Award-winning authors Jamie Quatro and Melissa Pritchard visit Changing Hands Bookstore at 7 pm on Thursday March 28 with their new books, I Want To Show You More and The Odditorium, respectively.
In I Want To Show You More, Quatro shares stories of lives stretched between spirituality and sexuality in the New American South. A wife comes home with her husband to find her lover’s corpse in their bed; a teenager attends a Bible Camp where he seduces a young cancer survivor with hopes of curing his own rare condition; marathon runners on a Civil War battlefield must carry phallic statues and are punished if they choose to unload their burdens; and a husband asks his wife to show him how she would make love to another man.
In The Odditorium‘s eight short stories, Pritchard transports readers into spine-tingling milieus that range from Robert LeRoy Ripley’s “odditoriums” to the courtyard where Edgar Allan Poe once played as a child. She sets the famed figures of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, including Annie Oakley and Sitting Bull, against the real, genocidal history of the American West; contrasts the luxurious hotel where British writer Somerset Maugham stayed with the modern-day brothels of India; and illuminates the many ways history and architecture exert powerful forces upon human consciousness.
About the Authors:
Jamie Quatro’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in Tin House, McSweeney’s, Oxford American, and elsewhere. A finalist for the Katherine Anne Porter Prize in Short Fiction and the winner of the 2011 American Short Fiction Story Contest, she is the recipient of fellowships from Yaddo and the MacDowell Colony, and was the Georges and Anne Borchardt Scholar at the 2011 Sewanee Writers’ Conference. Quatro holds graduate degrees from the College of William and Mary and Bennington College.
Author of nine books, Melissa Pritchard has received numerous awards for her fiction, including the Flannery O’Connor, Carl Sandburg and Janet Heidinger Kafka Awards and NEA and Howard Foundation Fellowships. Four of her stories have received O. Henry and Pushcart Prizes, and The Odditorium, an Oprah Pick, was one of the San Francisco Chronicle’s Best Books of 2012. Her novel, Palmerino, is forthcoming in 2014. Pritchard teaches creative writing at Arizona State University.
One of the first (of many) rejections of my novel Revenge of the Teacher’s Pet was from an editor who wrote, “I fear that not even Nabokov’s literary skills could make Mr. Portwit into a likable character.” The character he referred to was Dale Portwit, one of the protagonists of my novel. Mr. Portwit is a 50-year-old middle-school teacher who is, to put it kindly, self-serving, obnoxious, and stubborn. One of his quirks, for example, is insisting that everyone refer to him as “Mr. Portwit” instead of “Dale” because he believes “first-name usage is a privilege, not a right.”
When my second novel, The Girl Who Ate Kalamazoo, was released, it received some fine praise in a few local newspapers and literary blogs. But the Publisher’s Weekly review was the one I had been waiting eagerly to read. They called my book “relentlessly inventive.” I was thrilled. However, the PW review went on to assert that my characters were “irredeemably unlikable,” which made it difficult to care about the “bizarre goings-on.”
Suddenly all the positive comments I had received didn’t matter: What stuck in my craw was that phrase – “irredeemably unlikable.” I pondered it: Are my characters really that unlikable? In what way? What makes a character likable, anyway? Is it essential to readers that they “like” the protagonists of the books they read? What does it even mean to “like” a character? The concept felt foreign to me.
In 7th grade, I read To Build a Fire by Jack London. It was life-changing. I loved the story so much that I even read it aloud for a class presentation. To Build a Fire is the story of a man (known only as “the man”) who is trekking in the Arctic on his way to another research outpost. The temperature is so cold, however, that all of the “old-timers” have warned him not to venture out alone. He ignores their advice, believing himself to be a capable enough outdoorsman to make it easily. Spoiler alert: the man makes a few crucial mistakes and ends up freezing to death in the snowy wasteland. His supersized ego, his belief that his intelligence and rational thinking are more powerful than nature, ultimately leads to his downfall.
In retrospect, I realize that To Build a Fire was a template for the type of story I loved. Nothing touchy-feely or overly sentimental, yet packing a powerful emotional punch. Something that pushes us to question our role on Earth, the very essence of human existence. No feeling of closeness or affection for the main character; “the man” is not someone I idolized or felt a kinship with or “liked” in any specific fashion. But certainly I was invested in him. Certainly I enjoyed living briefly in his skin. My 8th grade was spent blazing through Stephen King’s novels (and Peter Straub and Dean Koontz – I liked horror). By high school, I had moved on to more so-called “literary” authors: Kafka, Poe, John Kennedy Toole, Dostoevsky, Camus.
The opening passage of The Stranger encapsulates the personality of the narrator, Muersault: “Mother died today; or maybe yesterday.” This is only the beginning of Mersault’s journey of detachment through the novel. He ends up confronting and killing a man on a public beach, apparently for no reason. When Muersault is brought to trial, he offers no defense whatsoever for his actions. In other words, a loveable guy!
Fitzgerald’s Great Gatsby, Twain’s Connecticut Yankee at King Arthur’s Court, Wright’s Native Son, Nabokov’s Lolita, Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle, Frank Norris’s McTeague – the hall of my literary heroes, when I step back and catalogue it, is a rogue’s gallery of unlikable characters. I doubt that most people, myself included, would want to spend an afternoon with any of these folks if they were made of flesh and blood. So what does this say about me, as a person? Am I a miscreant, a misanthrope, a misfit?
The honest and boring answer is that I’m none of these things. I don’t like to use the word “average,” but I’m a pretty average guy, at least on the surface. But maybe it’s because I’m a fairly average person that I’m drawn to these unsavory characters. Fiction allows me to walk in the shoes of people who are nothing like me; to observe from a safe distance as characters explore the dark, the absurd, the tragic, and the comically misguided aspects of the self. I can safely live inside the mind of an oddball, a criminal, a buffoon, and then retreat into my own drab routine. The truth is that I read and write stories, in part, in order to live things – people, places, philosophies, beliefs, fears, desires – that I don’t get to experience during my daily grind.
So if my characters are “irredeemably unlikable,” if they are grotesque or “weird,” I can be OK with that – as long as they aren’t predictable or flat. Above all, they must be capable of redemption. Their likability may be “irredeemable,” but I hope their souls aren’t. I’m not interested in perfect characters. I’m not looking for drinking buddies or racquetball partners. I’m not interested in someone like me. Lord knows, I get enough of myself seven days a week.
I don’t seek repellant characters. I don’t set out to create monsters. But I do seek difficult, flawed characters that will push me out of my comfort zone. Three-dimensional people, warts and all; people that are good and bad, ugly and beautiful, sinful and heroic; characters in need of grace.
Don’t misunderstand: there’s nothing wrong with likable characters. I love a charming, personable narrator as much as the next person. I love Scout and Bilbo Baggins and all those adorable and valiant rabbits from Watership Down. Readers seek camaraderie and friendship in the novels they love; or a feeling of connection to experiences and personalities that are familiar.
But as I continue to write, I’ll remind myself that there’s no way to predict what readers want. It’s impossible, and it’s a losing game. The amazing thing about storytelling is that it’s a two-way street; the reader brings their own life to every text they pick up, and they actively help create the characters on the page. All I can do is keep seeing the world the way I see it, trying to push myself and write characters that are living, breathing people, and raise the unanswerable questions about why we’re here.
Through her experience with Superstition Review, Carly hopes to gain a firmer sense of an editor’s responsibilities, as well as the skills to fulfill these duties. While she plans to continue writing in many capacities, Carly would also like to help members of the general public to understand the value of written expression and communication, most likely through editorial and teaching positions.
Beyond writing, Carly has interests in music, dance, and running. Although some of her earliest memories pertain to writing stories, a progression in musical development caused her to tie the two passions together at a young age, in the form of lyric-writing and musicianship. Fortunately, Carly has gained a greater understanding of writing’s intricacies since then, and plans to continue improving in the future.
Poetry Editor ChristiAnne Lunsford She fell in love with language since first attending grade school, and entered an early engagement with poetry in the third grade after selecting a dusty volume of Edgar Allen Poe’s works from her parents’ bookshelf in the family living room. To this day she still recalls the beginning lines of “The Raven” with distinctness, “Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered weak and weary,/Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore…” Since this immersion, her relationship with the world of poetry has flourished like wild fire, traversing out of the Gothics and into the sentiments of poets such as Pablo Neruda, T.S. Elliot, e. e. cummings, and William Shakespeare. She attempts to produce similar stylization in her own poems that she finds in her favorite poets: elevated language, experimental typography, and precision in imagery.
Nonfiction Editor Harrison Gearns
Harrison owns way too many electronic devices. An avid gamer to the core, Harrison plays World of Warcraft, where his level 85 Holy Paladin protects weaker characters from harm by healing their wounds. His favorite part of these Massively-Multiplayer games is letting the more rude characters die from a lack of healing – his roommates included. Harrison likes to pretend this philosophy does not invade his private life.
Harrison hopes to get a job in script writing for video games, and ideally would go to graduate school in either poetry or nonfiction. Harrison is also exploring teaching English in Japan. He lives in Mesa, Arizona, with his girlfriend, Sarah, and his cat, Oscar.
Victoria Fouts is a Social Networker at Superstition Review. She is currently a senior at Arizona State University who is majoring in English Literature. Victoria joined the Superstition Review team for the fall semester of 2012 in order to learn more about the world of publishing and literary magazines. She is very excited to expand her knowledge and become more familiar with the in’s and out’s of editing, publishing, and literature in the modern world. Victoria looks forward to becoming more aware of different writers and art styles, becoming more cultured and growing in her networking abilities through her internship at Superstition Review.
Originally, Victoria was born in Pasadena, Texas and raised in Scottsdale, Arizona after being adopted when she was 3 ½ years old with her little sister. Both girls were taken in by a loving family which had already adopted two other children, a son and a baby girl. Victoria showed a talent for reading at an early age and quickly fell in love with books. Her parents encouraged her to read anything she could get her hands on and turned her into a voracious reader. Growing up, her parents had to ground her by taking her books away rather than television privileges. Over the years she has expanded her collection of favorite authors, books, and styles of literature. Ranging from the hilarious works of David Sedaris to the dark gothic horrors of Edgar Allen Poe and (of course) Clive Barker, she enjoys trying every genre of literature at least once. During her time at ASU, Victoria has focused her English studies on writings produced in the Victorian Era, one of her favorite time periods in history.
No matter where she lives, Victoria always brings books from her “favorite collection” to line her bookshelves (a required piece of furniture in any home). Unfortunately, the collection has grown so large that she has had to leave some of these treasured novels at her childhood home due to lack of shelving space in her apartment! Given her wide variety of books, friends often come to her to borrow books and ask for reading suggestions.
After graduation, Victoria and her boyfriend plan to get married and quickly move to Oregon to escape the Arizona heat. Once there she wants to find a job in the publishing market and to become deeply involved in the literary scene of the northwest coast. If she ever has the time or energy, Victoria dreams of writing and publishing a book of her own.
On November 8th the Superstition Review Reading Series will feature Melissa Pritchard at Arizona State University’s Tempe Campus. Her reading will take place at 7 p.m. in the Memorial Union’s Pima Auditorium. Pritchard has published several books such as Phoenix: A Novel, Late Bloomer and Devotedly, Virginia: The Life of Virginia Galvin Piper. She has also published her essays Finding Ashton and A Woman’s Garden, Sown in Blood in O, The Oprah Magazine, and The Collagist 4, respectively. I had the opportunity to discuss the upcoming reading and Pritchard’s latest novel The Odditorium.
Superstition Review: How is The Odditorium different from your other works?
Melissa Pritchard: The Odditorium is a collection of seven stories and a novella. Most are based on unusual or enigmatic historical figures, all look at the ways architecture exerts subtle or unsubtle pressures on human consciousness. So they are different in those ways from most of my previous stories. More than half of them do not approach narrative in a traditional or conventional way. I experiment in one story, “Watanya Cicilia,” with a pastiche of historical documents, songs, research and fiction, contrasting the Wild West Show and the real, genocidal story of the West. “The Hauser Variations,” based on the life of Kaspar Hauser, a German boy kept in an underground dungeon throughout his childhood and then mysteriously released into a second tragic fate, is based, in terms of narrative strategy, on Bach’s Goldberg Variations. In another story, “Patricide,” two sisters meet in a haunted hotel in Richmond, Virginia, its courtyard said to be a place where Edgar Allen Poe once played as a child. In this hotel, one of the sisters goes mad. So I was less interested in the traditional structure of plot and expected emotional release than in ethics, history, architecture and the effects of these upon both historically based and purely imagined characters.
SR: What has in been like working with Bellevue Literary Press?
MP: We are in the earliest phases; I accepted their offer to publish The Odditorium in January, 2012, and had a lengthy phone conversation with the publisher, Erika Goldman. I was so impressed with her aesthetic understanding of the collection, her excitement over the departures I had taken in terms of subject and form, I became convinced this was the proper home for these pieces. The BLP website is terrific, too, as is their history with Bellevue Hospital and New York University’s Medical Center. They publish elegant books at the nexus of art, science and medicine, and only publish two fiction titles a year. One of this year’s fiction titles, Tinkers, by Paul Harding, won the 2010 Pulitzer Prize, resulting in a flurry of attention for the press, with articles and interviews in The New York Times, NPR, The Wall Street Journal, and other media venues. It’s a tiny press operating out of Bellevue Hospital, and they do terrific work. I come from a family of surgeons, doctors and nurses, and have always been fascinated by science, medicine and the history of medicine, so this could not be a better place for this book, as a number of the stories deal with medical histories, issues and questions.
SR: How has your time at ASU influenced your writing?
MP: Because my time to write is limited, I have to be disciplined. Sometimes I find it quite difficult, having time and energy to both write and teach. A fragile balance at best. On the other hand, teaching keeps me awake to current trends in literature, to remaining relevant to students year after year, and I am blessed to work with some incredibly gifted students, both graduates and undergraduates. I always say my students teach me in equal proportion to what I teach them. At least I feel that. Also, ASU has always been tremendously supportive of my outside work–traveling for research, traveling to conferences, traveling for reportage or for humanitarian work, which I also do. I am extremely grateful for the university’s support.
SR: What are you most looking forward to as the Superstition Review reading draws near?
MP: I have a background in theater, in acting, so I always love reading my work aloud in a public setting…for me, it is as close to performance as I come these days. I love an audience and I love hearing the piece I’ve chosen come alive in the room, seeing the reactions of the listeners, answering questions afterwards. It is truly a wonderful exchange. This past summer at The Glen, a writing workshop in Santa Fe, New Mexico, part of Seattle Pacific University’s MFA Program, I read my collection’s title story, “The Odditorium,” to a full house. It is a comic piece about Robert Ripley of Believe It or Not fame, and other audiences have responded with laughter and lively commentary afterwards. This audience was dead silent. The room was dark, I couldn’t see anyone. I kept reading, on and on, by the little glow from the podium light. Afterwards, no one even asked questions! I was horrified, sure I had failed, sure the story had been a failure…I wanted to crawl under a carpet had there been one. What I found out later, was that the story had gone over so well, people couldn’t react, they went silent–stunned. I won’t repeat the praises I later heard, but then I became overwhelmed the other direction–was my story really that good? So one never knows, and one always doubts. Also, I’m always a little nervous before a reading, hoping it goes well, that I don’t disappoint people who made the time and effort to come to my reading when there are dozens of other things for them to do….I am also always scared no one will show up, and thrilled to pieces when they do. Finally, I’m looking forward to meeting all the staff and interns at Superstition Review. They’ve even managed to arrange to have copies of A Public Space #11 mailed from New York to be available for sale on the night of the reading. (I’ll be reading a story, “Ecorche, The Flayed Man,” from that issue.)
SR: What are you currently working on creatively?
MP: I’m in between three pieces right now…a non-fiction piece about my miniature dachshund, Simon, a speech about Sr. Airman Ashton Goodman and the Afghan Women’s Writing Project that I will be giving at the Air Force Institute of Technology in December, and a novella set in 19th century Florence, Italy.
SR: What advice would you give to an aspiring author?
MP: Read voraciously. Read the best work you can find. Read what interests you. Be observant. Practice empathy and compassion. Know that what you write ultimately reflects who you are. Write every day, even if only for an hour and be humble in your practice while aspiring to greatness. Be gentle with yourself, and always reward yourself in some small way after a writing session. Leave the writing at a place where you are eager to return the next day.