The Legacies of Ambrose Bierce: Talking The Trace with Forrest Gander

Desert Sunset / Photo © Cal Holman / Flickr creative commons
Desert Sunset / Photo © Cal Holman / Flickr creative commons

The Trace, Forrest Gander’s second novel, is a work haunted by the past from many angles. At the center of the novel are Dale and Hoa, a couple traveling through the desert in the aftermath of an accident that befell their son. They’re tracing the final steps of the writer Ambrose Bierce, who died a hundred years ago under mysterious circumstances while tracking down Pancho Villa. The Trace isn’t simply a meditation of one writer’s legacy, however: the strains on Dale and Hoa’s relationship are sometimes wrenching, and horrifically violent episodes begin to occur in the periphery. I checked in with Gander -- who is also known for his poetry and essays -- via email to discuss the biographical aspects of The Trace, and the historical legacy and literary lineage of Ambrose Bierce.

Signature: When did you first encounter the story of Ambrose Bierce's death? And when did you first think to use it as inspiration for your own writing?

Forrest Gander: The mysterious thing, of course, is that there is no story of Ambrose Bierce’s death. There are rumors. At the height of his fame as a writer, in his seventies, without speaking a word of Spanish, Ambrose Bierce decided to saddle up a horse and ride into Mexico to cover the Mexican Civil War. Maybe interview Pancho Villa. Several eyewitnesses claimed to have seen him die in several places a great distance away from each other on different dates. One witness said he carried Bierce, wounded, across the Rio Grande to the U.S. side. Correspondence was burned, evidence disappeared, and reports that early investigators said they filed never were received. I knew Bierce’s Civil War stories, but it wasn’t until I learned about his cenotaph in Sierra Mojada, a little mining town in the Chihuahua Desert, that I began to imagine a place for him in this novel of two Americans who lose their way in the Mexican desert.

SIG: In The Trace, Dale is the character with a fixation on Bierce. Did you have a sense, as you were writing the character, of how he had first been drawn to Bierce's life?

FG: In the novel, Dale is a history professor in Asheville, NC, and he’s writing a book on Bierce. I think Dale’s compelled, like most of us, by life stories that end in question marks. An award-winning American poet, Craig Arnold, disappeared on a remote Japanese volcano. Sequoyah, the brilliant inventor of the Cherokee syllabary, died in Mexico looking for a lost Cherokee tribe, and neither the logbooks of his journey nor his grave has been found. Amelia Earhart dropped radio contact and her plane ran out of fuel. But did she manage to crash-land on an island? It’s our nature to wonder.

SIG: For The Trace, did the setting (and Bierce's ties to it) come first, or did the characters of Dale and Hoa emerge first?

FG: The setting -- the Chihuahua Desert -- came first for me. In the novel, the desert is a kind of character itself. I was born in the Mojave Desert and I’ve spent time in the Sonora, the Chihuahua, the Atacama, and the Sahara Deserts. I’m interested in the way that our perceptions, emotions, and even our psychology might be influenced by place. As Dale and Hoa drive deeper into the desert, they become more involved with it, even without their noticing. There is a subtle reciprocal exchange.

SIG: How did the elements paralleling Hoa and Dale's journey come into the mix?

FG: There’s a poignant documentary film by Patricio Guzmán called "Nostalgia for the Light." Part of the film follows the thirty-plus-year struggles of Chilean women to find the remains of relatives who were executed and buried in the desert during Pinochet’s dictatorship. Walking for miles, day after day, sifting sand for fragments of bone. The women know their loved ones are dead, but they need to make contact with something real, even just a part of them, to metabolize their deaths.

In my novel, Dale and Hoa are driving through Mexico, but also traveling into their souls, into their shared and separate pasts, sifting for fragments of evidence that they did something wrong, that they are perhaps responsible for the accident that has befallen their son. The quest to find Bierce is any journey that someone takes looking for answers. The real goal is always self-knowledge.

SIG: Memoirs and biographies show up throughout your novel: a third of the way through, Hoa alludes to a memoir that she's reading, and later, an episode from Ford Madox Ford’s biography of Joseph Conrad. How, for you, do these accentuate the overall story?

FG: The neurologist Daniel Levitin tells us that "memory is fiction." As Hoa and Dale attempt to draw a credible ending over the life of Ambrose Bierce, they’re also trying to invent a solution to the knot that has tied up their own lives. They read and tell each other stories, and they reconsider stories they’ve told each other before. We’re each made of others and of their words, don’t you think? Dale mentions that among the most intimate things he carries are the silly dreams that Hoa has told him -- fugitive images that never existed in the world in the first place except within his lover’s dreaming mind.

SIG: Early in the novel, there's mention of the biography Alone in Bad Company. Are there other works relating to Bierce that you'd recommend?

FG: There’s a terrific Library of America volume of Bierce’s selected work. And a beautiful, mostly silent trilogy of little films by Robert Enrico -- one of which I saw as a "Twilight Zone" episode back in the 60’s -- treating Ambrose Bierce's stories. You can see them on YouTube now.

SIG: I definitely remember the adaptation of Bierce's "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" that aired on "The Twilight Zone." Do you feel that that story, above all else, is how Bierce remains in the public consciousness?

FG: Probably so. Although in his own time, it was probably his Devil’s Dictionary -- and his cranky journalism -- that kept him in the public consciousness. Maybe his wittiness, which we encounter in his mock dictionary, is finally less enduring than his expression of life-lust and tragedy. As Pound puts it, "Only emotion endures."

SIG: There was also a writer at the center of your first novel As a Friend. Do you find the lives and legacies of authors to be of particular interest to you as you write?

FG: I guess almost everything in my life has been influenced by literature. And I’m the kind of novelist who works with very few characters. Les, in my first novel, is a poet. But he’s also a land surveyor and there’s much more detail about land surveying in that book than about poetry. Curiously, Ambrose Bierce was also a notable land surveyor and map maker. But you’re right of course. I’m tuned to the lives of writers.