Shelf Unbound: You first wrote about Colorado ranchers Ben and Renny in Hell’s Bottom, Colorado, in which they were dealing with the immediate aftermath of their daughter’s murder. Stars Go Blue is set many years later, with the couple having been living estranged from each other on opposite sides of the ranch but now being brought back into proximity as Ben is suffering from Alzheimer’s. How did you decide to put the couple in this particular situation?
Laura Pritchett: The characters who inhabit my books inhabit my mind as well. I can’t get rid of them. I knew I wasn’t done with Renny and Ben Cross—they simply had another story to tell. Meanwhile, my father was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, and while walking with him across the family ranch, I simply just knew that the next novel would be about a man with this disease. Thus the idea was born: Ben and Renny would have to come together one last time, not only to deal with the effects of Alzheimer’s, but because they had to seek and find justice for their daughter’s killer (the thing that tore them apart), as well as face their own history with one another (and perhaps fall in love once again). I’m also interested in unique relationships—what do you do, for instance, when you fall out of love but you’re still running a ranch together? Why, live on opposite ends of the ranch, of course. I suppose that like all other fiction writers, I fall in love with imaginary people and then do mean things to them and watch them crawl their way out (towards wisdom and grace, in this case).
Shelf Unbound: Your new novel Red Lightning, which comes out in June, is similarly a follow up with the characters you wrote about in Sky Bridge. What interests you about continuing to explore the lives of characters you’ve written about previously?
Pritchett: This makes me sound a little nutty, but I just listen. There was a woman named Tess (a character who appeared minimally in Sky Bridge) who just kept talking to me. She wanted her story told. I knew she had some things to say about redemption, about illegal immigration, about the West and its wildfires and changing landscape, and so I just sat down at my computer and started writing what it was that she wanted to say. (I’m not crazy, I swear!) Meanwhile, I became fascinated by the ways people who suffered PTSD view themselves, how specifically they disassociate, and how that could be rendered on the page. Around the same time, I was reading The Bone People by Keri Hume, and I saw how one author managed such a difficult task. All this came together in my mind as I listened to Tess yak away.
To answer the question more fully: I remember reading Carol Shield’s work—she’s a Canadian writer most famous for her Pulitzer prize-winning book The Stone Diaries and her books are loosely connected—one character from one book shows up in another and so on. Many writers do this, of course, but the way Shields did it really expanded the understanding of the others. Each novel was a bit of an expanding universe, and the universes ran into each other and informed one another. I fell in love with that, and I’m certain that influence has been guiding me.
Shelf Unbound: I cried at the end of this book, which is a rare occurrence for me as a reader. I was moved by the way you had Ben and Renny simultaneously struggling at the end – he with trying to hang onto what little mental capacity he has left and she close to freezing to death after wrecking her car in a snowstorm. But what really got me was how after those scenes, young Jess picks up as the narrator and puts an unexpected spin on the whole novel. Had you planned all of this from the start, or did it develop as you were writing the novel?
Pritchett: I suppose I should apologize for making you cry, but I’m not. I like crying when I read. Those tears are evidence of our shared humanity—that’s what art does for us, no? Connects us? But yes, I think the introduction of Jess as narrator is the wisest decision (and perhaps most risky) that I made in the writing of this novel. Jess steps in like a Shakespearean chorus, and the reader realizes she’s been present and observant and telling the story all along.
When the book sold to Counterpoint, it was twice as long, and Jess and Billy narrated the last half of the book. Then my wise editor told me to chop off the last half, believing (correctly so) that the book was really meant to be short, tight, and focused. But Jess survived that cutting. As I revised, I just was taken with the strange and sure knowledge that she’d briefly narrate the ending. As is probably evident, my writing process involves a lot of gut-level decision making. I honestly feel as if I’m just listening to my instinct. All I have to do is get quiet, pay attention, and write what I hear.
Shelf Unbound: You have lived in Colorado for your whole life, I believe, and the state is a central part of most of your writing. Do you think your writing or characters would be significantly different if you lived in and intimately knew another region?
Pritchett: I only moved away for a few years–long enough to realize my mistake. This place is enormously important in all my writing, both fiction and nonfiction. I’m sure that’s because place is important to me as a human being. I find my solace, my center, and my ideas while outside, engaging in the natural world. I hike or walk every day. While I’m walking, I’m writing in my head. Walking, outdoors, words, books—they’re all linked. Since my center is so tied up to place—and this place in particular—it’s probably impossible for me to write about characters who are plunked elsewhere. I’m just not interested in writing about another locale. I doubt very much that I’ll ever write about New York, although the place is lovely.
Shelf Unbound: Where does the title Stars Go Blue come from?
Pritchett: Oh, I suppose several things were roiling around in my mind. One: Stars that burn blue are burning the brightest. Like Ben’s final weeks, they have a short burst of life – very intense and very bright. I was trying to capture a human soul in that very small moment of burning out, of being extinguished. Two: Water is a huge metaphor in the book, and the idea of frozen water, of the sky, of frozen chunks of stars, of the way memory freezes (and then sometimes melts, becomes fluid) all feed into the imagery of the book. But I didn’t want all this imagery static—like a memory, I wanted it to be going and moving and turning. Music is the other major metaphor in the book, and of course there’s that song of the same title. I’m not sure I had that on the mind so much as I did the idea of the movement of music. Who knows. Like everything else, it just came to me, and I listened. I do like it, though. It has intrigue and movement and image and color and texture.
Excerpt from Stars Go Blue
The fields are poured ice, rippled and waved as if a frozen lake. Ben considers the way the sun has melted—and the earth absorbed—the snow that fell months ago, which is how such strange patterns got created. But he also entertains the idea that his pastures have reverted in time to the great sea they once were. Ben has been partial to water, always, which is why life gets measured in terms of irrigation and rainfall and acre-feet and even the dry rainless days needed for baling hay. Even now he considers the watersheds in his brain, how water moves through tissue, how rivers of electricity pulse in stops and starts.
The pastures have never been this way, so icy, and it makes walking hard. There are no cattle to check, no fields to irrigate, nothing to doctor or wean or birth, and yet he wants to walk anyway, down the iced-over dirt road to the back of his ranch even though the walking is tough because this year the snow has not melted as it should. He has that memory thing—he can’t remember the name—and he knows it’s normal to be able to remember his childhood but not yesterday and not, on occasion, his wife’s name. Or the name of this daughter walking beside him.
He’s not supposed to feel bad about the things he can’t remember, although he is allowed to feel bad about the fact that this disease only gets worse. Deeper still, he has clarified that he’s allowed the terror and claustrophobia of wanting to say words that are dammed up inside.
From Stars Go Blue by Laura Pritchett, Counterpoint Press, counterpointpress.com. Reprinted with permission. All rights reserved.