Conversations Between Friends: Thea Prieto and Peg Alford Pursell
Thea Prieto and Peg Alford Pursell first became acquainted when Pursell submitted her hybrid flash writing to The Gravity of the Thing, a literary journal edited by Prieto, and over the years their conversations on writing have grown to include the craft of writing myths and fables, the complexities of conveying family relationships, and cross-genre expression. Here, they discuss Prieto’s recent debut From the Caves (Red Hen Press, August 2021), which won the Red Hen Press Novella Award.
Peg Alford Pursell: In From the Caves, environmental disasters and summer storms have driven four people into an underground cave at the end of the world. As the main character—a child named Sky—comes of age, so are his family members pulled away from him due to the demands of survival, an imminent pregnancy, a worsening illness, and a deadly accident. The story begins with the death of a loved one, a man named Green, who the reader never really meets, and the event will lead Sky to examine deeply the stories the characters share to keep themselves alive. This death that starts the novella is not only dramatic and essential to Sky’s development, it’s also somewhat unusual in the way it begins From the Caves with an ending. Will you share your ideas about structuring the story in this way?
Thea Prieto: You know, Green’s fall in the opening paragraph was a fairly late addition. From the Caves took on many forms throughout the drafting process, and I suppose at the heart of it, this is because it was written by two different writers, the one who was writing before my father passed away and the one who was writing afterwards. Before, From the Caves was a collage of creation myths and interrelated adventure stories, but afterwards, I discovered the cave and the characters who were trapped in a dying world. When a more recognizable manuscript began to take shape, I actually started by writing what is now Chapter Four, which is when the characters are already deep in the earth, perhaps because at the time I wasn’t quite sure of my way into the caves. Inevitably, beginning From the Caves with the death of a loved one was me being honest with myself. I also thought it was important to begin with the image or sensation of falling, to provide the reader with that kind of hanging transition, since Chapter One drops the reader very quickly into the troubled lives of the characters.
PAP: I’m struck by the distinction you’ve made of being two different writers delineated by your father’s passing. This feels true to me, having just lost my mother in recent weeks—an essential truth arrives with the experience, one we may have imagined previously but can only know when we are forced to live it. I see how beginning with Green’s death was you being honest with yourself, as you’ve beautifully and aptly described it—and I admire the fierceness and generosity in that decision. I’m looking at Chapter Four now, intrigued to trace a part of your drafting process, and am, once again, so moved by the use of language. By that, I mean not only the gorgeousness of your writing but also the way in which you make language—words, meaning, and story—primary to the characters and central to From the Caves. For example, “In the shadows, his loudest words are his oldest. Thirsty. Hungry. Afraid.” The primal nature of this character’s consciousness here also expresses, for me, what loss of a mother or father feels like. Please talk about how you see the role of language in your book.
TP: Thank you for those kind words, and I absolutely agree—there are primal losses that rear themselves whole and new out of even the most expansive imaginations. The role of language in From the Caves has a lot to do with that gulf that opens up after a death, in a family or in a landscape. The void that remains can represent many things, but for my characters, since they have to contend daily with an extreme lack of resources, the loss of others represents, in a very real sense, a loss of their past, present, and future. It’s the group’s shared energy and inherited knowledge that keeps everyone alive, and this energy and knowledge are nurtured through their storytelling. They tell the stories as a form of escapism, but the stories also reinforce their memories of the past and reestablish their roles in the present, helping them carry on.
So words become essential tools in that barren landscape, as important as the fog net that catches the characters’ drinking water. They are tools Sky doesn’t know how to use in the immediate wake of Green’s death, but Sky will learn he doesn’t need every tool at his disposal to support his family.
PAP: This idea of words as tools adds extra weight to the ancient and unreadable writing in the storeroom—to the significance of the unknowable, and our central questions about what we’re doing here together alone.
TP: Right, the writing in the storeroom exists there alongside the characters’ food and water and other essentials. The plants, barrels, and stories are paralleled in that way, in that they are all vital resources when it comes to questioning and living a human existence. I thought it was natural that most of those stories written in clay would be unknowable to the characters, but that in the end each individual would find their own unique way into those stories.
PAP: I believe this speaks to the overall structure of From the Caves, particularly in regard to how each chapter includes a story-within-a-story—except the chapter that presents Teller’s death. Teller is an elder and holder of stories, who, when we first meet him in Chapter One, insists that a story be told about Green in eulogy of his death. Can you talk a bit about both the characters’ oral tradition and your decision to structure the chapters in this way, with stories-within-stories?
TP: Absolutely, the structure in many ways derives from the original constraint I imagined for From the Caves. In early drafts of the novella, after I had discovered my characters, I was writing with the idea that none of the characters could ever leave the confines of the cave. This experiment forced a number of interesting imperatives. For one, it meant the only way the characters (and also the reader) had access to the outside world was through the stories they shared with each other, and so the stories-within-stories functioned as setting, backstory, and also a foil for the characters’ predicament—those spacious and populated worlds could highlight and inform the fundamental lack in the character’s lives.
Though I loosened a lot of my writing constraints in later drafts, especially after I got to know the characters better, I believe this imperative remains. I gave the characters more story world to roam, but the stories-within-stories are still an active tapestry the characters and the reader must engage with to understand the world they are experiencing.
PAP: I’m a believer in the power of assigning oneself constraints in writing, and From the Caves is testament to that potency. I agree that the stories are vital to the characters’ understanding of their worlds—their shared geographical and physical space and their individual interior places. In fact, the role of stories in their community is a source of conflict, with characters actively at odds with one another over their varying ideas about ascribing value to the stories. Would you talk about the significance of using this conflict to drive dramatic tension in a high-stakes survival story?
TP: The first thing that comes to mind when I think of the conflicts that arise from the stories-within-stories is the image of a concentrated ray of light passing through a crystal and refracting into a rainbow. In other words, while I was drafting From the Caves I would imagine the characters’ desperation and ignorance like a beam of light that would journey through the various stories in their oral tradition—which functioned like crystals or mirrors—and in the process each of the characters, and perhaps the reader, would emerge changed by the experience. That change in From the Caves is a refraction that fundamentally separates each character from one another. It often creates conflict among them, but it can also result in self-realization too.
PAP: Sky definitely becomes more self-realized in the final chapters, and you deftly craft this change in several ways, including an incremental shift in expanding his first-person narrative to accommodate that self-actualization. Let’s talk more about the ending of From the Caves, since it contains an unusual kind of hope in the midst of so much conflict and devastation. Do you think stories should end with a note of hope, in general? Why did you want this book to end with it?
TP: Endings are these strange things in my writing process, since I tend to know how my stories will end before I know how they will begin. I think this has largely to do with what I believe to be the nature of epiphany, as my inspiration to write tends to come from realizations that feel like destinations. That is, I’ve often found that my urge to write is the result of some understanding in my life, and the same way I had to work for that understanding, so do I believe my characters—and later, my readers—will need to pass through the unknowing to get to the knowing.
This all means I had a general idea of an ending for From the Caves once I discovered my characters and their postapocalyptic world, which is why From the Caves is somewhat like a diptych, with eulogies at both the beginning and end of the novella. It also means I had already come to some personal realizations about grief when I began writing From the Caves in earnest, and neither an ultimate happy ending (that delivered total salvation from death) nor an ultimate unhappy ending (that emphasized death over life) matched that personal understanding. Instead, I tried to strike a middle ground, that even living at the end of the world could be this vibrant, memory-filled present between two states of nonexistence, and I do believe hope exists while any kind of life exists to express it.
THEA PRIETO is the author of From the Caves (2021), which won the Red Hen Press Novella Award. She is a recipient of the Laurels Award Fellowship, as well as a finalist for the international Edwin L. Stockton, Jr. Award and Glimmer Train‘s Short Story Award for New Writers. She writes and edits for Poets & Writers and The Gravity of the Thing, and her work has also appeared at Longreads, New Orleans Review, ENTROPY, The Masters Review, and elsewhere.
PEG ALFORD PURSELL is the author of A Girl Goes into the Forest (Dzanc Books, 2019), and Show Her a Flower, a Bird, a Shadow, the Foreword INDIES 2017 Book of the Year for Literary Fiction. She is the founder and director of WTAW Press and Why There Are Words.