Grist Journal

Hearts in Reserve:
Virginia Pye on Shelf Life of Happiness

Interviewed by Kathleen Stone | September 24, 2018

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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!

WTVR | Virginia This Morning

Award-winning author Virginia Pye introduced her latest work, Dreams of the Red Phoenix

Kenyon Review: Part I

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?

 Virginia Pye’s Grandfather, Watts O. Pye, reading. Photo courtesy of Virginia Pye.   This photo of my grandfather reading while out in the desolate Chinese countryside gives a sense of our family’s passion for books. I’m grateful to my family for being people who continued to educate themselves throughout their lives, reading constantly and writing, too.

Virginia Pye’s Grandfather, Watts O. Pye, reading. Photo courtesy of Virginia Pye.

This photo of my grandfather reading while out in the desolate Chinese countryside gives a sense of our family’s passion for books. I’m grateful to my family for being people who continued to educate themselves throughout their lives, reading constantly and writing, too.

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.

Richmond Magazine

A Story as Big as China

Harry Kollatz Jr. | April 29, 2013

 PHOTO: Ash Daniel

PHOTO: Ash Daniel

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.

Stonington Free LibrarY LECTURE

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.