Few essayists blend the cerebral and the visceral the way that Melissa Wiley does in her work. Her latest collection, Skull Cathedral: A Vestigial Anatomy brings together a host of works inspired in various ways by vestigial organs. It builds on the work in her previous collection, Antlers in Space and Other Common Phenomena, which wrestles with mortality and humanity, along with the complexities of both. I spoke with Wiley to learn more about the genesis of both books and what’s next for her.
I’m a big fan of unexpected literary constraints, and so I’m curious – which came first, the idea of essays inspired by vestigial organs, or the essays themselves?
The idea for the constraints—each essay incorporating and being informed by a given vestigial organ—came first, though I was aware of some of the material that I wanted to cover in certain essays going in. Between Skull Cathedral and Antlers In Space, I had put together another book of essays (still unpublished), and by the time I was starting on a third collection I realized that I needed a more unifying thread. I wanted more of a plan, and the idea of vestigial organs really resonated. However esoteric or odd they might seem, I felt right away that they would carry me through a whole book. They would offer enough mystery and indeterminacy to drive me to complete this as a project. There was, and still is, something beautifully open-ended about parts of our bodies that we no longer use and provide direct evidence of our ongoing evolution.
In both Skull Cathedral and Antlers in Space, you write about bodies and physicality in a detailed way. What do you find most challenging about evoking these things in prose?
Physicality for me is grounding, as a writer and as a person just alive in this world, and grounding is something that I find myself really needing. My initial tendency as a writer is always to write in the abstract, to expound certain theories based on a lifetime of possibly too much passive observation. So keeping the focus more on bodies and sensory experience works against that grain, forcing me to get more specific. The more somatic material usually comes in during later revisions, functioning as a corrective, fastening an essay more firmly to the earth. What’s most challenging and redeeming too about writing about bodies is that not a single one exists in the abstract, in the mind alone.
What I have to give up—all the material that I end up having to excise—for the sake of attending to a particular body is probably the hardest thing for me. Writing about physicality often erases everything that I think I know—or want to believe I know—about how life works in general or in theory. You can’t—or at least I can’t—say what is true or not true for anyone else, much less a wider swath of humanity, when you’re limiting your writing to your own physical experience, when you realize your own corporal reality acts as a constant filter for every piece of information or stimulus you ever absorb, meaning ultimately there might not even be a world outside your own nervous system for all any of us can know in absolute terms. Having to let go of any pretense to objectivity is the price you pay for inhabiting your subjectivity, which is to say your body, utterly and without apology. In other words, for literary purposes anyway, this mode can serve as a gateway into a deeper honesty.
Was there anything in Skull Cathedral that you wrote or structured as a response or reaction to Antlers in Space?
The idea for structuring essays around vestigial organs actually came from the title essay in Antlers in Space, in which I include a small discussion of the philtrum, the groove connecting the bottom of the nose and top of the mouth. I remember having some fun with calling it “my little groove of uselessness” or something along those lines, and when I set out to write a more cohesive book of essays, all connected to vestigial organs or reflexes in some manner, that sense of playfulness came back to me. In Skull Cathedral, I wanted to keep playing that same game.
You’ve written a lot about travel in both of your essay collections. Is there a city or other place that you’d like to write about that you haven’t yet been able to?
Sure, of course. I’d love to travel to Asia, to venture somewhere like Tibet or Bhutan, somewhere people live completely differently than myself, in a way that seems from my Western distance maybe more purely. I would love to see more remote parts of Japan and Malaysia, Laos and Vietnam and Cambodia, but that’s unfortunately not anywhere in the budget now, and I don’t know when or if that may ever happen. I used to travel places slyly thinking I could write about them and then feeling a little disappointed if they failed to yield any literary value afterward. But over time, and especially in the wake of the pandemic, I’m more content to just visit friends, at home in Chicago as well as other cities not too far afield, to do some of the simpler things that I really missed, like all of us missed, for a long time.
When writing Skull Cathedral, were there any vestigial organs that you encountered that you couldn’t find a specific literary match for?
I wasn’t overly scientific with the vestigial organs themselves, especially as some exist more on a sliding scale than others. The list has grown considerably shorter too over time as humans keep living to longer ages and as scientists identify more uses for certain organs, like the spleen for instance, once we’ve grown older than most of our ancestors ever did. Some of these essays cover material I’d had in mind to write about for a while, though I didn’t start each one until I matched a given topic with a given vestigial organ or reflex. I also knew that I was only going to write so many essays, so I took for granted from the beginning that I wasn’t going to be exhaustive by any means concerning the potential list of vestigial organs themselves. My approach tended to involve thinking first about the main material for an essay and then, looking through a list of organs, deciding which one would most genuinely deepen what I was trying to say.
Both essay collections have distinctive structures. I’m curious – how much time did you spend determining the right order to place your essays in?
With Antlers in Space, I spent a good amount time trying to put the essays in an order that flowed well, or reasonably well, for the reader. I’m not sure how fully I succeeded, though I admit to being a little superstitious about numbers in general, paying attention to numbers historically deemed significant. So I was careful to have three sets of seven essays, with each set attempting to demonstrate a different stage of awareness. I definitely wanted the reader to sense some growth along the way. With Skull Cathedral, I also initially wanted there to be three sections, which I divided into head, torso, and limbs, with twelve essays total. After a while, though, I realized one of the essays just didn’t work nearly as well as the others, though it took me some time to accept that. Once I took it out, the symmetry of three bodily sections was then lost with only eleven essays. Fortunately my wonderful editor at Autumn House Press, Mike Good, helped to organize the essays into their final form.
Do you have a sense of what your next project will be?
I have actually written three other books—none of them accepted for publication as yet—since Skull Cathedral, though this is mostly because it took me a number of years to find a home for this book at Autumn House, so I’ve had the time, or I’ve made the time. The most recent project, as is true for so many of us, came directly out of the pandemic and its lockdowns. It consists of a series of letters to my husband, with whom things became pretty challenging throughout 2020. I’ve also tried my hand at a collection of short stories and a memoir of sorts concerning a rare neurological condition that I’ve struggled with to varying degrees for decades, which I hope will see the light at some point. Right now, though, I’m working on a book confronting the losses and adjustments of middle age—yes, fun times—and is structured around the idea of a house—the body as a house, I guess you could say. As with Antlers in Space and Skull Cathedral, I’m writing essays again, but they’re more closely linked, each one in direct conversation with those around it. The book also shuttles back and forth in time as it moves from room to room, and so far at least I’m using this project as a way to surrender to changes beyond my control. I’m also, true to form, employing the body for grounding purposes while talking about climate change and other collective turbulences that no amount of introspection can resolve or make any less scary. Writing for me has always been, though, about reconciliation with reality.