Lauren Pretnar’s “Small Country” is featured in THE2NDHAND’s 28th broadsheet and is pure proof of Pretnar the writer’s narrative gifts. The piece is told in the first person from the point of view of an unnamed woman as she travels to and attends a wedding, all the while searching her soul for evidence of genuine happiness. My co-editor C.T. Ballentine described that soul searching as typical of any drunken wedding, and sure, that’s the case, but Pretnar’s touch is light and quick and her sense of reality sharp — the story feels hot, fresh, now.
But that’s not all Lauren Pretnar’s about, as I found out in a short interview conducted after our publication of the short: a dedicated social caseworker by day and a stage manager, director, you name it, for various Chicago theaters. For more from the writer, visit her THE2NDHAND.com archive. And don’t miss her June 26 at Ronny’s as part of our release reading and party: it’s a wedding!
Todd Dills: Lauren, if I’m remembering correctly, you lived in a distinct array of locales before you made Chicago home, yes? As that multi-locale past seems to play out to one degree or another in “Small Country,” I’m wondering if you might give us the Brief History of Lauren Pretnar.
Lauren Pretnar: It’s true — I’ve lived all over. I grew up in Connecticut and left for North Carolina when I was seventeen, where I went to Guilford College for a few years. Once I decided to study writing I moved back to Connecticut for a year and then onto Boulder, Colorado where I ended up living for five years. I came to Chicago to earn my MFA at The School of the Art Institute and planned to move back west to Albuquerque once I had graduated but it turns out that Chicago is my home. I’m still surprised by how much I love it here. I actually did leave after graduating — I lived in the Bay Area for about a year and a half — but I missed Chicago terribly and returned last July with every intention of sticking around.
TD: When/where in all of that relocating did “Small Country” come into being? What was the original inspiration, knowing as we’ve talked about that much of your fiction is autobiographical?
LP: I had just decided not to relocate but to stay in Chicago when I began writing this piece. “Small Country” is indeed quite autobiographical, but the original inspiration was that I needed something to perform at SAIC’s graduate reading one week after the wedding. I spent much of my free time during the trip trying and failing to write a piece about my sister. I finally gave up during the reception and began taking notes about what was going on around me. When I got back to Chicago I dashed out a few raw pages, read them at the event, and got such wonderful feedback that it became a backburner project for years. I expanded the piece while living in Oakland and have been tinkering with it ever since.
TD: You’ve mentioned to me that you’ve performed it several times. What are your thoughts on the divergence of readers/listeners thoughts about the story, if any?
LP: After the graduate reading, I pulled out “Small Country” for at least three or four more events. Then it had a stint as a monologue for six weeks in a series of three short plays. This was all back when it was a short little four-page lark, a quick and dense lyrical shot, not the expanded story it’s become. Happily, audience reactions often mirrored my intentions with the piece, which is to say that people often responded with compelling emotional abstractions. What moved people seemed to be the sensory stuff, the feel of things, and I tried to stay true to that when expanding the piece. I’ve always intended the narrative of “Small Country” to conjure that dreamscape of northwestern fog, to gut-punch readers with sound and silence and color and warmth, rather than to focus on more concrete and cerebral elements like plot.
For the record, the most memorable reaction I’ve gotten to the piece was from one of the actors in that series of three short plays. He heard me perform it night after night and finally, toward the end of our run, told me backstage that he wanted to tattoo the text backward on his face so he could read it whenever he wanted. I’ll never forget that.
And also for the record, I absolutely love reading this piece aloud. It’s unbelievably pleasurable for me.
TD: It will be interesting to see how the event on the 26th goes — you’re reading “Small Country,” right? I’m wondering, in light of your references to “the wedding” how very much of the story is autobiographical, after all? Or are you speaking of the story in the time-honored fashion of many a fiction writer — we spend so much time with our fictional characters that we end up talking about them as the real people that they become?
If the story is largely autobiographical, what’s your personal stake in it? Is there a sort of ethical question you grapple with when placing the intimate details of folks’ lives on the page?
LP: I will be reading it [at the event] and truly can’t wait.
You’re making me nervous with his question. I have no problem confirming that “Small Country” was inspired by a real-life wedding and that each character is based on an actual person, but I don’t think I want to go further than that in my breakdown of reality versus fiction. My personal stake in the piece is something I try not to think about too hard, not because I’m unconcerned with potential ethical dilemmas but because it’s hard enough to trust myself and my intentions as a writer without freaking out about who might react negatively to a perceived portrayal of themselves, blah blah blah. Not to belittle the issue and not to say that I give such concerns no thought whatsoever, but my friends and family know I’m a writer, know I tend to write about the people I love. They stick around and talk to me anyway. I like to think they trust me to mine our interactions with delicacy and respect if I do so at all. As precarious as the publication of intimate details might be, I feel confident in my ability to retain an appropriate level of confidentiality when necessary.
TD: I didn’t mean to ask for specifics, of course, but was interested because as a fiction writer and a journalist I do the same things, essentially, in two entirely separate contexts, which inevitably influence one another. And in the fictional realm, I take an attitude toward these issues similar to your own. My way of dealing with them has been not to hew too close to the actual situations as they happen but to recombine, to transpose situations onto situations where they fit. I guess the right word would not be “ethical” necessarily but “personal.” How does an artist wrestle through personal (and in other cases social) pressures to stay true to some kind of need or desire to represent reality in a meaningful, truthful way?
LP: I’m glad you brought up the influence of writing fiction upon journalistic endeavors and vice versa. I’m of the opinion that reality is not only stranger than fiction but far more compelling if written well. That said, I almost solely read fiction. It’s great to come upon content so juicy it hardly needs crafting but I’m pretty sure it’s not the origin of a story or the literal truth behind it that moves me. I’m a sucker for brilliant execution, for the thrusting forward of a story that someone found hiding and took the time to examine and sculpt. As you know, I’m currently working on a series of short shorts that are extraordinarily personal and, essentially, true. Writing them feels like taking dictation straight from my memory. I’ve grown into a writing strategy much like what you describe; recombining and transposing to whatever degree feels natural on a story by story basis. For me, staying true to this naturalness is the most important factor behind writing work of which I’m proud, and these new pieces demand as little tampering as possible. Which is in some ways a simple and lovely process but, to be honest, there’s a lot of gut-wrenching terror involved. It would be much more comfortable to write around certain things, but I strive to give absolutely no thought to who may or may not read a piece until I’ve got a solid draft. After that, my goal is to alter things as little as possible based on these questions of ethics and the personal. The whole thing feels at times like a big dare. Run naked through the neighborhood and all that.
TD: It’s such an interesting big issue to be thinking about in this day and age — with the profusion of literary writing billed as memoir and all that that involves. To my mind most good memoirs might just be good novels where the subjects were sufficiently into the artist’s vision to where he/she didn’t feel the need to change the names. The short shorts you describe fit this mold, too, in a general way. How many are currently part of the series? Any idea how far you’ll take it?
LP: I’ve finished five so far and am in the midst of writing four more but my list of potential jumping-off points for future shorts is ridiculously long. And speaking of things I try not to think about while writing, my accumulation of these pieces is more and more a gesture in the direction of a book-length work. But we’ll see. For now I’m committed to the low-pressure strategy of writing each short to stand alone. Novel-writing in disguise.
TD: In the summer of 2003, as a way to keep myself writing whilst whiling away
the time working door at a bar [Skylark, Cermak and Halsted, Chicago], I began a semi-fictional diary that told the story of, yes, a doorman, with the goal of completing an entire year’s worth of entries. I got through maybe three months in this manner, but the result I’ve mined considerably toward other stories and the lot now comprises a large part of a novel currently in progress. The games we play with ourselves when easing into new work I always find fascinating. Other than the short shorts, are there any other projects in your past you’ve approached in particularly novel ways? What were the driving
LP: The best thing that can happen to me as a writer is to be given a deadline. I’m an extremely deadline-driven person in every aspect of my life, which is both good and bad. I can get a ton of work done in a ridiculously short amount of time if something’s at stake or if someone’s expecting my project’s completion, but if I’m writing a piece at my leisure with no concrete external impetus I’ll tinker forever and eventually get bored with the thing and give up. It’s really tough for me to write in snippets, too. I’m the kind of person who disappears for a week or two, doesn’t eat or sleep or answer the phone, and then reappears in the world with a new full-length play.
TD: What’s life and writing like for you today in Chicago? You’ve got commitments in various theaters off and on, another part-time job if I remember correctly — how do you find the time to write? Perhaps you’re getting used to writing in short snippets, eh?
LP: I’ve been asking myself that same question for a long time: How do I find the time to write? I’m a full-time crisis outreach worker and case manager for folks who are struggling with homelessness and mental illness. I’ve been a social worker for eight years now and I love the field but it’s challenging to balance the profession with my artistic life, especially because there’s a lot of juggling to be done with the artistic side of things alone. Besides trying to write my own work, I jump at the opportunity to work in theatre. Over the years I’ve written, directed, produced, acted, teched, and stage managed both independently and with fringe companies like Curious Theatre Branch and Hermit Arts. The part-time job you mention is my work as stage manager with Teatro Luna, a brilliant Latina theatre group I’ve been dying to work with for years and finally — luckily — fell into. I just signed back on to stage manage their next play and I’m absolutely thrilled, but what’s funny is that I’m accidentally making a name for myself as a stage manager. To be honest, it’s my least favorite job in theatre and I’ve turned away three gigs this week alone. I do it with Teatro Luna because I adore them and will do anything to work with them, but as a part-time job it’s a ton of hours for very little pay, which mimics social work. I tell people: I have the two lowest-paying and highest-intensity careers that exist; I am a fool. It’s a wonderful problem to be faced with a spoil of riches but a problem nonetheless. It hurts to turn down paying theatre jobs, to back away from the opportunity to spearhead a new theatre company, to force myself into bed by eleven on weeknights when I’m dying to write because I don’t want to be a sleepy mess for my clients in the morning. But I’m terribly happy and, yes, I find creative ways to keep writing such as breaking down larger projects into bite-size pieces that stand on their own until the time comes to gather them up and fashion a larger work.