Between Illusion and Reality: A Conversation with Erin Pringle

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Erin Pringle’s third book and debut novel, Hezada! I Miss You, was released earlier this month from Austin-based Awst Press. As a local Austinite, I’ve watched Awst Press move from an idea to a reality to a literary powerhouse. I first met its founder, Wendy Walker, in a creative writing workshop taught by Awst editor, Tatiana Ryckman. I’ve appreciated all of the diverse books they’ve brought to life, but I was especially excited to get my hands on Erin Pringle’s novel as I knew it tackled a subject in dire need of nuanced attention: suicide. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, suicide is the tenth leading cause of death in the United States. It is the second-most-common cause of death for those between the ages of ten to thirty-four. Yet, despite suicide’s prevalence, the way we talk about it is often lacking, simplistic, or downright cruel.

Characteristic of Awst Press books, Hezada! I Miss You is emotionally evocative and creative in form. The novel, told from a rotating cast and at times even omniscient perspective, centers on a small town in the Midwest reckoning with its identity in present-day America. The residents are poor, and the town is dying. The circus, which is also on its last leg, is coming to town, as it has each summer for the past one hundred years. The arrival of the circus brings with it hope, nostalgia, summer boys, and for some, trauma.

It was an honor to speak with Erin Pringle about writing through pain, the role of the artist, and the struggles of rural America. It wasn’t easy for her to write this novel, but I’m so thankful she did.

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The Rumpus: Hezada! I Miss You is your first published novel; however, you’re the author of two books of short fiction. How did the writing process differ here?

Erin Pringle: Well, I’d say that the process wasn’t much different. My first book was composed of very short stories, my second of longer stories, and this is simply my longest story to-date. But I also composed it within the longest block of continuous, uninterrupted time I’ve had to write. I did less handwriting of the novel than I did my earlier works where I would handwrite each new draft. With the novel, I kept having to print it out and do the work on the page that way, but that has always been part of my process, too.

Rumpus: When you say you composed the novel in “the longest block of continuous, uninterrupted time [you’ve] had to write,” what did that look like?

Pringle: I stopped teaching college so that I could focus on writing. I started teaching children’s tennis in the summers, and my partner became the sole support of the family. I’d write part-time, from 9 a.m. to 12:30 p.m., while our son was at preschool. I couldn’t have done a residency because I have a child and most residencies don’t allow children, or expect a large amount of money to attend, or require some kind of financial stability that would allow a mortgage and bills to be paid while you’re gone at a residency. I’ve now returned to teaching, but in a preschool, which I find to be incredibly awesome and fulfilling. I’m now writing from 8:30 a.m. to 10:45 a.m. every day. So, my next several books will not be novels.

Rumpus: When I opened the first pages of the novel and realized the first chapter was told from the point of view of the village, I was so excited. Throughout Hezada! I Miss You, you take major risks with point of view, and they pay off. The book dives into the heads of several characters—both townspeople and circus employees—and also offers chorus-like sections, where the narration feels more collective. How did you settle on telling the story this way?

Pringle: I don’t know. I think that I’ve been moving slowly in that direction, especially in my last book. I think something was lost when the omniscient perspective was cordoned off—a fluidity and flexibility of telling a story, for one thing. I think I was taught that the move away from omniscience came around the rejection of an all-seeing, all-knowing godlike presence and the limited voice was considered more realistic because people were considered locked within their own perspective and experiences. Fine. But as a child who has grown up in a small town, I was taught to think of what everyone else thought, to view myself through their point of view and to behave accordingly—this was, of course, echoed in the way my mother’s religion taught to think of one’s identity or relationship to others. I don’t know. It seems limiting and not how I’ve moved through life or others like me. We are constantly using patterned judgments to make decisions, collective thoughts to interpret the news, other people’s experiences to understand our own and vice versa. I didn’t consider the novel’s voice a risk. It’s probably an extension of stream-of-consciousness.

Rumpus: That is such a good point about identity existing within relationship to others and to groups. By including collective narration, you are reflecting the many voices your characters live by, that humans live by. We aren’t actually “locked” into our own perspectives, as you say. I’m curious how the writing process around developing these perspectives looked. Did you write each character’s point of view chapters all the way through? Or write in a rotating way, in the way the chapters appear?

Pringle: I was working on the novel for about ten years before my sister died. Her death became the engine. The first full draft happened like this: my friend Pam wanted me to read some of her work. She’s a folk singer and pianist in her seventies, and a retired high-school English teacher. We met through the Bernie Sanders campaign. I didn’t want her to pay me, and I needed a reader who had never read any of my work, was not from an MFA program, and who would read as the most authentic reader I could find. I asked that she only give me feedback on what she enjoyed or thought worked well. So, every week, I would send her one to two chapters and she would send me one to two chapters of her work. In this way, over the course of several months, I wrote the first full draft. What is now the second chapter was the first chapter that I wrote a zillion different ways just before my son was born. There’s another chapter that isn’t in the book that I’d written some other time, and that I love, and I’d gone over that many times, too. There were some key scenes I’d written out years ago that naturally found their way into their chapters as I knocked them out. Once I finished the book, which Pam read to its end, I printed it out and reorganized it in a series of binders, using glue and scissors. Then I retyped it. I may have done this more than once; I can’t remember. Then I didn’t touch it for a year—until Awst said they’d take it, which then required that I open it back up.

Rumpus: In a podcast interview, I heard you describe the writing process as similar to painting watercolor. With watercolor, one must wait for each layer to dry before one can begin the next. A finished painting is the product of painting on top of painting, over and over. I agree writing is similar. As a writer who has published over fifty stories, how do you know when a work is complete?

Pringle: Well, I would use a hairdryer to speed up the drying process. Ha! I know when it’s complete when it stops bothering me.

Rumpus: Speaking of layers, one of the greatest strengths of Hezada! I Miss You is your ability to capture the horror and strangeness of grief, especially in that limbo directly following a shocking loss. When my father died suddenly, I was consumed with the wish that the loss could be undone, yet there were also bizarre moments where I could still laugh at a TV show, still worry about summer plans. Death is so hard for our brains to accept. Suicide amplifies all of this, which the novel captures well. The way you write from the perspective of the deceased’s parents especially gutted me. Could you speak more about rendering complicated grief on the page?

Pringle: It gutted me, the writing of it. That’s a good word. I felt required to write the novel because my experience of my sister’s suicide was unlike any other death I’d experienced and not represented by anything I’d read, and I feel like I read both to understand the world and prepare myself for it. I mean, I’d read romanticized representations of suicide, and that pissed me off. Anyway, so I felt unprepared and, thus, betrayed by those who hadn’t written about it. The stories we tell each other are so, so, so, so, so important because they’re one of the ways we interpret our own lives, and when my sister died, I felt trapped by the lack of complex plots or complex people. I had a briefcase of stupid notions of suicide, from romanticized visions of hanging witches to a murky past of lynchings depicted as historical and without exploration of the people themselves to nooses everywhere. In the Halloween section at stores, for fuck’s sake. And people saying, “I’d rather kill myself” in casual conversation. People pretending to shoot themselves in the head when they were just sort of irritated. Jesus. So, you see, I had to write the book because I cannot abide the cultural atmosphere around suicide, much less around rural towns, mental illness, women, and queerness.

The closest I’d come to a work of art that depicted the intensity of depression, human experience, and suicide was Marsha Norman’s play, ’night, Mother, and to her I’m eternally grateful for writing it.

That’s what I mean by feeling required to write this book, which was a terrible assignment, and I hated writing it—except for the funny parts, but even those have their own wounds. It was hard on me, not just the first draft, but every draft, every revision. I had to relive everything to make sure I had it right, which meant returning to childhood, memories, the experience, the aftermath—and then do it all over again in how I imagined Heza would experience it, and then do it all over again in how I imagined Abe would experience it, and then do it all again in how the villagers would experience it, and do it all over again in how Kae got where she did while attempting to prevent readers from simplifying things to meme-like explanations.

Rumpus: We suck at talking about death, especially suicide. I’m thankful you wrote this book and that it exposes readers to a more complex view of the topic. Understandably, this was incredibly painful to write, yet these sorts of stories are essential to reshaping how we talk about suicide. Do you think writers, or artists more generally, have a responsibility to create toward where they see a need?

Pringle: Yes, I think that’s exactly what the role of artist is—to manage the world in a meaningful, beautiful way in order to help themselves and others not only better understand it but also to affirm human experiences that don’t appear in the news, podcasts, or daily conversations. If we aren’t doing it for that reason, I don’t know why we’re making art. But not in a moralistic way. I don’t mean that. Artists aren’t religious leaders, marketers, or politicians. That’s what makes artists’ work vital and vibrant. These quiet conversations between books and readers, between paintings and viewers, between musicians and listeners, dancers and audience, are the most intimate communication humans have, and so seem the most precious, honest, and worthy of having.

Rumpus: The book, set in small-town Americana, feels both timeless and rooted in the now. Characters take selfies and gender norms, though still dangerous to challenge, seem to be at least slightly more fluid than, say, a century ago. In some ways, life is better, yet many characters long for the past, especially in regard to the prior heyday of the circus. How did you think about time when writing this novel?

Pringle: I knew I didn’t want to write a novel about how we imagine the circus to be because the circus was never how we imagine it was—unless we’re imagining the unfair labor practices, the poverty of the towns the circus owners used to fill their pockets, and the exploitation of animals and people to serve the illusions circus people could easily sell to rural people whose lives were hard work in every way. But I wanted to show the collision between illusion and reality, and the varying ways people cope with it. Does that answer about time?

Rumpus: I suppose I’m especially interested in the present-day issues facing these townspeople. Money, or lack of it, constrains the lives of many of the characters in Hezada! I Miss You. I was particularly moved by the man who worked at the slaughterhouse. Was class something you intended to explore with this novel?

Pringle: Yes, absolutely. I grew up in an impoverished rural town and my family was on social security. Most of my classmates qualified for free lunches. More than half the town was for-sale houses and blank storefronts. I lived in what was left of the past. Beautiful brick buildings infested with emptiness. I can’t tell you much about what it’s like to be middle-class, but I can tell you the experience of now being around middle-class people who laugh about the people I come from, and I don’t like it. The laughing, like so many jokes, seems so illegitimate in its grasp of the complexity of human life.

Rumpus: Though there is not a lot of sex in the book, you do write one of the best “losing virginity” scenes I’ve read. The scene is not overly graphic, but choice details key the reader in to how important and lasting and even traumatic this experience is for the character. Could you talk about writing this scene, or writing about sex in general?

Pringle: I don’t know that I have much to say about this. Illusion and reality. Sex contains the same collision and dissonance.

Rumpus: Much of your work explores grief and loss, as does writer T Kira Madden’s. In a recent Lit Hub essay, she argues that writing is not catharsis—it is not therapy. Do you agree?

Pringle: I agree, yep. I’m in therapy, and it’s not like writing or running or teaching tennis or talking to my partner. Therapy is definitely itself. Last year, I took adult swim lessons because I was never a strong swimmer and had a humiliating lake-swimming episode at 4-H camp when I was in fourth grade. So, I finally decided to, or realized I could, take lessons. So I did, and I practiced all the time between lessons, until, by summer, I felt capable enough to do a triathlon. I did a sprint triathlon. Then I trained more, swimming in lakes where I couldn’t see past my feet. Then I did an Olympic triathlon. At some point, I realized I wasn’t having nightmares of sharks anymore.

I have nightmares every night. They cover lots of ground, and sometimes, I have underwater nightmares and sharks are nearby or chasing me. I didn’t take the swim lessons to stop those nightmares. It never occurred to me that there would be a connection between swimming well and shark nightmares. In the same way, I didn’t write this novel to stop missing my dead sister, but I think lots of the anger I felt about my growing up, about the ways our lives turned out, about our culture’s naïve beliefs about suicide, about the silencing of reality—that’s lessened. And I look forward to when the book tour is over, and I’ll never have to read the novel again—much less write it.

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Photograph of Erin Pringle by Grace June.


Shannon Perri’s writing has appeared in Texas Observer, Joyland Magazine, Literary Orphans, Houston Chronicle, Austin-American Statesman, and elsewhere. She holds a master’s degree in Social Work from the University of Texas and an MFA in Creative Writing from Texas State University. She lives in Austin with her husband, son, and menagerie of pets. Learn more at www.shannonperri.com or on Twitter @shannonperriii. More from this author →