On writing ‘Death & Love on the Prairie’ / Yannick Pas

Yannick Pas discusses his Issue Thirteen short story.

I have always held a deep fascination towards places of vastness. Whether it is during a hike over the Brecon Beacons, where tawny hills bulge as far as the eye can see, or stumbling through the Atacama Desert with far too little water in my bottle, expansive stretches of land have always left me spellbound.

In Death & Love on the Prairie, I wanted to encapsulate the vastness and unpredictability of nature by echoing the distinct feeling of expansiveness in my prose. With long, meandering sentences, I wanted the writing to mirror the ceaseless undulation of the story’s environment: the mighty plains and rolling valleys of the American West.

The idea – or even image – of an individual set against the overwhelming power and immensity of nature resonates deeply within me, and I have loved many works of art, be they literature or film, that have in some way presented this in the narrative. From the monumental Western movies of John Ford or Sergio Leone, to the more recent ‘Frontier Trilogy’ (Sicario, Hell or High Water, Wind River) written by Taylor Sheridan, to the Western novels of Cormac McCarthy (most notably Blood Meridian), or John Williams’s Butcher’s Crossing, there is no greater drama for me than that of man trying and, more often than not, failing to understand and conquer his surroundings.

A pivotal source of inspiration was the incredible novel Independent People, written by Icelandic author Halldor Laxness. Presenting the monotonous, fable-flecked story of a stubborn sheep farmer struggling to survive in Iceland’s harsh environment before and during the Great War, the descriptions of nature throughout the novel are, for me, the star of the show. Indeed, most of the narrative unfolds within the same valley for more than 400 pages, and yet the different ways in which Laxness describes this valley throughout the seasons and years paints a vivid portrait of the setting, and turns the environment into a character in its own right. In Laxness’ novel, I found myself utterly enchanted by these descriptions of the Icelandic countryside, and was left in awe by the diversity and fluidity of the author’s descriptions. How many times can you describe the very same valley without it becoming tedious? As it turns out, many.

Another theme that was important to me during the writing process of my story was that of death and, more specifically, loss. How do we go on once we have lost those closest to us? How much do they still influence our lives once they have passed? By presenting the protagonist of the story, an aged widow in the final days of the American West, I tried to not only portray her coming to terms with the loss of her husband, whom she shared a sheltered and love-filled life with amid the great plains of America, but also the loss of a specific identity; that of the men and women who lived off the land, separate from the glamour and depravity of society. Her end is the end of that way of living, an end that beckoned in a new world of total connectivity as Manifest Destiny achieved its grisly goal of creating a land united.

The appearance of a mysterious coyote represents a turning point in the narrative. At first deemed a threat, the animal soon becomes a mere inconvenience, though its presence lurks throughout the story like an unwavering phantom as the woman tries to rid herself of its mystic loitering. Why this particular creature appeared I have no idea. The idea simply came to me in a cognitive spasm, the way most of them do. The general idea of the story also presented itself in a similar way; the sudden flash of an image of an elderly women tending to her farm, her loneliness palpable. The rest unfolded as the story progressed, as though it followed a natural course set out before it, perhaps not too dissimilarly from the settlers paths as they traversed the great expanses of the American West to make a better life and, perhaps, a better world.

Yannick Pas is a writer who currently lives on the Isle of Wight. Born in Hamburg, Germany to a Dutch father and Welsh mother and given a French name, he tends to refer to himself as British.

Image by Jo Mazelis.