Go Forth: Ruchika Tomar’s A Prayer for Travelers

Go Forth is a series that offers a look at contemporary literature and publishing, started by Brandon Hobson and Nicolle Elizabeth in 2012.

The imagery in Ruchika Tomar’s debut novel, A Prayer for Travelers, comes into focus like signposts on the side of the road, approaching the reader from beyond the bend of the prose. A lake-shaped sweat stain, a heart drawn in the condensation on a glass, a bright blue building shining like an oasis. And then: a postal worker suffocated by the heat, dead in her bed. A house full of snakes. This is a story of reversals; it’s a story that moves in reverse, switches gears, doubles back, and jumps forward. It defies the laws of roads, while obeying the air that shimmers where the road meets the horizon on a sweltering day: things are not exactly as they seem. 

Tomar’s book is as lethal as desert heat, but it’s not only hot—it runs warm too, attuned to the emotions and hearts of its characters. The plot centers around an unlikely friendship between two young women: the introspective Cale and the irresistible Penny. A tragedy upends their chronology, and Cale is suddenly the central character in a Western noir, in search of Penny, who has gone missing. Cale spends the novel looking for her friend, but in fact, the book is full of characters who have gone missing in one way or another, a tapestry of ways in which the people we love disappear. By centering the mystery on Cale and Penny’s bond, Tomar imbues the peculiarities and resentments and ellipses of female friendship with the power and romance and grand geography of the book’s landscape. In her hands, friendship becomes both legend and lore, the fable we need to travel through the world.    

—Hilary Leichter

I. “A Negotiation between ghosts”

THE BELIEVER: Tell me about the inspiration for the invented town of Pomoc, Nevada.

RUCHIKA TOMAR: The problem with writing about a mythic, storied place like the West is twofold. First, there’s already so much history about the West that people approach these stories with preconceived notions about what they’re going to look like, and sound like, and who can embody them. Secondly, certain recent developments have skewed the perception of the West in the national consciousness in strange ways that war with history. Both of these things limit the diversification of a modern Western narrative. The free-love Bay Area of the 1970s still lives in our imagination, despite being completely at odds with the modern, lifeless iteration of the Bay as a gentrified Silicon Valley. Both of these realities still exist if you know where to look, as well as a million others you never hear about. But trying to write from either of those primary narratives becomes a negotiation between ghosts, and a challenge emerges to include enough insular knowledge to resonate with readers who are familiar with the West, as well as  enough new detail to paint a full portrait of the region for readers who come to the book fresh. As a writer, I always want to be able to create a singular experience for the reader. Creating a fictional town— Pomoc—was my way of wiping the slate clean and limiting certain variables that might jeopardize either type of reader’s ability to fully inhabit Cale and Penny’s world as they experience it.

BLVR: I love this line: “Oh, yes—the west takes care of its own in these small, forgotten towns. We build in us still those cursed dreams of gold.” What’s specifically inspiring to you about the landscape and character of the West, and the desert?

RT: I grew up in a southern California town located about two hours from the border and three hours from Vegas. When I was growing up there in the late eighties and early nineties, it was still undeveloped, and I have vivid memories of driving around vast stretches of parched landscape that seemed to emphasize our psychic isolation. The West has always been this interesting confluence of both nothing and everything at once; a gambler’s playground amidst miles of desert. In some ways, because we all have cars in the West, it seems impossible to believe. If you own wheels, you should be able to leave, right? All you have to do is drive. But there are these invisible socioeconomic, racial, and class boundaries that keep people hemmed into their particular corners of the world, and our borders—both physical and emotional—are haunted. Even today, the West’s lawless, frontier mentality is still very much alive.

BLVR: Thinking about deserts, I can’t help but think about illusions, and the mirages. Penny is something of a mirage in the book—she’s mostly absent, reconstructed by Cale, a sort of person or thing to run to in the distance—and yet she’s a flesh-and-bone, real and solid character. Cale is looking for Penny, but she’s also looking for herself. “So I would double myself, I would sever,” she thinks, “two hearts, one body.” If fiction is a mirage, how do you still make it feel so real?

RT: I think what’s real is so different for everybody, and so much of life is negotiating with illusions—both our own and other people’s—that they become no more or less tangible than a coffee cup, or a friendship. They are what you make of them; they are what you say they are. If fiction is a representation of reality, then our real-life investment in illusions must also transfer to the page, and vice versa. We’re always negotiating between our public and private selves; the person we think we are and the person other people think we are. So much of life depends on this transmutation, our ability to fulfill varied temporary roles; daughter, mother, friend, lover.  All these roles are limited, yet we rely on them. How is it that we’ve been living in this world all of our lives and yet when we hear the news, we’re still surprised to hear of evil, of pain, as if these things aren’t our constant companions? It’s a survival mechanism, I suppose. Ultimate truth is too much to bear. Our illusions are essential to our survival. Fiction isn’t unreal, it’s just reality operating within limits.

II. “I’m Not Thinking About Myself at All”

BLVR: Tell me a little bit about the structure of the book. The chapters are out of order and out of sorts, sort of like the protagonist, Cale. How did you decide to organize the novel this way?

RT: I’m glad you picked up on the parallel between structure and character, because for me, that’s what it’s all about. The story is written in a first-person POV from Cale’s perspective, so the story has to be true to her. If you tell twelve people the same story and ask them to repeat it back to you, you’re going to end up with twelve different stories. Our sense of the world is informed by our experiences, and Cale’s experience is fracturing. This novel often gets described as a coming-of-age story, but I think more than that, it’s a coming-into-womanhood story, with all the particular challenges that entails within a societal framework that still devalues women and female experience. There are a lot of ways in which the classic linear narrative, as much as I enjoy it, is less reflective of modern experience. The structure of Prayer is oratory and elliptical in a way that honors the way I or my female friends tell stories—especially stories of trauma, which can be difficult, if not impossible, to revisit in their entirety.

BLVR: The elliptical structure sometimes reverses the order of cause and effect: we see a bruise before an assault, pills before a sickness, and the empty space a missing dog occupied before even learning about the existence of the dog. Did you write the effects before the causes, or vice versa? Where did the writing start, and how did it inform where the book traveled?

RT: The experience of everyday life often feels fractured and nonlinear. We’re constantly distracted, often interrupted, and it’s rare that anyone can still for hours anymore. Our entire lives are lived in a state of anxiety, which I suppose is my excuse for not always being able to write in a linear fashion.

I did try to write this novel straight through, and it worked for the first early draft or two, but as I started making connections they didn’t always occur to me in order. I tend to get images of characters or scenes that just kind of pop into my head—some subconscious part of my brain that’s working faster than me—and I have to figure out how to write toward or away from them, and which ones should be treasured or discarded. Which is to say, sometimes the causes appeared first, and sometimes the effects. Often there were gaping holes in the story that for years I didn’t know what to do with.

Part of the struggle of writing is figuring out the story twice: once for the characters, and a second time for yourself, as the author. Even though at some point I needed to reconstruct a linear timeline of the book, that wasn’t what Cale needed to be able to tell her story.

BLVR: Talk to me about The Prayer for Travelers (not the title of the book, the actual prayer). Was this the seed for the story?

RT: Actually, the title is a weird bit of kismet. I have a very hard time with titles, and the book was unnamed for most of its ten-year incubation. I tried very hard to think of a title that fit the book but it was hopeless.

I am neither Penny nor Cale, but like the girls, solo travel has always been clarifying to me. Over the years when I found myself on the road, I often tried to recall a prayer card I found in a motel room in Tennessee in my early twenties (at that time, I was working on a different novel, which failed, and had no relation to Prayer), but I could never remember the exact words or why it stayed with me. I didn’t take the card with me from the motel so I had a hard time trying to find it again. Periodically over the years I would Google some combination of words or phrases I remembered and hope for the best, but no luck. One day when this novel was nearly finished, either I managed to find the right combination or the search engine had become better indexed, because it popped up. It was so strange to see it again and to make the connection, because I hadn’t occurred to me that it would relate to my project—I was just looking for it for myself. The real prayer is longer than what is included in the book, and decidedly more religious. I edited it for the purposes of the novel. To relate my answer to your earlier question, I guess in this case, I found the effect of the novel before I wrote the cause.

BLVR: The novel definitely trades in tropes of noir fiction, but the thing I found so different about your book was the female perspective, and the way that noir combines with the West to create a sort of day-lit darkness. Were you thinking about genre when you were writing? How did noir creep in around the edges?

RT: I love noir so whenever someone notices this, I’m honestly so honored, even if they don’t mean it as a compliment. Film noir was born in Hollywood so to me, it’s always been central to the Western mystique. James Ellroy, Raymond Chandler, Walter Mosley—all of their most memorable stories are set in LA. Their protagonists are male, but their stories always revolved around a woman; noir recognizes the power of a woman to compel. (I’m thinking here of David Lynch and his neo-noir, too.) The genre gets a bad rap as being a little cheap or seedy, but what’s more fatalistic and morally ambiguous than Vegas? Than Hollywood? Than America? It’s a part of who we are, for better or worse.

BLVR: So many of the characters’ names double as nouns—Lamb, Penny, and even Fischer and Cale, which, when pronounced, sound like differently spelled words. When Cale notices herself behaving like her grandfather, Lamb, she calls it Lamb-like, and then the text gobbles up that phrase, transmutes it, until it appears again as “lamblike” near the end of the book. How did you use the names of characters and places to inform the language of the world you were creating?

I realize that in hindsight these characters’ names seem very deliberate, but in all instances the characters were named before I got to know them or figured out the plot of the book. A couple of the plays on words that occur in the latter half of the book, “lamblike,” “Penny/a penny,” were deliberate, of course, and I made those connections after the characters had revealed themselves, and their purpose, to me. That’s the beautiful thing about novels, they’re born with intrinsic knowledge that the writer has to discover and does well to and honor. The book only started working when I stopped trying to make Penny and Cale do what I wanted them to do. Once a character has been fully realized—and it took years of work on my part to kind of peel back the layers of who they really were and let them go—they really started suggesting things themselves. It became less a question of invention and more a recognition of what was already there. I just had to get out of its way.

BLVR: I love the way you write about animals—from snakes to dogs. Of one character, you write: “In all his animal lives preceding this one, he had been predator, never prey.” Do you often think about characters in terms of their animal selves? What were your own previous animal lives?

Animals are so good to us, and for us, whether they’re following us around or ignoring our very existence or trying to eat us. We’re kind of self-obsessed as a species, and they remind us to get our heads out of our asses and feed them or run from them or respect the delicate ecosystems where they live. (Perhaps I ought to note that my appreciation for animals definitively excludes New York subway rats.) So I think my focus on animals in this novel arises from my general appreciation of them, combined with having grown up within the spectre of an Eastern religion, which exposed me to certain spiritual concepts at a very early age— reincarnation and elephant gods and skull necklaces and the like—it set the stage for a very vivid and inclusive imagination. Reincarnation, for instance, was something I digested before I really thought about it too much. As an adult I don’t like to specify my beliefs for anyone, even myself, because I’m so often repulsed by the politically exclusive behavior of various worshippers, but I would say I’ve retained a strong spiritual openness. I can recognize an old soul, whatever that term may mean. I think some animals operate as familiars, however one wants to interpret that term. I don’t care how or why these things exist, but I acknowledge that some creatures connect with one other, regardless of the physical form they may be inhabiting at the time. It’s a beautiful thing. I don’t know if I’ve been here before as an animal or just a human, but I do know that I’ve been.

BLVR: At one point in the novel, Cale takes a ceramics class: “Inevitably there comes a time when the object must begin to take shape, and a decision must be made—to guide it long and lean or short and fat—to make, in short, a bowl or a cup or a spoon or a vase, to author it out of the myriad viable shapes into one solitary article.” This rang so true for me as a statement about writing, especially the point in the writing process when you’re not sure what a thing will be, only that it will, in Cale’s words, “never be nothing again.” Are you secretly speaking about stories here, or are the ceramics just ceramics?

RT: Cale is talking about ceramics, but she’s also talking about herself and Penny, about experience and how once we’ve lived certain things, it irrevocably changes who we are. I think all kinds of art works the same way. It’s a making, performed with any number materials, whether those be clay or paint or wire or words. In some ways physical art seems more tangible than fiction, but visual art is also trying to tell a story; they’re just different forms of communication. People who are drawn to make art are trying to make sense of their world and their experiences, and in many ways, Penny has been a seeker long before Cale. Only toward the end of the novel does Cale begin to understand that making sense of her own personhood is real and necessary work. She doesn’t know how. Both girls recognize the wisdom of each other and their different ways of approaching the world. Penny seems to have found an avenue towards this venture with art (collage) and Cale respects her enough that she’s willing to see what all the fuss is about. I don’t think they get the same thing from making art, though. Cale is just a beginner, whereas Penny is a practitioner. To answer your question, this quote could certainly apply to creating fiction, too, but that moment of discovery in the book is so certainly Cale’s… to me the joy of that scene, and of writing itself, is that whenever it’s really working, I’m not thinking about myself at all.

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