“The Stories We Tell to Keep Ourselves Alive”: Wendy Bourgeois Interviews Thea Prieto, Author of FROM THE CAVES

Thea Prieto’s debut From the Caves, winner of the Red Hen Novella Award, contains an entire post-apocalyptic world that is both empty and claustrophobic. In the core days of a blazing summer, four people fight for survival with only each other and their storytelling to drive them forward. Resources are catastrophically limited; the world is broken and hard, and so are the people in it. The characters start out feeling archetypal—mother, father, child, elder—but they develop into deeply realized people who, despite suffocating proximity with one another, seem to grieve alone. In this way, Prieto’s novella pairs the fundamental and material lack the characters endure with the abundant and infinite potential of the stories they tell, exploring how we use story to condense, express, and retain essential knowledge.

Prieto writes and edits for Poets & Writers and The Gravity of the Thing, and her work has also appeared at Longreads, the Kenyon Review blog, New Orleans Review, EntropyThe Masters Review, and author Leni Zumas hailed From the Caves as a “striking, suspenseful novella about calamity, transformation, and the stories we tell to keep ourselves alive.” I sat down with Prieto during a Portland heat wave to talk about creation myths and the importance of storytelling.

Wendy Bourgeois: While I was reading From the Caves, some genres that came to my mind were eco-fiction, grimdark fantasy, metafiction, post-apocalypse sci-fi, chamber piece, YA, literary fiction, and there’s some body horror in there, too. I’m interested in what mulch you grew this story from: what were you reading? Obsessing over? Is there a novel or story that you consider aspirational?

Thea Prieto: Mulch is a great word for it. In a lot of ways, From the Caves grew out of an archeology article I read a number of years ago. The article reported that an unearthed mosaic in Rome previously thought to depict Jesus was actually a depiction of Apollo. I was reading a lot of Greek mythology at the time, and since generational shifts in power among the gods are central to those creation myths, and because Christianity grew predominant before Zeus’s heir was ever named, the fact that Jesus and Apollo—one of Zeus’s children—were confused with one another generated a lot of electricity in my mind. It got me to thinking about the many ways belief systems not only overlap in terms of form and content, or explanation of natural phenomena, but also how those stories might link together.

Perhaps it’s for this reason the mythological stories in From the Caves, which are collages of creation myths from around the world, occurred to me years before I knew the characters themselves. I even imagined one or two of the stories as stand-alones, but they were all compressed to parables when the narrative structure with the cave and its occupants developed. One very inspirational text was The End We Start From by Megan Hunter, with its lyrical prose and the way the story connects the end of the world with motherhood, exploring water as both a force of destruction and creation.

WB: I responded very strongly to the pregnant character Tie in From the Caves for that very reason. Motherhood is so primally loaded and when she says that she doesn’t want to be special, I thought Yes. That’s exactly it. And it explained why I find myself occasionally aggravated at how pregnancy and motherhood are such magnets for symbols and projections—did you see that movie Children of Men, where the climatic, war-ending moment comes when a woman gives birth? It’s moving and all, but there’s something about that pressure, to give hope to the entire human race, to be divine, even, that feels cosmically unfair, and making the transition from not-mother to mother is a death of sorts. It’s great to see a character express that so economically. Mark too seems to be drowning under the weight of his bewildered resentment at finding himself in this impossible role as provider and protector.

That said, the reader is closest to Sky in the story. Why choose Sky as the reader’s proxy eyeball instead of another character?

TP: You know, lensing this story was difficult from the start, not just because of the stories-within-stories and the narrative telescoping between third- and first-person, but also because I had a hard time deciding whether to write From the Caves from Sky’s perspective or Tie’s. I entertained some large, unwieldy plans early in the drafting process, but like with many of my writing projects, those satellite ideas eventually dropped away in favor of the characters and their lived experiences. For example, the lives of the characters in From the Caves are defined by an overall lack of resources that forces them to excavate their oral tradition for information. It seemed appropriate to me that the reader would share my characters’ informational claustrophobia, and I realized a more limited point of view, specifically a child’s point of view, would allow the narrator and the reader to learn and discover more of the story world together.

So in the end I went with Sky’s perspective, though I believe the decision opened up more options for Tie, too, in that her age no longer predetermined her death when she went into labor. I hope it adds more of the unexpected to Tie as well, especially in the context of that magnetized motherhood symbolism you mentioned.

WB: Sky seems like the right lens for a variety of reasons, but mostly because he provides the most insight into the other characters while still seeing his world as essentially mysterious and mythic. Was there a character that felt particularly other to you, or that you had to struggle to identify with? Do you ever dislike or resent your characters, and does it bother you to see them suffer?

TP: For this project, I challenged myself early in the writing process to not only dislike all of my characters but to dislike them equally, which was something I hadn’t tried before. Maybe I knew early that on my character were going to suffer, and so leaning into their worst characteristics helped me write their stories, in that their behavior towards one another made much of their suffering inevitable. It was an interesting experiment, because once I was on that journey with the characters, they endeared themselves to me and showed me their strengths in their flaws—later drafts of From the Caves were kinder to Sky, Mark, Tie, and Teller. Perhaps this is why the character who feels the most other to me is Green, because he dies early in the journey—in the opening paragraph—and because he represents death itself in various ways.

WB: I think that mirrors the process of reading From the Caves, actually. Green seems like he might be the “best” person, because we’re seeing him through the eyes of the characters who miss him, and he’s the storyteller—writers always like those! And also, as you mentioned, by the time we meet him, Green is no longer suffering from the character warping impact of lack of resources. I found Mark to be the most “unlikeable” but also the one I most recognized myself in. Maybe he seems particularly modern to me. He’s got all the energy of a working poor parent—cranky, resentful, lonely, and driven by this nearly impossible goal of improving his family situation. His work ethic is poisonous to himself and others, and also an absolute requirement.

Much of the book is about “work.” It is easy to romanticize concrete labor that directly provides food, water, and shelter, as opposed to the weird, abstract labor that most of us do (everyone these days has a farm fantasy). From the Caves does a good job of showing the terror of “living off the land.” Did the process of writing this story develop your thinking or help you negotiate your own attitudes about the kinds of work you do, would like to do, or think is “best” for people and the environment?

TP: That’s interesting you mention labor, since at the time that I was laboring with early drafts of From the Caves I was also in the early stages of family grief, which included its own emotional, mental, and physical labor. Back then I would have most recognized myself in Mark, too, his toxic work ethic before the “impossible goal of improving a family situation.” My thinking certainly developed as I continued to write and I began to make friends with my grief, or at least with the bodiless but evolving memory energy my loved ones had been transformed into. In this way, From the Caves is an exploration of how a body labors inward in the face of fear and sorrow and that which is lost to the past, and also how it can labor outward to create life and new stories and honor others or landscapes or oneself. In terms of what’s best, at least for myself, I think it’s an overlap of that inward and outward work, whether I’m laboring in my life as a family member, writer, writing instructor, or seasonal agricultural worker back in California, and it’s largely thanks to writing From the Caves that I’m more aware of the labor in my life as this Rubik’s Cube I can pick up and put down throughout my day.

WB: That dual activity reminds me of a few other juxtapositions in From the Caves. So far we’ve been talking about the more naturalistic elements of the story like relationships and work, and I found those elements particularly compelling set against such a bleak background. Some of the most interesting parts of this world are the myths the characters use to survive. It reminds me of a memoir I once read in which the author wrote that telling the story of her childhood required magical-realistic elements, because without them, it would have been too depressing to survive. How did you develop the mythology in From the Caves, and how did you decide which myths would be fragmentary and which would be explicit?

TP: Deciding which parts of the characters’ oral storytelling tradition would be fragmented versus continuous had mostly to do with balancing what I believed to be the characters’ needs and the reader’s knowledge of our present times. That is, if people sometimes seek fantastical narratives as a survival mechanism, then I imagined certain aspects of the oral tradition in From the Caves that proved less escapist or less useful to the characters (and to the generations that came before them) would end up fragmented or erased. It means as the gap between magical metaphor and stark reality closed, and the connection between myth and artifact became more terribly clear to the reader, I figured the mythology would become vague or break down because of the characters’ willfully or accidentally lost knowledge, and the reader would need to fill in the blanks with their own understanding of current events and history.

So in a way, a portion of From the Caves occurs off page, in the mind of the reader. Belief systems are collective and they are reflective, and in the case of From the Caves the mythologies are meant to reflect what’s missing and highlight what remains, like the negative space in a photograph. It’s up to the characters and the reader to interpret the resulting image, and decide together what stories we tell—and what those stories tell us about ourselves—in desperate times.

Wendy Bourgeois is a poet, writer, and writing instructor at Portland Community College and Portland State University. She is the author of The Devil Says Maybe I Like It (Propeller Books, 2018), a collection of essays on poetry, craft, and philosophy, and her poems have appeared in Cirque, Portland Review, and other journals.

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