In Laura's recently-released novel, The Blue Hour, readers are introduced to the tight-knit community of Blue Moon Mountain, nestled high in the Colorado Mountains. These neighbors form an interconnected community of those living off the land, drawn by the beauty and isolation all around them. So when, at the onset of winter, the beloved town veterinarian commits a violent act, the repercussions of that tragedy are felt all across the mountainside, upending their lives and causing their paths to twist and collide in unexpected ways.
I recently caught up with Laura, who had just returned from a book tour, and asked her a few writing and writing-life-related questions.
You’ll be intrigued by her responses. I promise.
In Chapter One of The Blue Hour, we are introduced to Sy.
Well, we actually become Sy, in a way.
You bring your wife into focus. She is standing in front of you, only inches away, tucking her short blond hair behind her ear. In the past, she has been angry with you, angry with your selfishness, angry at your supposed mental illness, angry with your physical body and its pains, and she has also showed signs of pity and compassion and fear.Obviously, you write this chapter from the second person point of view, a fairly unusual—and often cautioned against—point of view.
How did you decide to do that? Did writing it present any challenges?
I normally stay away from second person myself. If it’s not done well, it falls flat—it can feel forced and gimmicky and author-ly. So I hear you. In this story, though, I found a rare instance when I thought it was essential: I was telling the story from the point of view of a man who is mentally ill, and in order for the reader to sympathize with what he’s about to do—which is horrible and painful—we need to understand where he’s coming from and what’s going on in his head and heart.
To my mind, I needed to do this in the most direct way possible and in a unique way that signified his view of the world. In other words, I wanted form to inform content. I imagined him speaking to himself, the reader, the universe—trying to explain what he was feeling, and why. Second person was the way he came to me, and it was the best choice for this particular story, in my opinion.
The Inner Realm
In all of your fiction that I’ve read, the reader gets to spend a fair amount of time in the heads of your characters—thinking, deciding, ruminating, wondering.
As in Chapter Four of The Blue Hour, when we are in Ruben’s head:
… he needed to get his own brain and heart straight.
Jess was too young. Needed more life experience. Should not, under any circumstance, get married. To him or to anyone.
But he loved her. She was perfect. There were so many things he respected: how she had a complete life of her own, that he did not at once become its center. Her preference for action over speech, but when she did talk, it was imbued with culture and oddness. How she pursued her best self. Engaged with the world with confidence and trust. He appreciated her desire in bed. But mostly her desire for life. He felt physically better when Jess was around, both less anxious and in less pain.
This is an aspect of your writing that I am very drawn to, and enjoy as a reader, but I have a couple of questions.
Fiction writer Kent Nelson cautions about writing thoughts. He talked about the issue during a Wyoming Writers, Inc. conference (and I paraphrase from my notes):
Thoughts—a hard issue. Thoughts are not action or events. Too often thoughts are explanatory, used to dispense information. They can draw the reader out of the story by making the reader aware of the writer working behind the curtain. It doesn’t work so well if the character is talking to himself for the reader’s benefit.
How do you find the right balance of action and introspection for your story?
Well, I love Kent Nelson and his work, and I totally understand, respect, and agree with what he’s saying here. Too often, writers (especially beginning writers—which is fine, because they’re just learning!) use thoughts as a way to “info dump.”
But I will argue, and I think Kent would agree, that some novels are expansive horizontally (across time and space) and some novels are expansive vertically (inward, towards human experience). The beauty of a novel (as opposed to a short story) is that you have this distance.
In this novel, I wanted to go vertical. There’s not that much expanse covered in time or space, after all (it’s all on one mountain, during one winter), but I could go deep into the inner recesses of these folks. Indeed, one of my great goals as a writer is to explore psychological and emotional truths. I am far less interested in plot --- and far more interested in interior landscape.
I work really hard not only tell a good story, but to explore and illuminate emotional and psychological truths. I prefer those kind of books, I prefer those kind of discussions. To my mind, that is the writer’s hard task—and privilege—to dig deep into the interior recesses of my characters, so as to render the human experience in all its wacky contradictory wonderfulness. To my mind, this includes thoughts.
The trick is how to do it well. It almost never works to put something in italics and use third person. For example: Writing thoughts is hard, he thought. That’s horrible. The trick is to simply be in the mind of your narrator.
Is there something about the way you write introspection that helps it work?
1. Don’t use italics!
2. Don’t filter through your narrator. Run right at the thought/emotion.
3. Make sure that interior life/thoughts are interesting and unusual. Otherwise, don’t bother.
In a workshop I attended last summer, author Kim Barnes talked about how writers become part of the conversation of their times (I’m paraphrasing).
Then she asked us a question:
As a writer, what kind of conversation do you want to be part of?
How would you answer her question?
Literary writing. I’ve always loved those books, always wanted to be part of the world (even if, say, I could make more money writing commercial/genre lit). I’m not a snob --- I’m a fan of all writers and writing, but I love books that focus on the words, on the poetry, on the language, on challenging cultural assumptions.
Fill in the blank
Would you fill in the blanks below for us?
One thing writers should do is…
Read. And buy books, so that you are part of a community, and so that you’re fostering that community that you say you care about. Buy books not only books in the genre you write in, but subscribe to (and thereby support) at least one literary journal, which will keep you open to new writers and genres.
One thing writers shouldn’t do is…
Think about publishing and finished product before they’ve focused on the process, the art of it.
What fuels my creativity is…
Walking in nature.
What saps my creativity is…
Laundry. Ha! Just kidding. A truer answer is that current world events—which cause me despair—are sapping my creativity. It’s hard to find the spunk and spark when you’re losing so much that you care about.
I cringe when I read a piece of writing that…
Has dialogue tags such as “he sighed” or “he grumped,” or “she whined.” People don’t normally grump or sigh words. They say words. We should know from context that he is grumpy, that she is whiney. I dislike dialogue tags in general, but especially ridiculous ones.
I cheer when I read a piece of writing that…
Has voice. I’ve been asked to judge several contests lately, and that’s a joy, but I’m surprised at how many authors don’t sink into a voice. They sound more like an academic paper.
If I couldn’t be a writer I would be a…
Oh, dear. Now it’s too late! I guess I’d be a lawyer, fighting for the good. Lawyers use language a lot, and at times, they have power and influence. I am an idealist, a believer in the power of words to affect change.
She’s published over 200 essays and short stories in magazines (including The New York Times, The Sun, O Magazine, Salon, High Country News, Orion, and others), mostly about environmental issues in the American West.
Laura holds a PhD from Purdue University and teaches around the country. She is also known for her environmental stewardship, particularly in regard to land preservation and river health. She has two books forthcoming—a novel, The Blue Hour (Counterpoint, 2017) and Making Friends with Death, Kind Of (Viva Editions, 2017).
More at www.laurapritchett.com.