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Virginia Pye, Shelf Life of Happiness
Leslie Pietrzyk | November 28, 2018
Give us your elevator pitch: What’s your book about in two to three sentences?
My characters long for that most elusive of states: happiness. One reviewer called these stories bittersweet, and I agree they combine heartbreak and joy in equal measure. A young skateboarder reaches across an awesome gap, both physical and emotional, to reconnect with his disapproving father. An elderly painter executes one final, violent gesture to memorialize his work. A newly married writer battles the urge to implode his happy marriage. And a confused young man desires his best friend’s bride and, in failing to have her, finally learns to love. In each story, my characters aim to be better people—and some even reap the sweet reward of happiness.
Which character did you most enjoy creating? Why? And, which character gave you the most trouble, and why?
I most enjoyed writing the old artist character, William Dunster, in the story White Dog, because he’s cantankerous and befuddled and more than a little bit drunk, yet also wise. He observes the other characters and the manicured setting in the Connecticut countryside with an air of detachment, seeing through the gallery owner’s vanity and his wife’s unhappiness. Basically, Dunster can’t turn off his bullshit detector, so he’s thinking what we all might be thinking if we allowed ourselves. Plus he’s especially smart about art. What matters most to him is “the ongoing lover’s quarrel with the work.” A part of me feels that way, too.
Tell us a bit about the highs and lows of your book’s road to publication.
This book has a lot of good karma behind it, or maybe a better word is kismet. It was runner up for the Press 53 short story collection prize twice and Kevin Watson, the publisher and editor, wrote to me soon after the second time to say they should publish the collection. But for some reason I never got that email. About six months later, I wrote to him to suggest the same thing. And later, I was delighted to have one of my closest friends create the beautiful cover. We’ve also gotten the most moving responses from writers who I admire enormously. The whole thing feels like a happy labor of love.
What’s your favorite piece of writing advice?
Write. That’s about it. Just sit down and do it. The process will teach you things that no one and nothing else can. Trust that you’ll improve with practice. Assume you’ll write many things, so don’t get too attached to one. But mostly, just write.
My favorite writing advice is “write until something surprises you.” What surprised you in the writing of this book?
I wrote these stories over a ten-year span, and while I sensed they had something in common, it wasn’t until I started to pull them into a collection that I discovered the theme of happiness—or the theme of the search for happiness. I realized that each story, in its own way, was about that striving, that universal longing.
How did you find the title of your book?
Strangely enough, the title was originally from a story that didn’t make it into this collection. I had written a short short set in a grocery store, where a woman is on the phone with her brother, who is at the hospital with their dying mother. The woman wants to escape the sadness of losing her mother by noticing simple things like the brightly lit fruit, but instead, all she can see is how everything is tainted with sorrow and decay. She thinks about the literal shelf life of grocery items, and the phrase shelf life of happiness crosses her mind.
Fast forward to when I put together this collection and I realized that story, while one of my favorites, didn’t fit because it was told in the first person and all the others were longer stories in third person. But I realized that the idea of a shelf life of happiness fit with many of the stories. It struck me that an altogether different character named Gloria Broadhurst, who is a bit of a grand dame, might actually say that phrase aloud, because she’s clever and wrestles unabashedly with her own unhappiness. Gloria would feel comfortable making a pronouncement using that phrase. So I plugged it into that story and then changed the title of that story to Shelf Life of Happiness.
This helps to illustrate my earlier writing advice: assume you’ll write a lot and it’s all yours to mess with, tear apart and build back up, ruin and perfect, and enjoy!
Inquiring foodies and hungry book clubs want to know: Any food/s associated with your book?
You’ve stumped me on this one. I never noticed that my stories are so lacking in food! Off the page, I love Italian dishes (and was just there again this summer and had some amazing meals), and Moroccan, and French, and Indian; you name it, I like it! But in my stories, my characters clearly need to eat more.
I see that only one character has a food recollection: the mother in Her Mother’s Garden shares a distant memory of a meal she had on a cliff-side restaurant in Greece. She’s never mentioned it to her daughter before, which only makes the daughter feel more desperate about holding onto her mother before it’s too late. So food, in this case, shows how private pleasures are often kept hidden, even from those we love, and how the longing for happiness and connection can attach itself to even the most pleasant of reflections.
Q&A with Virginia Pye,
Author of Shelf Life of Happiness
Christi Craig | October 24, 2018
“Some people seem willing to do anything to be happy, even if it means becoming colossally dull,” Gloria continued. “But everyone knows it’s fleeting. There’s always a shelf life of happiness.” [From Shelf Life of Happiness]
Being happy should be easy. We have plenty of resources around us that make it so: podcasts set on discovering it and books built around cultivating it, just to name a few. Yet Happiness is fleeting. While other authors are writing about reclaiming it, maintaining it, and preserving it, Virginia Pye has written short stories that define it in simple terms and give us a view into our own humanity, how we tend to overlook it, exploit it, or misinterpret it.
In her new book, Shelf Life of Happiness (just out from Press 53), Pye fills the pages with unexpected sensations of affection, of freedom in truth, of realizations about what it means to be happy–or in love–but sometimes a little too late. Jim Shephard calls these “deft and moving stories.” Kelly Luce says these are “stories crafted with a sharp eye for the absurd intricacies of modern life…remembered later with such clarity and feeling that they seem like one’s own memories.” I call them tiny revelations packed in 169 pages. (Sure it could be 170, but would that really make you happier?)
I’m honored to host Virginia Pye to talk more about her book and her writing. Welcome Virginia Pye!
While Shelf Life of Happiness isn’t your first book, this is your first collection of stories after two successful novels (River of Dust and Dreams of the Red Phoenix). Considering how you’ve taken a path opposite of many authors, who begin with a collection and journey to longer works, what has been the most rewarding or compelling aspect of writing and publishing this new book?
I’ve written stories from the start, way back to high school or earlier. Like a lot of beginning writers, I tried to channel Hemingway and Faulkner, Calvino and Carver. But the nine stories in Shelf Life of Happinesswere written over ten years more recently. I wrote them from an impulse to explore a particular moment or thought. Some irony of life, or question, strikes me and I need to flesh it out. Writing my novels is much more involved and immersive, but the stories can be every bit as exacting. I rewrite them over months and years as I send them out to literary magazines. When a story is returned, I often revise it before sending it out again.
I loved pulling together this collection, because it showed me that I’ve been chewing on some of the same themes for years—the illusive nature of happiness, the bittersweet nature of love, the struggle to ever know another person fully. And also, how a dedication to art—which to me means writing as well as visual art—can help guide a life and make sense of it. Some of the stories in Shelf Life of Happiness are about writing itself—the redemptive human effort to find order and beauty.
One of my favorite quotes from your book is in the story, “White Dog:”
[Dunster] struggled to understand why he’d pulled the trigger. Rob Singh had wanted to preserve his impeccable vista, but didn’t he know that perfection smelled like death? With that one shot, Dunster had upped the ante and shown Rob that he was wrong not to make his peace with the smudge on the horizon, the mistake on the canvas.
So much of your collection is about accepting life’s imperfections and coming to peace, and you tell your stories from the perspectives of a variety of characters: an elderly artist, a young skateboarder, a mother on the verge of breakdown. Where do your ideas for characters–their strengths and their flaws–come from?
Like many writers, I transpose my life and everything I’ve ever read into fiction, though how exactly, or why, isn’t clear to me. It helps to be a bit older and to have had years to work things out. These days I keep remembering things my father told me near the end of his life that turn out to be wise in a pragmatic way. I didn’t realize at the time that what he was offering was valuable, but I see it now. My characters seem to come out of an accumulation of understanding.
But, to be more specific, the stories in Shelf Life of Happiness are about people I could know, and maybe the reader could know, as well. I cull details especially from those I love. The skateboarder in my story, An Awesome Gap, is definitely not my son, but my son does happen to be a skateboarder. I’ve seen his dedication to his “art,” though he’d never use such a glorified term for skating day in and day out in all kinds of weather. Also, I think we all know how even a good kid has to struggle to break free from his or her parents’ expectations. The teenage character in that story deals with that issue, too.
I’ve known artists like Dunster from White Dog, but that particular character is more than an amalgam of all the male artists I’ve ever sat next to at art museum dinner parties (my husband is a long-time curator and art museum director). Combine those experiences with everything I’ve ever read about artists, plus what I’ve learned myself about sustaining an artistic life, and you have Dunster. Though I suppose that doesn’t fully explain where my characters come from, either.
In your essay, “A Zealot and a Poet”(on the Rumpus), you write–so beautifully–about discovering your grandfather’s journals that detail his experiences as a Congregational missionary in China during the early 1900s, and the surprise in finding he was much more than a missionary. He was a writer. In fact, he became the inspiration for the protagonist in your first book, River of Dust. How does his writing, his presence in your writing, continue to influence your work?
Thanks so much for reading that essay. I’m proud of that one and appreciate you tracking it down. I don’t think my grandfather influences me much any longer, though his actual words and their cadence did help me create the voice for my debut novel, River of Dust.
But, since I mentioned my father earlier and now you offer this question about my grandfather, I wonder if you might be onto something: perhaps there is some way that I’m writing to keep up with them. They both believed their voices deserved to be heard. That sense of confidence may have come from white, male privilege, or a misplaced entitlement. But they, and my mother, were great readers and books crowded just about every surface in our home. My father wrote his many books and articles in long hand on yellow pads in the midst of our family activity, sometimes with the Celtics or Red Sox on the TV. Writing was something “we” did. I’m grateful to him and my mother, and even my grandfather, for that.
Though, to share more, it took some determination on my part to claim writing for myself. I remember distinctly that my father didn’t think I was a good writer when I was teenager—he thought of me as scattered in my thinking, which I was, and considered me more of a “people person” than a writer. As a girl and a youngest child, I’d been trained to be helpful and accommodating, not assertive with ideas and words. To convince my parents to help pay for grad school, I told them I needed an MFA to teach writing. They could see me as a teacher, but not as a writer. I remember reassuring them I wasn’t trying to win the Pulitzer Prize. That seemed to set them at ease. I think they didn’t want me to deal with the disappointment that writers inevitably face. But also, they didn’t think I could do it because I was a girl.
What are you reading these days?
I read several books at once, all novels or short stories. Some are for research for my next novel, which is set in 1890s Boston. Katherine Howe’s historical novel from several years ago, The House of Velvet and Glass, is entertaining and smart. But right now I also have Laura van den Berg’s The Third Hotel and Susan Henderson’s The Flicker of Old Dreams on my bedside table. As always, there’s too much to read!
What is your favorite season in which to write?
When my children were young and we went on vacation to Maine in the summer, I’d get up early in the mornings to write. It was so peaceful and rewarding because I knew the rest of the day would be packed with family outings. I loved the quiet as the birds started to stir and the sun rose over the ocean, followed all too quickly by the cacophony of young voices and little feet pounding on floorboards.
But these days, as an empty nester, I have lots of time and tend to buckle down in the colder months, when there are fewer distractions. Boston turns out to be a great book town, not just because of the wonderful bookstores, or because of GrubStreet, the writing organization, but because the weather is so lousy so much of the year. You simply have to stay indoors and write!
I feel lucky to join the throngs of writers, both past and present, who have made this city their home. As we head into winter, when mornings start out cold and dusk comes early, I look forward to hunkering down at my desk.
Q&A with Virginia Pye
Deborah Kalb | October 23, 2018
Virginia Pye is the author of the new story collection Shelf Life of Happiness. She also has written the novels Dreams of the Red Phoenixand River of Dust, and her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including The North American Review and The Baltimore Review. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
How long did it take you to write the stories in this collection, and how did you decide on the order in which they’d appear?
I wrote these stories over many years, with the earliest published a decade ago. All are told in third person, inviting the reader into the thoughts and feelings of disparate characters in widely varied settings.
Most important to me when deciding the order was trying to assess how the stories might make the reader feel. Each story has its own internal arc in terms of plot and emotional resonance, and the collection overall builds in momentum as well, in a similar way to how a novel unfolds.
Do you see any themes linking the stories?
The elusive nature of happiness is the overarching theme and it’s woven throughout each of the stories, though how it’s revealed differs a lot depending on the main character.
A young art dealer tempts a grizzled old artist to reshape himself in order to have a final chapter of his career; a son reaches for his father across a widening gap to convince him of his passion for skateboarding; a wife and mother in the Roman ruins is lured away from her family by the suggestion of forbidden love: each character must navigate easy temptations as they search for true fulfillment.
I like the way Jim Shepard describes the lives of my characters “as a tangle they urgently need to understand before it’s too late.”
He goes on to say, “They’re experts on how to keep their hearts in reserve, and they recognize the ache of their own shame in their fear that perhaps those lesser versions of themselves they so often glimpse are who they really are, and yet all they want is to access the appreciative tenderness that’s waiting for them within their best selves.”
My characters try hard to be decent and when they ultimately succeed, a certain happiness is their reward.
How was the book’s title (also the title of one of the stories) chosen, and what does it signify for you?
One of my characters, Gloria Broadhurst, an elusive, far from happy figure, utters the phrase “shelf life of happiness.” She asks, “When it comes down to it, who is happy these days, that’s what I want to know? Really. Tell me. Who is?”
Her old friend, a husband and writer who’s been in love with Gloria for years, puts his arm over her shoulder and knows the answer for himself, but doesn’t dare say it aloud, “for fear it might disappear on a cloud of moist breath and air.”
He doesn’t want to take his happiness for granted or jinx it in any way—that’s how precarious and precious it is. If we’re lucky enough to be happy, as I can say I am in my life, we must also know that life is full of grave uncertainties and nothing guarantees we’ll stay happy. My characters wrestle with this urgent understanding.
Have you read any short stories lately that you particularly admire?
The final collection from the Irish writer William Trevor is unbelievably beautiful, his language precise and his touch deft. I sometimes have to read his stories several times over because his character’s inner lives are shaded with such subtlety.
And I can’t resist mentioning the extraordinary stories of Jim Shepard, whose imagination is more elastic than just about any other writer today. I have no idea how he puts himself into the minds of Neolithic characters, early French aeronauts, or pioneer wives of the 1800s. Yet somehow his stories feel current, not fussy or old. He’s a ventriloquist and a magician of sorts.
What are you working on now?
I’m returning to the literary/historical territory of my first two novels, though this new book isn’t set in China. It’s a story about a woman author of dime novels in snobbish, literary Boston and Cambridge of the 1890s.
It’s a feminist tale based on a real character, and also a story about writing, creativity, the publishing business, and Gilded Age New England. I grew up in the Boston area and recently returned after 35 years away, so I’m approaching my subject with a combination of fresh eyes and a deep love of home.
Anything else we should know?
People may think that reading fiction is frivolous in a time of great uncertainty, but literature invites us to keep our minds open and our hearts compassionate. We need that now more than ever.
Book Chat: Virginia Pye Talks About Her New Book, Shelf Life of Happiness
Margaret Grant | October 22, 2018
I met Virginia Pye through the Association of Writers & Writing Programs’ (AWP) Writer-to-Writer Mentorship Program. Virginia chose me to be her mentee for three months last year, a relationship that has grown into a friendship. I jumped at the chance to speak with Virginia about Shelf Life of Happiness, a collection of stories with characters that really got under my skin.
These stories are quite different from your novels. I’m so impressed by that range. In what ways do you find writing short stories different from writing a novel? How do you shift focus, and do you struggle with that?
I’ve written short stories off and on for thirty years, but I don’t have a large number of them to show for it because I only write them when a gem of an idea comes to me. Something strikes me as ironic or problematic or a small crystallization of life’s conundrums. I have to work it out in a story. For me, writing stories is like writing poetry in that way—it’s about scratching an itch.
Novel writing is an altogether different process. It requires advance planning, often research, and major organization of ideas. I’ve sometimes used note cards to plot out the shape and I write in scenes from beginning to end, constructing the narrative arc as I go. I tend to do my character building within the confines of the story I create—probably because my novels have a lot of action. The plot—what happens to propel the story forward—reveals my characters. Maybe if my novels were more internal, like my short stories, I might construct them differently.
What shines in the whole collection is the complexity of your characters. This requires such deep diving into the emotional ocean that so many of us try to avoid. What is your process for character development, by which I mean, do they arise fully formed, or do you go over and over the work to bring them to life? What is the hardest thing for you personally to go through in creating such vivid characters?
I revise many, many times, and often over many months or even years. I send stories out to literary journals and revise when they’re not accepted, so the process is an extended one.
The hardest thing, I suppose, is how to limit what readers learn about each character, pinpointing the most essential information or impression. A short story, needless to say, has to be short, so a writer needs to be discerning. The process requires a lot of building up and then winnowing down. I think I’m more naturally a novel-writer, so it can be painful to pare down to the essentials in a short story.
I loved “Crying in Italian” and was surprised and relieved by the ending. It was handled so delicately. What does the ending mean to you? Is it too late for them, do you think?
I leave it to the reader to decide if the wife and mother in this story will be swept away by the passion she senses all around her in the Roman ruins, or literally stay on the “right” path with her family. This is one of the few stories I’ve written with a more ambiguous ending, though I think the main character’s direction is pretty clear. In general, my work is less ambiguous than a lot of contemporary literary fiction, in which actions are taken without consequences and relationships have hazy reasons for being or dissolving.
I think some people consider ambiguity in fiction to be more sophisticated than certainty. But my characters’ whole reason for being is to face those moments in which they must step up to the plate. For example, in my novel Dreams of the Red Phoenix, the story hinges on whether the mother will set aside her personal ideals and protect herself and her child in the midst of war. In River of Dust, the stakes are every bit as high, and the characters either crumble or respond nobly. It’s an old-fashioned idea, I suppose, that fiction is an appropriate venue for the exploration of morality, but that’s my quiet goal.
Many of the stories prompted me to say out loud, “No, don’t listen to him!” as in “Her Mother’s Garden.” This is a story about class divisions, how society responds to that, and how such divisions have changed over time. Can you talk a little bit about where this story came from?
As my parents aged and my father was diagnosed with incipient Parkinson’s, they had to move out of the home where I grew up. Surprisingly, someone I’d known growing up bought the house and tore it down. At the time, and for years afterwards, I felt pretty shocked and hurt by that turn of events, especially because it was at the start of a period of great loss—first with my father dying and then my mother. Part of my process of grieving was about the destruction of the house as well.
But with time, I came to realize that the house being material—still standing, that is—didn’t matter. The memories I have of it are so removed from the present, it wasn’t important that the actual structure existed or not, in much the same way I now realize that my parents, though gone for a decade, are still with me.
So, that story came out of grief, but also out of a deeper understanding of permanence in life. How what you love and whom you love are always with you.
And yes, it’s also a story about class—how the old money ways of the past have been superseded by new money and different values. But I think, or hope, that the story also suggests that those new values have merit, too. The man who buys and then tears down the home in my story is a real family man. He’s looking out for what’s best in his eyes for his family. He’s not a bad guy, in my opinion. And the end result, as in so many of my stories, is that the main female character is forced to see the world differently. She must leave the bubble of the protected, precious world her parents created. I hope the reader senses that she will be the better for that change, although it’s not an easy one.
In the story “Redbone,” the main character is a rather loathsome individual. And we get different perspectives, including his own, throughout the story. We have plenty of reasons not to like the guy, and yet I still was hoping for the best for him right up to the end, which I think is a sign of a very well-crafted character and story.
Redbone put ambition above all else—and not a healthy type of ambition, but ambition of the sort that caused him to lose those he loved. He’s literally and figuratively lost his bearings in life and in the ocean where he swims. So, I think he’s getting his just desserts, but I hope the reader also feels for the man. He wanted to be a better person, and in the end that’s all we can hope for—to have that impulse to be decent and kind to one another, even if we can’t pull it off all the time. I see myself in him—me at my most crass and grasping—and I hope the reader can see him or herself, too. It’s a bit of a cautionary tale, but one I need to remind of myself, too.
The inevitable question arises — what are you working on now?
I’m excited to be working on an historical novel set in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where I grew up and now live again, but not set in the present, instead in the late 1800s. It’s the story of a woman author of dime novels in the world of high literature. I’m having fun with feminist themes in a Gilded Era setting. I love thinking about highbrow, snobbish Boston as immigrants changed the character of the town. It’s so clear how the same societal issues were at play then as now, as well as in my novels and in the stories of Shelf Life of Happiness.
An Interview with Virginia Pye
Janyce Stefan-Cole | October 22, 2018
Virginia Pye is the author of two novels, Dreams of the Red Phoenix (Unbridled Books, 2015) and River of Dust (Unbridled Books, 2013). Both take place in China and involve historical events; both evolved from her grandparents’ experiences as missionaries and her father’s having been born and raised in China. She now has a collection of stories, Shelf Life of Happiness, due out from Press 53 this October.
I’m in awe of any writer who can pull off both novel and short story. I was told in workshop years ago that I’d write novels. I was afraid of such ambition as I submitted story after problematic story to the group. Virginia Pye’s stories are concisely drawn with an enviable array of diverse characters. Her plots operate on an emotional plane: a slight shift in perspective, an abrupt act, an unexpected response move the stories forward. There are no grand gestures, only the circumstances of a life. William Trevor described the short story as “the art of the glimpse.” What a feat to go from the long gaze of the novel to that intimate glance.
With an MFA from Sarah Lawrence College, Pye has taught writing at New York University and the University of Pennsylvania. Her essays and stories have appeared in the North American Review, The Baltimore Review, The Rumpus, Literary Hub, Huffington Post and The New York Times. Noteworthy too—Virginia Pye kept her cool when she ran into Mick Jagger at a Shanghai bar.
Reading your stories I feel as if I’m peering into your characters’ lives through a window, almost inappropriately compelled to keep watching. Yet these quintessentially American stories are packed full of familiar places and situations any of us might encounter. You are wonderfully observant. How did you find these stories?
Without trying to sound too mystical, I feel that these stories found me. If I notice something that’s quirky or unresolved—a little gem of experience that captures life’s ironies or conundrums—I start to imagine resolving it in a story. Though, of course, fiction never resolves anything. Instead, it opens more avenues of thought about life, rather than narrowing them down. But still, I use fiction to explore small moments that have leapt out at me as rich with possibilities.
You have said, “Fiction gains its full scope when an author takes a daring imaginative leap fueled by empathy and understanding.” Orhan Pamuk speaks of the writer’s compassion for his characters. Yet there’s an argument afoot that a writer ought to stick within his or her—especially ethnic—experience. Well, first off, that would preclude murders from most fiction, or a female writer creating a male protagonist, or possibly, too, books written about a foreign country in a different era. To me your quote perfectly states the writer’s gift: imagination and empathy. (Which does not imply either is easy to exercise.) Can you comment?
Fiction relies on the suspension of disbelief, and to achieve that is not as easy as it sounds. To get a story or character right, you have to really know your subject, which doesn’t mean knowing every detail, just the right details. The essence.
I agree with the perspective that writers from dominant cultures must bring an especially sensitive and self-aware approach to telling the stories of people who have had vastly different life experiences from the author’s own, and who have perhaps faced oppression that the writer’s own group may be responsible for. That’s what I tried to do in my two novels. When a writer does choose to portray someone from an oppressed group, she needs to be aware of the bias with which she approaches her story. Compassion and empathy and respect must be the guide.
There’s a passivity running through many of your characters. In “Her Mother’s Garden,” Annie is ever stunted as the garden thrives. This is an interesting take on mother and garden as metaphor: nourishing forces become almost like kudzu, invading and choking the spirit. A similar passivity engulfs Sara in “Crying in Italian.” She seems ready to suffocate with unhappiness but, unable to confront it, she wanders off from her children to watch a couple making love among the Roman ruins. In “New Year’s Day,” Jessica horrifically speaks her mind to the last person to connect with a murder victim, behavior that disrupts Jessica’s sense of who she is.
I find truthfulness in these characters’ passivity, their indistinct dissatisfactions. Tell me about that, where these characters come from. How do you know them so well?
Actually, this question follows nicely on the one before it, because I think that passivity I explore through my characters comes out of a feeling of separateness and disconnection from the world. My characters often feel they aren’t a part of the mix. They’re not rubbing elbows with others who are unlike themselves. They’re on the outside. This could be because of being raised in the suburbs; I’m the child of intellectuals; I was the youngest in my family by many years and felt like an only child; and I’m a writer—whatever the cause, the point is, I can relate to feeling not connected enough.
My characters—especially in my novels—often make foolish choices to break free from that feeling of being removed from life. Sara, in the story you mention in the Roman ruins, is literally heading off the path in order to find more passion and more life-giving feeling. My characters create conflict, they take journeys, they convince themselves they are finally prepared for what the world has to offer them—in other words, they plunge in, for better or worse.
The stories “Redbone” and “White Dog” involve older male artists who have or will achieve a measure of success that conflicts with every other part of their lives. Artists sacrifice for their work, and the personal—especially the family—often suffers. There is the suggestion, too, of a time when artists were viewed as larger than life—dedicated, forceful but flawed—and that that may no longer be so.
Do you believe the artist is a diminished force in society today, possibly because of the sacrifices involved in what could be called, without pointing fingers, anti-heroic times?
Actually, I think the artist today is as important, perhaps more important, than ever. Artists have always taken up the mantle of social activism and do so crucially at this time.
I think the two male artists who you mention are actually admirable, though cranky and narcissistic, especially the older one in “White Dog.” He has a philosophy about his work that I try to aspire to. At one point in the story he says that what matters in life is “the lover’s quarrel with the work.” He has dedicated his life to getting it right. He believes in the dab of paint on the canvas, the necessary imperfections required by art, instead of the sanitized version of things that so many non-artists (like the gallery owner in the story) try to pursue. He wants life with all the messy parts, and yet, ironically, he strives for it by staying in his studio year in and year out. To me, that’s pretty heroic.
Nathan, in “Shelf Life of Happiness,” is relieved he won’t have to become lovers with the beautiful, connected Gloria. It takes a stranger from the Ukraine to unstick an awkward moment, in “Easter Morning,” of a young boy harboring a dead bird. Keith, in “Best Man,” literally needs direction from the dead.
Some of your characters seem adrift in their fates. Would you say you had a sympathetic yet pessimistic view of those lives?
I think that by the end of each of those stories, despite whatever ways the main characters have felt limited in their lives or lacking in courage, they rise to meet the challenges set before them. They shrug off their own weaknesses and become better people. At least that’s how I intended them to be seen. I am sympathetic to them and maybe even optimistic. They’re weak, but they strive to be strong. That’s pretty much all we can hope, I think.
An exception is the twelve-year-old skateboarder, Patrick, in “An Awesome Gap,” who shows resolve and grit: “No one in his family got it that you had to live in the moment and do what you love to do.” His father works hard to “pay for stupid stuff.” There’s a terrific tension between this unfiltered boy and his father—the growing gap not just between father and son, but between raw power and compromise. I’m thinking of Freud’s Society and Its Discontents: the effort to reach our full potential while trying not to be twisted in the kudzu of constant compromise. Is it correct to suggest your stories reflect a sense of struggle for self-realization?
I think that’s a good way of putting it. The boy in this story, like the older artists, has a mission he’s trying to accomplish. He wants something very badly—to be a good skateboarder, even a great one. That striving makes him an artist. I admire that in people. How, whatever your field, you might have in your mind a higher level of accomplishment or self-definition you’re trying to achieve. Ambition can be seen as bad, or selfish, but if it comes with a greater self-understanding, then it’s good. So, yes, my characters, like so many characters all the way back to Ulysses, struggle to achieve their better selves.
Finally, you have a book coming out! Always a nervous thrill, the realization of a book, a need met, your words and thoughts will be read. Which satisfies Virginia Pye most, writing a book or seeing it realized? Both, of course, but I ask this because the challenges of publishing are so much greater now, and I think the writer inevitably confronts the question: Would I continue to write without being published—assuming self-publication for one reason or other is not an option?
For the longest time, I wrote without being published, so I know all about that. I had my first literary agent when I was twenty-seven but my “debut” novel, which was really my fifth written, was published when I was fifty-three. I can write without a guarantee of being published and it’s important that all writers can, especially, as you say, in this fickle, difficult market.
But I’m very happy and satisfied when a book does finally come out. The stories in Shelf Life of Happiness were written and published in literary magazines over a full decade. They capture how I’ve thought and what I’ve cared about for years. To finally get to share them is a gift to me, and, I hope, to the reader as well.
An Interview with Virginia Pye,
Author of Shelf Life of Happiness
Jodi Paloni | October 16, 2018
We at Dead Darlings are thrilled to share author Jodi Paloni’s interview with Virginia Pye about her forthcoming short story collection, Shelf Life of Happiness, which Kirkus Reviews called “…a deeply moving meditation on the complexity and potential generosity of love.”
Virginia is also the author of two award-winning novels, Dreams of the Red Phoenix and River of Dust. Her stories, essays, and interviews have appeared in The North American Review, The Baltimore Review, Literary Hub, The New York Times, The Rumpus, Huffington Post and elsewhere.We hope you can join Virginia for the book launch for Shelf Life of Happiness at Porter Square Books on Tuesday October 23, 2018 at 7:00 pm.
Virginia, I’m so excited about Shelf Life of Happiness. I got into bed early on the longest day of the year planning to read a story or two, and before I knew it, I finished the book. It was some time in the middle of the night, my husband snoring heavily beside me, that I was struck by the breadth and depth, the range of motion, in your collection—time and place, seasons and weather, character and tone and point of view, relevant content—while at the same time, I felt as though a steady beat was being struck throughout. After I thought about it some more, here’s where I landed: While reading about the tumultuous and often disturbing lives of your characters, I actually felt quite grounded. I think it has to do with how you deal with place as a mirror, the great pause in the fever pitch of a character’s trajectory, and also, how compassionate you are towards your characters. But more on that later. Let’s begin with place.
While there isn’t one setting in which all of the stories take place, I still think of the book as a place-based collection of a certain fashion. For the most part, your characters are highly aware of their surroundings. In fact, character awareness of the setting is often the moment in the story when what’s outside of the character becomes the mirror that enables him or her to finally “see.” So, interior landscape interacts with exterior landscape in a very lovely way again and again. I wonder if you could talk about your choices around your use of place in story.
Thanks for those kind words about the collection. I’m so happy that it kept you up late! And I like your suggestion that place is a strong element in the stories.
The lead story, Best Man, begins with the sentence: “Snow fell hard up in Reno.” So both place and weather are established right away. The overheated interior of the car as it drives through the snow provides a contrast born out as the story continues: heat and blood and life in opposition to cold and snow and death.
At one point the main character stands in the middle of the street during the snowstorm and looks up at a stoplight as it changes from red to green and back again, though no cars are within sight at the deserted intersection. The futility of that stoplight doing its job with no one around mirrors the character’s feelings. He’s lost and helpless in the face of his friend’s illness and his own misspent love.
And in other stories, too, place and the natural elements reflect interior landscapes. In Father Demo Square in the West Village of Manhattan on a stark, chilly morning, a young man sees his surroundings with exquisite clarity because he knows he’ll soon be leaving it behind. Or on the back patio of a wealthy home in the Connecticut countryside as a misty dusk rolls in, an elderly artist senses he’s reached the end of his career. Or the Roman Forum on a blisteringly hot summer day when a wife and mother senses romantic passion all around her, propelling her to face what she’s been missing for too long. I guess in a way, these characters become one with their settings.
Yes. Those are wonderful examples of some of the moments that really stood out to me, how characters are observant, reflective, even mindful, and maybe that should go without saying when speaking about short stories, but it’s not an easy feat to show that level of interiority while the dramatic plot moves right along. More often than not, I find that stories lean one way or another.
I think what adds to that balance you strike is how your characters tend to interact with the physicality of their surroundings in highly visceral ways. You mentioned the passion at the Roman Forum. I remember feeling so much tension in the sensuality of the scene in which Sara, wife and mother, watches an embrace between two lovers where the man’s hand “disappears into the fabric between [the young woman’s] legs.” Before this, Sara noticed “the sunlight in the folds of her summer dress,” but then worries that the young woman’s dress “will be wrinkled.” Moments later, Sara “rubs the toe of her sandal against the back of her leg, warm from the sun and firm.” She flows in and out of head and body, as if she has to teach herself not only how to feel certain sensations again, but to convince herself that it’s okay.
I like how you slow that scene way down, leading us along paths and into secret places along with the lovers followed by their spy. While I was both fraught with worry at the possibility that Sara’s peeping would be discovered and even more anxious by what she was willing to risk of her children as she delved more deeply into the voyeurism, at the same time, I experienced how the graver danger was in what Sara was discovering in herself, and the ramifications of that discovery. That you allow Sara to take the path of that discovery is what I mean when I talk about how you have compassion for your characters. Does that make sense?
I think you’re right that compassion is the human quality that makes us want to understand what motivates others—both in fiction and in life. Empathy fuels curiosity. It helps us seek out common ground with people entirely unlike ourselves.
And, as you suggest, I’m definitely not only concerned with what goes on in my characters’ minds, but in how they act. It’s important to me that action pushes them to new understandings: a conflict or a challenge brings them to a striking moment of self-revelation. The plot in my stories creates consequences in the characters’ hearts and minds.
Perhaps my stories are old fashioned in that way. Joy Williams wrote, “The work of the story is to keep the story from becoming what it is about.” My stories aren’t ambiguous in that way, though they can play with the idea of ambiguity. Some of my characters think they know what’s going on when clearly they don’t. But the reader is able to discern what’s going on. The arc of story itself isn’t ambiguous.
The compassion you suggested I feel towards my characters may be because I don’t leave them stranded. Their plights, while not always good, are at least known. I guess you could say there are principles at work in my stories. Destinies play out. Stuff happens, tallies are taken; hearts are broken, or reborn.
I like how you say, “hearts are broken, or reborn.” It brings me to one of my favorite stories in your book, “An Awesome Gap.” Whew! I love a good coming of age narrative. This story really embodies that time of life, literally, as in your character Patrick is so in his body, and as such, so am I, your reader.
First you let me experience being inside the character as he skates, “the soft roar of his wheels, the clack and rattle and bang of the other boards,” you let me sense the cold “breeze off the river” against the sweat on his neck. Because of that, I could then easily feel the anticipation of Patrick’s attempt at his feat, his flight, as well as, the burn of flesh skidding against asphalt.
For Patrick to want something so badly that is also so physically demanding and to be met with an emotional obstacle (the resistance from his father) far greater than the feat itself, well, I think that level of emotional stakes were served well by the sensorial details within the course of the dramatic action. Patrick, by squarely facing his physical challenges, is shored to face his emotional ones. Again, in bringing Patrick (and your readers) straight to that edge, you serve him (and us) well. You nailed the teenage boy point of view, and skateboarding, and the father-son dynamic, too, at least how I imagine it. What was the impetus for writing Patrick’s story, I wonder?
Virginia: Well, truth be told, my son is a serious skateboarder, starting when he was six years old and now sponsored by several companies. He’s dedicated and skates everyday, weather permitting, and it’s his life and his universe of friends and acquaintances. As parents, my husband and I had some adjusting to do to accept that—but it happened gradually over many years. I think you have to recognize another person’s passion, whatever it may be, and you have to respect that. It may not be anything you’d be drawn to doing yourself, but the comparison between, say, me sitting down at my desk to write every day and my son skating day in and day out is pretty obvious.
This is where the idea of empathy comes in again—and curiosity. I’m curious about a young skateboarder’s commitment to his craft and the world of skating that he wants so much to be a part of. So I had to write about it, though truthfully, I know very little about it.
From the closeness I felt in this piece, I guessed you had some personal connection to the stakes, which may be true of all your work; I hesitate to presume, but your curiosity certainly came through. I’ll never look at a skater again without thinking of the struggle, how someone’s sheer delight may be somewhat thwarted by it causing possible distress to another, as in a child’s passion causing a parent to fret, which brings me to theme of happiness in your book.
Of course, I love the title of your collection, which, although it’s also the title for the final story in collection, it seems to me to represent the entirety of the book. The expression “shelf life of happiness” comes from the dialogue between four characters discussing the idea of happiness in marriage, but the stories read together as a whole deal with issues of happiness in all aspects of relationship—romantic, plutonic, familial—but more, to me, as we’ve mentioned, these stories are about the conscious relationship characters have with the self. It’s as if every character understands at some level that there is a shelf life to his or her happiness, and that also the expiration date could be re-issued moving forward. So, there’s plenty of hope amidst the despair. Could you speak to the idea of how your characters often reach the point of self-compassion, or at least come to a place of self-acceptance? It’s very refreshing. Was there deliberateness to this?
I suppose you’re putting your finger on how I view life: there’s plenty of despair—the expiration date for us all is none negotiable—but the way we strive to be our better selves even in the face of that is what makes us fully human. I couldn’t write something that is simply despairing, because I have a lot faith that we try our best to be decent to ourselves and to others.
I realize this is a tough moment to be standing by that conviction, but I remain convinced that people are good. My stories necessarily reflect that. I tend towards wearing rosy-colored glasses, but I also am keenly aware that I’m wearing them! In other words, my characters often realize over the course of a story that their perceptions have been wrong—but I think that’s one aspect of being human. We can continually correct ourselves and need to assume we make mistakes in our understandings of others. The self-compassion comes from knowing we get so much wrong and yet must continue to try.
Again, refreshing. But perhaps my descriptor falls short next to the notion of necessity. One of the most memorable stories in the collection for me, the one that haunts, is “New Year’s Day.” If we’re talking about compassion, that’s the story that, for me, stretches farthest out to the greater reaches of community (and nation) at large.
The arc of the story reflects what you say you hope to do in your work and in life. In “New Year’s Day,” off-stage, there’s an act of supreme violence in an unsuspecting neighborhood, followed by what we see on-stage, an expression of an extreme fear in the protagonist, Jessica, of her almost reflexive judgment against one of the victims and an innocent bystander, and the eventual articulation of that judgment causing additional pain to the already pained.
When later in the story, the protagonist sees her behavior through the lens of a character in a play, Jessica’s epiphany comes to her first as unwelcome. Yet she persists in teasing out her responses until she is satisfied thusly: “Because even though there was indeed a hell, Jessica felt certain of that, there was also a heaven, and here on earth we strained toward it every day, each in our way.” Then “…she looked around at the subway platform with new eyes.” Again, an example of how you use of exterior to reflect her interior. “So many things were remarkable or terrible or both.”
“New Year’s Day” reminded me very much of the short stories by Elizabeth Strout, who is one of my favorite contemporary authors. I admire how she can take the mundane lives of ordinary, often rural, people and infuse a sudden tragedy of extreme but realistic proportions, and then show us how the protagonist makes sense of it in his or her effort to keep on going, to keep trusting in the good. The key to me is that she’s unflinching in bringing forward the challenging issues of our time.
Earlier you mentioned that we are in “a tough moment” regarding decency. Would you be willing to speak more about how your writing habits and/or chosen content may be changing along with a heightened national awareness of fracture and incivility, the gaps in poverty and privilege, and the on-going struggle against mental illness and addiction, hate and violence?
Thanks for that lovely comparison. I love the stories of Elizabeth Strout. She writes with great restraint, but also great heart, which is a hard balance to strike.
I feel blind-sided everyday, practically every hour, by the terrible news. I’m a deer in headlights now, though self-aware enough to understand that that is exactly where the opposition wants me to be. Because feeling stunned creates inaction. And inaction lets the chaos continue.
The feelings of being inadequate in the face of treachery and hypocrisy and even evil are common in my stories as well. Often in them, and also especially in my two novels, good-hearted, well-meaning, often myopic characters are faced with some disaster that insists they wake up and take action, or at least become aware of their own blindness.
The woman you mention in New Year’s Day literally sees things clearly for the first time because of the tragedy she is forced to understand. In Her Mother’s Garden, the main character is forced to literally leave the garden (a.k.a. her private Eden) and finally start her own life.
The veil drops from the eyes, both in my stories and, I suppose, these days in my life. Like everyone else, I’m trying to take stock of just what’s going on—the level to which greed and power have corrupted our country. My stories have dealt with milder versions of such problems, but now is a time when life is far more dramatic and unbelievable than fiction.
So true, isn’t it? I think it’s difficult not to be influenced by the news of the day these days, in our daily lives and how it affects our work in “waking up” as writers. But as you say, you’ve been making conscious choices about this in your work all along. My final question for you then is this: What are you working on now?
In the context of these last few questions, my answer to what I’m working on may sound like I’m trying to escape through writing, which is somewhat true. But I’m hoping that my current project, while set in an earlier era, will shed light on the issues of today. I’m writing a novel set in the late 1800s in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where I live now and also grew up. It’s about a women author of romance and adventure dime novels in the stodgy, literary world of Boston. Among other things, she ends up suing her publisher for underpaying her, although her successful novels help keep in print the much-respected men of letters of her day. It’s a feminist tale, a story about art and life, and the journey of a woman coming into her own intellectually. Plus, it’s a romance, so plenty of fun to write and, hopefully, to read.
Hearts in Reserve:
Virginia Pye on Shelf Life of Happiness
Kathleen Stone | September 24, 2018
In these bittersweet, compelling stories, Virginia Pye’s characters long for that most elusive of states: happiness. A young skateboarder reaches across an awesome gap to reconnect with his disapproving father; an elderly painter executes one final, violent gesture to memorialize his work; a newly married writer battles the urge to implode his happy marriage; and a confused young man falls for his best friend’s bride and finally learns to love. As Jim Shepard describes it, “The characters…experience their lives as a tangle they urgently need to understand before it’s too late. They’re experts on how to keep their hearts in reserve…yet all they want is to access the appreciative tenderness that’s waiting for them within their best selves.” The book follows Virginia’s two published novels, Dreams of the Red Phoenix, set in China in 1937, the time of the Japanese invasion, and River of Dust, which takes place on the edge of the Gobi Desert in the early 1900s.
I first met Virginia two years ago when she read at Booklab, a literary salon I co-host in Boston. Recently we emailed about her forthcoming book.
Often a writer works first in short fiction before moving onto the longer form of the novel. You seem to have worked in reverse, given that you published two novels before bringing out this story collection. How did you come to short fiction?
You’re right that it’s wise for aspiring fiction writers to start by tackling the short story form before trying to write a novel, not that short stories are necessarily any easier to perfect than novels, but the shorter form makes them more manageable. I’ve written short stories for decades at the same time as working on various novels. I tend to write the stories when a gem of an idea strikes me; some instance of life’s ironies or moments of clarity through which a larger theme can emerge.
For example, at a neighborhood gathering in our backyard one Easter morning when my children were young, it came to my attention that my son had dug up a dead bird that he and his father had buried not long before. Now what do you do when life hands you a resurrected bird on Easter morning? You write a story!
It’s interesting that you mention the story “Easter Morning.” I was quite struck by the boy’s anguish, and how the adults dealt with it, and it has stayed with me. In that vein, I often think about how a writer wraps her own life into her fiction and I’d like to ask you to weigh in on that, on where the line between experience and imagination falls. For instance, in “White Dog,” another of the stories, you depict interaction between an artist and an art dealer. Given your husband’s career in the arts, I imagine you have observed such interactions. On the other hand, I don’t imagine you have witnessed events as they unfold in the story. How do you catapult from one to the other?
When I was writing about the far off world of historic China in my novels, I thought that readers might not assume that the story was about my family or me, but they did. My brother said to me that I had “gotten Dad’s childhood right.” “No!” I wanted to say, my novel isn’t my father’s childhood. It may be inspired by my family’s past, but fiction, to succeed, must be fully imagined.
The short stories are going to be even harder for readers to grasp as not from my life, because they’re set in the present and are about people like me. However, while some of these stories, like “Easter Morning” which I just described, were inspired by real moments, those moments are then transformed into a life of their own on the page. The way the imagination works is nuanced and complicated, never reductive.
I have a number of stories, including “White Dog,” that are about artists. Being life- partners with a modern and contemporary art curator (who is now a museum director) has meant that I have a lot of familiarity with the art world. But I often use “the artist” in my stories to play out themes that could just as easily apply to writers. The ongoing battle between art and life has always occupied my mind: how, as Yeats said, one chooses between perfection of the life or of the art. The old artist in White Dog shares his philosophy of life when he says that what matters most to him is “the lover’s quarrel with the work.” I believe that, too, because my work has been with me all these years and it matters to me almost as much as my family or friends. That’s a little surprising to admit, but it’s true. Anyway, these are the thoughts that occupy the artists in my stories and me.
Another story, “An Awesome Gap,” left me astounded at your descriptions of skateboarding – what it feels like to do a trick in the air, all the lingo. Plus, what it feels like to be a teenage boy. Where did that understanding come from?
My son is a serious skateboarder, sponsored by several national companies. It became his passion from the age of six onward. Every place we ever visited when on vacation, I’d always drive him to a skate spot because he needed to skate. It made him feel better to do so. It became very clear to me that his focus and dedication wasn’t unlike my own about writing, or any artist’s when pursuing his or her craft. So that story came out of exploring those same themes of life and art and how you communicate your passion to those around you—in the case of the story, the boy’s father.
Over the years, I learned a bit about skateboarding, but also, I had my son read the story before it went to press, and he corrected a few places where I had gotten the lingo wrong. It’s always good to engage primary sources when doing research!
Speaking of your son and husband, many of your lead characters are male, and often the females play a subtler role, harder to pigeonhole. What were your thoughts about approaching male characters head on?
Honestly, I’m not sure why I write about male characters with such relish. Maybe it’s a holdover from reading so much of the canon of male writers when I was learning to be a writer? Or maybe it’s because I have lived with a man for decades and have a son and yet men remain mysterious to me? Their lives seem worth exploring in fiction because I don’t instinctively understand them. I’m not sure of the answer, but hopefully I get it right, at least some of the time.
I find endings to be one of the most difficult aspects of writing, but you manage to construct endings that are sometimes unexpected, often lyrical, yet not overly dramatic. Consistently they feel organic to the whole of the story. What is your secret to endings?
Thank you for saying that. I work hard on the endings. Sometimes, if I’m lucky, the ending flows naturally out of the story. I can see where I’m headed as the story unfolds, and as a reward for getting all the threads woven into place, I can unfurl my banner in the final sentences. In novels, too, a writer has to wait until the later pages to “deserve” more elevated language. In a short story, the scale is much smaller, so the language can’t be too highfalutin. Still, you’re given some latitude to rise up at the end and venture into poetry. It’s a fine line, though, and I tend to revise the endings madly over many drafts. I guess I could say that I want the endings to sing quietly.
When I opened the package that contained your book, I was overjoyed at how beautiful the cover was. How did you come upon this designer, and how did you work together?
I’m delighted to share that my cover was created by my dear friend, former neighbor, brilliant artist, and experienced graphic designer, Margaret Buchanan of Buchanan Design in Richmond, Virginia. I was pleased when my publisher agreed to allow her to design the outside of the book. She came up with close to a dozen different designs and none seemed quite right to me. But she didn’t lose her patience and eventually proposed the extraordinarily haunting photo of the dying flowers. The colors, fonts, and placement of the words are all Margaret. Her designs are always sophisticated and beautiful. She has designed my website for years and our aesthetics are closely attuned. I hope she’ll have the opportunity to design other book covers, not just for me, but for anyone who wants a striking outcome.
Tell me about Press 53. How did you find them, and what was it like to work with them?
I have loved working with Press 53! Kevin Morgan Watson, the publisher and editor, is very smart about short stories, probably because the press focuses exclusively on short story and poetry collections. He offered clear editorial guidance, but also was flexible about some things, including having Margaret design the covers.
It was Kevin’s decision to put the story “Best Man” first in the collection, and Kirkus Reviews just confirmed that it is “a particularly strong opener.” Kevin really knows how to shape a collection. He cut three or four of the stories from the original manuscript and while that was a bit agonizing for me, I saw that he was right. He wanted this to be a tightly themed collection and I think it is in the end.
Mostly, I’ve grateful to him for accepting the book for publication at all! I had been a finalist twice for the Press 53 Award for Short Fiction and we both had the same idea that they should just go ahead and publish it, even though I didn’t win. But after working with him on Shelf Life of Happiness, I think we’d agree that the book is much stronger than it was when I first submitted it.
Last question: is there a book for which you are an evangelist, which you recommend to everyone?
I tend to go a little wild over whatever book I’m reading, if I’m enjoying and respecting it. I’ll rave about it, but then some weeks later I can no longer remember it very well, only that I admired it, which is probably because I read too many books at once. In any case, I don’t have one book that I always recommend to everyone, but I do have books that I carry around in my head and return to in my thoughts. First among them is Madame Bovary. Reading tastes are so personal, I don’t want to assume that everyone likes what I like, but it is wonderful that there are so many novels and story collections out there today that are brilliant. I feel honored to have Shelf Life of Happiness be in such great company!
Award-winning author Virginia Pye introduced her latest work, Dreams of the Red Phoenix
An Interview with Novelist Virginia Pye
K E Ogden | April 4, 2016
Part 1 of the second interview in a series about the intersections of writing, teaching and identity
Virginia Pye’s second novel, Dreams of the Red Phoenix, was published in October by Unbridled Books. Gish Jen called it “[g]ripping, convincing, and heart-breaking....A real page-turner and thought-provoker—wonderful.” Kirkus Reviews says, “There’s a comparison to Ballard’s Empire of the Sun, but this unlashing look...shares thrush in its own way.” Her debut novel, River of Dust (2013), was an Indie Next Pick and a finalist for the 2014 Virginia Literary Award. Her award-winning stories have appeared in numerous literary magazines and her essays are at Literary Hub, The Rumpus, The New York Times Opinionator, Huffington Post, and elsewhere.
Virginia Pye holds an MFA from Sarah Lawrence College and has taught writing at New York University and the University of Pennsylvania. She recently moved back to Cambridge, Massachusetts, after thirty-five years away.
Your first novel, River of Dust, began from an investigation into retelling the lives and experiences of your family; how did you begin research for this book?
The spark for my first novel came from my grandfather’s notes and journals. He was a Congregational missionary in northwest rural China in the early twentieth century. He came out of Oberlin College Seminary and Carleton College and was a highly educated, renaissance man. In his journals, his observations about Chinese culture were interwoven with quotes from his favorite Romantic poets and peppered with Shakespearean asides. I loved his witty, literate voice, and yet had trouble with his actual mission there in China. Among his papers, I found his tally book showing how many Chinese he had succeeded at converting to Christianity in any given month. I had always tried to ignore my family’s missionary past, but discovering my grandfather’s writing—at the same moment I was reading Marilynne Robinson’s brilliant novel Gilead about a minister of that same era—I realized I wanted to try to capture the voices and attitudes of an earlier time in a story informed by our twenty-first-century understanding of imperialism. In other words, I wanted to write a novel of American colonialism.
I know you worked with Nancy Zafris (former Fiction Editor for The Kenyon Review) editing River of Dust, and you’ve credited her in many conversations for helping you to open up imaginative possibilities for your novel. It’s a challenge for some writers to take tough criticism and learn new things; however, many writers are often navigating identities as teachers and, in their own writing lives, as students also. What was this editing experience like for you, as a seasoned teacher of writing yourself, now in the role of student?
I received help from Nancy at exactly the right moment. I had been struggling with a manuscript called Sleepwalking to China for over five years. Thirty or more agents had read it, several had read it more than once, and it had gone through at least twenty revisions. I had had way too many cooks in the kitchen for those pages. Before meeting Nancy, I had put the troublesome manuscript aside for a year and wrote a much easier, breezier contemporary novel set in Richmond, Virginia, where I lived at the time. I’m not sure why I was able to write the new novel so quickly, but I think it was perhaps because I had felt so burdened by Sleepwalking to China and just wanted to have fun again with writing. Working on the manuscript set in contemporary America inadvertently gave me the distance I needed on the book set in historical China. When I finally met Nancy I could look at the complicated manuscript with fresh eyes. By that point, I didn’t have much ego involved in keeping it as it was. I just wanted Sleepwalking to China to succeed, in whatever form it might take.
I heard that Nancy read your book and basically told you that you had two books, not one. That must have been a surprise!
It was something other publishing professionals had tried to tell me earlier but I wasn’t yet able to hear. When Nancy said it, I finally understood and accepted that she was right. Together we re-envisioned the entire project and I went on to write River of Dust quite quickly and with great clarity. My editor, Greg Michalson at Unbridled Books, was also a huge help in making the book stronger. I still have plans for the rest of that earlier manuscript and hope it will come out as the third and final novel in my trilogy about four generations of an American family in China. So no wonder I struggled with that earlier manuscript: it was three books, not one!
I’m already excited about that third book, but your second book, Dreams of the Red Phoenix, came out this past October and has been very well received. How did the composition process for this second novel compare with your process for River of Dust?
Like River of Dust, writing Dreams of the Red Phoenix was pretty smooth and swift. For both books, I used a technique taught to me by Nancy. I outlined the story on 3 x 5 cards that I hung on strings attached to my bookshelf. Each card listed the central action of a scene, and noted how that action affected the key character. As I went on to write the novel, the emotional heart of each scene and character came out organically, but the plot was formed before I started. Once I finished writing a scene, I would tear the card off the line. It felt gratifying to have fewer and fewer cards hanging, which helped speed up the writing even more. I think both books have a quick pace because I was eager to tell the stories. I let the momentum pull me along and hopefully it has that effect on the reader, too.
What a great technique to help keep track of the story, but also as a motivator! I know that many novelists who have worked with Nancy and her team in KR’s novel workshop have learned similar techniques that helped them really streamline their stories and get motivated again. A lot of writers struggle to get that momentum going—especially writers who also juggle duties as full-time or part-time teachers or as workshop leaders and conference or writing retreat organizers, let alone moms and dads. You’ve done all of these things while trying to write, but your persistence and your discipline are legendary. How have you been able to carve out a writing discipline for yourself?
I really enjoy the magical act of writing and I love the process of concocting stories in my mind while I go about my daily life. For me, walking into my study in the morning is a thrill because I’ve saved up ideas that I’m excited to explore. I try to carve out time to escape to my study—little snippets sometimes—before breakfast or after dinner—and these days, I can be in my study for hours without interruption. I realize I’m very lucky to have that kind of time and am grateful for it.
I remember your talk at the Kenyon Review Writers Workshop a few years ago in which you shared the publication journey for River of Dust and the many, many years it took to secure an agent and bring that book to fruition. Now you’ve just released your second book! How did you keep the faith that your hard work and persistence would pay off one day?
I’ve become somewhat inured to rejection, but I think that comes with the territory of writing over many years. So many writers have at least one or two novels tucked into drawers that they’ve tried to sell without luck. Prior to my debut novel being published, I had four previous novels that were represented by excellent literary agents, none of whom were able to place my books with a publisher. That meant a lot of hopes raised and then dashed.
That’s persistence; that’s someone who’s been writing a long time. How did you first come to writing?
I started writing when I was around ten years old. I grew up in a house full of books. My parents read all the time and my father wrote his own books about Chinese politics in long hand on yellow legal pads. My mother edited his manuscripts, so I saw her marking up pages. In a way, my parents made a cottage industry of writing.
My brother also influenced me. He’s seven years older and had a huge vocabulary. I read to try to understand what he was saying, and I started writing to try to be like him, too.
WTVR-CBS Interviews Virginia Pye
Virginia Pye, debut author of the recently released River of Dust, is interviewed by WTVR-CBS, a local Richmond affiliate television station for the show “Virginia This Morning.” During the six-minute interview, Pye talks about being a novelist and the challenges that go with it as well as the origins of her new book. She gives a brief synopsis of the plot while tying it in to her own family history.
A Story as Big as China
Harry Kollatz Jr. | April 29, 2013
Virginia Pye’s debut novel, River of Dust, unfolds from the perspective of four characters — an American missionary couple in China, the larger-than-life Rev. John Wesley Watson and his wife, Grace, and their longtime servants, Alcho and Mai Lin. For background, Pye utilized journals kept by her grandfather, the Rev. Watts O. Pye, himself a missionary in China. For almost six years, she had been working on an epic multigenerational work set in China, Vietnam and America, with many rejections resulting in 21 rewrites.
A discussion with writer and editor Nancy Zafris changed everything, and after that, Pye completed River of Dust in a 23-day fury of writing that incorporated the first and last 25 pages of the previous novel. It was accepted on its first draft, and it will be released this month through Unbridled Books. (Full disclosure: Pye will serve as the final judge for July’s Best Unpublished Novel contest, sponsored by James River Writers and Richmond magazine.)
You start off at a gallop, swooping along with a kidnapped child before exploring the brutal struggles of what is frontier life at the edges of the Chinese desert, but the heart of the story deals with significant crises of faith.
Yes, their beliefs are severely tested. It’s significant that they are Americans in China. They’re in this position of Americans participating in colonialism. Underneath the shifting sands of the desert is a false bottom that makes for the precarious position they’re put in.
There are journeys and exotic places. But it’s for a grand purpose, and it doesn’t go easy.
Every novel worth its salt ends up being some sort of odyssey story. The greater the stakes, the more the characters demonstrate who they really are, what they believe.
The novel features heavy themes of gender, sex, race and politics, but in service of the story. And we see it unfold not just through the perceptions of one person.
To tell this story completely, I couldn’t rely on the two main characters. It’s four people observing the events. They each have their own perspective, and some are more reliable than others.
Is the character of Dr. Hemingway, the missionaries’ physician, a literary joke?
That’s actually Ernest Hemingway’s uncle. He was my grandfather’s and my father’s doctor. It’s kind of a nod to Hemingway, who influenced me, but it’s also interesting that Dr. Hemingway ends up ordered around and giving in to Mai Lin, because she knows better.
Sunday Evening Lecture:
Dreams of the Red Phoenix with Virginia Pye
Virginia Pye speaks on her newly published Dreams of the Red Phoenix, a historical novel set in China of the 1930s, and shares images from the Pye family China album that inspired the story. 50 minutes.