Pamela Rentz, author of “Security Breach at Sugar Pine Suites,” writes clean, potent fiction about seemingly everyday events—the frustrations of bureaucracy, an aging grandmother and the struggles to find and keep a job, a bus driver on a night run, a hotel housekeeper. Yet, buried in her straightforward prose are lines that grip you by the chin and force you to sit a little straighter in your chair. Security Breach at Sugar Pine Suites is no exception.
Rentz’s stories are all, in her own words, “set in Indian Country, usually the mid-Klamath region in Northern California.” Her protagonists are people with problems we can identify with, yet also face challenges unique to Indigenous Peoples. In “Security Breach at Sugar Pine Suites,” Rentz’s hero, Birdie Big Rock, is a hotel housekeeper, except the hotel is in space, and Birdie and the other employees are more like indentured servants locked into eternal contracts. Debt, risk, family obligation, the loss of their home in pursuit of security, all these issues provoke sympathy that is at once familiar and new.
Bureaucracy is a nightmare for everyone, but Rentz ties the familiar with the specific and layers the question of authenticity atop in “Skinny Charlie’s Orbiting Teepee” (issue 99, Apex Magazine). The down but not yet out Reggie in Reservation Jobs has familiar problems, like child support and joblessness, but Rentz makes it clear—without making it obvious—that Reggie’s problems are complicated, deepened, and eased by his identity. Similarly, Birdie’s fascination with the luxury suite she’s cleaning and the quiet thread of wanting to see home while getting that glorious view of the high-rollers, speaks to a broader fascination with the rich and famous while running in parallel with Birdie’s history.
Pamela is a citizen of the Karuk Tribe and works as a paralegal specializing in tribal affairs. She is a graduate of the Clarion West Writers workshop and has been published in Asimov’s, Apex, and has a story forthcoming in Fantasy Magazine. Her personal website is www.pamrentz.com.
Pamela was kind enough to answer a few questions about “Security Breach at Sugar Pine Suites” and her other fiction for us.
APEX MAGAZINE: Where did the idea this story come from?
PAMELA RENTZ: I like to think about different ways Indians might get into space. Exploration? Survival? Why not economic development? And what better enterprise than a tribal casino?
It’s a fun setting so I tried to put together an appropriate cast. I came up with Birdie, the rebellious housekeeper first and then added a washed-up boy bander and a bitter supervisor. Initially, this was a plot exercise. I wanted to write something with action and plot turns and set ups and payoffs. The first draft had gunfire and fisticuffs.
My crit group convinced me that Birdie could hold her own and didn’t need so much plot, so when I revised, I kept the focus on her and the results of her actions.
AM: What is your writing process like?
PR: Mostly tortured. Only kind of kidding. I’m always searching for that sweet spot between planning and discovery. I’m also always wishing I could work more quickly and will sit myself down and demand a particular word count for myself and inevitably get stuck. The flip side is insisting I need a complete outline and stalling out on that, too. I go back and forth between the two.
I try to work every day. I have a day job with a long commute so weekdays it’s sometimes just a half hour of free writing or unproductive noodling. I’m a morning person so I’m up early and do my best work before noon on the weekends.
AM: The twist ending, for me as a reader, was bittersweet. They got away, but Birdie didn’t, and the need for their flight, and her need to see home, left a sadness for me. I noticed many of your stories ending this way—“Reservation Jobs,” for example, and “Estelle Makes the Casino Run.” What do you want readers to get from your fiction, your endings?
PR: I’ve been working in Indian Country as a paralegal for over twenty years and I have to remind myself that a majority of the population has only a superficial experience with tribal people, or less. Indigenous loss isn’t something in the past, it happens today. Mostly I hope readers would see contemporary Indigenous people in situations they’ve never seen before.
AM: Gloria reminded me so much of hard bosses I’ve had in the past and the revelation at the end that she’s as stuck as the rest of them was a great reminder that bosses are people, too. That was a stronger theme in this piece. How much of your fiction is inspired by people you know in real life?
PR: I often borrow characteristics of people I know or have come across as a writing shortcut but Gloria sprang from my imagination. If writers put themselves in their stories, I would have to confess: Gloria is more me than Birdie is.
AM: Something I noticed in several of your stories—particularly the science fiction stories—was a conflict between authenticity and commercialism/consumerism. How do you approach that challenge in your own life?
PR: Yeah, that’s a tough one. I’ve had a couple of experiences with individuals reacting to my writing in a way that seemed to suggest they were disappointed my story didn’t align with their expectations of what Indigenous stories should be. I aim for authenticity—there are already so many misperceptions about Indigenous people—but I also (respectfully) massage the truth if it serves my story.
AM: I also noticed some character overlap between your stories. Are they all set in a shared universe?
PR: This is a good thought problem for me. There is certainly overlap but I think if we mapped it all out, some of the stories wouldn’t work in the same universe. At the same time, I feel like the Karuk characters are all from the same universe.
AM: What are you working on now?
PR: I’m working on a contemporary novel set in my home place on the Klamath River. It has a slight fantasy element or maybe you’d call it a slight alternate history element. I’m also working on short stories set in Birdie’s world with the orbiting casino.
AM: Thank you so much for taking the time to answer these questions.