Tuesday, July 29, 2014
STARS GO BLUE
Today's guest post is by Laura Pritchett. Wyoming's borders are straight but porous, so at this blog we define “Wyoming writers” very loosely. Laura lives in Colorado but she qualifies because she is of the West, and definitely for the West.
Laura is author of the novels Stars Go Blue, Sky Bridge and Hell's Bottom, Colorado, as well as Great Colorado Bear Stories (nonfiction). Over one hundred of her essays and short stories have been published in numerous magazines. She's also a writing coach and leads a hellova workshop.
Without further ado, here's Laura:
We writers know that every book presents a challenge – or probably should. The particular challenge of my new novel Stars Go Blue—and what I think makes it unique—was this decision to tell from the point of view of someone who can’t find language.
The novel is told from alternating points of view: a man (Ben) with this Alzheimer’s, and his semi/sort-of wife (Renny), his primary caregiver. How to write about Ben’s confusion without confusing the reader? How to write about Renny’s exhaustive caregiving without making readers exhausted and annoyed as well? These were the writerly considerations I struggled with.
In particular, it was Ben’s voice that was tricky. There’s only one other book (that I know of) written from the point of view of the person with Alzheimer’s -- Still Alice (secretly, I’d been hoping mine would be the first, and then I came across this one). I think it’s a lovely book, but not close to what I wanted to write. Figuring out how Ben could communicate his story—well, that was the real trick for me. Ben’s voice, I decided, would be like music, a soft poetry and imbued with place. He often invents words for ideas and objects, and in this way, he became a wise poet.
Renny’s voice is the opposite: solid and direct and more concerned with the facts and figures of life. They are both tired and diminished somewhat, but have important things to say. At one point, I met with author Kent Haruf, who has been a mentor of mine. The gist of our discussion was the need to keep the book short and powerful, because, yes, you can only have a character like Ben narrate for so long. And I remember him saying something like, “and never describe it as a quiet novel. It’s not quiet. It’s only small in terms of page count. But it’s a huge book. Make sure you make it huge.” (I’m not sure I did that, but I tried).
Many writers unknowingly guided me, by offering up examples of what I wanted to write—for example, there are some great lyrical short (but powerful) novels I deeply admire: When the Emperor Was Divine by Julie Otsuka, Atticus by Ron Hanson, The Tie that Binds by Kent Haruf. These are all short novels that burst with energy. That is what I wanted.
Why did I feel the need to write this book? For the same reason I always write: To better perceive and possess my life. In other words: to understand my life better – and then live it more fully. In this case, it came from a desire to love my father, who, about ten years ago, was diagnosed with dementia. These last ten years have been marked by my walks with him across the family ranch. As a writer, I wanted to better understand him, the disease, the man he was becoming via words. The irony struck me on many occasions: As he increasingly lost words, I increasingly gained them. I started to write more about him. For many years, this writing was (unsurprisingly) from my point of view, my take on the whole thing. But then I started to write from his point of view. I wanted to understand his life as well as my own.
My writing process? Mornings are usually fiction; afternoons are non-fiction. I write both regularly – and I need both genres, depending on my story or state of mind. I am a bit of a workaholic; I write whenever I can, wherever I can. This is probably out of necessity more than natural impulse – by the time one balances teenagers, life, travel, teaching, and so on, you just cram writing in without any fuss.
There are two things that are always circling around in my mind when it comes to writing: metaphor and place. Metaphors are the stuff of real communication, in the end. In this case, for example, I used water as metaphor. I listened to my father talk about water – always a topic of interest to ranchers in the West – how it’s so varied, versatile, ubiquitous, necessary, and ordinary. What he said often resonated with me as a metaphor to what was happening to his memories and his mind.
Related, place is enormously important in all my writing, both fiction and nonfiction. I’m sure that’s because place is important to me as a human being. I find my solace, my center, and my ideas while outside, engaging in the natural world. I hike or walk every day (whether in Colorado or New Zealand). Since my center is so tied up to place, it’s difficult (or probably impossible) for me to write about characters who are oblivious to place. As a writer, I think I've found ways in which place can contribute to plot and characterization – which is essential. You can’t just go on and on about place. Readers want to hear a story, and they want to see people moving through that story. But place can help you do that.
"Writing is an exercise in longing," writes Isabelle Allende. Indeed. In the end, I write because I long to express my love (or sorrow, or joy, or whatever the case may be) about people and place and issues. I believe that stories help us perceive and possess our lives. I can better understand my love for my home place and my father and mother, for instance, only after I have written about them. Writing this novel first helped me love deeper. That’s what I’m always longing for.
Lynn chimes in...
I just finished reading Stars Go Blue. As I read, I kept a notepad next to me, with the goal of jotting down lots of important writing stuff to share with you all, including insights on how author Laura Pritchett performs her fictional magic.
First entry: Intimate 3rd person, present tense; lots of water images.
That was also the last entry because about page five I lost my footing and slid down the chute of story. I also did not give another thought to Laura Pritchett (who’s that?) because I was with Ben, Renny, Anton, Jess, Satchmo and the pregnant waitress from the truck stop.
So instead, how ‘bout I tell you how the book affected me as a reader?
• The way I entered the mind of Ben, then Renny and ping-ponged back and forth, getting so lost in each character that the end of the chapter, and subsequent change in point of view, always came as a surprise.
• How parts of the story read like poetry and sent me to that place, like a good poem will, where I’m not sure I could articulate my understanding, but I completely "get" it.
• How it’s been a long time since I had that feeling of simultaneous dread and anticipation at the approach of the last pages.
• And that surprise at the end: Her? She’s the one to take over the story? Followed instantly with: But of course, who else?
• And how I never asked—like I sometimes do with stories set in the West—if the author had actually been out here. This book portrays the West I’m familiar with and I swear these people are my neighbors.
I’ll go back to the book and re-read it, looking for clues as to how Laura managed all of this, because I’m a good writing student.
But later. Right now I’m still thinking about the story and missing the characters.