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Fellowship winner profile
Fellowship winner profile
A conversation with writer Sara Pritchard
Earlier this year, Morgantown writer Sara
Pritchard won an Individual Artist Fellowship from the West
Virginia Commission on the Arts for her fiction. Recently her
collection of stories, Crackpots, won the 2002 Katherine Bakeless
Nason Prize. Crackpots is scheduled for publication by Houghton
Mifflin in 2003. The following conversation between Pritchard and
Colleen Anderson took place by e-mail a few weeks before this issue
of ArtWorks went to press.
Anderson: Sara, I want to introduce this profile by
telling readers that I have seen your hat collection. I wonder if
the impulse to write fiction is like the delicious pleasure I had
when I put on one of those outrageous hats, looked into the mirror,
and came face to face with an exotic character who was, but also
was not, myself. Did you like dress-up games as a child?
Pritchard: I never knew I collected hats until I
began to show them to someone a few years ago. It turned out I had
about a hundred of them.
There’s just so much ingenuity and artistry
in women’s accessories: hats, glasses, shoes, purses (oh,
beaded purses!). Actually, I have a lot of coats and jackets, too.
In the seventies, one of my friends used to call me Our Lady of a
Thousand Coats. Coats were always something I found, too, in
secondhand stores, maybe because they were near the hats.
I have always loved wearing hats. I often feel kind
of lightheaded and off balance, and I like the feel of a hat,
especially a snuggish kind of knit hat, maybe a size too small, on
my head. It helps. Some people think that you have to be flamboyant
to wear a hat, especially a big hat or one with a floppy brim or,
say, an ostrich feather or a veil, but I am a shy person and have
always found hats (and sunglasses) to be an accessory that makes me
feel hidden and, therefore, more comfortable in the world.
Until I applied for the West Virginia Commission on
the Arts literary fellowship and the Bakeless prize this past year,
I always published my stories under a pseudonym. To hide behind
words as I like to disappear behind hats. My pseudonym for the past
few years has been Delta B. Horne, which is the signature on the
bottom of a handmade ceramic head vase I picked up years ago
someplace. Other people know me as Lois Paradise or Clara Orchard
or Connie Sweeney.
It got too confusing, though, using a pseudonym,
and I finally had to, reluctantly, take off that hat. For instance,
about three years ago, I almost won a national writing contest, but
my entry was a memoir written by Delta B. Horne. When the contest
administrator called and asked to speak to Delta B. Horne, I
didn’t know what to say. I panicked and said she was out, and
when he asked when she’d be back, I stammered and said I
didn’t really know. In the end, I explained the use of the
pseudonym and the contest administrator said he was sorry, but he
would have to disqualify my entry because he didn’t think
that the submission was valid because a memoir was by a
Many of the stories that were part of Delta B.
Horne’s memoir entitled Crackpots are now part of the linked
story collection, Crackpots, Delta B. Horne having changed her name
to Ruby Reese, the main character in Crackpots, and Crackpots
having left the world of creative nonfiction behind.
And, yes, when I was a child, my favorite thing was
dress-up. My mother had a camel-back tin trunk full of costumes
she’d had when she was in operettas in college and gowns she
wore in recitals. She was a music major and studied piano, voice
and violin. There was a wonderful huge and very floppy straw hat
with faded fabric roses and a yellow crepe dress with covered
buttons — a costume from Little Mary Sunshine — and
another gown with a red velvet bodice and spaghetti straps and a
white chiffon skirt and a matching red velvet bolero jacket with a
fabric corsage. There was a small swallowtail cut-away tuxedo and a
top hat, a pirate’s outfit, and from somewhere a moth-eaten
grey rabbit costume made of something scratchy, which had a hood
and big floppy ears. And tap shoes that tied. I loved to wear these
I have always made things up. Even in telling
something simple, I can’t tell it the same way twice. Telling
is an opportunity for improvement, and I think it’s only
natural to embellish and color. Think of oral traditions. People
always change things just a little. I guess what I like most about
writing is that it’s where I can be a kid again — I can
just make things up, make believe — and it’s totally
acceptable. Some of my earliest stories are told from a
child’s point of view, and even in other stories that have an
adult narrator, the telling is often through a child’s way of
knowing. By that I mean that children often don’t know
everything that’s going on. Intentionally or unintentionally,
they are often told only part of the whole situation. A child may
overhear something and when he or she asks for more information,
get the “little pitchers have big ears” reply. So what
happens if you’re one of those children, and you fill in the
blanks yourself? You make things up in order to make sense out of
the pieces. You imagine what might have been.
This, basically, is the world of Crackpots.
It’s told in pieces. Eighteen pieces, I think, which are
linked by characters, events, and place. Some are as short as a
paragraph, others 20+ pages. The stories all share the main
character, Ruby Reese, and there is a kind of overarching narrative
that follows Ruby from childhood into middle age, but a lot of
Ruby’s life is left up to the reader’s imagination.
Anderson: You work in a lovely writing studio at
the top of your house. Maybe you could describe it? Are there other
places you like to work? Writing habits you’d care to talk
Pritchard: My study is on the third floor of our
house, which is on a corner lot across the street from Oak Grove
Cemetery. There’s no place I like better than Oak Grove
Cemetery. It’s an old cemetery. Most of the plots are filled,
and only rarely is there a burial there, someone old usually,
someone’s whose name and date of birth are already carved on
a headstone, next to the name and dates of a spouse who died years
before. Many of the old families of Morgantown are buried there;
some of the people were born before the Revolutionary War. I walk
through there with my dog every morning and every night. I love to
just walk and say the names on the stones.
Most of the names of characters in my stories come
from Oak Grove Cemetery. Albertine and Mason, Ruby and Vivian. I
grew up right by a cemetery in Hazleton, Pennsylvania, and Oak
Grove Cemetery in Morgantown has the very same angel my childhood
cemetery in Hazleton had. I recognized her right away. It must be a
kind of Sears angel or something. The angel in Oak Grove is
weathered so that her face is pitted and black as pitch, and
there’s another angel near her who has her arm raised up
toward the heavens and sometimes a mockingbird sits high up on her
fist and gives a recital, running through all his songs like
he’s auditioning for some part in a musical. I love the
cemetery, too, because it is a beautiful green space, and from my
third-story window this time of year I see birds flying there all
day: goldfinches and bluebirds, crows and mockingbirds and robins.
There are deer in the small woods on the perimeter of the cemetery,
and some evenings they come out and just stroll around among the
markers like genealogists. All day the shadows of the stones and
trees yawn and stretch. I love all the seasons in the cemetery,
too, the fall and winter especially. There’s a big catalpa
tree that throws its squiggly beans around in the fall and a
sassafras waving its beautiful orange mittens and a huge old gingko
fluttering and dropping its thousands of yellow-gold fans, and when
everything’s covered with snow, it’s so beautiful.
Sometimes after a snowfall in the winter, in the early morning or
at sunset, it will be all washed pink in places, and from my window
the tombstones look like sweet sugared things, edible confections.
Marshmallow Peeps tombstones?
Before my companion Kevin Oderman bought this
house, according to the real estate agent, many people wanted to
look at it, but when they saw it was next to a cemetery, they
changed their mind. They thought the cemetery was a spooky or
morbid place. But I don’t think that. A cemetery is a sacred
space, just like any burial ground, and the human impulse that goes
into making a cemetery is one of honor and respect. I feel good in
Oak Grove cemetery, and when sometimes Kevin and I talk about
moving, that’s what we wonder: if we could leave the cemetery
behind. His study looks out on the cemetery, too, from the second
floor. I guess this is kind of morbid, but I feel more connected to
the dead than to the living. Or to the spirit, maybe it is. To
quiet, silence, somberness. I feel a great peace when I walk
through Oak Grove cemetery, away from the traffic, away from the
noise and haste, amidst the stones.
Anderson: You attended your first writing class at
the age of 48. How has it affected your writing, or your sense of
yourself as an artist, to begin making stories in middle age?
Pritchard: What really allowed me to be a writer
was getting a computer. Before that, I would try to write a story
or a poem — a letter even — and as soon as I got it
typed, I would start writing on it, revising it, and I would end up
cutting it all up into strips and taping it back together to
retype. Then, as soon as I rolled it off the platen the next time,
I’d start revising again, trying to get it just right. I
never finished anything — not one story or poem —
because it was so frustrating.
Years later, I got a job as a word processor and I
took a training class, and when we got to the cut-and-paste
tutorial, I jumped up out of my chair and cried, “Oh my God!
I can’t believe it!” When I saw cut-and-paste, it was
like I was on Wheel of Fortune or something. I’d never been
so excited about anything in my life! I didn’t get my own
computer until about five years later, and that’s when I
started to try to write stories. Only I didn’t know how,
really. It was when I took Gail Adams’s and Kevin
Oderman’s writing classes at WVU that I got serious. I was
introduced to literary journals and contemporary writers who were
writing wonderful stories and creative nonfiction, and I was in
workshops with talented and serious writers. A whole new world
opened up to me, more exciting even than cut-and-paste.
A book that really influenced my writing is an
out-of-print novel by the late British novelist Barbara Comyns
called Our Spoons Came from Woolworth’s. It wasn’t so
much the story of that book, which may be a bit sappy, but
something about the narrator’s voice just hit me. It was
simple and straightforward and so matter-of-fact. I often think of
the day I first read that book. I can see myself reading it. It was
October and raining outside. Dark and pouring, and I was inside
reading and it was so quiet and I heard this voice of Barbara
Comyns so clearly.
I’m thinking of this because just the other
day I listened to an interview with the British singer Beth Orton
— one of my favorite female singers, yet she doesn’t
have what would be called a great voice. In the NPR interview, Beth
Orton talked about working with a voice coach who told her,
“What we have to do is find your true voice. It doesn’t
really matter if it’s a little flat or a little sharp or a
little weak. You just have to find your true voice and that’s
the voice you must always sing from.” And that’s so
true for writing, too. Once I found my true voice, so to speak,
which was not until maybe five or six years ago, then writing
became much easier for me, and stories seemed to write themselves,
almost. Before that I was writing from a voice that wasn’t my
true voice — an assumed voice, like a falsetto.
Anderson: Could you name a few more of your
Pritchard: I read short stories almost exclusively,
and I believe Alice Munro is the master of that form. I would
travel any distance to attend a reading by Alice Munro. I would
trade every story I have ever written to have written one Alice
Munro story. Or one William Trevor. I also greatly admire Lori
Moore, Jane Urquart (The Whirlpool), Jean Thompson (Who Do You
Love?), Raymond Carver, Anton Chekhov, James Joyce (“The
Dead” is maybe my favorite story of all time), and so many
more, but I always, always come back to Alice Munro. I can just
continually reread her stories and be amazed and moved. When I read
Alice Munro’s stories out loud, sometimes when I get to the
last page, I can hardly speak, I’m so moved. It’s like
I feel I’m in the presence of something great. When I drive
by myself, I like to listen to Alice Munro books on tape.
In creative nonfiction, I am a big fan of Jo Ann
Beard’s book The Boys of My Youth, which Kevin introduced me
to and which was also a great inspiration to me.
At WVU, I have been lucky enough to study with Gail
Adams (The Purchase of Order), Kevin Oderman (How Things Fit
Together) and Mark Brazaitis (The River of Lost Voices), who have
all helped me become a better writer, inspired me through their own
work and encouraged me to enter writing contests and “send
out” my stories.
Anderson: How has the WV Commission on the Arts
fellowship encouraged or supported you?
Pritchard: The fellowship has been a great gift in
that in has bought me TIME to write and to complete my manuscript.
And it’s not just the money, it’s the recognition
— the affirmation and thrill of knowing that my writing was
considered good enough to win. I think the literary fellowships
awarded by the WV Commission on the Arts are a wonderful gift to
writers, and that they have helped and encouraged many talented
writers in the state. I have applied three or four times before and
know how competitive they are — as small as this state is, it
has so many talented writers, musicians and visual and performance
In closing, I just want to say that I think writing
is a gift and one that should be honored. It’s never too late
to start writing, and maybe there’s a little advantage of
being older in that you’ve just experienced a little more.
You’ve seen the world change, seen yourself change (maybe you
wore a poodle skirt at one time or had your hair cut in a mullet).
You’ve held a newborn baby, you’ve been in a room with
Death. Every single day we live our frame of reference through time
gets wider, bigger. Look around you. Even if you’ve never
traveled or done anything “exciting,” well,
you’ve been here a spell on Earth, and it’s all
material. And really, for me, it’s mostly the small things,
the ordinary things in life, that are worth reading — and
writing — about.