For husband-and-wife author duo Sara Pritchard and Kevin Oderman, the settings in which their tales take place are more than just backdrops for plots – they're living, breathing characters unto themselves.
Pritchard, a former Northeast Pennsylvania native and current faculty member for Wilkes University's graduate Creative Writing Program, will return to the area on Thursday, June 20 to discuss and read from her new short story collection, “Help Wanted: Female,” at an event to mark the book's release at Wilkes' Kirby Hall.
“All the stories (in the book) are set in Morgantown, West Virginia, where I live now,” Pritchard said.
“Morgantown is not so different from Wilkes-Barre. Years ago, just like Wilkes-Barre, it was a coal town and it was very prosperous, but now the economy is very different. Downtown Morgantown is a lot like downtown Wilkes-Barre. You see a lot of the same desperate people around. It's those kinds of desperate people that walk through my stories.”
The unifying theme for the collection is one of women either seeking or offering aid. And though there are undercurrents of feminism and explorations of gender politics throughout (the title “Help Wanted: Female” is a reference to the blatantly sexist classified ads Pritchard recalls seeing in her youth), the author places greater emphasis on the “Help Wanted” part over the “Female” part.
“A bigger theme in the book is the theme of loss. The first story, 'Two Studies in Entropy' (which earned Pritchard the 'New Letters' Alexander Cappon Award for Fiction and the Readers' Choice Award in 2008, along with a Pushcart Prize in 2009), is about a woman who accidentally blows up her house setting off flea bombs. So on the surface, that story is about the loss of the home,” Pritchard said.
“Other stories are about the loss of a husband, loss of a love, loss of a job, and the last story is about the loss of everything material.”
Despite all her talk of desperation and loss, Pritchard is quick to acknowledge her stories' intentional blending of tragic occurrences with lighthearted comic relief. It's something that sets Pritchard's writing apart from the drier darkness of her husband, Oderman.
“Whenever we read together, people come up to us after and say, 'You're married?' because our writing is so different,” Pritchard said, chuckling.
Oderman, who also teaches in Wilkes' Creative Writing Program, will join Pritchard at the “Help Wanted: Female” launch event to discuss and read from his own novel, “White Vespa,” a melancholic drama about a grief-stricken American expatriate who encounters a woman haunted by her past while exploring the Greek island of Symi.
To bring the evocative locale to life on the page, Oderman recalled his own time spent abroad.
“I'm a traveler, and Sarah's a stayer-at-home,” Oderman said. “Maybe someday we'll do a book together where I write about the things I experience traveling and she writes about the things she experiences at home.”
Ultimately, though, just as a shared interest in themes of loss motivates the couple's seemingly disparate tonal tastes, whether they are writing about Symi or Morgantown, an intimate understanding of the metaphorical resonance of a story's setting is inherent in both authors.
“Underneath the obvious differences, we actually see the world in very similar ways. Deep down, we're in accord on the big questions,” Oderman said, before adding with a laugh, “We don't ask each other why we're married.”