tend to use my time in other ways. Yet I have a high appreciation for local, quality ingredients. I love going out and trying dishes, especially paired with the right wine or whiskey. The pandemic has put a bit of a damper on this, although I try to still support local restaurants when I can.
What’s the trait you most deplore in yourself?
I work hard not to deplore anything about myself. But: the way I’m built makes things like doing my taxes extremely difficult, and it’s easy to get frustrated by my own disorganization and inability to focus on detail-oriented tasks.
What’s the trait you most deplore in others?
One of my core values is vulnerability, which is inseparable from bravery and from the kind of raw honesty that makes reckonings possible. It’s hard for me to connect with people who aren’t being truthful with themselves, who prefer to stay at the surface level. Most of our biggest social problems are the result of people unwilling to do the work of really seeing themselves, whose aversion to vulnerability—and thus inability to be truly brave—keeps them from being accountable for their actions, both personally and as part of the collective.
What’s the most important lesson life has taught you?
All things exist in seasonality. We are not “supposed to” be happy or healthy all the time. As any gardener knows, fertility lives on the other side of rotting or fallowness. We don’t get to bypass experiences of discomfort, dismantling, destruction, decomposition, initiation. When it’s time for spring and summer, that’s great! But in our lives and in our collective life, we must remember the validity of waning, of rest, of movement through the underworld. How to live in the midst of this kind of death, which is inevitable, is the real human work.
What book(s) are you reading now?
In terms of actual paper books, I’m reading The Soul’s Code: In Search of Character and Calling by James Hillman and How Long Til Black Future Month by N.K. Jemisin, and I just finished Sanctuary by Emily Rapp Black. On audiobook, I’m devouring James Verini’s They Will Have to Die Now: Mosul and the Fall of the Caliphate, and just finished President Barack Obama’s A Promised Land.
What books might people be surprised to find on your shelves?
Everything ever written by Edward Abbey except for the hard-to-find Jonathan Troy. As an adult I recognize that Ed said some horrible things about immigration and was at times a terrible misogynist. And yet when I was a teenager in the Chicago suburbs, desperate for open space and wildness, it was his work that built a bridge into my future life. “I am taken by the primeval charm and fascination of simple mysteries,” he wrote: “fire, f**king, building in mud, rain, sunlight, the smell of greasewood and live oak after a cloudburst…” I special ordered one book and then another and then another from the bookstore at the mall. When I grew up, I moved to the desert.
Which writers working today do you admire most? Why?
I am most compelled by writers whose sentences slay me and whose work lives in service to big ideas. The writing of Ocean Vuong, Jericho Brown, Louise Erdrich, and Ta-Nehisi Coates leaves me humming.
Which genres do you read? Which do you avoid? Why?
I read creative nonfiction almost exclusively because, well, it’s my job! I need to know what illness narratives or sexuality memoirs have just come out, both to inform my own craft and to stay connected with the topics I teach. I am a bit of a policy wonk, so I love listening to audiobooks that incorporate fierce and intimate reporting on social issues or global dynamics. I do really love slipping into novels here and there. I try to read Best American Essays every year, but otherwise I’m not much into anthologies, essay collections, or short stories. So much of the pleasure of reading books for me is getting lost in something, seeing how a story is built or how a question is answered over a long deep stretch, and it’s often painful for me to transition between things. So the short forms are, by and large, less nourishing for me.
What book(s) “should” you have read but haven’t, or what “classic” couldn’t you finish?
Oh boy—most of them? I got kicked out of Honors English in high school and went to a fairly unconventional college, so I dodged a lot of what we consider the canon. I’m obviously not very compelled by “should.”
You’re organizing a literary dinner party. Which three writers, dead or alive, do you invite?
Ed Abbey, Louise Erdrich, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.
Tell us about your latest book in no more than 50 words.
Lightning Flowers tells the story of my troubled relationship to my implanted cardiac defibrillator within the context of the American healthcare system and the device’s global supply chain. It’s my journey to understand what it really costs to save my own life—and how we live with death in sight.
Where can we find this book?
I recommend buying a signed copy from Collected Works, my local bookstore here in Santa Fe. (They’ll ship to you!) Because the pandemic shut down my book tour, CW has the only signed copies. But the book is also available through any independent bookstore or major outlet.