Laura Pritchett on Sex, Writing Without Limits and Bringing Back Grizzly Bears

Laura Pritchett appears at venues associated with the Jaipur Literary Festival Boulder, September 21-23.
Laura Pritchett appears at venues associated with the Jaipur Literary Festival Boulder, September 21-23. Janet Freeman

Laura Pritchett is a writer without borders. She’s from Colorado, sure, and much of what she writes is set here in the state, in fictionalized small towns with a colorful verisimilitude and a Colorado sensibility. Case in point: her most recent novel, The Blue Hour, which won the 2018 Colorado Book Award for Literary Fiction. Pritchett is appearing in a couple of venues in the coming weeks, in cooperation with the ZEE JLF (Jaipur Literary Festival Boulder), including a free community workshop on September 12 and the lit fest itself the weekend of September 21-23 at the Boulder Public Library.

Pritchett agreed to speak with us in advance of these events, only two of many local and national appearances. About her latest novel, about writing about sex, about literary prizes and grizzly bears. And about the life of a writer determined to remain uncorralled by state lines.

Westword: You're one of the participants in the upcoming Jaipur Literary Festival in Boulder — what’s your favorite part of that event?

Laura Pritchett: Jaipur is one of the best literary events I’ve ever attended. It’s diverse, well-organized, fun, and it’s got high-caliber speakers. Certainly they accomplish their mission of bringing world literature to new audiences; I’ve left there with stacks of books by contemporary authors who, frankly, I should know about. Like many Americans, I need to expand my readerly boundaries — we can all always be wary of becoming insular in all things, including our reading habits, no? I guarantee that an attendee will meet an author he/she’s never heard about. And it’s free!

You're often introduced as a Colorado writer, or a Western writer, that sort of thing. How much does regionalism play into your work? Is it a way you tend to define yourself, or is it just something that has more to do with how the industry wants to define you?

No, I most definitely do not want to be defined as a Colorado or Western writer; I consider myself a literary writer who is interested in exploring the recesses of the human heart. My books happen to be set in the American West, yes, and therefore they contain cultural and landscape components unique to this area. It happens to be the area I know best; I’m a native who grew up on a ranch in northern Colorado and who spends a lot of time exploring the state. But my work, I hope, is about the complex ethical and philosophical wacko-ness of living on planet Erth as a sentient being. Seriously, argh. I will vent a bit more: My heart breaks (or I want to strangle someone) when I’m introduced as a “local writer.” I know the speaker doesn’t intend it, but it feels like an insult. As if I, or my characters, with all our messy humanity, make sense only “locally.”

The Blue Hour, your latest novel, won the Colorado Book Award this past year. Can you talk a little about what awards mean to a working writer? In describing writers, we tend to throw around these victories in a series, as though we're ticking off a list of qualifiers, but each of those honors are important unto themselves, yes?

Honestly, it’s damn nice to have one’s work honored with awards. The opinions of our peers — those we respect— matter. Matter a great deal. It’s also deeply satisfying to be published by a press you admire so much: Counterpoint is a fantastic publisher. And best of all, it’s an honor to have bookstore owners and readers rooting for you. There are other parts of being a writer — the financials, for example — that are so hard. I’ve never made a livable wage from my writing. And being a working, self-supporting writer is nearly impossible (which is something that doesn’t get talked about enough), So, yes, it’s nice to feel wealthy in these other ways.

click to enlarge COUNTERPOINT
So, the novel The Blue Hour contains a lot of sex scenes. Writing about sex can be tricky — it can turn off more often than it turns on, right? Steve Almond had a great article on writing about sex in The Rumpus where he establishes some rules for successful story sex. So what are your rules? 

I love that Steve Almond article and use it in my own classes about writing sex scenes. I also always teach the “Bad Sex in Fiction Awards” (an award presented by Literary Review each year) because it’s good to study what not to do. But my biggest pet peeve isn’t poorly written sex scenes— it’s authors who skip such scenes altogether in a work where it probably should be there. As in, hello, sex is part of most people’s human lives. It depends on the audience, intent and themes of the book, of course — but I’d take a poor (but brave) attempt over cowardice any day.

I love the human heart and body. What a mystery. It’s a mystery we guard, too. Indeed, I’d argue that the most guarded place inside us might be our sexuality. Our sexuality and all that it entails: our hopes and fears about sex, our response to sex, our yearnings or distastes or preferences, our judgments, our bodily sensations. In other words, our existence as a sexual being. I say: Let’s shine some light on it all and put it on the page!

Have you ever written anything (for Blue Hour or otherwise) that made you uncomfortable? And if you have...does that mean you cut it, or keep it?

Sure, I’m made uncomfortable by some of my sex scenes. We’re talking about fragile stuff here! And I hope the reader is uncomfortable as well, from time to time. Or turned on. Or curious. Or delighted. Isn’t that what art is supposed to do? Help us see our humanity with renewed clarity? Challenge us in some way?

So where did The Blue Hour have its genesis? Every story has one — what inspired this novel?

This particular novel’s journey started many years ago, when a short story of mine was published in [literary magazine] The Sun. I got more fan mail from that short story than I’ve ever received for anything else, including all my books put together, probably — and the vast majority wrote to say thanks. Thanks for writing about sex, about the role of fantasies, about insecurities. I kept several of the letters, because they were so inspiring (never think writing a letter to an author doesn’t matter!).  I was so honored by such responses. That correspondence got me to thinking about doing just that — trying to continue the conversation of honest portrayals of sex in literary works.

Those fan mails really were the genesis. In a society that is wildly prudish on the one hand, and pornographic on the other, I think we sometimes lose sight of the honest portrayal of sex. And they inspired me to try.

And l’heure bleue is a favorite French phrase — the blue hour, the hour of dusk — which to me is just a sexy time, but it’s also a time of change. And all of these characters — because of the tragedy in the first chapter — are changing big time.

Courtesy Laura Pritchett
Back to Colorado; The Blue Hour is set in the fictional town of Blue Moon Mountain. Stars Go Blue was set in Hell's Bottom. Connected places in a fictional Colorado. But why make up a town? Why not just set it in an actual place?

Making up a fictional town gives all sorts of freedom — the point of a novel is not to explore on actual town, and which streets cross other streets, and where the hardware store is. That’s what guidebooks are for. Rather, a fictional town can be an Everytown, where the focus is on the themes and plots and messes of life. How boring that would be, in my opinion — to bind yourself to a specific real location and spend all your energy there — rather than using one’s imagination. As a sidenote, it makes me think of Kent Haruf’s town of Norka, which is Akron spelled backward. He, too, didn’t want to deal with sticking to reality — but rather wanted to riff off of it, use it to allow greater truths and stories.

Speaking of connectivity, it's more than just about place in your works. You're writing about the connectivity of communities, too, of people and families and couples and more. Can you talk a little bit about how a writer portrays a deep and complex connectivity? How do you keep all those individual plates spinning?

The greatest challenge of this book was the multiple points of view. Lots of voices, lots of psychology. Even I needed the map (which is on the first page). But this was the sort of novel that needed to be told by many — it’s a bit of a Rashomon situation. Or Winesburg, Ohio — which, like my novel, has the town itself as the main character. There will be some confusion, perhaps. I get that. It’s a risk I took. Any novel with a wide canvas will have big cast of characters; that’s simply what I had to do to tell the story I wanted to tell.

Since Colorado is so central to who you are as a writer and a professional — and because Colorado has changed so much over the years — if you could bring back one thing to Colorado, an actual thing or place that's somehow been lost, what would it be?

Hmm. Good question. The first thing that comes to mind doesn’t answer your question at all. Rather, it’s the thing I most dislike about Colorado, or at least my region of it, which is: We. are. so. white. I mean, really! But okay, back to your question. First thing that comes to mind is: I would bring back grizzly bears. They’re beautiful creatures that used to roam the state everywhere — and they were purposefully exterminated for no good reason (they’re not the crazed human-eating creatures we might imagine). Doing so would mean we might need to limit our population/sprawl, which is another thing I worry about (not just for Colorado, but for planet Earth). More diversity, more grizzlies, more wild. Otherwise, this state is perfect. Except for I-70, which we all consider Hell.

Laura Pritchett will offer a free class on writing about the outdoors at 6 p.m. Wednesday, September 12, at First Western Trust Bank in Boulder, find out more about the Laura Pritchett class here. Get the full Zee JLF program here.
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Teague Bohlen is a writer, novelist and professor at the University of Colorado Denver. His first novel, The Pull of the Earth, won the Colorado Book Award for Literary Fiction in 2007; his textbook The Snarktastic Guide to College Success came out in 2014. His new collection of flash fiction, Flatland, is available now.
Contact: Teague Bohlen