Reading Melissa Pritchard’s short-story collection The Odditorium is a bit like peering into a Wunderkammer, one of those magical cabinets where the rich and adventurous used to display their treasures. The beautiful, the grotesque. The odd, the charming. The bits of bone relics of saints next to a beautiful shell, or the horn from an animal hunted and killed.
Read the last Bookslut on international adoption in 'Finding Fernanda.'
Pritchard too uses odd juxtapositions and treasures dug up from history to display in her stories. She even has bits of saints as well, as St. Dymphna, the patroness of those afflicted with mental illness, passes through to say hello, as does the holy fool Pelagia. Annie Oakley has tea with Sitting Bull, and Ripley from “Believe It or Not!” has a few tricks up his sleeve. Pritchard uses fiction to bring new life to these figures—some famous and mythologized, and others not—blending the historical and the fantastical to create a collection of great charisma.
I was happy to have the chance to chat with Pritchard about her book and the stories the dead have yet to tell.
Given the real people who show up in your stories, I guess my first question has to be, what makes you play around with them in a fictional context? Have you considered essays or something in the realm of nonfiction? And how much is the reader expected to take on faith as they're reading? How much Googling should they do once the story is over?
I have always loved history and doubted it at the same time. Doubted its perspective and its accuracy. Who decides what is to be remembered and valued, recorded and imprinted as cultural memory? What else happened, what was kept off page, what was left out, forgotten and why?
Studying history, which I did in college, left me unsatisfied, with an increasing appetite for the clandestine and the overlooked. My frustrated love of history, my former training in theater, in acting, came forward to create The Odditorium, a collection of stories in which I could explore past lives and hidden places that fascinated me, then reconfigure and reshape these into fiction.
I have always been drawn to life and to lives that take place "behind the scenes," to the notion that the really exciting news, the real truth of things, is happening backstage, in the wings, not center stage. I had written a couple of the stories before I realized where I was headed and could give myself full, happy permission to create my own fictionalized odditorium of persons and events.
Essays would confine me to facts, would maintain old, and to me, false boundaries between fact and speculation. In fiction, in writing these stories, I found an exhilarating, perfect freedom, a playful but not unserious relationship between research and imagination. As for the reader's impulse to Google, to pursue threads of fact about the people in these stories, I would say go joyfully where you are called...life is essentially unknowable, mysterious, even fey. Ultimately it escapes us.
These stories feel like they probably grow organically from the reading you do. What's your interest in eccentric history, and how do you know you've come across a figure you want to write about?
Every story in this collection is the offspring of an obsession and a haunting.
"Ecorche, Flayed Man," began on a lark, with a visit to the bizarrely beautiful 18th-century medical wax anatomies on display at the La Specola Museum in Florence, Italy. For two years, I could not stop thinking about them, or about their crown jewel, the Anatomical Venus.
As a plump tomboy in Oak Park, Ill., I plodded around in Annie Oakley chaps and a fringed vest, brandishing matching pop guns. I collected weird Western dime-store paraphernalia. One day, my mother casually mentioned that she was related to Wild Bill Cody, though she had no proof...and when I learned of Annie Oakley's deep friendship with the Lakota leader, Sitting Bull, I "knew" I had to write this story.
"Watanya Cicilia," (Little Sure Shot) sets Wild Bill Cody's popular Wild West Shows, and the consequent myth of the West, against the simultaneously occurring genocide of Native Americans. The massacre at Wounded Knee, for example, and Sitting Bull's assassination, happened at the height of the Wild West Show's fame. Was the romantic myth of the West created to conceal the true horror of what was happening? Were myths forms of forgetting, obscuring awful truths about themselves that humans could not bear?
As for "The Odditorium"—Ripley's "Believe It Or Not" was my child's portal into the weird, the bizarre, the inexplicable—a cartoon promise that life was not as mundane, as controlled and dull as it so often felt to me. In the Sunday newspaper's "Believe It or Not," cartoon, I came to believe that extraordinary places and fantastic people existed in the world. As an adult, my curiosity about the person of Robert LeRoy Ripley became its own strange adventure into the oddities of human behavior.
With every story, I underwent a kind of haunting, a sense of being pursued by its subject.
Is there a figure that you've come across in your reading that you long to write about but haven't figured out how to yet?
A few years ago, I wanted to write a novel based on Madame Helena Blavatsky, the 19th-century Russian founder of the esoteric Theosophical Society and author of Isis Unveiled and The Secret Doctrine. She influenced metaphysicians, scientists, artists and writers, including Yeats, Tennyson, James Joyce, D.H. Lawrence, Jack London, L. Frank Baum and others.
But after plowing through Sylvia Cranston's massive biography, my ambition was defeated—Blavatsky's life was sprawling, extraordinary, almost beyond credibility—I felt like a kitchen ant aspiring to attain Mt. Everest. Instead, I wrote and published a novel, Selene of the Spirits, based on the life of Florence Cook, a controversial 19th-century English medium, and Madame Blavatsky, otherwise known as "Jack," continues to elude me.
So much of history is the story of the conqueror versus the conquered. Do you think part of literature's job is to give voice to the more peripheral people of the world, who wouldn’t get a Wikipedia page?
Absolutely. It is often said that fiction champions the underdog, which would include the overlooked, marginalized, misinterpreted and misjudged. Fiction can also be a form of witness, so to rediscover and redress an individual's reputation or a peoples' place in history can provide a compelling and important motivation for a novel or short story.
Jessa Crispin is the founder and editor-in-chief of Bookslut.