Sunday, October 21, 2012

Melissa Pritchard and the Buried Story

In the 33nd in a series of posts on 2012 short story collections entered for The Story Prize, Melissa Pritchard, author of Odditorium (Bellevue Literary Press), tells how her career began and describes a perfect writing experience.

What made you want to become a writer?
During a January blizzard of historic proportions, I was marooned in Evanston, Illinois, with a newborn daughter, reading The Tale of Genji by Lady Murasaki. A newcomer to the Midwest, I had no friends other than my husband, who went off to a job he hated early every morning and did not re-appear until evening. When I wasn’t nursing my daughter or reading about medieval royal Japan, I was staring out at an oblivion of falling snow. One night, my husband arrived home to be greeted by wails louder than any infant’s. My twenty-nine year old life, I told him, was over. After I quieted down, he said, not unkindly, “You are always talking about being a writer, but you never write. What about this? If you write five pages a day, I’ll give you a back rub each night after I get home from work.”

So I became a writer.

The rubs, poor harried man, lasted less than two weeks. Still, I was launched and learned to replace his twenty second, distracted massages with a daily portion of a frozen Snickers Bar.

This lays bare how simple a creature I am. How easily carroted to write.

What’s the worst idea for a story you’ve ever had?
Taxidermy + divorce = nada
I was living in Taos, New Mexico, going through a painful divorce (yes, from the same husband who helped me to become a writer; today, we are friends) and deeply obsessed with taxidermy. In Taos, hunting for deer and elk is a seasonal tradition, so taxidermy is a logical offshoot (sorry) of hunting. I had met a Hispanic hunter, a self-taught taxidermist, who gave me a tour of the shop inside of his trailer. The experience was so bizarre, I left elated, convinced I had fantastic story material—all I needed to do was combine the bitter proceedings of my divorce with the creepy procedure of stuffing and bending a dead animal into a fake, life-like pose. I wrote the story, pants on fire, mailed it to Lois Rosenthal, then-editor of Story. She had published two previous stories, so my confidence was unassailable. Within hours, it seemed, I received my taxidermy fiction back from Lois along with a note: “You still seem very angry about your divorce.” Without bothering to substitute an improved set of plastic squirrel’s eyes or a second dead mammal for dramatic tension, I quietly buried the story, research and all. Now that I think about it, the same thing happened with a family-run alligator farm I once paid three dollars to tour somewhere in the lower third of Colorado. I tried, fruitlessly, to combine the sad weirdness of that place with a news article I’d clipped and saved about a ten year old, three hundred pound Pentecostal preacher boy from Alabama.

Where do you do most of your work?
When home, I write from one of two places—my bed or the bedroom floor. I wake early, around 5 a.m., grope my way into the kitchen, make Lazarus coffee, strong enough to revive the dead, feed and water the dachshund, return to bed with coffee and dachshund, and write for about two hours. If I am not teaching, I might work again in the afternoon, sitting on the bedroom floor, propped against a chaise longue, surrounded by notes, chocolate, shortbread, a cup of coffee, or a glass of Chardonnay.

Libraries can be terrific temples in which to write. My perfect experience took place at the British Library in London. I spent weeks there one winter, writing—by hand—fifteen drafts of a story inspired by the 19th century German feral child, Kaspar Hauser. The distilled, concentrative quiet, pinned to one’s own little desk lamp and hard chair while knowing that one level down was a café with hot tea and scones with clotted cream and jam—I was never happier or plumper—a tea-drowned raisin. This is the nearest I have ever come to being a human-turned-book, pastured and mute among its noble kind.

What story by another writer do you most wish you’d written?
An impossible, irresistible question. Leo Tolstoy’s “The Death of Ivan Ilyich” and James Joyce’s “The Dead.” When I read them in my English class at the Convent of the Sacred Heart high school, both affected me tremendously, and in my current loose hierarchy of great stories, they still share the apex. But other stories have undone me for days—Edmund White’s “Cinnamon Skin,” William Trevor’s “Ballroom of Romance,” Tolstoy’s “Master and Man,” heaps of stories by Edna O’Brien, Helen Simpson, Mavis Gallant, Flannery O’Connor, Alice Munro, Anton Chekov, Harold Brodkey, John Cheever…I am tumbling into a very deep hole here. Hopeless. The usefulness of this question seems to be to bring to mind how many extraordinary stories exist, already admired or still undiscovered. A humbling, leveling, awareness.

I chose Tolstoy’s and Joyce’s stories, “The Death of Ivan Ilyich,” and “The Dead,” since they awakened this once over-striving, pious fourteen year old to the notion that unforgettable stories might pose an (unanswerable) ethical question, might dare to touch without a trace of pedantry on philosophy, even theology, creeded or not.  Might open wide, like nothing else, her terrified heart.