Book: “A Solemn Pleasure”

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“A Solemn Pleasure: to Imagine, Witness and Write,” is a series of essays extolling the power of language. Author Melissa Pritchard will share her passion for writing and storytelling as she talks about her new book.

TED SIMONS: Author Melissa Pritchard is sharing her passion for writing in a new book of essays that celebrates the power of language. The book is titled, "A Solemn Pleasure, To Imagine, Witness and Write," and covers everything from storytelling to reports from Afghanistan. We welcome Melissa Pritchard to "Arizona Horizon." Thank you so much for being here.


TED SIMONS: And congratulations on the book. Who did you write the book for?

MELISSA PRITCHARD: Well, actually, these essays, 15 of them in the book, I collected them, I wrote them over a number of years. So my publisher had this idea that she wanted to launch an art of the essay series with her fiction writers. And she asked me about my essays and I gathered them all together.

TED SIMONS: I know that you're better known I think as a fiction writer as opposed to nonfiction. Talk about the difference between the two.

MELISSA PRITCHARD: Well, I was thinking about that, I was thinking in some ways both require a degree of anonymity in the process. When you're a journalist, you have to face yourself. There's a self-erasure of the personality. Both require imagination, listening, and kind of an emotional courage, so they share that.

TED SIMONS: The book you write about the concept of sacred anonymity to all artists.

MELISSA PRITCHARD: That is somewhat what I talk about. It's a place where I go when I'm writing either fiction or nonfiction, when I've pulled all the work together and I start to do the writing. The research or whatever. I have to let go of my ordinary personality and it requires a great deal of listening, deep listening for the story to tell itself.

TED SIMONS: You also mentioned the writer William Trevor, the great short story writer. Quote, artists belong outside, on the edge, looking in.

MELISSA PRITCHARD: Right. We're the peripherals. [ Laughs ] Well, that's how I feel. If I'm the life of the party, I'm not going to be observing anything. But writers tend to haunt the fringes because that's the best place to observe.

TED SIMONS: What about you also write that suffering and compassion both very important to artists, talk to us about that.

MELISSA PRITCHARD: I think you have to have an ability to go outside yourself, empathy is so important. Literature evokes empathy and also to be a writer you have to enter into the being of another whether it's an imagined other or a real, someone you really interview somewhere in the world.

TED SIMONS: When you write fiction, let's stick with fiction for just a second here because I'm more familiar with your work there. The essays are fantastic, it's great reading. You've created someone pretty much from whole cloth or close to it, how do you get empathy for that person that you are still kind of learning about as you write?

MELISSA PRITCHARD: It's a very strange thing that happens. And every time it happens, I go oh, my god it's happening again. It's going from you're outside the character, you created the character that you're writing about, maybe you have a lot of notes, maybe they're based on someone real, maybe completely imagined but at some point in the writing, this magical thing happens where that character is given life. You feel they're very real. It's hard to talk about but then you know you're on the right track with writing their story.

TED SIMONS: And I always ask writers this and I always get the same answer. Do the characters ever surprise you?

MELISSA PRITCHARD: Absolutely all the time.

TED SIMONS: They always say that.

MELISSA PRITCHARD: Now, you're going to go here? And then you're out like a sleuth following them around.

TED SIMONS: The impact, the book itself obviously essays and your fiction covers a wide angle we will but living in the desert southwest. What kind of impact does that have on all of your writing?

MELISSA PRITCHARD: Living in the desert southwest. That's such a question. No one's ever asked me that. I think it drives me inward. [ Laughs ] I don't really know. Well, I'm from California and I prefer Mediterranean climate so this is a shock to me and still is after I've been here so many years but it's interesting. It's almost -- it's an extreme, it can be an extreme climate and I like it because it drives me inward. And then I travel a lot.

TED SIMONS: Well, obviously, you travel quite a bit. But you mentioned being from California, you mentioned the problem with finding a voice early on because you really didn't have -- you weren't from the south and you didn't have any regional I.D. did you?

MELISSA PRITCHARD: I grew up in an upper middle class suburb and I mowed the lawn on Saturdays and did chores and I thought I had no interesting life at all and then -- I always heard when I would read about being a writer you had to have a voice, you had to come from somewhere, you have to have some sort of -- and I thought well, I don't have one. My first stories I thought I was kind of an imposter. A bit of a fraud. I thought I'm making this stuff up and I don't know and then I realized that a lot of my stories were about an ordinary person like myself who goes into an extraordinary situation with a certain amount of naivety.

TED SIMONS: Was it Flannery O'Connor who said she learned everything she needed to write by the time she was out of high school?

MELISSA PRITCHARD: About 18. I think that's true. There's so much you can draw on, you're your own best laboratory as a writer in terms of psychology and emotional reality. Veracity. I think it's kind of a humbling process being a writer if you really do it. You have to be truthful even about yourself with yourself and I find it kind of hilarious because we all want to think we're our best selves but you know we're all flawed in some ways, certainly I am, and so you have to -- in order to write truly about people, especially imagined people, or hybrid people, you have to have an emotional truth and that has to be in you, as well.

TED SIMONS: You mentioned emotional truth and in the book, you included the cost of your mother's funeral service and you also wrote a number of pages about your little dachshund, Mr. S I believe his name was.


TED SIMONS: Talk to us about why you included those essays.

MELISSA PRITCHARD: Well, my publisher actually included them. There were about 22 that I had and she read them all and chose 15. And she had good reasons for leaving out the others, most of which they were redundant or too similar. But Simon, Mr. S is really Simon, I just -- I never intended to publish that. I just thought I want to write a valentine to my dog before he dies. He still will, he's 11, but I was suddenly aware he might die one day and I have to write about him. So I write this whole valentine to him and I sent it out and all these people wanted to publish it, three or four at once. I had to choose. I was shocked. And delighted. And then the piece about my mother I was asked by an editor to write, he was doing an issue in his magazine on death and he said do you have anything, can you give us something? And I said my mother just died and I can't write about it. It's too close. He said well see if you come up with something and was staying at a castle in Scotland, a writing residency, and towards the last two weeks of the residency, it all came to me that essay just, I almost heard it.

TED SIMONS: Something interesting in the essay you mentioned that in death the spirit becomes light. I thought that was interesting. Talk about that.

MELISSA PRITCHARD: Well, I think everything -- for me, the personal is political, the political is personal and both are spiritual, for me. And I always think a friend of mine said when my mother passed away, he said oh, she's turning to light. And that just struck me so deeply as true. Some things are difficult to articulate beyond the fact that they seem true. And so I just felt that when I wrote the piece, that she had turned to light and that we all do.

TED SIMONS: It was very interesting, a unique way of looking at it so I wanted to ask you about that. You also talk about the unexplainable, and a voice was literally telling you, a voice told you to pay for a Sudanese man's education which you did and it wound up with a remarkable relationship.

MELISSA PRITCHARD: Yes. William. I knew him, I heard that he wasn't doing well in the sense that he had had to drop out of school and he was working as a night security guard somewhere in Phoenix. Having PTSD because he had been a child slave. And I felt badly about it but then I was awakened in the middle of the night, it sounds Biblical, a voice saying you have to put William through school and it was this voice I can't ignore or deny and it wasn't my voice. I still don't quite understand it but I called William the next day and said when does school start and he knew exactly the date, go get your books and go sign up for your classes, and he's currently in Africa working for UNICEF. He's had a remarkable life since then.

TED SIMONS: Well, that's remarkable. There are a number of remarkable stories in here, congratulations, again, it's a fascinating book and continued success. Thank you for being here.

MELISSA PRITCHARD: Thank you, thank you so much for having me on your show.

TED SIMONS: And that is it for now. I'm Ted Simons, thank you so much for joining us. You have a great evening.

VIDEO: "Arizona Horizon" is made possible by contributions from the Friends of Eight, members of your Arizona PBS station. Thank you.

Melissa Pritchard : Author

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