Messy and Complicated and Real: Talking with Laura Pritchett
In the 70s and 80s, as Colorado writer Laura Pritchett was growing up on the family ranch, that life was taking a shortcut to anachronism. The farm crisis of the 80s decimated the number of families able to make a living off their own land. Urbanization took over the West. While Phoenix and Las Vegas boomed, the lives of farmers, stockmen, cowboys, and shepherds took on a sepia glow as Americans relegated them to history. For years now, to write about the West has meant a swift genre designation as a Western—code for “not real literature.”
Pritchett is part of a wave of younger Western writers challenging that pigeonholing by examining, with subtlety and fresh honesty, stories largely invisible to 24-hour news cycles. Her new novel, The Blue Hour, weaves exceptionally good sex writing with meditations on death and the interdependence of rural community. There’s meth and suicide, but also deep connection with wilderness, wild things, and the sweetness of which humans are still capable. It’s a tender, affecting tale that gives strength in devastating times.
In February, we talked about death, sex, and being rural in modern America.
The Rumpus: What was it like growing up on the family ranch? How did it shape you as a writer?
Laura Pritchett: That family ranch was a gift of grace. It gave me an affinity for the natural world, a love of blue-collar workers whose hands are cut up at the end of the day, and a sense that the body should—needs—to do something other than write all day. (At the moment, I’m living in kind of a limbo state, and I really miss my chickens and garden. Someday soon I shall have them again!) And the greatest gift that ranch gave me was the love of books. I’ll admit it, I was always sneaking off to avoid chores I didn’t want to do. I’d curl up at the back of the ranch and read.
Rumpus: You’ve written that your childhood was “full of bizarre moments,” but you don’t write fiction of the bizarre; you write deeply intimate portraits of people wrestling with their paths. How does this sense of the bizarre inform your work?
Pritchett: Oh, I hope there’s lots of bizarre in my books. A woman climbing into a bear den with a bear. A human brain on the counter. A raccoon living in the house. A human skull on the kitchen table. Dogs eating deer legs in the front yard. Felons living in the household. Pigeons having sex on my mother’s arm. Plane wreckage in the living room. Some abuse. Some hard moments. Some fragile moments. All this came from my life, and they all add to what I hope is that intimacy. When we are startled by the bizarre, we connect. Nothing like climbing in a bear den, for example, for a person to look her companion in the eye and get real about life—as real and raw and vulnerable as she can get.
Rumpus: Your characters in The Blue Hour, set in an isolated mountain community in Colorado, are intricately tied together and also linked to characters from other books you’ve written. It’s reminiscent of the complex kinship and friendship ties in an Erdrich novel. Is there something about living west of the 98th meridian that inspires this interwoven view of life?
Pritchett: I think that kinship and connection exist anywhere—Paris or New York or Colorado. In The Blue Hour, though, it’s true that the inhabitants of this mountain are literally dependent upon one another, which is just simply true of the communities I know here. Someone has a snowplow, another is a veterinarian, another can fix and build things. That’s one of the reasons I chose to narrate the novel from each inhabitant’s POV—so we could see just how deeply one person depends upon another, often without the other person’s knowledge.
Rumpus: What were your influences?
Pritchett: The Dew Breaker by Edwidge Danticant, Olive Kittridge by Elizabeth Strout, and Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson were my models. In all of those cases, we can see complex kinship and friendship far more deeply because of the rotating POV.
Rumpus: You write about sex in a matter-of-fact way that leaves intact the humanity of the participants—not an easy trick. What did you learn through writing the sex scenes in The Blue Hour?
Pritchett: I love paying attention to sex scenes in literature—it can be done so gloriously and it can be done so poorly. The best advice on sex scenes, as any writer knows, is Steve Almond’s “12 Step Program.” I recommend it wherever I go. Because people should attempt these scenes! My pet peeve is how it gets left out of books where, frankly, we know it’s going on—and it’s cowardly to leave it out. So I decided to not only include it, but make it a central theme in my novel, and to really take a serious honest gaze at this… fascinating activity. In doing so, I learned what you’d expect: a sex scene should never be gratuitous, it should always serve to deepen the plot and character and theme, it should be real (which means awkward or horrible or really damn wondrous). Let it be as messy and complicated and real as we humans are. Put it on the page.
Rumpus: Novels of the West are often no longer Westerns in the classic sense. Which writers do you think embody this modern—or postmodern, or post-colonial—sensibility, and what features of their writing distinguish them from the Western genre?
Pritchett: Yes, writing about the West has evolved and become more complex—yippieyayay!—although I’m always surprised at how many traditional Westerns (with a stoic man and a minority and a woman as a sidekick) continue to be published and read. (Arg.) There are so many other, more interesting, stories being told. Fav writers? Contemporaries that come to mind include Louise Erdrich, Rick Bass, Erika Sánchez, Kent Haruf (I miss him!), Aaron Abeyta, Stanley Crawford, Ivan Doig, Ana Maria Spagna, and YOU, Carrie La Seur! But there are some classic writers that really defied convention, and stayed away from mythologizing, and we owe them a nod too: Willa Cather, John Steinbeck, I could go on and on…
Rumpus: Where would you place your novels, genre-wise?
Pritchett: Well, I’d like to be shelved in the capital L-literature section, and here’s why: To my mind, genre lit confirms social values and expectations (that’s why we like to read it—we know at the end of a mystery that the bad guy will be caught, and at the end of a romance, true love will prevail). Literature defies or questions its cultural values and assumptions. If I hope to be doing anything, it’s questioning the big assumptions, pushing against convention, defying expectations. Raising an eyebrow. Creating contemplation. Even pissing someone off.
Rumpus: Suddenly death is everywhere in the news—how to talk about it with someone who’s dying, “death cleaning,” even how to define death—but your book Making Friends with Death came out in 2017. What inspired you to lead the trend of dealing frontally with mortality?
Pritchett: What a fun mix, no? I had two books come out in one year—unprecedented for me—and one is about death and one is about sex! But to answer your question: I’m been fascinated by death since I was a child, and I’d have published a book on it in the 1980s if I could have! Seriously, though, I saw this trend coming in about 2013, but that’s maybe because I was looking for it—I was dealing with my father’s slow decline, watching friends die, and was dealing with my own medical crisis. Suddenly there was news of “Death Cafes,” the Right to Die Movement, calls for a more compassionate and less medicalized death. And I was scrambling to find out what a “good death” looked like. So I started writing “Deathy,” as I fondly call my book, way back then. Like most books, it just took longer than I thought it would—to write, find a publisher, get out in the world. But I do think the timing is good—because yes, we are in the middle of this wonderful zeitgeist shift. Everyone I know in their middle-age years, as I am, is dealing with parents or friends dying (and some, damn it, are dealing with diagnoses of their own), and we realize: We have to do a better job than our parents did. (At least, some of our parents). We have got to talk about this, and do actual things that help prepare both ourselves and our loved ones. There are better ways to go. Better ways to handle it all.
Rumpus: Why do you think death is becoming a popular topic? Has our society become fatalistic? Nihilistic? Or is this a more positive trend?
Pritchett: We’re finally facing what is. We are mortal creatures, and yes, death is inevitable—but it can be a mindful, meaningful affair. Perhaps this new fascination is evidence of our maturation. To not live in denial—and to truly deal with our death on an emotional, financial, legal, and practical level is the most gracious, generous thing we can do. Preparing so that we’re “good to go” is a gift to ourselves, to our loved ones, and to the planet. To go mindfully, instead of kicking and screaming, is to set a good example. It is an act of love.
Rumpus: What books have you read in the last month? Feel free to include anything you’ve dipped into even briefly.
Pritchett: At this very moment, I’m reading Rough Beauty by Karen Auvinen and Rising: Dispatches from the New American Shore by Elizabeth Rush, both nonfiction books by authors that are new to me—both very much about the natural world, and both very thoughtful and beautifully written. As far as fiction, my three most recent books have been your book, The Weight of an Infinite Sky, Siel Ju’s Cake Time, and Chitra Divakaruni’s Before We Visit the Goddess. Also, funny you asked that, but I’m reorganizing my bookshelves, which took forever because I kept dipping into bits of books—everything from Christine Sneed’s The Virginity of Famous Men to Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables, which is the book that first made me want to become a serious writer when I was in middle school.
Rumpus: What writers do you most admire?
Pritchett: Well, authors who are generous and kind to their characters (even the very messed up ones) and equally compassionate and alert to landscape (whether in the inner city or the wide open plains). I also care very much about poetry, rhythm, language. I could list authors by name, but I’d rather list them by these three qualities: compassion for humans, attention to landscape, obsession with beautiful language.
Rumpus: What’s the first thing of any substance that you remember writing?
Pritchett: My very first short story was called “Dry Roots,” which got published in The Sun, and became the foundational story for my first book, Hell’s Bottom, Colorado. I wrote it as an undergraduate. Before that, well, let’s say it was all self-absorbed sad poetry.
Rumpus: What are your current projects?
Pritchett: I’m writing my first play, Dirt, A Terra Nova Expedition, which is being produced (yay!) in Fort Collins, Colorado, this spring. I’m really falling in love with the form and the process of it all (so much more collaboration and community!). So I’m tinkering with the idea of another play and I’d also like to adapt one of my books to a screenplay for a TV series—but that’s a new world to me. But that’s okay. I’m up for veering into the unknown. Adventures abound!