17 Dec

by Rebecca Doverspike

Fay watching Lassie

Sara and her dog Fay watching an episode of “Lassie” on youtube.

Sara Pritchard’s third book, Help Wanted: Female, is a collection of linked short stories set in Morgantown, WV. Each story contains such memorable characters and wonderfully quick movement— turns, momentum— like a dance. In this work, the imaginative and funny mixes with melancholy and deep truths. I had the good fortune to have a layered interview with Sara Pritchard. I asked her questions via email and then we met up at the Blue Moose to converse in person.

Over coffee, we talked about Morgantown and Sara told me how, in 1971, there were two grocery stores on either side of the South High Street Bridge. “I think there’s something to be said for knowing a place closely over time,” I said. And as I continued, ”...even if it’s sad,” she said, ”...yes, but it’s sad.” The word “sad” chimed in the air for a second, overlapping. “So we do sort of hold memory of a place,” I thought aloud, “if not for you telling me about those stores, I wouldn’t ever have known they’d been there.”

We talked about the problem of homelessness. Or rather, mentioned it and quieted, maybe not knowing what to say beyond acknowledging that it’s a real problem.

We spent a great deal of time talking about time and how it works in writing. “Every story begins in media res. So why not move around? If it were not for vignettes, I wouldn’t be writing. White space. Jump cuts. When you start feeling like you have to fill in all the blanks, and explain everything, and you’re just dragging your narrative around, then you’re in trouble,” Sara said. “If you’re paying attention to how we’re talking, we’re all over the place—1971, film, schematics, the audio book—we think in vignettes, fragments; we don’t think chronologically.” In that way, it’s important for a story to find relationships and patterns and not let time tell the story.

“Vignettes are better visually, too,” she said. “It’s arrogant not to break up text for a reader. Like it’s so important that you can’t break it into paragraphs? It’s like someone talking non-stop. Typesetting is important,” she laughed.

At times, we spoke about the characters in Sara’s stories as if they were real people. At times, some part of me related to one of the characters, even when that character’s behavior wasn’t favorable. “I can understand wanting to just sit in a chair in a basement sometimes,” I admitted, and Sara told me how much she loves quiet. Part of what good literature does is help us understand, or be understanding toward, people who we might otherwise dismiss when we’re unable to see their interior(s). Sara’s stories show how interior lives respond to the strange and difficult things that happen in life, and gives pause to hasty judgment. In fact, her writing gives pause to interpretations that don’t have love in them, even when that love comes in the form of heartbreak. With the story “Friends Seen and Unseen,” Sara was thinking of Susan Smith, and wondering how someone could do such a thing. The process from asking one’s self that question and writing to think through it, to imagine possibilities, to take pen to page and illumine, is one of empathy, I feel. Kim Bennett’s Review speaks well to this aspect of Sara’s writing.

Speaking of internal lives, Sara told me how much she loves being married to a writer (Kevin Oderman). “We understand one another,” she said, “we both have big, big, big interior lives.” I thought that was beautiful, and a reminder that one needs space for one’s interior life in order to bring worlds and words to the page in the way(s) that she does.

“You really brought these characters to life,” I said. “The world felt more alive after I read this book. I’m walking around in a different world.” These stories condense life and make it feel charged, and yes, set aglow.

In the middle of one of my questions or comments, Sara began to respond and then paused to say, “I should say that I don’t know anything about writing. I’m talking about it, but I don’t know what I’m doing.” I loved how she said this because I often feel admitting not knowing strengthens credibility. She’s a writer, and so much of writing involves not having words, not knowing, seeking, attempting. Writing’s a beautiful kind of active not knowing; there’s nothing lazy or passive about it—writers aren’t stepping away from the world so much as translating from the center of it. I loved how her comment related to the way writing begins for her—from something she doesn’t have words for.

Sara has a glowing and contagious laugh, and it brightened our conversation at every turn. Melancholy was present, too; these things entwine. I often think of something Khalil Gibran wrote: that one’s capacity for sorrow is also one’s capacity for joy. Sara’s capacity for experiencing life is deep and in reading her writing, readers’ capacities deepen, too.

Please enjoy our email transcript below, which include Sara’s thoughts on the unconventional, mythology of place, her characters, current reading, and more. Then, go read the book, or listen to the audio book! (Click here to listen to a preview of the audio book and really lovely radio interviews). I hope, and suspect, you’ll find as much pleasure in reading her responses as I did in being able to converse with her. Thank you, Sara.

R.D.: I feel like the “heart” of these stories comes at interesting moments/places timing-wise. Of course, there’s heart (revealing, opening) all throughout, but I’m thinking about the places that that revealing/opening widens, and how you sculpt those moments structurally. I’m thinking of the paragraph in “A Forever Home,” where Ponce de León ruminates on feigning sleep and staying with Billy so that Clara doesn’t have to make a difficult decision—my heart just sunk some reading that. And, in, “The Jaws of Life,” heart is revealed throughout the story, but really comes together when the women talk over wine and Abigail confesses a secret to Sissy. In “Friends Seen and Unseen,” there’s that chilling scene at the end, built up so rhythmically. In “Two Studies in Entropy,” the structure feels parallel, layered. I think the question in here is: do you feel the shape of a story before you write it, or does it form while writing? How do you get a feel for the shape of the story?

S.P.: Such an interesting question, Rebecca. I think every story takes its own form. I suppose some writers (any genre) have a structure in mind when they begin, maybe a form that’s been kind of calling to them, like a braided narrative or an epistolary form, or say, a formal structure like a sonnet or villanelle, which is definitely going to play a big part in what is said, what is revealed—how, when, and where—and certainly determine where and when what you call the heart of the piece “opens”. I have no idea of the “shape” of a story before I start writing. I’m working from images and fragments and, mostly, feeling. Feeling and voice. I’m beginning with voice and a strong sense of wanting to convey something that’s still rather vague to me. Usually, it has something to do with heartbreak, something I don’t really have the words for but damn if I’m not going to try to express it. Somehow. Not until I hear the narrator’s voice can I begin. There’s something, some sense of something that I want to get across, something deeper than narrative. Narrative is the access ramp. To me, narrative/plot is actually the least important element. I don’t really care what happens in a story, only what’s left after everything has happened and the story’s over. The structure just evolves along the way.

I just finished reading Sarah Beth Childers’ wonderful Shake Terribly the Earth, a book of personal essays, and I loved the way Sarah Beth uses the word ‘yarn’ as a verb. I’d never really heard it used that way. She speaks of her grandfather and uncle ‘yarning’ in the next room. Of course, we’ve all heard the word ‘yarn’ used as a noun, synonymous with ‘tale’, but as a verb I find it a particularly precise word for the process of storytelling. It’s as if you have this thing, this thing you want to tell, and it is very real, very much like a ball of yarn, and you begin feeling it, getting a sense of its properties (the texture and elasticity and gauge) and its potential (what you can make out of it) and then you begin to work with it, unravel it a bit and work a couple of rounds, and something begins to take shape. An idea of what it could be. A pattern emerges. Strands. Motifs. Reindeer. (Can you tell that I’ve been knitting a lot lately?)

R.D.: In each of these stories, I love how the writing, and subsequently readers’ attention, moves from detailed focus on a character—description, dialogue, scene—to a wider perspective of what surrounds (weather, insects, birds, the morning paper, etc.). The story holds time in a larger way, then, too, as we can sense it moving—the world moving around the world of the story/characters. How do you balance this focusing-in-on and drawing back? How can you tell when stepping away from the characters to the larger world for a moment would be beneficial/crucial to the story?

S.P.: Hmm. Another interesting question. I think manipulating distance—and time—is important in stories, just like it is in film. We’ve all seen those podcasts or webcasts or whatever they’re called where somebody is giving a reading and somebody from AV/IT comes in and sets up a video camera on a tripod, points it at the speaker, gets it started, and then leaves. They’re horrible! Point-of-view is like camerawork. Long shots and close-ups and jump cuts, and panning. I don’t know the film terminology, but I know that the narrator is holding the camera. The narrator has to vary the distance, look around, look out the window, look in a mirror, pass the camera around to some of the characters. That kind of thing. It’s not something conscious. It’s just a natural way of writing and telling a story. If you don’t do this, then you end up with navel gazing or the podcast-type thing I mentioned above. The same thing with time. You can’t just write in the present tense. It’s boring. Time is fluid and jumpy.

My own tendency is to move away from what’s happening whenever I’m getting too close to something painful or “hot.” When there’s too much tension or conflict. It’s like holding your hand over an open flame. You can’t do it for very long. And in those instances, I often revert to something that will provide a brief reprieve in the form of comic relief, say just an image, just an image that captures something about the absurdity in the moment. Or a jump cut to something near or far. And moving about like this also has a lot to do with pacing. I know I digress a lot—probably too much—but it’s the only way I know to slow things down, draw out the story, deepen it. Well, you can do that with white space, too.

R.D..: One description of this book (and perhaps you wrote it!) states, “Ten interrelated stories set in the mythical town of Morgantown, West Virginia, over a thirty-year period.” I so love that phrase, “mythical town of Morgantown.” It reminds me a little of Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities;imaginative descriptions of several different places that all wind up being angles into Venice. Do you find Morgantown mythical? How is a place/home (or how can it be) mythical to you, and how is it mythical, do you think, in these stories?

S.P..: Nope, I didn’t write that description. Probably an Etruscan Press intern did. I do think the word ‘mythical’ is great. Everyone has their own mythologies. Every place is a composite of the mythologies of the people and animals—some would say stones, even—that know and have known it. “My Morgantown,” is mine alone. “Your Morgantown” is uniquely yours. My dogs know all the smells in the graveyard; I know the names on the tombstones. Somebody else knows Morgantown’s bars, the buses, the benches. Katie Fallon knows the birds. Everyone’s Morgantown is different, made up of their experiences, their stories of place. But they intersect and merge. And this is the spirit of place. A place is not just physical; it’s full of relationships and associations and memories, everything played out and layered in time. Like I sometimes lie in bed at night in this house that was built around 1920 and wonder who else has lain awake in this room, this very corner. Or the antique beds you see—beds in which babies were born and others died. Everything, every place, the land itself, I think, is imbued with—charged with—feelings and stories, and as you say, mythologies.

R.D..: Each of these stories left such an impression on me. I didn’t want any of them to end; I got so into their worlds (though they did not feel incomplete). The linking is interesting that way, because when a character recurs—Prophet Zero, Jamie—it brings a familiar warmth, and a wonder. Did you mean for this interweaving to mirror life in some way? How do you feel about the stories’ linkage in terms of time? I think you capture the way things (and people) come and go (“Personal Effects” speaks to this well?). Perhaps in this way, Morgantown itself is a kind of character that “stays” (just like a couple of the houses you provide history of and then show their present-of-the-story frat boy inhabitants?). It occurs to me that the reader becomes a kind of place, like Morgantown, because of the ways these presences and stories stay with me after I finish reading.

S.P..: Linked stories seem to me to be the natural form of storytelling. The form is as old as the hills, so to speak. The Iliad and The Odyssey. Epic poems but linked stories, also. The oral tradition is full of recurring gods and monsters and heroes. Life is a series of linked stories. History is a series of linked stories. Sort of like that six degrees of separation thing. We’re all connected in some way. Help Wanted connects some of the dots in Morgantown. And, yes, I do think that place is as significant as a character in any story. Morgantown is, yes, the major link in Help Wanted. It’s the stage, but it’s much more than that. And, if you live here or have lived here, then naturally you can participate more in the stories. You’re an observer but a more knowledgeable one than the reader who is removed, who has never been here. You might even take a second look at Family Dollar on High Street as you drive by. Or the old Dairy Queen. My hope is that the depiction of Morgantown is specific enough to add another dimension for some readers, but general enough to be representative for others.

R.D..: The “Cottonwoods,” a homeless camp by the river, recur, too. What do you think about the Cottonwoods and that place’s relationship to Morgantown?

S.P..: Well, I think I made up that name “Cottonwoods,” but I know for a fact that there have been homeless camps along the railroad tracks here for years, one big one below the arboretum. I knew people who came upon them, one person who lived in one of them back in the 1970s. I knew some people who lived at Lock 11, in the old lockmaster’s house along the railroad tracks. And under the South High Street Bridge, too. There have always been people basically living under there. Look down along Decker’s Creek when you walk across the bridge. I’ve walked over it for thirty years. Homelessness is a real problem, not just in Morgantown, but most cities in America. And it’s not addressed. A city gets a bike trail, a farmer’s market, a couple of Starbucks and two 20-screen stadium-seating theaters showing the same five crappy movies in regular and 3-D and BINGO! Best Small City in America!!

R.D..: Are some of these characters “real”? What compelled you/drew you to write about them?

S.P..: Ah, the questions everybody wants to ask! Is it true? Is that me? Did that really happen? Did you really wear a rabbit costume to work? What about that carrot? Folks: it’s fiction! Well, as Alice Munro said of her stories, “There’s always a starting place in reality.” And that’s the truth. But how much is true? Some. Not much. What compels me to turn real people and events into characters and scenes is that those people and events interest me, that I find them compelling and perplexing and worthy of story. And because I have been affected by them. And probably, too, because I’m really not that creative when it comes to making up stories, so I always start with what I know. But I just let my imagination run wild. It’s fiction, and I make no apologies. If I start apologizing, I’ll never end.

R.D..: Empathy pours through these stories. In, “What’s Left of the Jaime Archer Band,” one couldn’t help but feel drawn to the man who claimed he was from another planet as compared to the comparably “dull” marriage and life Nina had following (and plus, he was so charming, playing the oven rack as an instrument!). Do you wish people lived with more imagination in a way that didn’t dismiss things as “crazy”?

S.P..: I guess I have always been bored by the conventional, attracted to the unconventional and odd. I think if everybody played the oven rack, the world would be a better place. Try it!

R.D..: I read these stories while I was away from Morgantown, and I loved how they made me “homesick” for the place. What are your feelings about Morgantown?

S.P..: Morgantown has been my home for nearly forty years, and I’m really sorry to say that I think it’s really gone downhill. Maybe I’m just nostalgia ridden. I would need my soapbox to explain this, but I’ll just say that there’s no real vision for a sustainable downtown (what? another Sheetz?), for community. A sister city in China? How about one in Vermont instead—like Middlebury, VT? Urban deer hunting? Marcellus gas drilling? Ask me about the new traffic circle, the new “green” school, the apartments on West Run, the County Commission, the TRAFFIC! Ask me who owns WVU! O.K. I better shut up. Or as Kevin always says to me: “Start a blog!”

R.D..: My favorite blurb on the back of your book is: “Sara Pritchard sees everything. . . and looks at it with such tenderness, clarity, and good humor that all of it begins to glow.” I agree. Where does this vision come from? (An impossible question, I know? maybe it’s: how do you cultivate such clarity, understanding, and empathy toward this world? Or maybe, how do you recommend others do so? Maybe by things like reading your book…). I laughed a lot while reading, but with tenderness—such a compelling combination. Thank you.

S.P..: Thank you, Rebecca.

R.D..: When did you start writing?

S.P.: I was a closet writer for many years. And, really, I didn’t start writing stories until I got a computer, until I learned how to cut and paste. That’s the truth. The late ‘80s, early ‘90s.

R.D..: Do you think the writing itself, working with language, contributes to the kind of vision Rebecca Barry aptly describes, or do you see writing as a way to express that vision? (These people and dogs are often loveable, but I think it’s very much the tone itself that makes them so. You absolutely do bring them to life.)

S.P.: I think it’s art—writing, painting, photography, music, etc.—that makes things glow. (O.K. well, love can make everything glow, too.) I mean, yeah, they glow in themselves, but making something permanent of them—to me, that’s with language and finding the right words to describe something, finding the right image or metaphor—that makes that glow stick.

R.D..: There’s such playfulness in these stories. Always the playfulness gestures towards and touches deeper truth (like a beautiful critique of things such things as capitalist society—at least I see that!), but I love the playfulness. It seems at times almost like playfulness is a kind of survival strategy (I’m thinking of “Help Wanted: Female, Part I”). Perhaps this is related to my question about imagination, but I see some of these stories as a plea for playfulness, or an in-defense-of (except for scenes like Tripkin and maybe even Marcie’s mother? there, it seems like imagination does dip too far in such a way that makes things difficult rather than bearable. An interesting distinction? perhaps we can talk about that). I don’t mean frivolous play (is there such a thing, really?), but rather stepping outside the rigidity of rules which are founded on such ludicrous and inhumane premises. Can you comment on the existence of playfulness in your life and/or in these stories?

S.P.: I like your term “survival strategy.” That’s it, exactly. Gravity and Levitas. We need both to stay alive. And back to comic relief. For me, comic relief is my—as you young people say—”go to.” Any story that is relying on a punch line is never going to work. That kind of calculation and movement never works. But underneath everything that appears to be funny is always something sad or tragic. Terrifying, even.

R.D..: Do you have a favorite story in this collection?

S.P.: Maybe “A Forever Home,” because it’s really kind of a love letter to my nephew Billy, who I knew when he was a little boy, who loved dogs, and who died in 2008. I also like “The Man in the Woods.”

R.D..: Were any of the stories hard for you to leave, as a writer?

S.P.: Well, yes, that story “A Forever Home.” I knew it was sappy, and I resisted writing it for a long time, but it kept whispering to me.

R.D..: Can you describe a difficult moment in your writing process and how you overcame it?

S.P.: The most difficult moments are beginning. I really don’t like to write. I’d rather read. Kevin (husband) said once to me, “You know, I don’t really like writing. I like having written.” I find that to be true. I don’t like sitting and typing. I love it when I finish something and then I can go lie down.

R.D..: Who have you been reading lately?

S.P.: In the past two weeks, I’ve read volumes one and two of the Norwegian writer Karl Ove Knausgaard’s six-volume, 2,500+-word novel, My Struggle, translated by Don Bartlett. And I reread Sleepless Nights by Elizabeth Hardwick. I read Hardwick years ago (1980s) and didn’t realize how avant garde Sleepless Nights was for a “novel.” The 2001 edition has a very interesting introduction by Geoffrey O’Brien. These novels interest me because they’re rather genre busting. All three of these books are novels without plots, with narrators/protagonists with the same name as the author, and with circumstances that mirror the lives of the authors. Knausgaard’s and Hardwick’s books, though, are very different. Knausgaard’s is something like the literary equivalent of reality T.V. He admits to being very influenced by Proust, and the story he’s telling is so utterly mundane that it should be utterly boring, but . . . for some weird reason, it’s compelling. I mean, it’s a page-turner. Anyway, I’m very interested in this form of writing: fiction and memoir that doesn’t apologize for itself, that admits to untruths—and truths—but without explanation. I think it’s about time that a form like this rose up out of the mire of memoir and autobiographical novels. I’ve always been annoyed by the fact that prose writers are the only artists who are continually asked, Is that true? That we have to sign up for one of two camps: fiction or nonfiction. Oh, and then there’s creative nonfiction, a genre defined by what it’s not??? What’s the matter with the term ‘essay’? Do we ask poets or painters or songwriters or playwrights that question? But, is it true? Maybe it’s the fifth genre, sort of an unapologetic memoir with improvements. Tim O’Brien does the same thing pretty much in The Things They Carried, writing in a character named Tim O’Brien and using the same material he first wrote as memoir (If I Die in a Combat Zone, Box Me Up and Ship Me Home). And I love the foreword to Alice Munro’s story collection The View from Castle Rock. She says:

You could say that such stories pay more attention to the truth of life than fiction usually does. But not enough to swear on. And the part of this book that might be called family history has expanded into fiction, but always within the outline of a true narrative. With these developments the two streams came close enough together that they seemed to me meant to flow in one channel, as they do in this book.

R.D..: What’s next for you, project wise?

S.P.: I don’t know. What’s next for you, after your MFA?

R.D.: I don’t know.

Good thing not knowing can be a place to start, too.

Sara Pritchard is the author of the novel-in-stories, Crackpots, which won the Bakeless Prize for Fiction and was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year, and the linked-story collection, Lately. Her new story collection, Help Wanted: Female, was published by Etruscan Press in July 2013.

Sara “grew up” (ha ha ha!) in Northeastern Pennsylvania (Hazleton/Wilkes-Barre area); Rochester, New York; Denville, New Jersey; and Ocracoke, North Caroline, but has lived in West Virginia for a really long time (somewhere between 35 and 40 years, give or take a few years). Her stories and essays have been published in literary magazines including New Letters, Green Mountains Review, Northwest Review, Tusculum Review, Spittoon, and elsewhere. She teaches in the Wilkes Low-Residency Creative Writing Program and lives in Morgantown, West Virginia, with her husband, author Kevin Oderman, and their dogs, Fay and Figgy (aka, Brownie).

Contact Sara at pritchard.sara@gmail.com.

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