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Interview: Melissa Pritchard

Melissa Pritchard's essay "A Women's Garden, Sown in Blood" appears in the November 2009 issue of The Collagist. She has received numerous awards, including the Flannery O’Connor and Carl Sandburg Awards, the Janet Heidinger Kafka Prize, several O. Henry Award and Pushcart Prizes, as well as Hawthornden International, Howard Foundation, and NEA fellowships. Her most recent fiction appears in Conjunctions, Agni, Image, Fanzine (forthcoming), and A Public Space (forthcoming). She has just completed a collection of short stories, The Odditorium, and teaches at Arizona State University. Her website is www.melissapritchard.com.

1. Can you talk about the inspiration for “A Woman's Garden, Sown In Blood”? What was on your mind while you were writing this essay?

In the fall of 2008, I came across an Air Force media piece about American military women serving on Provincial Reconstruction Teams in Afghanistan, often in remote, rural areas and at great risk to themselves. I was fascinated by this story, did more research and decided I wanted to visit one of these PRT missions for myself and interview women soldiers serving in a little publicized, reconstructive and humanitarian capacity.

It took a great deal of preparation, paperwork and persuading Air Force media people at Bagram Air Field to embed me as a freelance reporter with one of their PRT teams. Once I was cleared, they were deeply supportive and especially pleased with the positive focus of my story.  Since this piece was published in The Collagist, I have received a number of appreciative letters and emails from family members and friends of the soldiers I interviewed, particularly those who knew Sr. Airman Ashton Goodman and Lt. Col. Mark Stratton, both killed by an IED explosion on May 26th, 2009, outside Bagram Air Field.  Those letters and emails mean alot to me.

2. In describing each remarkable woman soldier, I was struck by your purposeful contrast of their military duties and their femininity. Whether through descriptions of their rooms and accessories, reading material, manner of speech or appearance—the juxtaposition is ever-present. What motivated you to set up and maintain this duality in the piece, rather than simply focusing on the soldiers' duties, actions, and surroundings?

Because I lived with these five women, even for a short time, I could not help but notice the high contrast between their private lives as evidenced in their living quarters, and the rigorous, disciplined, self-sacrificing life required by the military. I wondered how I would survive in such an environment, and was moved by how each woman managed to create a temporary haven of personal sanctuary for herself. I was impressed by how swiftly each woman could assume a combat-ready, intensively trained loyalty to a stated mission. It is probably important to say that this article, in its original form, is twice as long as it appears in The Collagist. In this shorter, compressed version, I think the contrast is perhaps more highly noted, more obvious.

3. Your introduction of Sr. Airman Ashton Goodman begins with an amusing anecdote and ends with insight that resounded eerily with me, someone who's childhood was fed on a constant diet of Disney movies. I found myself rereading this paragraph, expecting it to go on—it seems like there is a thesis here which could be elaborated into an essay of its own:

Back home, in Indiana, Goodman, twenty-one years old, owns almost every Disney movie ever made. The Disney ethos is part of America’s collective moral landscape, full of bloodless morality fables told at roller coaster speed: a spun-sugar faith in freedom, the putting of unambiguous, evil-equals-ugly monsters in their place, cautionary tales set inside a morally right side up, benign universe festooned with irresistible singing and dancing. Life’s woes cut down to digestible size. This uniquely American optimism shapes consciousness even in a war zone: An Iraq War veteran, Goodman has a straightforward, idealistic moral code understandably troubled by the ironies and inconsistencies of the war she is fighting, and by the civilization she is bravely helping to re-construct.

You bring it back to Goodman at the end, cinching it nicely and allowing your piece to continue to flow. However, this “Disney ethos” theme stayed with me until after the end of your piece. Why did you include this provocative, albeit slightly tangential passage?

I went to Afghanistan, an innocent to this particular war, and something I noticed repeatedly was the

heart-felt, sincere, palpable optimism of American military personnel – each person I spoke with or interviewed, male or female, of all ranks, in every branch of service, whether on combat missions as fighter pilots or as soldiers building schools and clinics, engineering dams, or distributing vaccines, to a one, these military people shared what I could only describe as a uniquely American faith in being able to “do the right thing,”  an optimism that could be admired for its simple faith in goodness and democracy, or be simultaneously viewed with caution, even alarm, for its glossy naivete. As I saw this in American military persons in Afghanistan, I recognized this same quality in myself. As I listened to other soldiers mentioning Disney movies, I began to reflect on the huge impact the Disney “ethos” has had on America’s national collective consciousness. Again, as Matt Bell and I worked strenuously on shortening this piece to fit his editor’s guidelines, there was a consequent shifting of emphasis and a necessary tightening of some descriptions and themes, this Disney thing being one of them. Still, I do think the way a nation is shaped by its stories, its myths, its entertainment, has a great deal to do with how it views and interacts with the world, with other cultures.  It was also the first time I saw myself as part of this enculturation, as feeling myself to be distinctly American in my own naive moral optimism. It was humbling, and I’m still thinking about it…it’s a complex subject, not daunting, but definitely disturbing.

4. What other writing projects are you currently working on?

For the last month, I’ve been in Italy, in the hills above Florence, reading and doing research on my next “project,” Violet Paget/Vernon Lee, a late Victorian, early Modernist British writer who lived in Italy from the time she was 12 until her death in 1935 at the age of 79, here in Maiano. I am staying in the villa she lived in, il Palmerino, and learning a great deal about the American and British population who lived here during that time – Vernon Lee was part of a large circle of literary and artistic persons – and her life and work are my current obsession. She was a brilliant, intimidating woman who fluently spoke numerous languages, wrote over 40 books and attracted visitors like Oscar Wilde, Henry James, Edith Wharton, Aldous Huxley as well as numerous Italian philosophers, writers, artists. Bernard Berenson, the art critic, was her friend and neighbor at Villa I Tatti, now a center of Renaissance Studies owned by Harvard University.

5. What great books have you read recently? Are there any upcoming releases you're excited about?

Well, I joined the British Institute here, and as a one month member, have been able to check out and plunge around in all sorts of books on Italian culture, art, gardens, several Vernon Lee biographies and her own books on travel and her supernatural tales – when I return home, I’ll begin reading one of  Harold Bloom’s tomes on novels as well as await the release of a new anthology of contemporary European literature – both books I am greatly looking forward to reading! Over the last couple of days, I’ve also been caught sneaking off with my daughter’s paperback copy of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night. It’s got some breathtaking language.

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