Boston’s Book Eden
Letting Go of Kids, and Characters
Women Writers, Women[’s] Books
Black Tickets and Feminist Poets of Another Time
Ron Hogan’s Beatrice
A Woman Alone in China
China of My Mind
New York Times
A Zealot and a Poet
Writing is a Marathon Sport
The Quivering Pen
Boston’s Book Eden
Everyone knows that Boston is a book-loving city, but since moving back to the area after more than thirty years away, I’ve been amazed by the thriving literary life of my hometown. On a recent evening, I was torn between hearing Alexander Chee and Laura van den Berg at the Brookline Booksmith, Rebecca Makkai and Jennifer Haigh at Newtonville Books, or Amber Tamblyn and Aclyn Friedman at Harvard Bookstore. In the end, I opted to hear another bestselling author, Katherine Howe, at the Cambridge Historical Society, speak on a topic relevant to a novel I’m currently researching. The array of book events in this town can make a reader dizzy.
The largest of the indies—the Harvard Bookstore and Brookline Booksmith—host their biggest name authors off site at nearby churches and theaters where readers wait in lines that snake down the block. Advance purchased tickets can be bundled with the cost of the book being launched. For Michael Pollen, each and every ticket had to include the book. I first balked at this practice, but realized that the event itself was the enticement. A couple attending would end up with an extra book in exchange for taking part in a cultural happening.
Newtonville Books runs events practically every night of the week, including their popular Friday Night Book Club. They often create unexpected pairings of authors, creating lively conversations. In general, the level of questions at all these events has struck me as noticeably sophisticated. Though generally well past college age, the Boston audiences haven’t forgotten their Advanced Lit. classes, and some may still teach them.
The staff at Porter Square Books, which I’m happy to call my local store, is also deeply knowledgeable about books. If you don’t know a title or author but just the subject, there’s a good chance one of them won’t give up until they’ve tracked it down. And as model for other indie bookstores, PSB has devised a way of rewarding their dedicated senior staff with eventual ownership of the store. When the current husband and wife team retire, they’ll sell fifty percent equity to a group of nine management-level employees. Over the following ten years, the group will use their profits to pay back the loan and come to own the store outright.
PSB also cultivates its community by encouraging local writers. In the coming months, they’re launching a Writers-in-Residence Program. Two writers will serve a nine-month term, during which they’ll enjoy a staff discount, access to advance reader copies, and a key to the store’s offices on nights and weekends to provide a quiet place to work.
Over in Jamaica Plain, JP Papercuts has also created a strong following among readers and writers. The charming five hundred square foot shop is stacked high with perfectly curated books. In addition to hosting events, they’ve launched their own publishing imprint, Cutlass Press, which features New England authors. And everyone is relieved that Trident Booksellers on Newbury Street has just reopened after closing because of a fire, their café and reading series up and running again.
On the main street of the suburban town where I grew up, recently opened Belmont Books attracts children with a sunny, upstairs kid’s area, and for adults a great selection of books and the Black Bear Cafe on the first floor. Welcoming and beautiful, the store is already a hub of community activity.
There are other ways to explore literary Boston besides the indie bookstores. There’s the Boston Literary District—one of the only such dedicated historic districts in the country; the Boston By Foot Literary Tours—which takes you in the footsteps of Longfellow, Hawthorne, and Fuller; the impressive public libraries in Cambridge, Boston, Brookline and the other nearby towns; plus the innumerable universities, all of which offer book-related lectures open to the public; the literary journals, such as The Harvard Review, Ploughshares, Agni, and the new Pangyrus, each hosting their own book happenings; and the close proximity to that great nexus of nineteenth century authors in Concord—home of Emerson, Thoreau, the Alcotts, and more.
But, ultimately, it’s the living writers who make a book-loving/bookish/well read town. Many local writers at all stages of their careers find one another through the GrubStreet writers organization, one of the largest literary non-profits in the country. Throughout the year, they run over six hundred workshops, intensive classes, consultations, and other programs for adults and teens on every aspect of writing and the business of writing. And every spring, they put on the impressive Muse and Marketplace Conference, which has been named best literary conference by The Writer magazine and is attended by aspiring writers from across the country and globe.
I feel fortunate to have met fellow writers not just in the bookstores or at Grub Street, but simply around Cambridge. Knowing that dozens of novelists are hunkering down at their desks nearby gives me comfort and encouragement. I’m convinced I’ve landed in a literary Eden and I don’t think I’m alone in feeling that way. Often I pass strangers on the sidewalks who hold a book in hand and read as they walk, unable to pull themselves away from the page. For this reader and writer, that’s my kind of town.
Letting Go of Kids, and Characters
Mothers and fathers of young children can think they’re dealing with the greatest parenting challenges they’ll ever face. I remember feeling that way. For close to a decade I wandered through my days in a fog because I’d been up at night nursing or tending a sick child. But even the exhaustion and numbness that comes from caring for young children can be emotionally less fraught than what parents feel as our kids enter adulthood.
Instead of sweaty, crying babies pressed against our chests at 3 am, parents of young adults are wide-awake with worry, and most noticeably, alone. During this stage, we have to change every bit as much as our children do. It takes every scrap of self-confidence, faith, and optimism to stop steering their lives—to let them be who they’re going to be.
Strangely enough, a similar process of letting go must happen when creating characters in fictional stories. In both life and in writing, our babies grow up and leave us. They become themselves, often in spite of us.
I’m frequently surprised by the motivations that propel my characters forward. But I’ve learned that even if I didn’t anticipate an action, it needs to be respected and explored. In my story White Dog, the elderly artist raises a rifle and before I could foresee what was going to happen next, he aimed directly at a target that would ruin him. As the gun goes off, I sensed he’s making a colossal mistake, one that will forever define him. I would have liked to change his course, and obviously I could, but his life story (some of which is known, but most of which isn’t, even to me) has led him to this. The guy is who he is, god help him, especially since that god, ostensibly, is me.
Many parents feel that way about their children when as young adults they become involved in relationships we sense aren’t right; they drop out of school, even though we think they shouldn’t; or they head off for the other coast, imagining things will be more exciting there, when we’re sure they won’t. At least, we think so. Because the truth is, we don’t know how things will turn out any better than they do. We don’t know for certain which is the path to happiness and fulfillment any better than I, as a writer, know all the implications of that cocked rifle. Will it make my character more loved, though flawed? Will it help him to find peace, though he’s created havoc? Will it set him free? I can sense the consequences of each choice but the nuances remain complex and mysterious and ultimately up to the reader to decide.
In other words, the old saw about fiction writers playing god with their characters only makes sense if we believe that god has a hazy idea of things. I can set my characters on a path and push them forward, but I rely on others to grasp the full meaning of their fates. Maybe some writers are more systematic. Writers post on Facebook the methods they use to chart character motivations and outcomes, employing index cards and spreadsheets. But for me, the process of understanding my characters is much the same as it is with my children: I get them through and through, but after a certain point, they mystify me.
As parents we can’t help trying to nudge our young adult children toward happiness. We follow their paths closely, elbowing them gently to the right or the left. In the same way, I set up my characters in situations where they can show themselves. I encourage them to take road trips to reveal their bravery. I send them spinning on the dance floor, shimmying ever closer toward love. And, because this is fiction, I even have them crash and burn, better to rise from the ashes. When a bruising accident takes place on the asphalt, my young skateboarder hobbles forward, straight into adulthood.
On a sunny, spring afternoon not long ago, the boy skateboarder in one of my stories and my real life child crossed paths and left me behind. I had asked my twenty-one year old son to read a story I wrote years before, back when he was a pre-teen and learning to skateboard. He had worked day after day in the driveway, trying to get his board to rise up off the ground. His young, short legs didn’t have the strength to make it happen, yet he stayed out there in the cold of winter and heat of summer. I think it took him two years to do his first kick flip and I often tried to save him from that frustration, but he wasn’t to be thrown off course.
At a certain point in those years, I realized that he was doing what I did each time I sat down at my desk: he was trying to perfect his art—even though he would have groaned at me for framing it that way. Admiring of his efforts, I wrote a story about a kid who is rude to his father, but who is as dedicated as any serious artist. The boy in my story isn’t my son, but he’s inspired by him.
So when I asked my twenty-one year old if he’d read that story and offer corrections to my skateboarding terms, I knew I was asking him to make the adult leap to understanding the complex relationship between fiction and life. As he sat with his head bent low over the manuscript, I couldn’t help noticing how he had grown into a handsome, competent, and good-hearted young man. He tossed off helpful edits and improved the boy’s dialogue by deleting outmoded slang.
But what touched me most was when he shook his head and snickered quietly, saying, “Oh, Mom, this is definitely me.” I laughed a little, too, embarrassed by the way I had stolen from him to make a new, fictional life. But before I had a chance to reiterate that the boy in the story really wasn’t him—my son had never been as obnoxious as my character—my now adult boy interrupted my thoughts by saying, “I know, I know, I get it. The kid is his own person.”
I know, I know, I get it. Maybe that’s as much as we can hope for from our readers—a confirmation that a story makes sense on a visceral level and exists without explanation from the writer. The characters and the choices they make have a certain, inalienable logic. The path they follow seems right. They are who they are.
And yet, it still remains hazy how to achieve that understanding, in much the same way that it’s never entirely clear how a parent can go from thinking we know what’s best for our children to understanding that they know what’s best for themselves. It’s a process of letting go, trusting them and the story that is now theirs to tell, because it’s their lives after all, not ours.
Black Tickets and Feminist Poets of Another Time
When I was twenty, Black Tickets, the story collection by Jayne Anne Phillips, with its hard-edged prose about hard-edged people, hit me hard. I’d read Hemingway’s short stories. Fitzgerald and Chekov, too. Isaac Babel and Isaac Bashevis Singer, and that one about the yellow wallpaper that everyone had to read. Unlike novels, short stories seemed the place to start for an aspiring young writer. Stories were like small sculptures, carefully shaped and refined, seemingly comprehensible with a single walk around.
But when I tried to write them, mine tended to sprawl into an unruly mess. My pages grew dense and overwritten as I attempted to say too much. Then I read Black Tickets and saw that when you used restraint, you created meaning in a more powerful way. If you kept it minimal, you could leave your reader aching for more, at least that was the hope. But it wasn’t just Phillips’ style of writing that I admired and wanted to emulate. Her stories hit home because they were about women and girls, not unlike me.
Even before Black Tickets became my anthem and guide, I had tucked poems by Anne Sexton, Denise Levertov, and Adrienne Rich into my backpack and carried them like talismans with me wherever I went. In high school, I memorized their lines and copied them out into notebooks for what reason I wasn’t sure. All I knew was that I loved those poems, loved the many lines that revealed the secret, passionate inner lives of women.
From Anne Sexton’s “For My Lover, Returning to His Wife”:
Climb her like a monument, step after step.
She is solid.
As for me, I am a watercolor.
I wash off.
Denise Levertov”s “The Good Dream”:
because we had met again
we rolled laughing
over and over upon the big bed.
The joy was
not in a narrow sense
narrow in any sense….
It was the joy
Of two rivers
Meeting in the depths of the sea.
And Adrienne Rich’s “Natural Resources”:
“The phantom of the man-who-would-understand,
the lost brother, the twin—
for him did we leave our mothers,
deny our sisters, over and over?”
These women wrote about many subjects, often political, but what captured me most was the way they teased out the tangle of love that I both longed for and feared. Stoked by their fury and sorrow, and as importantly, by the precision of their words, I prepared myself for the battle for selfhood I sensed every woman had to endure.
Their feminist ideas resonated because they were expressed so potently through poetry. I was learning from them not just about life, but about the power of words and their careful doling out. I sensed that a killer line—one that resonated deeply, even though I might not fully understand it—was armor against a difficult world. The urgency of their language took my breath away and made me want to someday write something as forceful and real.
It was no wonder then that when Annie Dillard, my writing teacher in sophomore year at Wesleyan, praised a powerful collection by a young woman writer, I quickly tracked down a copy of Black Tickets. In Phillips’ pages I soon discovered the powerful combination of story telling and poetry that I had been searching for. Her sentences were as tough and clean as Raymond Carver’s, whose work Dillard had also recommended, but Phillips wrote about girls and young women in narratives that suggested lives far beyond the page. I felt a thrill of recognition in these tales that unmasked the struggle of ordinary female lives.
Phillips’ “Home” felt like one I’d been trying to write for years without knowing it. The story lacked sentimentality and yet was full of nostalgia for a stolen childhood. It showed a grappling with growing up and a recognizable tension between a mother and daughter. She said so much by saying so little. The short, declarative sentences left room for the reader to fill in the blanks with emotion, in a way familiar to me from the poetry I had long admired.
Soon Levertov, Sexton, and Rich were replaced in my backpack by Black Tickets, which I then carried with me everywhere. When I sat down to write a short story for that first-ever fiction writing class with Dillard, I had my copy splayed open on the desk, as if I could somehow will Phillips’ smarts and style over to my pages.
In looking back, I feel grateful to these women writers for exposing female lives with such fierceness and brilliance. I’ve spent the years ever since trying my best to follow their example.
A Woman Alone in China
THE STORY OF A MISSIONARY WHO STAYED
In the summer of 1937 in Shanxi Province in North China, my grandmother, an American widow and the mother of a teenage son, swept invading Japanese soldiers off her front porch with a broom. I’ve tried to picture it: the soldiers in their khaki uniforms, sabers and pistols tucked into their belts, and my grandmother with her weapon of choice, a broom. Nothing could be more fitting than her use of that tool of everyday domesticity, which in the end would be the death of her.
In 1909, at the young age of 25, Gertrude Chaney traveled to China where she met my grandfather, the Reverend Watts Orson Pye, and they married in 1915. On the inhospitable plains and in the mountain hamlets of North China, the Reverend founded churches, built a library, a hospital, and roads, and converted thousands of Chinese to Christianity before his untimely death in 1926. He left behind his young widow and a five-year-old son, my father, Lucian Pye.
Gertrude and her family had experienced another loss only a year before: her first surviving child had died at the age of seven. Little Mary Elizabeth and her father were both “sent home to Jesus” and buried out in the dusty, desolate countryside of North China. Her family back home in Ohio expected Gertrude to return to civilization post haste after these two tragic deaths, but instead, she decided to remain in China, not just for months, or years, but decades.
Gertrude raised my father in North China under the Japanese occupation. With the start of the Second Sino-Japanese War in 1937, when foreigners were strongly encouraged to leave, she stayed. When Lucian went off to college in America in 1939, she stayed. Only after Pearl Harbor was she forced to relent and finally return to the U.S. Why would a single American woman stay in a war zone, I have asked myself? Why would she remain long after her entire family had gone on to the other side or stateside?
In my novel, Dreams of the Red Phoenix, I try to answer that question in the way I know best: through the imaginative lens of fiction. I believe she stayed because of moments like that one when she swept the Japanese off her front porch with a broom. I picture her standing firm, a stocky, sturdy, strong woman who pulled back her shoulders, tucked in her chin, and faced the foe. She had survived extreme famine and drought during the year my father was born in 1921. She had survived the loss of several babies to miscarriage and death in childbirth, as well as the loss of her beloved young daughter, whose golden locks she preserved, and which sit in a bowl on my desk as a reminder of our family’s history. And she survived the loss of her much-admired husband, the man whose long stride had led her and so many others forward for a time. Those Japanese soldiers must have seemed like so much flotsam and jetsam to her when they stood on her floorboards. Sweep them off, she must! Such is the imperative of the heroic woman I imagine my grandmother to have been in that faraway place and time.
She stayed because she had led a purposeful life there, teaching Chinese women to be schoolteachers and educating Chinese children with firmness and affection. She had a reason for being and felt a great sense of belonging. According to her writing, they came to her with every sort of question and problem. She oversaw not just daily lessons, but personal issues of the heart, and often hygiene and medical concerns as well. When she finally returned to America, my grandmother came to live with us, but she always longed to return to China.
I imagine that she longed to go back not just to that fascinating, though difficult, landscape, but also to a version of herself that was powerful and needed by others. Her life in China had meaning and significance, while her years in the US must have seemed dull and inconsequential by comparison.
As history would have it that return was not to be. When China closed its doors to outsiders in 1949, her heart must have seized up with sorrow and frustration. The country she had come to think of as home was forever outside her grasp. My father, meanwhile, went on to become a professor of political science for over 40 years and a renowned Sinologist, writing dozens of books on the subject of Asian politics. And yet, according to him, it was his mother, more than himself, whose “whole life was China.”
My recollections of her, while vague, are uniformly rosy, though my father, mother and older siblings necessarily had more complex feelings about her. By their accounts, Gertrude was domineering and meddled in our family’s business. As she aged, it became more apparent that she belonged to another time. As a former missionary, she remained a teetotaler, putting a damper on my parent’s cocktail hour. She felt they were too lenient with her grandchildren and too materialistic overall. The woman who had once managed by her wits and will power against dangerous odds in a foreign land was now reduced to sniping about the domestic habits of her son and his brood. She and my mother locked horns over the decorating of the house—the placement of the Chinese furniture and objects that had once belonged exclusively to her and now belonged to the family. She had been far too bold a younger woman to be relegated to such a superfluous life. The contrast must have been maddening to her.
When she died in 1966, I was only six years old, but I still have a clear impression of her. Leaning into the embroidered pillows on the antique Chinese sofa, she let her youngest grandchild crawl into her lap. I pulled on her ears and with a child’s innocence asked why they were so long. In an adult voice—for she never took on a babyish tone—she explained that Confucians believe that long earlobes are a sign of wisdom and sagacity. I was instantly awed by the idea and knew with certainty that it must be true, especially about her.
My grandmother had a wry sense of humor, but she was not a light-hearted person. I am told that she favored me and was at her warmest when she brought down her fine Chinese porcelain for us to use in tea parties. I suspect my love of Chinese objects dates back to those special moments when I could sense how precious they were to her. She had left the country behind, but still had these treasures to carry her back in her mind. And she was willing to share them with me. I felt she was offering me an unspoken gift that I have only now repaid with my novel.
Years later, when my father was an old man, he shared another astonishing anecdote of hubris and heroism by my grandmother. Out at the family’s country cottage in the Chinese foothills, bandits had swooped down in the middle of the night. They came to rob the mill nearby and break into the small cluster of missionary homes. My grandmother threw her shawl over her nightgown, stepped out onto the porch in the moonlight, and shouted at the bandits. She told them that their evil intentions were wrong and very bad. The masked men seemed astonished by this white woman who raised her voice and scolded them in their own language. They turned their horses around, shamed and perhaps even a bit frightened.
Like many women during WWII, my grandmother’s full self was only allowed to emerge under dangerous circumstances far from home. Now we take for granted the range allowed in women’s lives, but at that time the choices were stark and limiting. Her narrow, domestic later years took their toll on her, and robbed our family of a role model far more dynamic than others available to us at the time. I wonder what it would have taken for us to realize we had a hero in our midst, and not simply a cranky old woman, forgotten by time.
China of My Mind
When I tell people that I have recently published a novel set in China, one of the first questions they ask is whether I’ve been there. My response seems to be a letdown. The expectant look on their faces shifts as they wonder why I chose to write about a place I’ve never visited. Sometimes I sense incredulity. What makes me think I can write about China?
My grandfather, Watts O. Pye, was one of the early missionaries to return to China after the Boxer Rebellion of 1900. In Shanxi Province, he oversaw the building of a hospital, schools, a library and roads that brought famine relief. The Reverend Pye died young, but my father, Lucian W. Pye, remained in Shanxi with my grandmother, living in the mission compound under Japanese occupation. He finally left China for college, returned with the Marines at the end of World War II, and went on to become a renowned Sinologist and the author of over 20 books on Asia, and China in particular.
My grandfather and father’s accomplishments, though, don’t make me an expert by inheritance. And yet, I’ve always a felt strong tie to China. I grew up in a house crowded with Chinese paintings, ceramics and furniture. My best childhood friend and I invented rituals with a tiny white Ming cup that we thought possessed special powers. I spent countless hours lying on a deep blue Oriental carpet covered with cherry blossoms, staring up into a painted scroll along whose ribbons of clouds I imagined traveling into the distant, shrouded mountains.
When the time came for my parents to move to a retirement home, I sat on that same rug and went through boxes of onionskin pages with faded blue type on which my grandfather had recorded his impressions of the eerie beauty of Shanxi. His journals captured my imagination in the same way the Chinese objects had when I was a girl, but now there was the specificity and poetry of a Victorian-era gentleman’s language to further embellish my sense of that distant land. Although I had always felt pride about my grandfather’s humanitarian work in China, I was ashamed of his religious zealotry and colonial perspective. Now, the arabesques of his prose conveyed his love of those rugged plains and rolling foothills covered with loess, a yellow dust that blew in from the Gobi Desert, as well as his respect for the Chinese people — thus deepening my grasp of his contradictory position there.
But impressions from childhood confirmed years later as an adult still don’t make me an expert. My father, on the other hand, was a recognized one. His colleagues at M.I.T. and at the John K. Fairbank Center at Harvard were called “China watchers.” For decades, in fact, that’s all they could do since China was closed to American visitors.
When he did finally visit in 1972, he brought back trinkets and clothing — cheap red and gold Mao buttons, quilted jackets in workman’s blue, olive green caps and the most ubiquitous souvenir of the time, Mao’s Little Red Book. My father spread his loot in our living room amid the Chinese antiques, stark reminders of Communism’s rejection of the delicate, evocative artistry of the past. I sensed from him that these strange new items now served as reminders that China, while suddenly open to Westerners, remained beyond the grasp of our understanding. Being permitted finally to see it firsthand had not brought outsiders closer to true understanding.
My first writing mentor, Annie Dillard, once told our college class that if you ever have the choice between visiting a far-flung place or reading a book about it, choose the book. She had just returned from a trip to Alaska and said that the only thing she hadn’t known about already from her reading was the sunflowers. Apparently, in midsummer, as they work to follow the sun circling tightly overhead, their stalks twist until their bright, oversize heads break right off their slender necks. She offered a quirky, maniacal smile and said that a book containing that tidbit would be worth reading.
This is how I feel about the China in my mind. My favorite books have always been those of far-off lands. The Middle East shimmered in Durrell’s The Alexandria Quartet, and while I didn’t necessarily understand Egypt any more precisely after reading all four volumes, that exotic landscape imprinted itself upon my teenage mind. Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, Maugham’s Painted Veil and Naipaul’s A Bend in the River, each revealed colonialism’s inherent flaws through the trials of unforgettable characters. These books gave me a first glimpse that there were countries resistant to Western understanding and that any presumption otherwise was an act of supreme hubris inevitably ending in the white man’s deserved downfall.
The exoticism of those novels that I was taken in by turned out to reveal a complexity of culture that doesn’t easily yield to an outsider’s — and perhaps especially not to a Westerner’s — worldview. I believe those books helped me understand my family’s complicity in a corrupt and confusing past. The layers of meaning about oppression and injustice brought on by colonialist racism were like the dust that covered everything in my grandfather’s descriptions of Shanxi — layered, dense and impossible to sweep away.
My father once said to me, only half in jest, that “political scientists are all failed novelists.” I suspect he meant that academics shared with artists the impulse to tell a story, but that statistics, studies and even firsthand fact-finding alone made an incomplete picture. His deference to art was a kind gesture toward me, a young writer aspiring to create it, but also an acknowledgment that art provides the transformative vision that turns a place on a map into a deeply felt world. It offers the reader hope of redemption and a new path — a way out through human understanding.
Aleksandar Hemon says that “expertise is the enemy of imagination,” and I can’t help but add that imagination, in the end, is our most profound and surprising teacher. It reveals truths we couldn’t otherwise believe.
What I know of China I have inherited from my family who lived there, and also from a white Ming cup, cherry blossom rug and a Little Red Book. These talismans have spoken volumes to me over the years. They helped create a land that inhabited, and even haunted, my imagination. The China of my novel is a dusty, rugged and exotic place that is not exactly on any map. Travelers, scholars and the Chinese themselves must explain the real China. I have tried to create an altogether different country that I hope will provide another landscape for the truth.
Virginia Pye is the author of the novel River of Dust. She plans to go to China in 2014 for the Shanghai Book Festival and perhaps to visit her father’s hometown and her grandfather’s grave.
A Zealot and a Poet
A Mule, a Map, a Man and a Miracle: such is the quaint, alliterative and suspect title of an article written about my grandfather, a Congregational missionary in the nineteen teens in northwestern China. I have no quibble with the first three M-words: the Reverend Watts O. Pye was among the first white men ever to roam that desolate countryside, and he did it on mule back. He sketched a map of previously uncharted territory on linen fabric and kept a tally of his converts in a tattered leather notebook. These two talisman-like objects sat on my desk and haunted me as I wrote my novel, River of Dust, and tried to make sense of a legacy that prompts both pride and shame. It is the final M-word with which I disagree: what miracle and for whom?
Watts O. stood six foot four, had flaming red hair and wore round gold-rimmed glasses that John Lennon would have liked. He saw himself as a Renaissance man, raised on a farm in Minnesota and then educated at both Carleton and Oberlin Colleges. Later as he rode the rugged plains of China, he read aloud the Romantic poets to his trudging mule, shared the wisdom of Shakespeare with his probably baffled manservant, and waxed poetical about the purple hills in the distance.
By all accounts, he made friends easily with the Chinese and was wildly successful at spreading the Gospel. Under his watch the Congregational mission in Shansi Province grew many times over. He built a hospital, schools for the Chinese children, a library and roads that proved useful for decades. He enlisted Red Cross aid for Shansi and raised needed funds for famine relief from congregations back home. The Reverend Pye’s efforts were tireless, although his journals reveal an exhausted figure. At the age of forty-eight, he was thrown from a mule out on the trail, his chest stomped upon by the animal. Soon TB filled his weakened lungs and he died. He left his wife, Gertrude, and a five-year-old son, Lucian (my father), and a compound of missionaries in search of a leader. Most of all, he left behind those Chinese out on the plains and in the mountain hamlets who would no longer be visited by the surprising white giant of a man.
I like to imagine him out there on his beast of burden, vast grey country on all sides and a book of poetry open in his hand. It is a romantic image and, when I think only of it, I can almost forget why he was there. But then there is the fact of the small leather bound tally book. In cribbed penmanship he catalogued the Chinese names and numbers. On a “good day,” the totals reached the twenties or more; on a “bad day,” a mere one or two. He gave sermons to famine-starved citizens at windswept crossroads. He stayed up late into the night listening to potential congregants weep about their fallow fields. He ate paltry meals at their tables, and in return for his kind and attentive ear, they accepted his offer of salvation.
It was then that the miracle ostensibly occurred. And although he had offered relief to some hearts and minds, the fields remained withered and famine was widespread. The country he left behind in 1925 when he died was rife with turmoil caused by internal battles and external invasion. The presumption that Chinese souls needed saving and that an outsider’s religion could do so was soon held up as yet another example of colonial arrogance. The Communist Revolution began the process of eliminating Christian chapels in cities and distant enclaves as China headed in an altogether different direction.
During my childhood as the war raged in Vietnam and conflict tore apart campuses and cities, I did my best not to think about the missionary side of my family and certainly never boasted of the Reverend Pye’s successes. For me, he was a blatant example of American imperialism. I was ashamed to claim him.
That is, until our parents were moving out of the family home and several generations of possessions had to be dealt with. From a dark corner of the attic, I pulled boxes that held my grandfather’s journals and hunkered down to skim the faded onion skin pages. I unfolded the linen cloth and studied the intricate, carefully drawn map of a rural China from long ago. Out of my grandfather’s traveling Bible fell copious notes for sermons, and when I opened his tally book, the leather made an audible crackle.
And here is what I found that day: a writer. In his journals, the Reverend effectively described camel caravans climbing mountain trails, orchards laden with exotic fruit, foul-smelling village streets and the many voices and attitudes of the Chinese around him, as well as the remarkable beauty of a place unspoiled by industry. He also recorded in more clichéd language his Christian beliefs and assumptions, but it was in his descriptions of every day life that I found him not only genuinely appealing, but also not naïve about the complexities of his position there.
“If the Orient seems strange to us,” he writes, “we should remember that we are seen just as strange to the Orient. The Chinese think us dirty, lazy and superstitious in the west. Dirty, because although we bathe, they detect a very decided odor. Gertrude had a sewing woman last winter who had never been near foreigners before, and after three or four days gave up the job, as badly as she needed the money, and the reason was that she simply could not stand the foreigners’ odors. Mr. and Mrs. Gilles were asked one spring not to walk into a neighbor’s peach orchard where they had been accustomed to walk, for it was thought that the crop failure was due to the odor of their bodies. They think us dirty, too, for the way we use the handkerchief and replace it in our pockets. To a refined Chinese, the sight of a person blowing his nose in the handkerchief and then putting it back in his pocket is actually nauseating. The point in dispute is an excellent example of how the different races may regard the same matter differently and each consider themselves innocent and the other guilty of the same offense. We think the Chinese wanting in cleanliness because, though they do not expectorate into their handkerchief, they will dust their shoes with it and wipe out the tea cup before pouring your tea. Exactly the same distinctions are made to show that we are lazy and superstitious.”
Reverend Pye expresses his intent to be open-minded and unbigoted and seems amused when he senses the Chinese judging him based on his race. One late afternoon, he wrote in his journal as he sat outdoors at a rough-hewn table in a poor village: “A crowd of about thirty watchers is pressed about me as I write, discussing the typewriter, the mysteries of foreign letters, my filled tooth, and what it can ever be that makes me ‘white,’ instead of brown or yellow. They have come to the universal belief that since we drink milk or use it in our food that is the explanation. One man has with great satisfaction just informed the rest that anyone of them could very shortly become just as white as I am, were he to use milk for a few months. They think our color is only artificial. I have heard tell of the story of a Chinese school boy in class when asked the color of the Negro replied, ‘black.’ And the American Indian? Copper color, was the reply. And the Englishman? White was the reply. And what color is the Chinese? Man color, proudly answered the youth. And so it should be.”
In other journal entries, he used the ornate, poetic language of his time to capture the transporting qualities of the countryside: “We lay around, letting the old sound of the mourning doves and the sight of the hills sink in. They sound and look just as they did when we were youngsters back home. Man and his language change while nature and the birds remain. We do miss the dear home faces. But will rest and get new visions for the days to come. There are lots of visions you can’t see, but just feel them, and after all, feeling is perhaps only the soul’s way of seeing. Something that comes to us as light as melody and as color, thrilling us with the sentient harmony that we often hear ripple from the throat of the music-made bird: that same thing that came to us times without number in childhood, and that comes to us now on run-away days like this one, under blue skies and green woods, and despite all that has gone before, and all that may come afterward, and it makes you take off your hat to the joy of living.”
My grandfather’s words revealed him to be a more complicated and nuanced person than the single-minded zealot I had presumed him to be. Before I knew it, he was transposing himself into a fictional character in my mind, because fiction is the best way I know to explore the contradictions inherent in being human. Through odd twists of the imagination, the Reverend Watts O. Pye became The Reverend in River of Dust—a man who is both foolish and wise, witty and overly serious, all seeing and yet blind.
But because The Reverend in my novel is ultimately an invention, I have him experience a crisis of faith that my grandfather never had. The real Reverend Pye died believing in his own convictions. And yet, for me, it is his written words that suggest a more honest and startling miracle—one of a heart and mind revealed across both distance and time. His was never actually a simple story of a man, a mule and a map. And the miracle he promised remains dubious at best. But if one does exist for me, it is buried in the fascination of getting to know an ancestor so long dead and in coming to terms with the moral complexities of his mission.
Writing is a Marathon Sport
Today marks the official publication date of Virginia Pye’s second novel, Dreams of the Red Phoenix, and so I thought I’d share a few of her thoughts on the payoff of patience in a writing career. As a late-bloomer myself (Fobbit was published when I was 49 years old), I could relate to a lot of what Virginia had to say. Dreams of the Red Phoenix tells the story of Americans in China at the onset of WWII when the Japanese attack and Communism is on the rise. Kirkus says: “There’s a comparison to Ballard’s Empire of the Sun, but this unflinching look...shares truth in its own way.” Virginia’s highly acclaimed first published book, River of Dust, is also a historical novel set in China. She holds an MFA from Sarah Lawrence College and has taught writing at the University of Pennsylvania and New York University. Her award-winning short stories have appeared in numerous literary magazines and her essays and interviews have appeared in The New York Times, Huffington Post, The Rumpus and elsewhere.
At the age of twenty-seven, I sat in the impressive 57th Street office of one of New York’s top literary agents and listened as she described how Meryl Streep should play the mother and Judd Hirsch the father in the movie version of my first novel. As we stood to shake hands, I couldn’t quite grasp what was happening so I asked outright if she was going to represent me and oversee my book’s publication. She smiled, because how my future was intended to unfold looked apparent to her. As I left the shiny chrome and glass building and walked up Fifth Avenue towards Central Park, I let it sink in that my life’s dream was about to come true, right on schedule. I would soon be a young star on the literary scene. I felt elated and satisfied and it all seemed too good to be true.
And it was. Because neither that agent nor anybody else could have told me that I would be lucky enough to write books for the rest of my life, but I would have to wait until I was fifty-three years old—almost precisely twice the age I had been when the impressive agent took on that first manuscript—until my debut novel was finally published.
Writing is a marathon sport. It’s not for sprinters. Nor is it for the faint of heart. If the act of trying to get the words right on the page isn’t enough of a trial, then there’s the marketplace to take you down a notch or two. As it turns out, my trajectory as a writer isn’t uncommon. Many successful authors have first, second, third, and up to six, seven or even eight unpublished novels in their drawers. I know authors who had three or four agents before finding one who worked out well. The key strategy to achieving success in the face of such set backs and discouragement is to keep writing: to finish one book and start on the next. To write with the faith that someone will read and cherish the work someday, but probably not according to a timetable the writer has in mind.
When that New York agent tried a dozen publishing houses, but failed to place my first novel and returned it to me six weeks later, I was stunned. The narrative of myself as a successful author had quickly taken up a central place in my mind.
After a period of confusion and mourning, I started in on another novel, which I finished when I was pregnant with my first child. The agent who had represented my first novel was gun-shy about me and declined to see it. Although I worried my career would be tainted by that first failure, I found another agent who offered editorial comments on the second novel. I was to make revisions and then she would send it out to publishers.
But I had a baby on the way. After my daughter arrived, my writing desk became her changing table, replete with diapers, wet wipes and baby powder. As my computer accumulated dust, I remember thinking that was just fine with me. Worn out with the difficult business of trying to get published, I threw myself into mothering and three years later gave birth to another child, a son. The second novel became a distant memory. With a baby or toddler crawling on me, feeding off me, waking me in the night and generally taking over my every thought, I didn’t have the necessary distance on life required to write a novel and I even convinced myself I didn’t mind.
But finally, when my son went off to nursery school and the house was mercifully quiet in the mornings, I found myself returning to my desk. I wrote the next novel with great urgency, as if my life depended on it. A new agent tried to sell it, and came close, but the moment still wasn’t right. I tried to contain my disappointment but also realized that my battle with getting published was becoming secondary to my battle to simply write better.
In the new city where we had moved, I joined a writer’s organization and quickly became active, and then ended up leading it for seven years. It was easy for me to encourage other writers who were also struggling to improve our craft. I became less preoccupied with my own publication than with connecting to fellow writers as we shared the many ways we strive to gain wisdom from books—our own and others.
Despite my discouragement, I began to grasp that no matter whether my books were published or not, I was still living a writing life. I had my family, the students of writing who I helped with their manuscripts, the short stories I sent out with regularity, (though many of them were returned), my work with the writer’s organization, and always the larger projects evolving in my mind and on the page.
For me, it took a long apprenticeship to write a novel I ultimately feel proud to have published. In retrospect, I’m thankful that the high-powered agent didn’t place the first book that I wrote. It wasn’t nearly as good as my debut, River of Dust, which found itself between hard covers a quarter century later. And I think my new novel, Dreams of the Red Phoenix, might even be stronger still, because we improve with practice as writers —at least that’s how it’s worked for me.
Once I put aside the worry about publication and focused instead on writing well and helping other writers to do so, too, I started to achieve greater success. And I see now that the greatest reward of all isn’t the way my novels feel in my hands—though that’s pretty terrific—but that I have continued to use writing to make sense of my life. I’m grateful that a writer’s way of seeing the world, more than being identified as a published author, defines who I’ve been all along.