Wildfires and shared traumas of 2020 inspired Colorado Author Laura Pritchett’s new novel

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Photo courtesy Leslie K Reeves
Laura Pritchett

The summer of 2020 is synonymous with the COVID-19 pandemic but in Colorado it has another ignominious distinction: the year of Colorado’s three largest wildfires. 

That year, the Pine Gulch fire in Western Colorado, the East Troublesome fire near Grand Lake and the Cameron Peak fire burned more than a half million acres. Laura Pritchett, author and director of the MFA in Nature Writing at Western Colorado University lives near where the Cameron Peak fire burned in Larimer County.

“I live right on what was the perimeter (of the Cameron Peak Fire) and outside my living room window, I could see all the stock trailers going down the mountain, people rushing down with their animals and their belongings, and when I'm stressed, I write. It's a form of therapy. But I also hope to share the story of the trauma we all went through in part to let others outside this area know what we were going through,” Pritchett said. “It was such a terrible summer.”

That writing produced “Playing with Wildfire,” which examines a fictional blaze based on the Cameron Peak destruction. The novel bounces between perspectives and examines how a community responds to a natural disaster and what that means for their relationship with the natural world. 

Here are four takeaways from Pritchett’s conversation with Colorado Matters about her latest book.

Have readers of this novel been sharing their own memories about devastating fires with you? 

Pritchett: They have, and that makes me really happy because that is the point of books ultimately, I think, is to connect us and allow us to share stories. And I've shared mine through this book, but I love hearing other people's stories. And in particular, I got contacted by some people who had lost their cabins up the canyon not so far from me, and they were just able to talk about the grief of having their grandmother's things burn, for example, and just that they felt seen and that I did a nice job expressing the stress and the cortisol and the angst and the fear and that that was somehow healing to them, which is really nice to hear because a lot of people say, “Oh, it's just too close to home. I can't read it. It's been too recent.” But I feel like for some people who are in the right place, it's actually the opposite of that reading. It helps you process what you've just gone through and grieve, which I think we need to do so that emotions don't get buried and ignored. 

Why is it important to examine some of these shared traumas like the summer of 2020? 

I firmly believe that what doesn't get talked about doesn't get fixed, and that's one reason, for example, I love directing this MFA in Nature Writing (program). I think people want to talk about what's happening to planet Earth so that they can fix it. And if we don't talk about COVID and wildfire and climate change and people getting past political differences and finding common ground again, then we won't get there. So I think it's really important to re-engage with difficult moments in order to move past them and move into something brighter and better. 

About COVID-19. What are novelists supposed to do about whether to include that in their work? 

Pritchett: In fact, I have a book coming out this summer in which I was asked to remove all elements of COVID (because) it dated it. The publisher argued that readers don't really want to be reminded of that time, so that's so funny. But in this novel, “Playing with Wildfire,” COVID is a huge part of the plot because that was 2020. We were going through wildfire and COVID and they both seemed so random and so dangerous, and so I felt like it just had to be there. In the meantime, I've started exploring books that are set during the pandemic, and there's quite a few coming out now, “The Sentence” by Louise Erdrich, for example, and “Tom Lake” by Ann Patchett. I am really interested in seeing more COVID books. The publishing world might not want them, but I think they're important to have in our cultural conversation. So it's an interesting dynamic going on in that world right now. 

“Playing with Wildfire” is written from so many different perspectives, including animals. Why? 

Pritchett: I've been really interested in books that take on the non-human. We love our human stories and certainly the vast majority of the book is narrated by human characters, children, teenagers, elders, middle-aged folks. So I'm very interested in the human stories, but lately I think we've seen in our fiction coming out today worldwide that more and more attention is being paid to the non-human voices, and that's intriguing. I really feel like it is time to start giving voice to creatures beyond ours.