Melissa Pritchard, Professor of English at Arizona State University and author of eight books, has received numerous awards, including The Flannery O'Connor Award, the Carl Sandburg Literary Award and a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. Widely published, she has received the O.Henry Prize and Pushcart Prize, twice each, and her non-fiction has appeared in O, The Oprah Magazine, The Wilson Quarterly, the Gettysburg Review, Conjunctions and the Chicago Tribune. She is the founder of the Ashton Goodman Fund, the Afghan Women's Writing Project.
This interview was conducted via email by Fiction Editor Kevin Hanlon. Of the process he said, “It was a true honor to interview Melissa Pritchard. I first met Melissa as my professor at Arizona State University and immediately enjoyed her open-minded views on writing and life. Melissa pours her whole self into the writing process and allows for no shortcuts. She is both receptive to creative flow and sensitive to the fact that great work requires time and discipline in revisions.” In the interview, Pritchard discusses her writing process, the balance of listening and acting, and various aspects of her most recent novel, Palmerino.
Superstition Review: What brought you to Palmerino and Vernon Lee?
Melissa Pritchard: I was in Florence, visiting friends, when one of my friends, Giuditta Viceconte, suggested I meet Federica Paretti, whose family now owns Villa il Palmerino. Federica and I met at the villa, talked, and I felt an almost unsettling connection both to Federica and to her family’s lovely, mysterious villa. I would end up living there, for varying lengths of time, three more times.
SR: There are many places in this novel, all described with such intricate detail. What was your process in describing each setting?
ML: While in Florence and at Villa il Palmerino, I took notes, observed everything as much as I could—a process involving slowing down, really looking at things, losing oneself in the art of seeing, taking patient, even meticulous notes. I spent a lot of time by myself doing this; to observe indetail, for me at least, requires solitude.
SR: Palmerino, as a setting, is an enchanting and hypnotic space that mirrors the novel itself. It allows for a timeless world that is not bound to the clock or even this realm. How did you go about creating this land?
ML: It is a world that, for me, moves magically between realms—past, present, future. I felt this when I stayed at the villa, as its beauty is both intensely present, haunted by time and by the spirit of Vernon Lee, It is even haunted by all the other people who have lived there from the fifteenth century on. While staying there and being alone a great deal, I viscerally felt Vernon Lee’s preoccupations with spirit of place or genius loci, her own fascination with empathy and with the supernatural, had transferred to this place, her former home—to the gardens and the residence, as they now quietly exist in the hills above Florence.
SR: How did you go about balancing the narration between the Victorian-era novelist Vernon Lee and her modern-day biographer Sylvia Casey?
ML: I “heard” the voice and tone of each woman, of Vernon and Sylvia. It’s risky to alternate voices, as one voice may prove stronger, more interesting. Sylvia’s voice is meditative, contemplative, while Vernon’s is more colorful, even dominating—direct reflections of their personalities. I worried about it a great deal, and was interested to see that whenever Vernon “spoke” to me, her sections were shorter than Sylvia’s, whose voice I “heard” as a kind of great, sustained sigh.
SR: Many of the men in Palmerino seem to suffer from some type of disconnect: the astronomer is a recluse, Vernon’s father is emotionally unavailable, and Vernon’s brother is an invalid. How do these men serve the novel as a whole?
ML: Historically, Vernon’s brother was an invalid, her father was often absent, preferring the out of doors, being out of range of the intellectual, contentious hot house of his family—and I actually met an astronomer living on the grounds of Villa il Palmerino (there are various places one can rent out), and modeled my character after him. This astronomer was an intensely solitary gentleman, kind-natured and preoccupied with his pursuit of truths about Galileo. He is considered one of the world’s leading authorities on Galileo, even as he remains reclusive.
SR: What is the challenge in writing an intellect such as Vernon Lee?
ML: In the beginning, her vast accomplishments, her fluency in four languages, her strong opinions, daunted me. I had no idea how I would write about her in any way that could do the remotest justice to her eloquence, genius and range. I had a kind of “how dare I?” feeling about it. But when I learned she had been considered by many, even as a child, to be ugly—and intuited that her hurt over that, her sense of isolation because of her outward appearance, caused her, in part, to compensate with intelligence, wit and strong opinions, with prolific outpouring of writings, I felt I had found my way into her story. The “wound” I intuited in her psyche gave me permission to write about her.
SR: What role does autobiography play in the Sylvia sections?
ML: Sylvia is an exaggerated version of who I felt I was during the time I researched and wrote the novel—I was experiencing a long drawn-out loneliness for the first time in my life—feeling older as well, in some kind of existential crisis. I simply took my own uneasy situation and made it much more extreme.
SR: Palmerino is an intricately assembled novel that bounces back and forth between time, characters and even the supernatural while never losing the reader’s attention. How did you go about structuring this novel? Did you write the sections one at a time or in sequence?
ML: I took a lot of notes, struggled with how to shape the narrative, experimented, drew diagrams, then, once I made up my mind that it would be in three alternating sections, wrote them pretty much in sequence. Writing Palmerino was an intensely sensuous experience. To have had a reason to stay at the villa, to live in and write from a place of such exquisite beauty, was worth any loneliness I experienced during that time.
SR: This novel tells a very unique romantic story. It is clear that Vernon Lee is a complicated lover. She fears human touch, even from her beloved Kit. How did you research the relationships of Vernon Lee?
ML: I read the Peter Gunn and Venita Colby biographies of Vernon Lee, read them over and over. I studied photographs, visited archives, read Kit’s letters, Vernon’s letters, her correspondence with Henry James, John Singer Sargent, Edith Wharton, Joseph Conrad and D.H. Lawrence among others. I stayed at the villa where so much memory from that time still resides—I immersed myself, read, dreamed, tried as much as possible to understand Vernon’s complicated personality, her family’s collective dysfunction, tried to imagine being Violet Paget/Vernon Lee. My original title for the novel was V, but my publisher found another novel by that name, so we changed it to Palmerino.
SR: How was the telling of a homosexual romance different than that of a heterosexual romance?
ML: A friend of mine said something as I was initially struggling with the question of writing about women loving other women, about homosexuality. What right, what authority as a heterosexual did I have? “Flesh is flesh,” said my friend, and with that, I suddenly had the confidence to write about Vernon and Mary, Vernon and Kit.
SR: Could you please describe how you drew the line between Vernon Lee as one of your characters and Vernon Lee as a historical figure?
ML: At a certain point, you realize you are writing fiction, not biography, and that as you unhinge yourself from fact, you enter the emotional truths of the imagination. I did have qualms here and there, especially as I thought of all the Vernon Lee scholars laboring away, meticulously loyal to facts – I even mentally apologized to Vernon Lee a few times, for any wrong impressions I was conveying about her. No one knows much about her actual sexuality, if she even was sexual, so I made up my own story, based, again, on intuition. Then, at some point, I told myself that what I was writing was inspired by Vernon Lee, loosely based upon her life, but that as an artist, I was free to interpret that life as I chose. The novel is not a biography, not even a fictionalized biography, but more of an impressionistic triptych of paintings.
SR: This novel celebrates the feminine soul that nurtures art, love, and understanding. Palmerino, the setting, embodies this feminine spirit of life and ultimately absorbs Sylvia. What does this say about the relationship between the artist and the art?
ML: It is a dance of listening (intuiting, sensing, imagining) and acting (writing, revising). The first could be seen as more feminine, receptive, the second as more masculine, active.
Aside from the rational collecting of facts and information around Vernon Lee, what could be called the research phase, the rest, the vision and re-vision, the design and re-design, was not straightforward or linear or even organized. I had to be receptive, like an exposed nerve, to write this novel, to imagine the scenes as if I were watching a film…even hearing the voices of Vernon, or Kit, Vernon’s mother…any of them. The process was extraordinarily difficult, haunting and very, very beautiful. The story yielded itself to me in a mosaic, not all at once, but piece by piece. I was forced to be extremely patient.
SR: In Palmerino, Sylvia is not only inspired, but she is also possessed. How does this reflect your own feelings of the connection between the artist and the art?
ML: To be a writer, one who actually completes stories, novels, essays, you have to be a little bit of an obsessive compulsive personality. Driven, and not by anything as simple as ambition. So it’s critical you find the right “subject” or let that “subject” find you, own you…there has to be a bond of passion between the artist and her subject—a sense that I have to write this, understand this, or something in me will wither, even die. Very dramatic, but writing is labor, often monotonous, often lonely, so you need the fuel to keep you going—and that fuel comes from your passionate engagement with the story, the subject. When you lose yourself in it, surrender to it, you are sublimely happy. Those peak moments—of finding the exact right sentence or paragraph—of finding the story’s ethical or heart core—of feeling a kind of channeled eloquence pouring through you—those sublime moments keep you going through all the rest of it.
SR: How do the social issues of 19th century discourse reflect the issues of today?
ML: Many of the nineteenth century’s social issues for women are the same issues facing women today, though ameliorated, improved, depending on what part of the world you live in. As she began publishing in her early twenties, Violet Paget changed her name to Vernon Lee, giving herself a male pseudonym because, she said, no one read or paid serious attention to women’s writing. Things are better today, but women are still under-reviewed and under-read in comparison to male writers. Women writers certainly have to work harder to be recognized, some say twice as hard. And world-wide, the majority of women still struggle for basic rights to education, health care, sexual choice and economic parity. Vernon Lee was keenly interested in women’s education and was a pacifist during World War I. She was deeply involved in the political and social issues of her day and, on a side note, fought to preserve a number of the historic structures in Florence standing today. I believe she was a visionary intellectual as well as a tremendous artist.
SR: You are a writer who likes to travel the world. How does this influence your work? How do you get into a writing routine?
ML: I only go somewhere if I feel the “call” to go there. From experience, I know that something is waiting for me—a person, an experience, or a place, like Villa il Palmerino. A few years ago, I discovered the joy of going to artist residencies. So much of Palmerino was not written here at home, but at Villa il Palmerino, then at the Bogliasco Study Center in Liguria, then at Chateau Lavigny in Switzerland. These glorious places, give you a month or more to write without distraction—you are fed, your room is cleaned, there is nothing for you to do but write. It is absolutely decadent and essential at the same time. But my writing routine, wherever I am, is the same. I get up early, make a cup of strong coffee, return to bed and write for 2-3 hours at a stretch. Later, in the afternoon, if I can, I will work for 2-3 hours more, editing what I wrote the previous day or even that day. The glory of these residencies is that you get so much work done…then your other big task is to go for a long walk through some beautiful countryside, then show up for a cocktail hour and dinner. (As a terrible, terrible cook, I particularly love this!) I sometimes think I could just live by drifting from residency to residency throughout Europe—writing and meeting other writers and artists from all over the world. You form wonderful global friendships in such an intense atmosphere. I am not the only writer/artist who has this “permanent residency” dream, by the way!
SR: What is your revision process?
ML: I gather the “world of the story” together, then determine its rough design, listen for its voice, whose story it is…I write the first draft quickly, messily, then return to begin the process of sculpting and refining the writing, the narrative design. It is never a neat process, never particularly straightforward or logical…as I’ve tried to stress, for me writing is hugely intuitive, a matter of staying open to the subconscious—the subconscious is, I am convinced, one’s inner genius, and to be obedient to that force, that guidance, is crucial. As the drafts progress, my critical mind steps in, working on details of craft, perfecting paragraphs, sentences, words, attempting a seamless manifestation of the dream. I think you have to always be prepared to accept that even when you are “finished,” the piece you have brought into the world only rarely attains the perfection you initially envisioned for it. At some point, you give thanks for the gift and experience of the creation, move on.
SR: What are you working on now?
ML: I have a book-length collection of previously published essays, articles and book reviews I’m going to put together and publish. At the same time, I’ve received a Piper Faculty Grant to begin researching my next novel. I’m hugely grateful, as I’ll be able to travel, to live in Paris and London for a month because of that support.
SR: What are you currently reading?
ML: W.G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn. Old issues of “The New Yorker.” I just finished Maud Casey’s wonderful new novel, The Man Who Walked Away. I’ve also been reading Mavis Gallant, re-reading some Tolstoy, Mann, Joyce. I have a long list of books to read once the semester ends! I read poetry and essays as well, and when I have time, love watching documentaries and films. One thing I’ve struggled with, writing Palmerino, and now, preparing for the next novel, is that historically based novels require lots of research, leaving little time for catching up on pleasurable outside reading. Wonderful books are streaming by me all the time, and I’m missing them!
SR: What does your writing space look like?
ML: In the mornings I write in bed and in the afternoons, wind up sitting on the floor propped against the chaise longue in my bedroom. I also love to write in libraries. I wrote most of my first book, Spirit Seizures, in the Winnetka Public Library in Illinois while my children were in preschool, and a few years ago, I found London’s British Library to be a fantastic writing sanctuary, enhanced by its café with hot tea and scones with cream and jam. I’m so easily distracted, I need places of definite quiet, and libraries, with the collected voices of thousands of writers—an immortal chorus—murmuring, still vital, inside of their books, seem to me perfect temples in which to concentrate and to write.