By Liz Blood
Liz chatted with Erin Pringle-Toungate recently to discuss her stories, her inclination to focus on death, her choice of place, and a wedding dress.
LB: Tell me a little about the inspiration for “The Wandering House,” the chapbook we’ve just published.
EP: It came about several years ago. I had written a novella called “Midwest in Memoriam” and it was about children riding their bikes on country roads, but I had never published it. When the Awst feature came up, you needed original work. I went back to “Midwest” as a possibility and I saw a lot of major problems. I thought I’d just work those out. I didn’t have anything new. But, that didn’t work.
The wandering house was something I first heard about over a decade ago when I was teaching a writing class at Texas State University. We were exploring folklore. I was looking for new-to-me folk stories from Illinois, where I’d grown up, to give my students an idea about urban legends and folk stories. One of the stories was the “vanishing” or “wandering house.” So, the folk tale is the same in my story: it’s a house that has been rumored to appear at different times over the past few centuries, no one goes into it, and then it disappears. There are other folk stories like that—they’re very patterned—like the vanishing hitchhiker, or the vanishing Jesus, if you’re in Utah. Anyway the story captured my imagination and I threaded it through the novella.
When Awst called me, I started reshaping it. The story needed a conflict and so I thought, why would the house be wandering?
LB: Meth plays a large role in the story. Why meth?
EP: Meth didn’t come on the radar in Illinois until I was a teenager, and not to the degree that it’s talked about now. Now, there’s almost total awareness of it. Several people from the town that I grew up in went missing due to it. There was a body that was found, there’s a billboard listing people that went missing—drug deals gone bad. It was one of those strange things that go on in real life that you’re not aware of it. Because the Illinois landscape and how things have changed there were on my mind, so was meth.
LB: What are the kids in the story out looking for?
EP: When I was growing up in this very very small town, you’d go country cruising. That’s just what you did, as soon as you knew someone with a car. It’s a teenager tradition to drive the country roads. And you’d drive out to “troll bridge,” or the old slave cabins, or out to where there used to be an insane asylum. So kids drive around for hours trying to avoid whatever it is they’re trying to avoid at home and talk about that scary stuff.
LB: How does Illinois, the place or the landscape inspire your writing?
EP: Sometimes I’ll be in Spokane, WA, and something will be interesting to me and so I’ll start a story in Spokane and then think, “hmmm, no, let me do this in Illinois because I know that.” So, I’ll shift the landscape and use what I know from there.
I don’t want to accidentally lie. I’ve only lived in Spokane for five years and it’s easier to accidentally lie or use narratives that already exist about a place that you don’t understand. You might use those for a story and say something that you wouldn’t think is true if you knew the place, like knew it, knew it. I really feel like I know where I grew up. I was in the same town for 18 years. I know when I’m not lying about what it is to want to get the hell out of there and all of the dark stuff that went on. And the inequality — it’s here, too, and in San Marcos when I lived there, and in Chicago, but I understand the Illinois landscape better, so I can be more honest with my characters. I understand them better when they’re there.
LB: You told me your dad died when you were 17, your best friend when you were 27, and your sister when you were 29. Does death show up in your writing?
EP: All of my stories deal with it. I think even the one or two that don’t, still deal with dark things. My daily experience is that no one really talks about death and a lot of things I read also aren’t very aware of death — there’s not a real focus on what it is to experience someone dying or to have those thoughts or to know that you’re going to die. Sometimes I think people must think “why is she still writing about that?” or I worry that they think there must be something wrong with someone who writes about death so much.
LB: Are you familiar with “memento mori?” It means to remember that you must die, or will die, and has been used in art to remind people that life is transitory, but they’re alive now.
EP: That’s perfect. I love that idea. I think the Day of the Dead is fantastic. I’m not trying to say hold every moment precious, but I do think there’s such an absence of death in our culture and knowing how to talk about it. That it really comes to light when it’s happening and it’s your person who has died—you see that no one knows what to say. They know the script, the ritual, but it feels so hollow.
My interest in stories and in living is to explore what it means to be alive and to explore your identity when death is present. In some way, I’m writing to my former self—the one before she experienced such loss—to show the reality of it because it is i think it’s so ignored. It’s like death doesn’t exist, so when you finally experience it, it’s a total mind fuck. You have no idea how to deal. I’m not trying to romanticize it, but to show the complexity of it, and I can’t think of anything more important to write about. I want to write about what it means to be a creature who dies and loses people and what love means within that context and what God means within that context. I have a hard time writing about things that don’t gravitate towards that.
LB: Tell me about your story, “Digging.”
EP: I wrote that when I lived in Texas and that was relatively close to 9/11, maybe a few years after but still pretty recent. War was very much on my mind. I would be walking through San Marcos and imagine buildings exploding since that was what was happening in Iraq, or I’d be at a traffic light imagining I was all of a sudden dead because that’s what was happening there. I needed to write a story for a workshop I was in and I’d recently been watching crime TV. There was a story where a family member had been killed and buried in a barn and the person who discovered it said he went into the barn and thought, someone’s been digging. That line captured my imagination. I was also in a children’s lit course and was reading a lot of fairy tales, so I combined Hansel and Gretel with that line and with war.
LB: I noticed a lot of the dead people in your stories were buried or dying within a landscape—like a field, a stream, the woods.
EP: My parents were 42 and 46 when they had me. There is 16 years between my sister and I and 22 years between my brothers and me. When I was very young, my brothers would show me horror movies. I don’t know how old I was when I saw “Psycho.” Pretty young. Being generous, I’d say I was seven. I saw “It” when I was 9. So, I remember watching “Psycho” when I was a kid and I remember the effect it had on me. Our house was split-level and when you went down the second flight of stairs there was the basement. I would imagine that there would be bodies buried in that room, behind the door, because in “Psycho 2” and “3” that happened. I remember swinging in my tire swing and thinking the dirt beneath had bodies buried in it. My school bus drove past a cemetery twice a day. So I was very aware of that, too. When I see a ground I think, what is buried there? What has someone covered up?
LB: What writers feed your writing?
EP: Poetry. I read poetry. I like Jack Gilbert. I picked up Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. That was fantastic. I read a lot of essays on disability and also children’s literature, like old fairy tales and Shaun Tan. He’s doing some really cool stuff. I’m not a very avid reader, which I know I’m not supposed to say. The right answer is read, read, read, but I don’t have that much time. I look at a lot of photography. My dad was an amateur photographer so I subscribe to a magazine now and check in on Lens Culture. That’s very fulfilling. That calms and inspires me. Paintings, too. My dad was always showing me paintings.
LB: What about Awst appealed to you?
EP: Awst suddenly appeared in my life and now I have a brand new story that I really love and wouldn’t have if Awst hadn’t showed up. I’ve taken time off from teaching full-time and so I’ve been writing full-time for the first time since, well, a long time. I’ve been in my head about it. It’s hard to do. I don’t have deadlines and it’s kind of lonely, not like i can’t handle solitude, but it can kill the confidence. It’s been a new experience in lacking confidence in my writing. So, when Awst showed up, it was like ahh, ok, good, thank you. It’s a great boost and it reminded me why I’m doing this. If I could marry a press, it would be Awst. I have my dress planned.