Sunday, April 8, 2018

On Collecting: A Conversation with Thomas Mira Y Lopez

I am a collector. A compulsive hoarder, intent on keeping everything in the hopes of finding greater meaning. I collect rejection slips, Spell Master figurines, and broken bits of glass. I collect old keys, books on shopping mall design, and tools I find on the side of the road. Even physically, as I train for a marathon, I think of it in terms of collecting miles on my shoes, collecting new maps and routes as I explore the city where I live, but cannot speak the language.

All this to say that I spend an awful lot of time and energy thinking about the idea of collecting, particularly what it means to me as a writer of nonfiction. Fiction is about creating a world from nothing, but nonfiction is about minimizing reality into meanings small enough to appreciate: taking the entirety of the world and collecting the right ideas, images, moments into some sort of meaning. Taking a small piece of the world to show the entirety.

My hope for this new series, On Collecting,  is that it will be a chance for us to think about that act: how collections--both physical and written--shape our understanding of the world.

With that said, it’s hard to think of a better place to start than with Thomas Mira y Lopez. His collection of essays, The Book of RestingPlaces: A Personal History of Where We Lay the Dead, speaks a lot to the conflict between spiritual and physical worlds. We can’t take our possessions with us in death, yet what we leave behind—either in objects, in stories, or memorials—have a lot to do with our legacy. How do we curate ourselves and our loved ones? In the case of one essay on cryonic preservation, What items would you put in a “memory box” that would help you remember who you were hundreds of years ago? Thomas was kind enough to talk to me about these ideas for the past several weeks, and below are some of the larger ideas that came from that conversation:


To get started, I'm curious if you began this project with a sense of narrative, or was that something that came out more organically? Meaning, did you set out to write a book about memorials, or did it grow out of something else? Were you writing individual essays in which a theme emerged, or were you always thinking of these in terms of a book?

The first few started as individual essays. I was working on an essay about a walk around Calvary Cemetery in Queens--it's a huge cemetery, over three million people are buried there, yet the disparity between the number of people buried and the scarcity of people visiting interested me, as well as the history of how the cemetery ended up on what had once been farmland in now industrial Queens. I wrote a couple more essays from there, essays that focused on questions of the personal that that cemetery tour didn't delve into as much, and I began to see a pattern, or a possibility for a pattern, emerge. So, while I began early on to think of this as a book, the form it could take--an emotional arc or a grand tour or a bit of both--stayed open for a while. Resting places seemed a broad enough category--anything really can be a resting place; I mean, there could have been an essay about naps--so that it allowed me to go wherever I wanted or needed to go without having to worry about things becoming too much of a miscellany.

Strangely enough, I ended up cutting the Calvary Cemetery essay. I don't think I would have written the book without it, or without the decision to walk around that cemetery on a day off from work, but it felt redundant when all was said and done, something I couldn't shape into the rest of the narrative.

Reading through The Book of Resting Places, I was thinking a lot about the ways that we remember and memorialize. We can't take our possessions with us when we die, yet the possessions we leave are a large part of how we are remembered: we are put into the ground (either buried or put in catacombs or cryonically frozen and put into a bunker), yet the parts of us that remain above are what sometimes defines us in death. In your book you talk about the tree that serves as your father's memorial and juxtaposing that essay against the mostly anonymous dead in the defunct Tucson cemetery gives us an interesting contrast of those remembered and those forgotten. With that said, I'm curious as to what you think about this connection: how much meaning should we be putting into the objects we leave behind? How did these ideas come together to shape this book?

Oh man, this in many ways is the question. If we're thinking about what objects are left behind, I would try to figure out who's investing them with meaning. Is it the person, or people, who are gone? Or is it the survivors? There seems the potential for fabrication, or manipulation, either way. One of my favorite factoids is that the Quakers left behind no tombstones because they believed in the saying "False as an epitaph." That is to say, we tend to bask in a particular, more favorable light when tasked with our own elegy. An epitaph is the parentheses of a life; not the life itself. On the other hand, there's someone like Roger, the proprietor of the gem and mineral shop outside Tucson, who has taken objects from other cultures and periods and appropriated them to say something about himself. My mom too collects these objects that, in part, create this whole new mythology for her, and give breath to a sort of sustenance. The book is interested in what happens when memory's distortion plays itself out on the landscape, and objects are very much a part of that. It's not just the meaning they're invested with, but the desire to invest them with meaning in the first place.

I actually think that conflict between who is investing meaning is really at the heart of this question. Not to talk too much about my own projects in this space, but I became obsessed with this idea when I was working at a used book store and was responsible for buying books back from the public. Someone would come in with hundreds of books--an entire adult life of reading--and due to condition or the material being outdated (paperbacks from 1988 aren't in high demand, neither are outdated textbooks, etc.) I might offer them 10-20 dollars total. There was a clear sense of devastation, as if I was putting monetary value on their personality or aesthetics or intellect because these particular objects helped shaped people. Conversely, you'd see someone who was excited for that 20 dollars because they were clearing out the home of a deceased uncle or something, and they had a more objective sense of the value of a decade's worth of National Geographic magazines.

All this to say that I think we might be getting more into the subject of curation: we curate meaning in our own lives through our possessions, and sometimes we curate our memories of others who can't speak for themselves. We build memorials or, as you say, write false epitaphs that remember a few great things about a person while omitting the difficult or problematic. We see this with Roger's mineral shop where he is creating his own mythology out of the history of others. As nonfiction writers, we are essentially curating facts already: taking ideas/memories/facts that exist and including/excluding/ordering for maximum effect. I see this in your book as well: there definitely is a narrative arc to the book despite the fact that each essay is essentially its own independent subject. These pieces stand on their own individually, but they also come together to tell a bigger story about loss, memory, and your father. From a craft perspective, how much is this sense of ordering or curating part of your creative process? How does it differ when putting together a book manuscript as opposed to an individual essay?

Yeah, I feel books are the objects I think about behind all these other objects. Not to give away too many spoilers, though it's not really one, but The Book of Resting Places ends with the book as resting place, the actual physical object as temporary, remaindered and then eventually pulped. That's in part a certain necessary modesty about the book and its prospects, and a response to the way I was encouraged to think about objects, and their relationship to text, in graduate school. I worked for a few months at the Strand bookstore, which was not a great place to work, though also not the worst, and I always thought of the book buyers there as ruthless. A life's work and then a flick of the hand; not enough. (Although it seemed many of the books that made their way into the Strand were overstock taken from the back of a Barnes & Noble.) All this to say, I used to take breaks at the Strand and I would sit on a ledge between the dollar book racks outside and the dumpsters. I'd mostly watch the people foraging through the dollar books and so it took me a while to look over at the dumpsters and realize they were full of books. Just full of them! It was sort of an Upton Sinclair, The Jungle, moment where you see how the sausage is made (although that particular book could also end up in a dumpster and it wouldn't be a bad thing). I was shook.

So that scene, in some form, has been on my mind all these years. What to do with all that stuff, how to honor the urge towards the encyclopedic, towards the infinite, and realize that's not ultimately a working model. And that definitely plays a part into how I thought about ordering the book, in what points I wanted it to hit. I'm glad to hear it feels like there's a narrative arc. For a long while, I wanted to write about every cemetery, burial site, space of death, etc., so that I was wondering what was under my feet at that current moment and how I could fit that in. In other words, I wanted to write a book I would never finish. Some of those ideas still interest me--I wanted to find someone who preserved the smells of the deceased, or I wanted to find a widow that kept the body of their spouse in their home after death, I wanted to write about guillotines, etc. etc.--but those were also ways of not writing the book. At some point, I took a deep breath and said this is who I am, this is my budget (because that matters, even though I'd like to think it didn't), and this is what the book needs to do. And that felt really freeing. I wish I could remember how I got to that point. To leech onto that Anne Carson quote about prose being a house and poetry being a man on fire running quite fast through it: if a house is on fire, you grab what you can and that's what you've got. Hopefully it includes the cat.

Or, to put it a different way, I gave a reading recently, in which I read from the essay about all my mom's stuff and my fear of what to do with all that stuff after she dies (do I take the books to the Strand?), and someone afterwards quite kindly suggested that I just take pictures of all the stuff and throw most of it out. That way I'd have all those objects--or their simulacra--but not really have them. I didn't want to say anything but that's the opposite of what I'd want to do. A book shouldn't be a diminishment, but also a book only exists because it isn't everything.

That's so similar to my book buying experience, though in many ways the massive amounts of books coming through kind of numbed me after a while. It was shocking at first, but by the end I was pretty ruthless when it came to the what I was willing to throw in a dumpster. The picture theory is also interesting in that we sort of see versions of this playing out in all sorts of media: the fact that I took something like 20-30 pictures on my phone yesterday that (realistically) I may never look at again, the fact that listening to something on vinyl still has a feeling of ceremony to it where the same songs on Spotify don't hold the same weight.
I think you're right about the challenge of knowing when enough is enough, especially when it comes to death and memorials. There are companies that claim to turn cremains/ashes into diamonds and that's not even the craziest one you could explore. I think the impulse is to always add more because it is so fascinating (and in all seriousness I would read an entire book about memory boxes after reading your cryonics essay), but like the dumpsters full of books, I think there is a cutoff point where enough is enough, where it's easy to cut because once you do accumulate enough, it becomes easier to separate the essential from the inessential. In terms of collections, I believe that maybe the biggest point of growth occurs when a collection stops being a "greatest hits" collection and transforms into something that is a bit more cultivated, something that depends just as much on what's left out as what's left in.

I love what you identify as the biggest point of growth in a collection. I love collections that I would consider "greatest hits," but I always have the question of who's doing the curation or the cultivation. They make me ask: was this the publisher's idea, something that was done because the iron was hot (i.e. novelist x's essay collection as a follow-up the year after the novel was published)? Or were the parts more consciously planned as one day becoming a whole? There's accident and intention, surely, in any book, but what’s perhaps most interesting, if we’re talking about collections, is where those accidents and intentions overlap. What happens when the overly determined or structured is allowed room to breathe? Or when the seemingly random is pushed to find resonance? That’s what draws me in: those moments when collections go from afterthought to after thought.


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