Tuesday, March 24, 2020

"An enchanting and absorbing novel": Laura Long on Hezada! I Miss You

"Graceful storytelling and poetic clarity make Hezada! I Miss You an enchanting and absorbing novel. I thought about these characters long after I finished the book. The lightness of touch belies the fact that Erin Pringle is a wise and fearless writer." 
--Laura Long, author of Out of Peel Tree

Laura Long


Writers in Fairy Tales

I am trying to remember a fairy tale in which a stranger who affects a character's life positively is present in the story yet remains a stranger to the main character. In Jack and the Beanstalk, Jack meets the stranger with the magic beans. There's the story of the two sisters who meet an elderly woman at a well who punishes one's selfishness by causing toads and worms and dirt to fall from her mouth every time she speaks or blesses the other's generosity and kindness by causing jewels and flowers to fall from her speaking mouth. But each sister interacts with the woman before receiving the curse or miracle. In Great Expectations, the benevolent stranger becomes known.

Here is why this is on my mind. 

The publication story of my last book, The Whole World at Once, begins not when I sent in the query and sample chapter into Vandalia Press/West Virginia University Press, but when, a year later, the editor contacted me about the manuscript, having discovered it in the slush pile. The slush pile is a place where unread manuscripts go to disappear, similar to lost socks or the one sock of a pair you don't know what to do with but keep, just in case.

Once my manuscript was pulled out, there were more required steps between then and the contract for publication. As the press is an academic press, even its fiction department participates in a kind of peer review and board discussion before the book's fully taken on. 

In this way, the manuscript of The Whole World at Once was sent to two writers already published by the press. Only the fiction editor knew I was the book's writer, and the names of the writers she sent the book to. One of the writers, I would later learn, was a person named Laura Long. She voted for the book and provided a page, maybe two, of feedback regarding the stories that I might take into consideration during revision. Later, once the board voted to publish, Long would go on to provide a blurb for the book. This is what she wrote about it: “A strikingly original collection. This book is poetic, yet has a deep sense of storytelling.”

Had she voted against the book, its journey at the press would have ended right there. It would have not even returned to the slush pile, but to the place where lost socks go.

Though it has been almost three years since The Whole World at Once was published, I still know very little about Laura Long. We are Facebook friends now, because I imagine contemporary fairy tales require at least a social-media form of kinship, but even then, the alogrithms rarely bring us together. I think she has a cat. At one time, she was asking about revision. 

You'd think I'd keep my fairy godmothers closer. 

Then again, the roles that people first play in my life have always been difficult to shift. My piano teacher, Mrs. England will always be my piano teacher, and I'd never imagine calling her Sue. The same with Noyes. I think of him first as my professor, and it always surprises me when I hear someone refer to him casually as Tom. 

In this way, Laura Long is my fairy godmother and so must be kept at the distance one reserves for such a person. 

But when it came time for Hezada! to be sent to writers who might find the book worth reading and sharing words about, I did what Cinderella might have done if she'd noticed a pattern between her behavior and her fairy godmother's appearance: I asked Laura Long if she would consider reading the book, and began to wait, sweeping my worries aside, until she replied that yes, she would.

Perhaps as a reader, you knew she would say yes.
But isn't there always the moment in a fairy tale when a person asks too much of the giver? When the genie decides to curse the beggar, or the magic fish returns the fisherman and his wife to their hovel. It is, perhaps, the moment at which the giver realizes that the beggar is taking advantage--and that what was benevolence has been turned into an expectation, a breach of the power contract. When the giving becomes a task, a job, an obligation. The transformation of need into desire.

So, when I received Laura Long's word that yes, she would read Hezada!, I felt relief.

One day, I may meet Laura Long. I might sit across from her at a table in a coffee shop, somewhere near a writer's conference that has lured us both from our opposite sides of the country. Or perhaps, and better, I'll find myself in West Virginia again, having once driven through it on my return from my tour with The Floating Order, and I'll maybe try to meet up with her, and maybe she'll say, Come over, and maybe, in the way I remember my piano teacher inviting me to sit by her kitchen window and watch the birds visit their birdhouses, we'll sit together, in the way fairy godmothers and their godchildren must do.