By JUDITH FAY PULMAN
Liz Prato—essayist, short story writer, and novelist—agreed to meet with me in her office. I had taken a fiction writing class with her and was deeply intrigued by her soft nature that somehow naturally coexisted with an uncommon shrewdness. This woman can dissect stories with the best of them and diagnose ailing essays to make them brand new.
She’s really interesting, too: Liz became the last surviving member of her nuclear family less than two years ago (she’s 45 now), her non-fiction and fiction works are strange, deep, and darkly funny, and in person, she doesn’t hesitate to talk about her beliefs, even though many of them are paradoxical at their root. How could I not want to sit down and ask her questions?
The quotes below have been edited from a longer interview.
“Holden Caulfield is one of my favorite characters and I was definitely drawn to that lost quality about him—that searching quality—but was also drawn to the component of his character that played at the edge of mental illness and depression. Recently there was a Facebook thread about people rereading books from high school and someone who read Catcher in the Rye was shocked to find in the first few pages the fact that Holden’s brother had died. That’s why he’s in a mental hospital—it’s not because he’s a self absorbed messed-up kid, it’s because he had this major loss and doesn’t know how to deal. He doesn’t have the family support and this wasn’t a time in society when people knew how to talk about death or depression openly. That’s why he’s wandering. Not just because.”
“When I had finished my first novel [at age 27] people would say to me, “I’m in a writer’s group—want to join?” And I’d say, “Oh, I don’t want anyone looking at my work because that might influence me.”—You know, some bullshit like that when what I really meant was “I’m totally insecure about it.” When I was turning 35 and looking in the bathroom mirror, I asked myself “What do I want to be when I grow up” and I decided that I didn’t want to be having the same conversation with myself when I turned 40. So that was the important moment when I first decided to take a writing class. It was nine years ago with Merridawn Duckler. I remember coming home from the first class and saying to my husband, “Well there’s good news and there’s bad news: The bad news is that I’m not nearly as good a writer as I thought, but the good news is I’m going to learn a lot.”
Liz on how to build literary community:
“Of course people go to readings where there are writers and then go to after-parties but that depends on you having a personality where you can strike up a conversation with total strangers and know how to take it somewhere. Very few writers actually have that kind of personality, you know? And, it’s unfortunate financially speaking, but I believe the best way to connect with other writers is by taking a writing class. That’s how it worked for me—I mean, every writing group I’ve ever been in and most of my closest writing friends stemmed from sitting around a table in class and discussing work. That’s when you really learn about people and what matters to them.”
Liz on writing sex scenes, as in her short story “Astronomical Objects”:
“I’m interested in exploring that gray area where things fit with each other and don’t fit at the same time. Sexuality is a place where we are both vulnerable and expressive. We’re given so many messed up images of what that looks like—are we really ever really told how that should look? There are pornographic images and white washed images, but I’m interested in what it feels like to be there and in the different ways we express ourselves in those moments. Sex is just another means of human expression and a thing that all of us do at one point or another, with very few exceptions, and I guess I don’t feel differently about it than any other thing humans do. Frankly, I feel more comfortable writing a sex scene than writing about somebody punching someone.”
“I’ve been doing more editorial work now—I’m the guest prose editor for Voice Catcher magazine and I read submissions for Forest Avenue Press. I’ve also started working on a memoir. The large question I’m playing with is what is this story really about—the story beneath the story—I don’t want it to just be about events that have happened to me the last five years, a memoir’s got to have more to it than that, it has to have a greater purpose. I’ve talked to Lydia Yuknavitch and Cheryl Strayed about this and they said they didn’t know what they were really writing about until the second or third full draft and that I’m fine. So, I’m trying to have faith in the process and go with that basic idea of not knowing. Which they always say you’re supposed to do in writing, and I always said oh sure, yeah yeah yeah, but this is the first time in my writing life when I’ve actually been doing it.”
“Being a professional writer has a really fucked up trajectory. I had a series of good fortunes with publications and awards when I got started. I always knew then that I was publishing more than most people and that good things were coming to me with an unusual frequency. I knew it would dry up but it so sucked when it did. And it dried up for a long time and I’m still kind of in that dry spell. Of course that dry spell coincided with my family blowing up and getting crazy and dying, which I know intellectually, but that doesn’t make it easier to accept. I feel like the universe is set up so that any time your ego gets big something smacks you down. I don’t think I’ve ever had the chance to let my ego get so big that I was a pain in the ass because I got knocked down right after.”
“When I first got really serious about writing, the one thing I knew was I didn’t want to fail because I hadn’t tried. I always hold that as a touchstone for myself: Have I not succeeded or not made progress because I didn’t want to put myself out there? Right now what that looks like for me is to be willing to go back a few steps and say okay, that’s where I was and this is where I am now. Writing is a muscle that has to be regularly exercised. I was in such a productive phase before my family members got sick and I’d love to go back and replicate the same circumstances as back then, but I can’t do that. That time is gone. I’ve got to be where I am.”
Liz Prato is a 4-time Pushcart Nominee, winner of the Minnetonka Review Editor’s Prize, runner-up for the 2007 Juked Fiction Prize, and winner of the 2005 Berkeley Fiction Review’s Sudden Fiction Competition. Her stories and essays have been published in over 2 dozen magazines, literary journals and anthologies. You can view her work at her website.