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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 “real” person.

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 things.

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 about?

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 favorite writers?

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 artists.

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.