BEHIND THE BOOK
A CONVERSATION WITH LAURA PRITCHETT
We sat down with author Laura Pritchett to talk about the inspiration for her latest novel Playing with Wildfire, her hopes for what readers will take away from it, and all things related to art and urgency.
Torrey House Press: Hi Laura! We're thrilled that Playing with Wildfire is out in the world! Could you tell us a bit about how this book came to be?
Laura: A wildfire! In 2020, I lived on the evacuation perimeter of what became Colorado’s largest wildfire, which burned for five months and burned 208,000 acres. It was horrible for so many people in so many ways. The sky was gray, the sun glowed red, ash littered our homes. My home is positioned so that I could see the traffic coming off the mountain – trailers filled with horses and goats and belongings, and we could all see the hard work of firefighters and emergency response teams heading up. Helicopters and planes overhead, burned pine needles at my feet.
I began writing my community’s stories. When I’m stressed, I write – it’s good therapy, for one thing. It’s a way to bear witness and sit with one’s emotions. It’s also a good way to explain the situation to others, which hopefully increases empathy, awareness, and action.
Then, in the summer of 2022, I got Covid, and could barely get off my couch for about three months. Another form of suffering! And although I was quite foggy in the head, one thing I could do was start to compile all my writings and weave together a collection that came together during the next year. Something about the fog of wildfire and the fog of covid helped me clarify the collection, oddly.
Basically, I wanted to celebrate the restoration efforts that began soon after the fire. I wanted to give voice to all the heroes (sung and unsung). I wanted to shout out the amount of expertise and knowledge and dedication out there. I wanted fiction to contain the reality we live in.
THP: And what’s your relationship to Colorado?
Laura: I was born here. I left a few times, but I always circled back, like a dog that needs to circle around before settling in for a nap. My novels are all set in the contemporary and complex American West—because that is the area I know and love. I feel as attached to this valley as deeply as the roots of native grass. Each novel has been informed by the events of the day, and since my novels tend to be very place-based, it’s no surprise that many of the plot events are based on actual sufferings – drought, blizzards, floods – because these inform the lives of those who live in the West.
THP: This book is about a traumatic event . . . so I gotta ask, is it a big downer?
Laura: Ha! No. There is great skill, expertise, knowledge out there – and there is hope. I think it’s a celebration of evacuees and casualties and firefighters, of scientists and health experts, of the planet’s ability to heal.
It’s also a story of where we might go from here, it’s about healing. Nature heals the human body, and humans can help heal this land. There is an inherent mutualism in healing. As we heal, we can help nature heal, and there is co-creation in this process. That’s pretty uplifting!
But it’s also true that I felt compelled to write this book because, like the pandemic, these megafires present a new type of suffering—both for land and human. We need to look to the past, understand our present, and mindfully approach our future. We need to bear witness, clarify the science of forest and land management, and move in the direction of health and wellbeing.
"Books have a lot of power, after all. They show us how to live, or how we could live. They make us less lonely, they connect us, and they illustrate ways of being human. In a certain odd way, art is what makes us more real. So, what is my plan? To keep pushing the boundaries of the literature set in the West. I want the full spectrum and an honest gaze directed at politics, poverty, wealth, class issues, overpopulation, climate change. A good book’s job is to expose real lives, the blood and heart inside us all."
THP: Each chapter of your book is narrated by someone in the community—a Search and Rescue volunteer, a smoke jumper, a fisheries biologist, a grant writer, and all sorts of community members. Can you speak to the complex kinship and friendship that exists in this community?
Laura: This book is a bit of an ode to my actual town in northern Colorado. While I do think that kinship exists anywhere—Paris or New York or wherever—it’s also true that people in rural communities must come together in unique ways, especially in times of crisis. Political and other bifurcations exist—there are old wounds and old feuds. I’m not saying there’s not. But when things are burning up, you need everyone. Everyone’s support. Everyone’s helping hand.
That is one reason I chose to narrate the novel from many points of view—so we could see just how deeply one person depends upon another, often without the other person’s knowledge.
Plus, I just adore the form. The Dew Breaker by Edwidge Danticant, Olive Kittridge by Elizabeth Strout, and Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson are three of my models. In all of those cases, we can see complex kindship and friendship far more deeply because of the rotating POV.
THP: What other biographical background informed this book?
Laura: I grew up on a ranch one valley over, so I’ve lived most of my life on the ecotone between mountain and plains near the Colorado/Wyoming border—a diverse area of politics, backgrounds, and employment—but where people regularly need to come together. The wildlife is equally as diverse—bears and mountain lions frequent my yard, as I live at the last bit of remaining open space before suburban sprawl. Both people and wildlife flowed by my home as they sought to escape an extraordinary fire.
I have to say how vulnerable this fire made me feel, which I hope comes out in the book. As someone who was born here, I thought I’d be better at this type of crisis—more resilient, more unfazed. Plus, I know that these forests needed to burn. Not like they did—so hot—but we all knew they were a tinderbox, and it was a predictable truth that they were going to go. On top of that, I knew climate change was going to make it worse. But expecting it, and living it, are two different things. Familiarity doesn’t make it any easier—when the body senses biological threat, the result is cortisol, inflammation, pain. After all, particles were being lodged into our lungs. People were truly suffering here—in body and in spirit. Honest admissions of despair were rampant—and I wanted to voice these stories.
Which is only to say: there’s a lot of autobiography in this book. A lot of fiction, too, don’t get me wrong—but also a lot of my life is in these pages. I think others will see a lot of themselves in there too. There is so much we share universally – we are all so very connected.
THP: When did you know you wanted to become a writer?
Laura: I knew I would be a writer when I was seven. I wrote in my first diary: “I want to become a riter someday” [sic]. I was deeply in love with reading by then—and I knew I wanted to be a part of that magic—even if I couldn’t spell.
“Writing is an exercise in longing,” writes Isabelle Allende. Indeed. I write because I long to express my love for people and place and issues. I believe that stories help us perceive and possess our lives. I can better understand my love for my little valley, for instance, only after I have written about it. Writing helps me perceive my love; then it helps me hold that love and examine it and understand it. Thus I’m living a fuller, more aware life. That’s what I’m always longing for.
THP: You are known for championing the complex and contemporary West, giving voice to the working class, and “re-writing the traditional Western.” Tell us about that:
Laura: In much of our past literary history, the West has been portrayed one way: Men were the focus, they were quiet and stoic, they had a bunch of broken dreams, and they had a minority figure and a woman to help them out. Very cliché. Very incomplete. But literature has rapidly changed; we’ve evolved. We’ve quit being so romantic and nostalgic, and our literary world is more inclusive and diverse. We should write those books and we should read those books. We can be part of a movement that presses for environmental and social justice and inclusion.
Books have a lot of power, after all. They show us how to live, or how we could live. They make us less lonely, they connect us, and they illustrate ways of being human. In a certain odd way, art is what makes us more real.
So, what is my plan? To keep pushing the boundaries of the literature set in the West. I want the full spectrum and an honest gaze directed at politics, poverty, wealth, class issues, overpopulation, climate change. A good book’s job is to expose real lives, the blood and heart inside us all.
This is a gross oversimplification, but I believe we writers try to write about compelling stuff, in part, so that readers will buy our books. So we do write about the air and space and mountains and ranches in the West because that is, in part, what makes the West interesting. And frankly, we are influenced by space, terrain, weather, and nature. It’s true that when I look out my window to the mountains, my heart does a little shimmy. So we write about the people who know these places and spaces—because they, too, are what make this place interesting.
With both place and emotions, I don’t want the Hallmark-y sappy stuff. I want the real, raw truth. Always, as a writer, I am seeking to put words to the inchoate, as truthfully as I can.
THP: What do you hope readers will receive or learn from reading your book?
Laura: Re-seeing the contemporary West with renewed clarity, renewed hope for healing and transformation, companionship with eco-grief and loss from wildfire (or other environmental disasters).
I have spent my entire adult life teaching and writing environmental issues on the American West. They are all related, of course: Carrying capacity, climate change, water scarcity, wildfire, eco-trauma. 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 and walk for miles in the foothills of Colorado every day. The two things that guide me as a human being are 1) books and 2) the natural world, and they are so linked in my heart that they usually seem as one.