If you're author Melissa Pritchard, your liberation from period fiction inspires you to write a wild little tale for the Paris Review called "Funktionslust," which goes on to win the Pushcart Prize.
"Over a period of time, I had all of these characters in my head," says Pritchard, who is director of the M.F.A. creative writing program at Arizona State University. "Like magnet filings, they all came together. I wanted to experiment with humor a little, too, and I thought, I don't care what anyone thinks - I'm just gonna write this crazy story!'"
That crazy story is the stunning finale to Pritchard's most recent book, Disappearing Ingenue, a collection of short stories set in modern times all centered around the "misadventures" of heroine Eleanor Stoddard. Each piece focuses on different points in Eleanor's life, starting when she was age ten and continuing through her late forties.
In "Funktionslust," readers see divorced, middle-aged Eleanor living alone, finding momentary distraction in bed with a new age German hunk. After reflecting on the state of her life, she decides on a radical change of course, hitting the road to Mexico with a life-sized inflatable security guard and a gorilla kidnapped from a research lab.
While the scenario is absurd, Eleanor's exhilarating embrace of a new identity is something she's done countless times before. Readers of the book's previous seven stories have glimpsed her various incarnations: a schoolgirl obsessed with Anne Frank and a Catholic school nun; a young actress befriending a couple with cerebral palsy in an attempt to make her play more authentic; a housewife imitating Nancy Drew to investigate a suspicious acquaintance; a poet infatuated with one of the students in her workshop.
Filling Eleanor's changing world with an eclectic assortment of characters was kind of like a scavenger hunt, Pritchard says. "You know, some people go to garage sales. I seek out the odd and unusual, and file it away somewhere. I find other people - their stories - really interesting."
Pritchard says she shied away from writing anything autobiographical until she started this book. At that point, she realized that in order to evolve, she had to reprise her own experiences. "I was exorcising some of my own questions about how I had been silenced as a mid- to upper class white girl from California," she says. Many of the places and people in Disappearing Ingenue were plucked straight from Pritchard's life. But rather than simply narrating things as they happened, Pritchard rewrote history to more satisfying conclusions. "I try to push things to dangerous places," she says.