Archive | October, 2017

An Interview with Erin Pringle

12 Oct

Erin Pringle is the author of two story collections, most recently The Whole World at Once.

Erin is the author of two short story collections, The Whole World at Once, and The Floating Order. She has written three chapbooks: “How The Sun Burns Among Hills of Rock and Pebble”; “The Lightning Tree”; and “The Wandering House”. Her work has been four-times nominated for a Pushcart Prize, selected as a Best American Notable Non-Required Reading, shortlisted for the Charles Pick Fellowship, and a finalist for contests such as the Austin Chronicle Short Story Contest and the Kore Press Short Fiction Award. She’s a recipient of a Washington State Artist Trust fellowship. Originally from a small town in Illinois, she now lives in Washington State with her partner, Heather, and son, Henry.

To read an excerpt from The Whole World at Once and an exercise on connecting character and setting, click here.

In this interview, Pringle discusses finding narrative where none seems to exist, not naming characters, and writing about the Midwest.

Michael Noll

Early on in “How the Sun Burns Among Hills of Rock and Pebble,” there’s a description of small-town teenagers returning home from a carnival: They “drag themselves back to a garage and sit in lawn chairs and pick seeds from dry leaves before filling the pipe and passing it on. They want to talk about the fair but say nothing because it’s the same goddamned thing as last year, which they do say.” Their predicament–nothing to do but the same thing they’ve always done–is something that the characters in all of the stories in the collection encounter. It even describes the plots of their stories to some extent. While some dramatic things happen, the actual happening tends to be in the past or in the near future. How do you approach a story where the dramatic fireworks happen off the page? In a scene or generally, what is the thing that’s drawing you through the story–and what are you using to draw the reader through it?

Erin Pringle

Well, I always viewed my existence as the predicament of arriving into the world after everything wonderful had happened. I was a late-in-life surprise child for my parents, so all of my siblings were a couple of decades older than me, which meant all of their stories were, too. Life had also stopped in some ways because my father had been diagnosed with manic depression and could no longer work, so the economics of my family didn’t lend itself to the vacations they once had, and that I only heard about or saw in albums. All the books I read had much more exciting happenings than what I was experiencing, and turning into an adult promised some adventure, maybe, but more autonomy than anything, since all of the adults I knew lived in the same small town, and most of them had grown up there. I grew up around story-tellers, but I myself had no stories to tell. Later, when I learned that a story happens on a day unlike any other day, I was additionally perplexed because I hadn’t lived a life in which that had ever happened. Not really. I mean, when my father was diagnosed with cancer, it didn’t happen on the day of the diagnosis, the cancer had been growing for how long? Months, years. And the walk my mother took me on to tell me didn’t throw my world out of whack, it was just a revelation of fact.

His death, my best friend’s death, my sister’s death, all the deaths in the town—in the newspaper and the graveyard my school bus daily passed, and of all of my grandparents—these deaths were stories, maybe, but the problem with a story of dying is that then there’s an expectation of somehow curing the dying, stopping the dying. And, sometimes, sure that does happen in real life. But not so much in my real life. The problem with a story that begins with a death is the expectation of figuring out how it happened, who did it, why, the story of the lives connected to the life. It automatically creates a story form that is resistant to how I experience life. The problem with mystery, for me, is that then the story becomes plot-driven, a problem-solution equation, and that then requires complications of happenings, instead of the complications of beauty and language and on-living—the going-on with living that happens despite the death (the day-unlike-any-other).

For a long time, I was drawn to words and not happenings because, like I said, I had no happenings to report. So, I was pretty much headed to the non-narrative, to poetry, to forms that privileged examining over happening. Or the examining of a happening instead of the unraveling of one. Also, I loved visual art, and assumed I’d do something with painting. Painter, then poet. So, again, the examining, the creation of one scene and the light of one. My struggle, then, you can imagine, is and has been creating narrative. In short, I’ve figured out how to create motion. So, my stories are an arrangement of paintings, or panels of a very large painting. My medium is words instead of watercolor, but my process is exactly like painting watercolor. I create, first, the basic painting and wash over it again and again, adding layers and subtracting. Shifting the light. Words are like watercolors but with the agility of oil paint in their ability to be maneuvered over long periods of time before they dry. So, I create motion through the movement of visual panes, or panels, that shift in time in a way that make time (the accumulation of memory), the way we learn about the people within the boundaries of the first and last page.

Michael Noll

Most of the characters in these stories are unnamed (an observation I felt pretty proud about until I saw it mentioned in the discussion questions at the back of the book!). Based on that question, it’s clear there’s some thematic stuff going on, but I’m curious about the process of writing the story. Were these characters named in your head?  I ask in part because I’m terrible at remembering names in real life, and I think a lot of writers struggle with finding names that fit the characters they’ve created. Do names seem superfluous as you write? Of course, one character does get a name, and it’s the dead sister in the first story, which is probably no accident.

Erin Pringle

The stories in Erin Pringle’s new collection, The Whole World At Once, reveal “how many strange shapes grief can take and how universal a human experience it is,” according to a Kirkus review.

Well, I had to write the questions at the end of the book, and I felt like if you got to the questions, you’d already realized the non-naming. So, maybe it makes you feel better that I knew they weren’t named and I wrote the questions, too? But on naming. No, I don’t name the characters in my head. My resistance to naming comes from the way naming hurts people in small towns. Names become not only individual histories but family histories, and a child with a name connected to a family history, especially a family history that is not revered by the town, is harnessed with an unbearable and invisible weight that he or she deals with daily. For example, let’s say The Hendersons have always been poor, always struggled, have, frankly, been caught in the cycle and culture of poverty for over a century. Now, little Denny Henderson is born, and eventually goes to school. All of his teachers know about The Hendersons. They went to school with a Henderson or two. So, when Denny Henderson has a hard time with math, it’s not just because of the way he’s being taught math, or his development at the time of his learning, it’s that he’s A Henderson and Hendersons have always been slow (read: poor, read: had to drop out of school to try to support each other). This snowballs over his years of school until he either drops out because school’s not for him, but then again, school’s never been good to the Hendersons, right? Or, he makes it to high-school, let’s say, but the high-school counselor in the small town is more likely to show Denny or Tricia Henderson pamphlets to the military or advise R.N. work-study, than show Denny or Tricia Henderson the steps to go to college. College isn’t necessarily the end-all, be-all, but it helps, and would certainly help Denny and Tricia see themselves in the larger context of their history and the larger history and the world. College is the way out of the small town, though not necessarily poverty. A better poverty, maybe? I don’t know.

I hated the way people’s names hurt them. The people with rich names were always the popular ones and the middle-class ones. I don’t think it was a coincidence. I’ve seen and know how a name, or your association with a name, can make you be opposed to someone with the same name, and I really don’t have the ability to cure my readers of the associations they have with names. Easier to remove the names. Easier for me to avoid trapping my characters into histories (and the genre of a story loves to blame a character’s life on the character’s history). Easier to focus on their thoughts, their lives, their memories—and to honor these instead of blame them or poke fun at them. In death, of course, all that’s left is the name. The name is what points back to the life. And, technically, it’s easier to write two female characters if one has a name because the “her” pronouns get tricky and an unnecessary impediment.

Michael Noll

One of the things you and I heard in grad school was that writers find a theme or subject or kind of story they’re drawn to and write versions of it over and over. I’m not sure I completely buy that, but in your collection, there is certainly a lot of death and grief. In most of the stories, there’s no real closure for the characters and often for the readers as well. Were you aware, as you wrote them, that these stories were circling death and loss in this way? Or was each story a surprise to you as it showed up on the page?

Erin Pringle

Yes. The stories were written during the mourning of my best friend who died of pulmonary hypertension when she was 28 and I was 26. Then, my sister completed suicide when I was 29 and she was 45. I’d already finished my first book, which was written during the mourning of my father’s death (I was 17, he was 63). I just wasn’t able to leave the state of mourning, not that you ever do, but to leave one of the rooms within that labyrinth. All these stories are written in the world of death, the mourning of it, the attempt to stop it, the happening of it, and the grief following it. Each death is different in how it’s mourned, which I didn’t know, but now I do, and so as I would try to show grief, how it works. But one story wasn’t enough to sing grief or end mine. Grief is such a fissured prism that the light is hard to catch all at once. So, no, it wasn’t a surprise. It was just a moving prison. I would hope the next story would be about something else. But no. It couldn’t be. And that’s fine. Not that the stories are only about death and mourning. They’re about beauty and identity and hope and worry and poverty and memory and time. But, all within the landscape of loss. Loss is the vanishing point.

Michael Noll

All of these stories are set in the Midwest, in small towns. When I think of some of the well-known Midwestern writers that I love, like Dan Chaon, and newer writers like the memoirist Angela Palm, even though their work is set in different parts of the Midwest and pretty different in style and genre, there’s a clear sense of loss, isolation, and abandonment in all of their works. Given that so much of this book is about death and loss, do you think there’s something particularly Midwestern about the subject? I’m tempted to say that anyone who grows up in a small town and leaves has to figure out and reinvent who they are, which can create a sense of loss, but I wonder if that idea would hold up to scrutiny. Is it just coincidence that Chaon and Palm write about trying to figure out what happened to the dead and missing, as you do?

Erin Pringle

In a small town, the places of community are church and the diner. The aisles of the grocery store, to some extent. The football bleachers, to some extent. So, that’s where we gather, and where we gather the main things that are always discussed are the weather and who is sick, dying, or grieving. The newspaper takes care of the honoring and bragging, so the good stories are mainly told by the reporters. Whose child made honor roll, who’s having a 50th anniversary, who has been born, who gave a dazzling performance in the Spring musical. The stories I most often heard, or was very aware of, were the death stories. My grandmother lived in a large city but would send my mom clippings of obituaries of her friends or my mother’s friends. I watched my grandmother lose her friends, and now I’m watching my mother lose hers. My mother has taken on the same tradition of passing deaths along to me via postal mail.

When a girl I grew up with lost her pre-teen son quite suddenly in a four-wheeler accident, I learned immediately. And though I haven’t spoken to her in nearly twenty years, I think of her grief often, of her often, of how she is. After my sister died, I was back home in the grocery, and I saw that same girl. She hadn’t had her grief yet, and we didn’t speak, but we saw each other and I knew she knew of my sister’s death. I think collective grief is how we take care of each other in the small town. Rural death is collective grief, I guess. Religion is used to mediate it, maybe. To give everyone a set of traditions to follow. I’m more generous about it now that I’m an atheist. Also, in a rural town, the cemeteries are not beyond the physical boundary of everyday living. Whenever I’ve lived in large towns or cities, I have a hard time finding the graveyards. They aren’t on the way to the grocery, or to school. And when something is not tangible, it’s also not on one’s mind in the same way. I’d imagine death becomes more dramatic (unreal), the more isolated and away-from people it becomes. Which worries me, really. Because death is a necessary part of our identities and our relationships to each other. I don’t believe I’ll see my loved ones and neighbors in the afterlife so I want to make sure I act in ways that honor and support their lives while they’re alive. Maybe I’m wrong, here, but I feel like my awareness and belief in death as a fact is what helps me better care for the living. And maybe it’s not a coincidence that a small town is more aware of death and dying and, simultaneously, has more of a use for religion. So that’s what we small towners gravitate to, and small town writers are, at the seed of self, small-town people. These are the stories that rural people tell each other, and I’m writing for other rural people. Probably the stories seem strange(r) to the urban-made. That’s my guess, anyway.

October 2017

Michael Noll Michael Noll is the Editor of Read to Write Stories.

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How to Intimately Connect Character and Setting

10 Oct

The stories in Erin Pringle’s new collection, The Whole World At Once, reveal “how many strange shapes grief can take and how universal a human experience it is,” according to a Kirkus review.

Sometimes you’re reading along and hit a line that makes you stop. You can see in your mind the thing the words are describing, not just an image or a person but the whole thing: the world, the characters in it, the way they’re all connected. Setting isn’t simply a green screen behind the characters. It shapes every moment of their lives, big and small. Anyone who’s read the high-school literary classic “To Build a Fire” by Jack London is familiar with the big ways that setting shapes character, but the smaller ways are just as important.

A great example of how setting and character become a single entity can be found in Erin Pringle’s story, “How the Sun Burns Among Hills of Rock and Pebble.” It was originally published in The Minnesota Review and then as a stand-alone chapbook by The Head & The Hand Press. It’s now included in Pringle’s new collection, The Whole World At Once. You can read the beginning of the story here.

How the Story Works

The story is set in a small Midwestern town, the sort of place where the annual Agricultural Fair is an anticipated calendar event. Already, the reader is developing expectations for how setting will affect character. It’s a relationship that’s a staple of probably hundreds of movies: the young person who can’t wait to get in a car and go screaming past the city limit sign. But, just as Erika T. Wurth did in her story Mark Wishewas, Pringle moves beyond this familiar setup in a small but effective way. Here’s an early paragraph describing some girls in the town:

The girls’ new hips pull at the seams of their cutoffs. They walk in the most middle of summer, which, after the fair packs up and disappears down the interstate, will tip toward autumn and school doors and Friday night football fields. The girls carry bottles of water and soda cans like boredom. They roll the bits of string from their cutoff shorts against their thighs, balls of lint under their fingernails. Now and then one of their prepaid cell phones rings, but if it’s not that boy, they don’t answer since their mothers won’t buy another refill card from the dollar store until next month.

It’s that last sentence that made me stop, hit with a flash of recognition. It wasn’t that I recognized the moment from my own past. I did grow up in a small, Midwestern town, but it was before people cell phones. Instead, I recognized the moment because it made a kind of crystal clear sense to me: the idea that your cell phone minutes, doled out by your mother, were so precious that you’d answer only if the right boy called you. In a single sentence, Pringle has managed to show us the place, its economics, its family ties, what different members of those families value (mothers/money and daughters/talking with the right boy), and the scale of those values (the small amount of money required to purchase a refill card and literally minutes of phone time). I was hooked.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s create a small moment that reveals how setting and character are connected, using “How the Sun Burns Among Hills of Rock and Pebble” by Erin Pringle as a model:

  1.  Set up the general relationship between character and setting. Pringle uses a pretty simple device: an event (Agricultural Fair) that suggests a usual behavior that is common in the place but wouldn’t be elsewhere. If her story was set in New York City or Atlanta or Los Angeles or Austin or even any of a hundred medium-sized cities in America, nobody would care about an Agricultural Fair. What is an event or situation that quickly characterizes the general population of your setting?
  2. Show the characters in the midst of a usual behavior that suggests their attitude toward the setting. After the fair leaves, there’s nothing to do. The girls carry their water bottles and soda cans, bored and listless. If the fair represents a high point for the population of this place, the days afterward represent the return to regular life. What does regular, everyday life look for your characters? How can you dramatize it with an action (like walking with bottles and rolling lint)?
  3. Introduce one element of that usual behavior. Again, Pringle uses a simple device: something the girls are carrying as they walk and roll lint. A cell phone rings. As you’ll see in the next step, this is a key moment in their day. Look around your scene. What objects or implied actions are present? Introduce them until something strikes you as interesting.
  4. Let the characters react to it with a sudden shift in attitude. Earlier, the girls were bored, but when the phone rings, they’re paying close attention to the caller’s number. (Note that Pringle doesn’t actually show the girls looking at their phones or even what they see. She skips to their conclusions based on what they see. It’s a great example of how to describe a scene without showing every literal part of it, which is crucial to pacing.) In Pringle’s story, as far as the narrative is concerned, it doesn’t really matter who’s calling. What’s important is that the girls care who’s calling, and it breaks them out of their bored walking. Their level of interest and engagement has dramatically changed. So, what is an element that is part of your scene that will cause the characters to suddenly change their level of interest and engagement. That’s the element you want to describe.

The goal is to reveal the way that character and setting are connected and bring a story to life.

Good luck.

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