The spring issue of Image includes Melissa Pritchard’s story of the peculiar and incendiary real-life historical figure Pelagia Ivanovna Serebrennikova, born in 1807 in Arzamass, Russia, one of the eastern churches’ Holy Fools, figures whose wild behavior embodied Saint Paul’s description of the early Christians: “we are made a spectacle unto the world.... We are fools for Christ’s sake.” We asked Melissa how such a story came into being.
Image: How did you first become interested in the Holy Fools of the eastern churches, and Pelagia Ivanovna in particular? How did you come to write a story about her?
Melissa Pritchard: I first read about Pelagia Ivanovna and the tradition and phenomena of Holy Fools in Women of Power and Grace: Nine Astonishing, Inspiring Luminaries of Our Time, by Tim Conway.
I came to the book seeking spiritual inspiration, but Pelagia’s story, with its hundred peculiar, inflammatory details, haunted me aesthetically. The line between perceived madness and divine rapture is often tragically indistinct, but in Pelagia’s case, here was a woman whose religious culture tolerated, even honored as holy, her wild seizures of irrational, often prescient, behavior. I write fiction in part to understand what obsesses me, and when I read and studied Pelagia’s story, I was less spiritually moved than philosophically engaged. Additionally, I am deeply drawn to nineteenth-century Russian literature, and until I happened upon the story of Pelagia, I knew nothing of the eastern churches’ Holy Fools, a tradition particularly prevalent during that period of Russia’s history.
Image: What are the problems, opportunities, and responsibilities of writing fiction about a real, historical figure, as you see them?
MP: Pelagia’s story is one of eight in a new, unfinished collection titled The Odditorium. Each story takes deliberate inspiration from an unusual historical figure.
As a factual, linear, desiccated accounting of governance and war, conventional history lacks the blood and breadth of human story. One of my great pleasures in writing fiction lies in research, scavenging among ruins, attempting to revivify a time and persons according to the imaginative demands of fiction. I am not an historian; I am only lightly tethered to recorded facts.
I recently completed a commissioned biography of Arizona philanthropist Virginia Galvin Piper, and in the three years it took me to research and write her life story, I realized how inevitably inaccurate biographies are, and, by extrapolation, accounts of history. Chronology, documents, diaries, letters, recordings, portraits, and interviews shape interpretation, but the most fascinating parts of a person’s life, the unresolved conflicts, fleeting joys, hidden secrets, the pivotal crises of heart and spirit, are, intentionally or not, obscured, distorted, lost to time and forms of distance. In writing fiction, I have a chance of stumbling upon the unspoken truths of someone’s life. Facts, while relevant, are helpmeets to thornier questions of soul and psyche—what was at the metaphysical core of this person’s life? I love the freedom, the slant, and beautiful license of fiction.
Image: You’ve written often about women who are misfits, outcasts, and dreamers, uncomfortable idealists. Is there a connection, do you think, between being a bit of a misfit and having a certain kind of spiritual sensitivity? And if yes, why do you think that’s so?
MP: Since adolescence, I have felt like a misfit, a dreamer, an uneasy idealist, outcast not by others but ambivalently, relentlessly, by self. I believe we write who we are. We cannot avoid imprinting ourselves upon the page. Reading biographies, specific studies in human courage, is another passion of mine—philosophers, doctors, scientists, theologians, artists, heroes, saints, martyrs, and political visionaries. There is a certain madness to living outside the norm, the safety of community and family, to questioning the foundational nature of reality and rules. I have an uneasy relationship with the notion of sanity. I believe greatness of soul demands sacrifice, and sacrifice implies the death or deaths of the smaller self, of the overcoat of ego, of the shield of good opinion. Perhaps courage is a form of madness, a muscled leap towards greatness. Simone Weil, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Thomas Merton, Mahatma Gandhi, Terese Neumann, Mother Teresa, Paul Farmer, Mukhtar Mai, Rory Stewart, Anandamayi Ma, are a few of the many people I have been inspired by who deliberately dwell outside the realm of physical comfort, material security, social grace. At critical points, each gave up social grace for God’s grace, an act construed as madness. And for every recognizably courageous life lived from spirit, there are how many others, present and gone, with little or no fame attached to their “madness for the truth,” as Albert Camus once described his friend Simone Weil’s near-mystical temperament.
Image: Your story has an unusual ending, where we leave the main characters behind and go through a series of strange little vignettes: a seventh-century legend, a contemporary anecdote, and an observation about physics, which each contain echoes of the main story. Did you know all along that this was where the story was headed? Why did you decide that a more conventional ending wouldn’t work for this story?
MP: I did not initially know how this story would end. Like a scavenger bird, I collect human interest bits—the odd story or fact—the sad, quirky account of a young man running naked down New York streets, the impressive story of the town of Gheel, aired years ago on a Sixty Minutes segment, and books and articles exploring the shifting line between physics and metaphysics. I was drawn by the idea that mysticism may more accurately partake of the nature of reality than we, in our deadening, pedestrian habits, do. So as I came to the end of Pelagia’s life, a conventional conclusion seemed unsatisfactory. I had been concurrently rummaging among fairy tales, Grimm’s and Perrault’s, admiring the gilt but playful language, the odd spins they often took. Pelagia’s story is something in the nature of a fairy or folk tale, so I thought I would borrow from fairy tales, choosing a triune ending at once whimsical and hugely serious. Basically, the ending(s) suggest: let go of your dull, safe, unilateral reality—cross into the light, the vibration of light, move in circles, by spinning, into divine mystery, into the elusive, prodigious stream of creation. Pelagia herself may have had an effect on me.
Image: You’ve written a number of stories about religious questions. Could you tell us a little about your own spiritual journey?
MP: Years ago, at the Kentucky Women Writer’s Conference, I confessed to an audience of women that I had long had a conflict between art and service. Would I not be of more use actively helping people than writing stories that hardly anyone read? One woman raised her hand, stood up, and said she was a poet as well as an emergency room nurse, and she believed each was a form of healing. I wish I could tell her now how profoundly her comment has affected and inspired me. For one thing, I realized I could take what felt like the risk of incorporating my spiritual faith into my stories, and that any ethical question I might pose in a story could become an axis of integration. Muslim Sufis traditionally relate two types of stories, the cautionary “teaching” story and the story that poses a question that is “answered” only by opening into an even greater, reverberant question. This second type of story is the sort of fiction I strive for.
As for my literal spiritual journey, I was raised by a mother who had been cruelly excommunicated from the Catholic Church for marrying my father, a nominal Episcopalian /agnostic. Later, she was told by a priest that her two toddlers, my sister and myself, were condemned to hell. In grade school, I remember being dropped off in front of Saint Paul’s Episcopal Church in San Mateo, California, for Sunday services, then waiting outside on the curb for my father to pick me up afterwards. I remember being fiercely thrilled by the hymn “Onward Christian Soldiers,” wanting to march off to something noble and grand, some virtuous, bloodless war that vaguely invoked God.
A crucial turning point in my Episcopalian upbringing occurred when my paternal grandparents enrolled me in a private Catholic girls’ high school, the Convent of the Sacred Heart. The mother church, Sacre Coeur, is in the Montmarte section of Paris, and my college-educated teachers, Sacred Heart nuns, wore stylish black habits originally designed as mourning clothes in early nineteenth-century Paris. The moment I entered the convent, its stately architecture concealed by labyrinthine, angel-haunted gardens and cloistered living quarters, I ignited spiritually. I aimed to be a priest (what power), then a nun (less interesting), then a saint (yes!)—in that order. I devoured Catholic literature, J.F. Powers, Graham Greene, Flannery O’Connor, and yearned, with anguished romanticism, to convert. My mother, with admirable aplomb, given her understandably wild bitterness against the Catholic Church, made me promise to hold off on conversion until I was twenty-one, a promise I thought reasonable and so kept.
I went off to the University of California at Santa Barbara and after years of yoga, meditation practice, and satisfying my curiosity about astrology, psychical phenomena, and clairvoyance, after studying world religions and mythologies, sitting with world-renowned Mircea Eliade, as well as other esteemed scholars of religion, I went on to satisfy my old spiritual yearning and converted, in my forties, to Catholicism. The Archbishop of Santa Fe, who performed the ceremony at Saint Francis Cathedral, was later caught up in a great, excoriating scandal and resigned. I had liked the archbishop, and the fact of his precipitous, very public fall from grace did not disillusion me; it deepened my conviction that compassion, a tender understanding the complex and sometimes tragic contradictions in human beings, was central to the importance and power of storytelling.