Peg Alford Pursell on prose and poignancy

Tuesday, October 1, 2019 - 12:14pm

Eli Rallo

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My 2019 New Year’s resolution was to only purchase books written by women. Given the beyond-scary statistics of male authors being published around eight and a half times more frequently than their female counterparts, I recognized the only way to beat the statistic is to support female authors and share their books. Ironically, I’d read Peg Alford Pursell’s debut collection “Show Her A Flower, A Bird, A Shadow” in 2017, prior to realizing she was joining us at Literati to celebrate her newest collection of fables and stories, titled “A Girl Goes into The Forest.” 

Pursell is known for her lyrical prose and imaginative world building. Although she’s an advanced, published writer, she did not think of becoming a writer as a young person. 

“I grew up in a small town in the Allegheny Mountains where there was no bookstore, not even in the two closest cities, and I’d never met a writer and was unaware of anyone who wrote — practical occupations were encouraged. Yet, I always wrote,” Pursell said in an interview with The Daily. Pursell’s prose writing is extremely visceral and poetic — it builds worlds around you as you read. As a young person, she won awards for her poetry, and in her adult writing career, she’s honed her poetic expertise in her prose. 

Despite her recent success, Pursell wasn’t always confident in herself as a writer. Even after her MFA graduation from the Warren Wilson College program for writers, she claims she suffered a “crisis of confidence.” Her first book was featured by Poets & Writers magazine and was also named the INDIES “Book of the Year for Literary Fiction.” Though she had a few slow moments in her early career, she has since thrived in the literary world. Her most recent collection was published in July of 2019, and she just finished putting the final touches on the manuscript for a novel. Despite the non-traditional trajectory of her career and not-straightforward, she hit a stride within the vein of story collections and magical, mysterious world building. 

She specifically hones this craft in “A Girl Goes into the Forest,” which features 78 imaginative stories broken down into nine sections. The sections each introduce a line from “The Snow Queen,” a fairy tale by Hans Christian Andersen, a favorite of hers. 

“His fairy tale is significant to me because it’s one of the few in which the girl has agency — Gerta rescues the boy, little Kaye, whose been corrupted and who everyone else has given up on. The stories in “A Girl Goes” were written over a number of years and collected for their shared thematic investigations into the mythos of the American girl, nature of consciousness and human connections to wildernesses without and within,” Pursell said. The book grapples with the complexity of female agency and feminine protagonists. 

“It’s essential that female and female-identifying writers tell our stories and share our perspectives, for though most readers are female, the largest number of authors continue to be male. This continues to make no sense, though it does reflect the reality of patriarchal capitalism, a system that hurts everyone, regardless of gender,” Pursell said. As a woman writing female characters into mainstream published literature, Pursell is aware of her place as a female writer and uses her status to tell stories about this narrative and experience. 

“The book endeavors to offer readers new ways for seeing the familiar American metaphoric landscape, in ways that I hope speak to each reader, in their own unique way,” Pursell said. It is not an easy feat to accomplish — rewriting and rediscovering the American landscape in a metaphoric and inventive way. However, Purcell takes on and executes this feat with a descriptive prose voice and stunning imagery. 

As a young woman aspiring to go into a similar field as Pursell and hoping to meet similar success, I asked her what her advice would be to her 20-year-old self regarding her career path. Her advice was poignant, and something I will personally remember as I begin to understand my desire to be a writer. 

“The most important thing I’d want any young self to know is there’s no one pathway, especially when it comes to writing and publication readership. It’s a twisting and turning route, with surprises and luck and disappointments to navigate. That it’s important to protect the writing self, especially from the publishing author self (two very different selves, oftentimes at odds), and to cultivate that solitude from which one writes and creates,” Pursell said.