Every once in a while you come across a special person who influences you far beyond what you'd expect. Award-winning author, Sara Pritchard, is one of those people in my life. I've had the chance to hear her read some of her wonderful works. I’ve been blessed to call her a friend. She's quirky and has a tender heart and she makes me smile whenever I think of her. She's a quiet and gentle soul who enjoys her privacy, but I'm delighted that she has agreed to share a bit of her writing life with us. Her first two novels Crackpots and Lately have been well received and garnished some pretty important awards. Her newest book, Help Wanted: Female is yet, another winner! Readers please note that some language in Help Wanted:Female may not be appropriate for everyone. I hope you'll enjoy your time with us!
Hello Sara and welcome to Novel Travelers! I'm excited to have you join me today. Thank you for taking a bit of time out of your busy day to talk with me. I wanted to let my readers know what a motivator you are to new writers, so let's get started. Tell us a little bit about yourself and your writing style.
It’s nice to speak with you again. I was born in Northeastern Pennsylvania, the Wilkes-Barre/Kingston area, where my father’s family is from. They emigrated from Wales to work in the anthracite mines in America. I lived in Hazleton, Pennsylvania, until I was ten. A big part of my heart is still in that region. All my people are buried there, and I often dream I’m still in Hazleton, a little girl with pigtails, looking out her bedroom window. I’ve lived in West Virginia now for nigh on thirty years, and I love Appalachia, too—the mountains, the music. I lived on Ocracoke Island, North Carolina, too, for eight years. What a beautiful place.
Hmmm. My writing style. That’s a tough one. Well, I write stories, exclusively. I’ve never had a big idea in my life, but I’ve had plenty of small ideas—glimpses and flashes that I can turn into stories. I’m basically a thief and not very creative when it comes to narrative. I’ve stolen many an anecdote from friends, repeated stories I’ve heard, and drawn from—embellished and reimagined—scenes from my own life, trying always, it seems, to reveal something about the absurdities and injustices of life, along with little moments of grace. All my stories have kind of a Russian nesting doll structure—stories hiding within stories—and I digress a lot. Oh, and lots of white space. Vignettes. This structure seems natural to me—a little of this, a little of that, lots of room for the reader to imagine the left-out parts. I think maybe I have some kind of attention deficit disorder. It’s the only way I can think and put things together. In pieces. Like quilting, I guess. Discovering patterns. Working with images. Fitting things together in different ways. I never have a complete story in my head. Just little dreams of scenes, but the secret is that I trust that somehow everything will fit, that a story arc will rise up out of the mist. Or, it’s sort of like shaking a kaleidoscope. No matter how you tip or turn it, a pattern emerges. Basically, it’s all magic. And faith.
Faith drives my writing as well. And your vignettes draw the reader in and make them feel the emotions your characters feel. That shows the talents of a gifted writer. Was there a magic moment when you knew you were going to be a writer?
Hmmm. More magic! There wasn’t really a moment when I knew I was going to be a writer, but I have a very distinct memory of thinking I could maybe write something. This must have been in the early eighties. I would have been in my early thirties, living on Ocracoke Island, North Carolina. I’d graduated from college with a degree in English and I’d spent two years in graduate school at West Virginia University, working on an MA in English, and I was . . . yes . . . waitressing! I was in love with writers like D.H. Lawrence, James Joyce, Hemingway, Steinbeck, Thomas Wolfe, Vonnegut, John Irving. You know, THE BIG GUYS. I’d spent all these years reading literature, and I probably could have counted on one hand the female authors I’d read. Well, Willa Cather was one. My Ántonia is still one of my favorite novels. I’ve probably read that book ten times over the past forty years. But then, somehow, out on that island, I discovered early Margaret Atwood (The Edible Woman, Lady Oracle), and the Virago Modern Classics and the Feminist Press, which were publishing/reissuing all these books by WOMEN! Praise the Lord!
One day, from my friend Sandy on Ocracoke, I came across a book called Our Spoons Came from Woolworth’s by Barbara Comyns, a British author. It was first published in 1951 and reissued by Virago in the early eighties. I was in the sand dunes, alone, wearing a one-piece plaid Jantzen bathing suit from the fifties and lying on an old linen tablecloth with apples silk-screened on it. I opened that book and read the first couple of paragraphs and something happened. Something clicked. I heard this voice—a first-person narrative—a young woman’s voice—so matter-of-fact and intimate that I felt as if the author were right there, talking to me. I’d never read anything like it. I recognized the voice as my own maybe, and I know I said out loud right there to the sky and the sea, OHMYGAWD, I CAN WRITE!
But I didn’t. I waited a long time. A decade at least until I started to try to write. But what I discovered that day was that my own voice could be a perfectly acceptable narrative voice, unlike the voices of the literary, primarily male, writers I so admired.
So many writers don't start writing until later in life. I am one of them. Sometimes we need more life experiences or maybe more wisdom to tell our stories. What’s been your latest project and what inspired the story?
Well . . . my latest project has been my new collection of short stories, Help Wanted: Female, published this month (July 2013) by Etruscan Press. I love the cover! An original painting by Caroline Jennings of a woman walking two dogs. The ten stories in the collection I’ve worked on for about six years—writing, revising, tweaking, throwing out. The stories are inspired from, mostly, a sense of place; that is, what I see out my window, what I observe when I’m out walking my dogs, interesting people who have crossed my path in the past forty years, places I’ve worked, personal experience—all whipped together into fiction.
Which brings me to the great cover of Help Wanted: Female. It obviously depicts the everyday woman out walking her dogs. She looks like a lady I pass everyday when I walk around my neighborhood. She is a character! She talks incessantly to her two poodles as they tug her along. Who makes a good character for your novels? Do they have specific traits?
Ordinary people are the best characters because nobody is really ordinary. Everyone is full of secrets and dreams, heartaches and failures, guilt and pain, moments of joy and comfort and compassion. I guess I kind of prefer older characters, ones with a lot of history (backstory) and a deep sense of the mystery of just being alive, how very weird life is. In her book Family Linen, Lee Smith says, “Life is long and weird and sooner or later, something about it will make you crazy.” I think that’s true.
I must say I have to be in agreement with that statement. But books have changed me. They have taken me places I didn't know existed and have allowed me to dream. There have been books that have stirred me, comforted me and given me hope. What books have changed your life in a significant way?
Well, definitely the Barbara Comyns book I mentioned. Also, all of Alice Munro, especially The Lives of Girls and Women, The Beggar Maid, and The View from Castle Rock. I especially admire the latter—the way Munro begins with public history and genealogy and then moves seamlessly into pure fiction and story, weaving the two genres together into a glorious tapestry. It’s so brilliant. And I just this week read the complete stories of Alistair MacLeod, Island, who has become my male counterpart of Alice Munro. Gosh, another Canadian. The haunting landscape of Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, which he describes—I was transported. His story “In the Fall” ripped open the seams of my heart. I’m going to write him a letter. It will begin: “Dear Alistair MacLeod, Where have you been my whole life? . . .”
It is the Maritime Provinces that centered my first novel, Run River Currents. That area in Canada has a special place in my heart. It's funny how sense of place, unusual characters and the writer's voice can move the reader. From the feedback you’ve received about your own novels, which book has affected your readers the most? Why do you think that is?
I received a lot of positive feedback about Crackpots (2003, novel in stories). I’m sure one reason is because it was a prize book and a New York Times Notable Book of the Year and it was marketed well (I was truly a nobody), but another reason, I think, is because it’s a baby boomer book. There are a lot of cultural references to the fifties, sixties, and seventies, and it speaks to women who, like me, grew up then, married young and divorced, entered the American workforce and sort of floated about, trying to find a place in that limbo between the traditional female role of the fifties (housewife, mother) and the “liberated” (ha ha ha) woman of today. Actually . . . my new story collection Help Wanted: Female sort of takes up where Crackpots left off.
I love when readers relate to a writer's work. I've enjoyed your readings and the way your audience reacts to your work with such varied emotions. You always leave us wanting more. So knowing that, what is your next project?
Well, right now, I’m just exhausted. I haven’t thought much about writing. I’m still reeling from reading Alistair MacLeod.
I understand the exhaustion of completing a work and I know you also work as a mentor and instructor to other writers. Giving so much of yourself must reward you with moments of both exhasperation and joy. But what has been your biggest moment as a writer?
Big? Well, I guess winning the Bakeless Prize for Fiction in 2003 for Crackpots. That’s what really got the ball rolling. My suggestion to all you writers who have complete manuscripts is to submit them to book prize contests. If you win one, well then, it’s like you do pass go and you do collect $200. You just jump ahead to the publisher, without all that searching for an agent. The whole JOB of publishing is just soooo tiring. But this is an exciting time for publishing. There’s been a sea change in the industry, which for so many years was very closed and dominated by big name authors and powerful agents, editors, and reviewers. But today there are so many wonderful small presses—like Etruscan. And self-publishing and co-op publishing are top rate. You just have to know how to go about it, find the perfect fit.
I agree with you Sara! Etruscan Press is a gem of a small press and has published some extraordinary books. I hear the Executive Director of Etruscan, Phil Brady, is a fabulous orator and poet himself. You have surrounded yourself with an eclectic and talented group of people! Well, I'm sad to say our time is up, Sara. Anything more you’d like your readers to know about you before we say goodbye? And where can we find your new book?
I think I’ve said enough! Thank you and your readers for spending a little time with me today. I've had a great time. Oh! Help Wanted:Female is available from Etruscan Press or you can find it at an independently owned bookstore close to you by going to Indie Bound. And, you can buy it online through amazon.com or Barnes & Noble.
Thank you Sara, for joining us today! We will be watching for more of your work in the future!
Friends, be sure and visit Sara's site at www.sarapritchard.com or stop by her Facebook page and tell her you read her interview here. Have a great day!