Q and A with Laura Pritchett, STARS GO BLUE
Laura Pritchett lives in Colorado and writes very fine fiction and nonfiction. I met her when we were both on the faculty for the Pacific University low-residency MFA program in Forest Grove, Oregon.
Your new book Stars Go Blue is told from the point of view of someone with Alzheimer’s. Why?
There came a day, about ten years ago, when I stood with my father in front of an elevator in Denver – we were helping one of my brothers move -- and he had no idea what it was for. I was confused at his confusion: Perhaps he’d been out of the city for so long, being a Colorado rancher and all? But no, he had also been a college professor, a geneticist, a world-traveler famous for his research. Soon after, he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s.
Since then, it’s been a strange path for the whole gaggle of my family, particularly for my mother, who became his primary caregiver. As for me, these last ten years have been marked by my walks with him across the family ranch, and, as a writer, to better understand him, the disease, the man he was becoming, our relationship via words.
The irony struck me on many occasions: As he increasingly lost words, I increasingly gained them. I started to write more about more about him. For many years, this writing was (unsurprisingly) from my point of view, my take on the whole thing. But then I started to write from his point of view.
Writing was, first and foremost, my way of loving him more during this time of saying goodbye.
What was the greatest challenge in writing this book?
The particular challenge of this book (all books present various challenges, I think) was writing about Ben’s confusion without confusing the reader, and how to write about Renny’s exhaustive caregiving without making readers exhausted and annoyed as well.
Ben’s voice, I decided, would be like music, like singing, like “bringing water out of sunlight,” an old phrase from a TS Eliot poem. Renny’s voice would be the opposite: solid and direct and more like the earth itself.
At one point, I met with author Kent Haruf, who has been a mentor of mine. The gist of our discussion was the need to keep the book short and powerful, because, yes, you can only have a character like Ben narrate for so long. And I remember him saying something like, “and never describe it as a quiet novel. It’s not quiet. It’s only small in terms of page count. But it’s a huge book. Make sure you make it huge.” (I’m not sure I did that, but I tried). Others helped too, by offering up examples of what I wanted to write. I have some favorite lyrical short (but powerful) novels I deeply admire: When the Emperor Was Divine by Julie Otsuka, Atticus by Ron Hanson, The Tie that Binds by Kent Haruf. These are all short novels that burst with energy. That is what I wanted.
So what’s the connection between real life/fictional life?
Well, I also did what we writers do: I played the “What If” game. What if one of my fictional characters had dementia? How would this affect him? What if he needed to tell one last story? What if I tried to tell this from his point of view, instead of an observer? How limiting or challenging would that be? Could it be done?
And so it came to be that Ben, a character in my first book who is loosely based on my dad, became the primary character in my next novel. The new novel, Stars Go Blue, is told half from his point of view, half from the point of view of his caregiver (I decided early on that I couldn’t tell the story I wanted to tell in only his point of view; I needed a character with a healthy brain to reveal the story as well).
In the end, after years of writing and revising, finally what felt like the right voice of Ben broke through. Ben in all his uniqueness – inventing words, for example, for the words he cannot recall. In the end, he became the most brave and courageous speaker (even if limited in capacity) I could imagine; he became a poet; he became someone with diminished intellectual capabilities and speech but with important things to say.
Water is a huge metaphor in the book. Say more:
I listened to my father talk about water – always a topic of interest to ranchers in the West – how it’s so varied, versatile, ubiquitous, necessary, and ordinary. Then I took that and tried to use it as metaphor, simile, and actuality. What he said often resonated with me as a metaphor to what was happening to his memories and his mind. In other words, my creative mind riffed off the actuality.
What other books are out there about Alzheimer’s?
There’s only one other book (that I know of) written from the point of view of the person with Alzheimer’s -- Still Alice (secretly, I’d been hoping mine would be the first, and then I came across this one). I think it’s a lovely book, but not close to what I wanted to write.
On why write at all:
"Writing is an exercise in longing," writes Isabelle Allende. Indeed. I write because I long to express my love (or sorrow, or joy, or whatever the case may be) about people and place and issues. I believe that stories help us perceive and possess our lives. I can better understand my love for my little valley, for instance, only after I have written about it. Writing this essay first helps me perceive my love; then it helps me hold that love and examine it and understand it. Thus I'm living a fuller, more aware life. That’s what I’m always longing for.
On Literature of the West:
In much of our past literary history, the West has been portrayed one way: Men were the focus, they were quiet and stoic, they had a bunch of broken dreams, and they had a minority and a woman to help them out. But literature has rapidly changed; we’ve evolved. We’ve quit being so romantic and nostalgic, and new voices have become part of our literary dialogue--voices by minorities, women, and complex men.
I am often afraid, however, that we’ve backed ourselves up into another corral. Perhaps the myth has not gone away, it’s just changed, and I wonder if our books have romanticized us yet again. One example? I often wonder if we Westerners are we all to be fishing, camping, kayaking outdoorsy tough folks? Are we just the mythic male, only in slightly different form?
This is a gross oversimplification, but I believe we writers try to write about compelling stuff, in part, so that readers will buy our books. So we do write about the air and space and mountains and ranches in the West because that is, in part, what makes the West interesting. And frankly, we are influenced by space, terrain, weather, and nature. It’s true that if we have an inner cowboy/cowgirl/camper, it’s sure to come out in the West—that might be why we’re here, and yes, we’ve got the space and the place and the activities. It’s true that when I look out my window to the mountains, my heart does a little shimmy. So we write about the people who know these places and spaces—because they, too, are what make this place interesting.
We also write about them because that’s probably what New York publishers want—they like certain patterns to hold. Well, to be really honest, I think we Western writers want the patterns to hold. They give us a sense of who we are. Or who we want to be. We don’t want to be ordinary, with ordinary sadness playing out in ordinary landscapes. So we acquiesce (our characters do) and don the chaps and go fishing—because we feel as if we should.
Besides the ranchers that live all around me in my little rural hometown, there are also painters and musicians, army personnel and homemakers. There are folks suffering from anxiety, schizophrenia, and bi-polar disorders. There are meth addicts, illegal immigrants, the very poor and the very rich. There are plenty of people in the West who aren’t outdoorsy, don’t fish, don’t camp, hike, or fix fence. There are subdivisions, neighborhoods, apartment buildings, and mansions. What about a single and lonely Chicana mother on the streets of Denver, or the single and lonely transplant from L.A. who is gay and living in a new subdivision? Our literary canon will be complete when these stories are included too.
Books have a lot of power, after all. They show us how to live, or how we could live. They make us less lonely, they connect us, and they illustrate ways of being human. In a certain odd way, art is what makes us more real.
So we writers better well get it right. I think there are times when we’ve fallen down on the job, constricted by cultural mores, paradigms, and trends in publishing and readership. I think our characters are valid, but they’re not complete.
So, what is my plan? To keep pushing the boundaries of the literature set in the West. I want the full spectrum and an honest gaze directed at politics, poverty, wealth, sex, sexual orientation, class issues, overpopulation, climate change. A good book’s job is to expose real lives, the blood and heart inside us all.
I try very hard not to be romantic and nostalgic in my writing. I've written about that very topic many times (See “The Girl's Guide to Myth Busting”). With both place and emotions, I don't want the Hallmark-y sappy stuff. I want the real, raw truth. Always, as a writer, I am seeking to put words to the inchoate, as truthfully as I can.
How important is place to a story and why?
For me, place is enormously important in all my writing, both fiction and nonfiction. I’m sure that’s because place is important to me as a human being. I find my solace, my center, and my ideas while outside, engaging in the natural world. I hike or walk every day. Since my center is so tied up to place, it’s difficult (or probably impossible) for me to write about characters who are oblivious to place.
As a writer, I think I’ve found ways in which place can contribute to plot and characterization – which is essential. You can’t just go on and on about place. Readers want to hear a story, and they want to see people moving through that story. But place can help you do that.
What do you do to ensure each character will have an individual voice and be unique?
When I write a character, I think of that person as having a certain “weather pattern” going on. They are calm, stormy, violent, dull, bright. Of course, a character can change, and needs to change, but still, the character’s core is unique in some way. If I can find that core and write from there, then I feel like that character is a one-of-a-kind.
What is your writing process? Is it a character first, then the plot, etc?
Generally I think of a character. I imagine her and let her sit in my brain for a while. Then I start to ask questions: what’s up with her? What’s her main problem? What’s her main
source of joy? From that comes a plot, a story.
Do you have a favorite character you've developed? If so, why?
I love them all. Which is not to say I agree with them all. They’re like kids: their own personality, their own problems, but still I love them.
When did you know you wanted to become a writer?
I knew when I was about seven. I wrote in my first diary: “I want to become a riter
Who/what, are some of your favorite authors and books?
As a child, I feel in love with Laura Ingalls Wilder (and wrote in my first diary, at age 7, “I would like to be a riter [sic] some day, just like Laura Ingalls Wilder”). As a teenager, I fell in love with Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables, and that’s when I decided I wasn’t kidding about that dream because literature was serious amazing stuff. And in college, when I decided to get busy with the work of becoming a writer, Willa Cather was the first writer who “spoke to me,” to use that cliché, which is actually pretty apt. My Antonia in particular. That book showed me that my rural life was worth writing about; that it was complex; that the natural environment was an essential tool; that sentences could be drop-dead gorgeous; that images could be used as metaphor. At that time, I started writing down beautiful sentences in a book, so that I could learn how to write them. My first entries are from My Antonia and As I Lay Dying.
Rick Bass rocks. So does Walt Whitman, Kent Haruf, oh, man, I could go on and on. I tend to like writers who will be very raw – get at the heart of things without blinking or turning away – and also writers who care about place.
What is the best advice you can give to new writers?
My advice to writers: Read and write, daily (or nearly daily). Read in the genre that you hope to write in (fiction, nonfiction, historical fiction, or whatever). Then write and write and write. Find some good people to read and critique your work. Find a job that allows you to write and still eat. Sell your TV.
Why do you write?
As one of my characters says in my novel, Sky Bridge, “Art is what gets us beyond what is real. It makes reality more real. It also shortens the distance we gotta travel to see how connected we are. That’s what art should do.” I think that’s what writing – and reading – is all about for me. It helps me to be human, to work on being a full and complete human. Writing, for me, also helps me understand things --- I write what I’m curious about, what I need to process or ponder.
I’ve read both Hell’s Bottom, Colorado, which received the Milkweed National Fiction Prize, and Sky Bridge, which received a Willa Literary Award. I found Hell’s Bottom in particular to have a very gritty sensibility to it; it was hard to read, but harder to put down. Both books seem far from your personal experience; what inspired them?
Well, it’s true that I’ve never been a teen mother, I’ve never had to decide about having an abortion, I’ve never lost someone to a violent crime. So many of the plots are based on pure imagination, or stories I’ve heard, or situations that I’ve inferred, and so on. On the other hand, I have cut the hide off a calf to graft on to another, I have run cows through the chute (“The Record Keeper” is nearly completely autobiographical), I have seen the death and life that occurs on ranch life. In fact, this morning, I was out looking at a llama carcass – a mountain lion had killed it yesterday. People very close to me have had to help horses escape a wildfire, or have had to swim into a freezing pond to get dead ducks. What I think I do is this: I synthesize my own hands-on experience and real emotional state with stories I hear elsewhere. As an example: I was a new mother when I wrote Sky Bridge. I had a crying infant and was exhausted and very scared about this new gig called motherhood. I used that emotional state (and all the details that go along with it, such scratchy eyeballs from lack of sleep) with a made-up story about a single mom at a minimum-wage job with a boyfriend she didn’t love. That part is all made up. But the real Libby is not made up. Libby’s basic emotional core is me. We are one and the same.
"Stars Go Blue reintroduces some characters we first met in Hell's Bottom. What brought you back to Ben and Renny's family, in particular? And do you think you might work with side characters in this way again--expanding this little universe throughout future stories?"
All I can say is the same thing many other authors will tell you: certain characters become more-or-less real to you and you wonder what happened to them. Ben and Renny? I love them. I wanted to know what had become of them. So when I conceived the idea to write about a person with Alzheimer’s, I knew it would be Ben. I knew the whole (imaginary) family so well (from my first book and many of my stories) that I could leap right into the family dynamic and personalities.
My next finished novel – currently under consideration – actually takes up the characters in my other novel, Sky Bridge. And the one I’m working on now contains a few of the same characters. So, yes, I’m drawn to expanding little universes that I wrote into being.
I remember reading Carol Shield’s work—she’s a Canadian writer most famous for Pulitzer-prize winning book The Stone Diaries. Her books are loosely connected – one character from one book shows up in another and so on. Many writers do this, of course, but the way Shields did it really expanded each book that came before. As in, each book WAS like a bit of an expanding universe, and the universes ran into each other and informed one another. I fell in love with that, and I’m certain that influence has been guiding me.