Q and A with Laura Pritchett, RED LIGHTNING
Please tell us a little about your new novel.
Red Lightning is the story of Tess Cross, a coyote who has been running immigrants across the American West. The novel opens with a true catastrophe: she’s failed to pick up a particular group of pollos, who are left in the mountains of Colorado. Dying of thirst, they start a signal fire to be found, but the wind whips it into a raging wildfire. Desperate and confused, Tess heads home to the plains of eastern Colorado to see her sister and her child, who she abandoned 10 years ago. The weight of her actions—along with PTSD from a childhood filled with abuse—are cracking her apart. While the wildfire rages and the smoke drifts across the plains, she embarks on a last-ditch effort to make some peace and clean up the mess she’s made. She rediscovers her 10-year old daughter, her dying mother, a reluctant sister---and most importantly, herself.
Point of view is so creative and innovative in this novel. How did you determine that you'd move between first-person and the close third-person sections where Tess is speaking in a kind of poetry-prose hybrid?
I love that you call it a poetry-prose hybrid, because that was my intent. Thank you! In any case, my goal was this: I wanted to render Tess’s disassociative disorder on the page. The bravest thing I could do, in fact, was to be true to the fact that my character simply could not narrate a story in a familiar way, given her state of mind and psychology.
The first drafts were tricky; I kept changing my mind on this matter. I both hated and loved the idea of messing with the narrative and I simply could not decide if introducing a nonstandard device would be disruptive or revealing. In the end, I settled on two big risks. One was an occasional device wherein the text is deeply indented only when my main character, Tess, disassociates from herself. Moreover, the novel is told in first person, but when Tess becomes disembodied, a third person omniscient self floats around and advises her. During these moments, she insists she feels too little, can’t feel any emotions at all, in fact—but the reader suspects that the opposite is true. In fact, she feels too much, and this floating directorial voice is her way of coping. Therein lies the dramatic irony. Within this device, I have small nuances. For example, after a critical scene, this third person becomes first, a signal that she is becoming “reunited” or reintegrated as one self, which is important during the climax, when she needs to disassociate in order to do something horrible—her PTSD finally comes in handy. All this was intentional and carefully constructed. I wanted form to inform content.
The other risk, which was more fun, was to meld words together, such as “boneknowledge” or “heartfade.” I’ve always used this technique, but in this book, it became a clear part of her voice. Tess’s way of understanding the world is unique; while her dissociative disorder pulls her apart, she responds by jamming the incongruent together. I’ve always felt that careful melding of words (without a dash or space) creates a new image in the reader’s head. One thing I’m ridiculously proud of, in fact, is the list of words that the copyeditor sent me to acknowledge she had not fixed these words, improper though they were. The list is five pages long. To me, it reads like a poem. It made me laugh, remembering how many times I had to click “Ignore” when I ran a spell-check on my computer. Carpel-tunnel plagued me for weeks.
Now that the book is about to be released, I’m nervous to see how readers will respond. Perhaps they will throw my book across the room? Some readers might embrace it, some will resist. But I hope this technique is ultimately what gives the book its strongest punch.
How did you learn so much about the ways in which Mexican immigrants are moved across the U.S. border? I'm guessing you did some serious research.
Well, frankly, I know people who have crossed the border illegally. I interviewed them and I interviewed strangers. In particular, I wanted to know what it was like now, with ICE (as opposed to the old INS). As per usual, people were happy to share the details.
I will say this, too: My initial interest in human rights issues surrounding immigration started when I was 16 and living for a summer in Oaxaca, Mexico. I was supposed to be there building latrines, but what I was really learning was about how and why people came to the US. There was a young boy there, Alejandro, who wanted so much to “go to university,” as he always put it. I knew then that his dreams were pretty disassociated from his life, and his became the face I saw whenever I heard of men dying on the border.
I love that you've divided the book into sections after the four elements - wind, earth, fire, water - what inspired this decision?
Thanks for noticing that! Yes, three lines of Dean Young’s poem “Elemental” introduce the book:
This end won’t summarize our forever.
Some things can be fixed by fire,
some not. Dearheart, already we’re air.
But more specifically: I became intrigued by how low a soul can go—to my mind, Tess is worn down to the basic elements, and only a fifth element, kindness, will save her. Each of the four elements is a reality, and they are each a metaphor. I try to meld Tess’s internal life and the external elements. For example, Tess can’t breathe, due to anxiety; meanwhile, the fire is gobbling up all the oxygen as it rages.
There’s also this: During the writing of this novel, I was evacuated from my home for a wildfire, and a year later, by historic floods that were worsened by the fact that there were no longer trees and grasses to hold down the soil. Westerners are strongly influenced by the elements, particularly where I live. There is a lot of wind, fire, water, or drought out here. And so I tried to capture the feeling of disassociation, of fear, of exhaustion, of feeling at odds with the universe and helpless in the wake of the elements. Fires happen. Floods happen. High winds happen. Earth burns. Air fills. The elements are in charge. Both in our external world, and in our hearts as well.
You've written about some of these characters in your other books. They're rich and beautifully drawn, and so it's no surprise that you're compelled to keep writing about them. But what is it about them, specifically, that keeps drawing you back?
Other authors will tell you this too: certain characters become lodged in the mind. A few years ago, I started hearing the voice of a character named Tess, and she was basically saying, “Hey, I want my story told too!” She’d been a minor character in my first novel, Sky Bridge, and now, it seemed, she had something to say. At first, I didn’t want to write her story: she’s really a tough character with some deep recesses and difficult flaws (although she’s beautiful for those same reasons). Anyway, I eventually heeded her request and sat down to write. What resulted is Red Lightning. I’m glad I “listened” to her, because, in the end, she had a really unique story to tell.
I also notice that I circle around the same core themes – social justice issues, environmental issues, the bonds of family, the Western landscape, and our individual struggle for redemption and a life-well-lived.
What were some of your influences as you were writing Red Lightning?
There were several influences: Alejandro, the little boy I fell in love with in Mexico. The recent wildfires in the West. My own personal work around disassociation (resulting from childhood trauma). My love for the outdoors, which saved me. Books such as Keri Hume’s The Bone People, which influenced my writing style. All these melded in my mind.
If you don't mind giving us a hint, what are you working on now?
I have a book of connected stories due out from Counterpoint Press in 2016 called The Blue Hour. Each story is concerned with a different angle of human sexuality. There’s lots and lots of sex! That’s a bit of a hook, no?