Melissa Pritchard hasn't been in her office for a while. It's probably been months, maybe even a year or two. She tries to figure out exactly how long during the early moments of our interview as she settles into the small space in the English Department of Arizona State University. These days she prefers to meet students for coffee or somewhere on campus. She even meets with them in her own home, she says. That's the thing about Pritchard: She brings her work home a lot.
The shelves that surround us on two sides are relatively sparse, save for two positioned side-by-side. Those are packed end to end with books: her novels and collections. They’re a testament to how much she’s accomplished in the writing world as an award-winning novelist and, now, as a journalist.
Pritchard's recent book is an accumulation of the latter. Released at the beginning of summer, A Solemn Pleasure: To Imagine, Witness, and Write is a collection of 15 non-fiction essays written over a little more than a decade — all of which have been previously published in either literary journals or national magazines. They're stories of humor and heart, like the personal pieces about her dachshund and her mother. Others have a deeper truth and a hint of spirituality in them. These are the essays about the war and slavery she's seen, traveling India, Afghanistan, and Africa, and the powerlessness that comes, at times, with being a journalist.
"My editor was saying they move between three sections: the writer's life — what it's like teaching and writing, being a writer, witnessing in the world; the public life of the writer; and then a little bit of personal essays," she says. "It's been interesting to watch people's reactions because I never anticipated a book. In fact, it took me awhile to find them all — I didn't know where I put them!"
"I always saw myself as a fiction writer," she continues, explaining that she first started as a poet, creeping into prose before getting bolder and falling into fiction. She's written eight novels and amassed a bevy of awards and priceless recognition in the literary world because of them.
She has won the Flannery O'Connor Award for Short Fiction, the Janet Heidinger Kafka award for fiction by an American woman, and two O. Henry awards. She's received The New York Times Notable Book and Editor's Choice selections for two of her books. She's been on top 10 lists and author's choices. Oprah.com, the online home of the magazine she once wrote for, has called her "a writer at the height of her powers."
A Solemn Pleasure has been praised just as equally. A few friends contacted her via Facebook and asked if they could teach it in their college courses. In the few short months since its debut, it's been called one of the "Best Books for Writers" (Poets & Writers) and one of the "Best Books about Books" (Literary Hub). Maria Popova’s popular blog and weekly newsletter, "Brain Pickings," mentioned it — and Pritchard saw sales skyrocket basically overnight.
But from where we're sitting, none of those awards are hanging on her wall. There are a few frames of what seem to be degrees, but mostly framed photographs dot the bookshelves and unframed drawings flutter about. It’s a space very reflective of where Pritchard is at in her career.
"I get so excited by everything, I want to do it all," she says.
She still teaches graduate courses full-time and is putting together the second upcoming performance with ASU graduate students of live readings from the Afghan Women’s Writing Project, which she became involved with shortly after its creation in the summer of 2009. And she's embarking on a new novel this December.
On Tuesday, September 29, though, she brings A Solemn Pleasure to Changing Hands Bookstore in Tempe for a reading and signing — and the first bit of self-promotion she’s done for this work. As we spend the next hour together in this tiny room, Pritchard covers her unorthodox transition from fiction writer to non-fiction journalist (because it tends to be the other way), the differences in the two, and what's next for her writing.
On how she started writing non-fiction
"I started writing book reviews. I always liked writing book reviews because you used a different part of your brain — more logical. It was a natural segue to the essay form, but it was gradual as people asked me to contribute things. [The Georgia O'Keefe essay, which is in A Solemn Pleasure, was one of her first, requested for an anthology on the artist.] These essays became more frequent — they were infrequent at first — and often as a result of some stimulus: being asked to write something or feeling compelled to write something. But I still never thought of myself as an essayist, so it's still odd for me to look at this and go, 'I have a collection of essays.'
I wasn't even compiling [the essays for this book]. I'd write them, they'd get published, and I'd move on to some fiction. I still didn't think of myself as a professional non-fiction writer. I kind of do [now], but I'm still a little tentative about this."
On The Lost Boys of Sudan
In 2004, Pritchard published “The Lost Boys: From Sudan to Phoenix,” a feature article in Leigh Flayton since-shuttered MetroAZ Magazine.
"It was my first real journalism piece. The thing that was exciting about it, was it came out the same year The Lost Boys had their reunion at the Phoenix Convention Center. It was this huge three-day event, and when I first walked into the lobby I looked and saw copies of the magazine with the article were stacked around me and I noticed that all these Sudanese people were carrying copies. When it became known that I was the author of that article, they were all coming up to me and thanking me, hugging me. 'Thank you for telling our story.' Tears in their eyes. I was like . . . . All the fiction I'd ever written and the prizes I'd won meant nothing. This was a rush. Really? You can make a difference by telling people's stories? I was hooked on this idea."
On what pushed her into journalism
"During a faculty meeting [in 2006] someone said there's someone in town from India. They want to know if someone wants to go to India and work with sex slaves. They said it just like that. I sat there and I didn't say a word, but I thought, "Yes! That's what I'm going to do." A few months later I was on a plane and offering poetry workshops to girls rescued from trafficking.
[There was] this thrill of going all the way to India, where I'd wanted to go since I was a kid, and not being 'Professor Pritchard.' Not having a title. Not being known as a writer or being concerned about how famous I was or how published I was or the prizes I won. I was just there as a writer, almost anonymous. I absolutely loved it because the emphasis was on other people, not me. Other people’s stories. It was exhilarating to me. I came home from that trip quite changed and with this new awareness that I wanted to be that anonymous listener.
I was very insecure about my ability to write non-fiction. I'd never done it before. But I was so driven to learn to do it."
On the importance of Virginia G. Piper
Soon after returning from India she was approached to write Devotedly Virginia: The Life of Virginia Galvin Piper, a biography about Piper that was was published in 2008 courtesy of the Piper Charitable Trust.
"I was about to write a novel about Annie Oakley; I wrote a short story [on her] instead. I'd never written a biography — and I never will again — but I thought, "That can't take too long." [laughs] Piper’s life inspired me. She always said yes to bigger effort and the larger quest. She inherited all of this money. She could have stayed home and been a wealthy country club socialite. But she agreed to continue his [her first husband, Paul Galvin] philanthropy, particularly around the Valley. Being in her presence for three years, thinking about her, people talking about her so highly — not one person had something negative to say about her — I thought, 'I'm going to say yes to the bigger quest.'"
On choosing between fiction and non-fiction
"I'm already on to writing short stories and working on a new novel. I live in a constant state of tension. Should I write fiction, where you go into this imaginary world by yourself? It's very kind of lonely in the sense that you have to be alone. Solitary. It's a lot of imaginative and working with language. And I love it, but I'm also pulled to this other thing I'm doing, these articles. When you write in service of greater something than yourself — about an issue, not about you. Or you're a witness — I'm really interested in witness journalism. [But] I have to feel this calling. I have to feel this passion, because you need that to get you through the work of it. If you're just sort of vaguely interested you'll never get through the work of it.
I always have this tension. I'm even thinking now as I going into full time working on this novel, how can I still go out into the world and do these pieces?"
On how being a novelist has informed her storytelling
"When I was having such success with these early pieces I thought, "How is that?" My training as a storyteller, as a fiction writer, was an invaluable tool. Basically I'm telling someone’s story and moving it to the larger issue and then back to the person's story. I thought, "Oh, right. All the years of writing fiction – how that works so beautifully in journalism." Has the non-fiction influenced the fiction? No, not so much.
It was like jumping into a whole field. Slowly I learned that magazine publishing — journalism — is a little bit competitive and a little bit difficult and you don’t always get paid well. And if you do it well and if it’s a big story it’s an incredible amount of emotional investment."
On how there’s also an emotional investment in writing a novel.
It's different. You know what's hard? The people I meet and hear their stories. I get haunted by them because I can't fix them. I haven't fixed it by writing about it. I realize that yes, people were affected, but nothing came of it — not anything huge. It didn't end slavery. You have to be able to bear a certain amount of pain, of people's pain, and know that you’re not going to save anybody.
Closest I've come to saving anybody is William my son, my adoptive son."
In 2013 Pritchard wrote a piece for The Wilson Quarterly, "Still, God Helps You" in which she chronicled the journey of William Mawwin from a life of slavery in war-torn Sudan to working as a security guard in Phoenix. She would later informally adopt him, helping him to pay for a college education and get back on his feet. They still keep in touch.
"I maybe accomplished something for one person, but, for instance the young girl who was the most terrifically talented poet in India. Her mother had been in the brothels as a prostitute, but she was rescued before she became one. She wrote gorgeous poetry, very talented. She was on fire to be a teacher, and then we — the organization I worked with through the [U.S.] State Department — lost our funding. The funding went to the war in Afghanistan. I think we had our back to her, you know what I mean? So you think what happened to this girl, this young woman who was awakened to this dream she had and then it was all taken away. I was devastated. I thought you have to be so careful, these are people’s lives. But these things happen.
I saw her, actually, in India, the last time I went. I think she got married to a banker or something. She became a wife. She seemed happy enough. There’s a picture of us hugging each other.
The thing is you get attached to people. You care about their outcomes, and it doesn’t always happen the way you want. And it hurts.
Too often you’re seen as a voyeur. It’s easy to come in, get your story, and leave. And you leave those people in their same situation."
On her next novel
"I spent most of this summer traveling Europe doing research [for it]. It's based on a true story and it’s set in the 19th century and based on a really extraordinary woman’s life. I read about this woman when I was 29 years old.
I sat on my couch in Illinois during a blizzard. I didn't know anybody, I'd just had a new baby, and my husband was at work. I just read a lot. I was reading this journal and I just sat up and thought I have to write this story. "Oh my god, I have to write about this woman someday." I've never stopped thinking about her. Last spring I got to go to Georgia and brought my 37-year-old daughter with me as my research assistant. Thirty-seven years later, my newborn, who was there when I discovered this woman, is here with me as my assistant.
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I don't want to say too much about it. There's something about if you talk too much about it, it goes away."
On staying centered through her success
"I always think it's good to stay humble. It's all transitory. You can feel good about your achievement because you've worked hard for it, but also be able to let go of it or know that it's your turn right now, but it'll be somebody else's turn tomorrow."
Pritchard visits Changing Hands Bookstore at 7 p.m. on Tuesday, September 29, at the Tempe location, 6428 South McClintock Drive. Copies of A Solemn Pleasure: To Imagine, Witness, and Write will be available to purchase for $16.95. Admission to the event is free. Call 480-730-0205 or visit www.changinghands.com for more information. For more on the author, visit www.melissapritchard.com.
A week later, Pritchard will also host "Out of Silence: Afghan Women's Writing Project Reading" at 7 p.m. on Thursday, October 8, at Changing Hands Bookstore in Tempe. During the event, graduate students from ASU's creative writing program will read excerpts from Washing the Dust from Our Hearts, a collection of stories written by Afghan women. The free event is part of the ASU Creative Writing Department's 30th anniversary celebration. For more on that project, head to www.awwproject.org.