Interview with Leslie Pietrzyk

Interview with Leslie Pietrzyk

We are excited to open our interview series with contributor Leslie Pietrzyk. Her new novel, Silver Girl, is available to order from Unnamed Press.  A chapter of this novel previously appeared in the Summer 2016 issue of the Gettysburg Review under the title, "Give the Lady What She Wants." 

Q: How did you come to writing?

LP: I was one of those kids always reading books. I first understood I might one day actually write them, when I was in the first grade. Our teacher had spent a couple weeks reading aloud a children’s novel written by a local author, and she came to visit us. I distinctly remember making that connection: I like books, I liked that book, that woman wrote that book, I could write a book. (For the record: Hildy and the Cuckoo Clock by Ruth Christoffer Carlsen.)

Q: What is the most difficult part of the writing process for you?

LP: My favorite part of writing is revision, so logically I guess that makes the hardest part the writing of the first draft. I love thinking up ideas and pondering stories (and novels!) in my head, but something is challenging about sitting down to put those ideas into words. Surely that’s because everything seems brilliant in my head, and so, so much less brilliant when I start typing. I dislike the false starts of the first draft, the awkward phrasing and knowing there’s a better word but not wanting to step away to think about what that word might be. I dislike that so many of my first draft paragraphs end with an admonition to myself: MORE or BETTER, in mean capital letters, as if I need these reminders that what I’ve written isn’t good enough. I suspect I include those little notes so that if I were to die mid-draft, people would know that I knew that this work wasn’t ready, so no one would think, “Jeez, she called herself a writer? Look at this crap.” I really am the person Dorothy Parker was talking about when she said, “I hate writing, I love having written.”

Q: How have you evolved as an artist over the course of your career?

LP: Such an interesting question. I think it’s important for us as artists to push forward as much as we can, to try new things and to embrace creative risk. In graduate school I started by trying to be a minimalist, a la Raymond Carver. Now, I’m experimenting with points-of-view and form. I’m teaching myself how to write flash fiction. I dabble in personal essays. Sections of my new novel were written using writing prompts, something I would never have imagined myself doing. I think more and more about how a story is told, and why it must be told in this way. I used to think mostly about just getting the story down. It’s exciting to ponder where my mind will take me ten years from now.

Q: You reference point-of-view, what inspired you to write Silver Girl in first-person?

LP: I think about point-of-view a lot; it’s perhaps the most powerful tool the writer has: who’s telling the story? I like to think of POV as keys to the car, which in real life I wouldn’t easily hand over. I like reading the first person, but it’s a POV that needs quite a bit of justification from the writer: Why do we see everything only through these eyes? As this narrator emerged, I saw that she was reserved, more than a little sly, and that she had secrets she was keeping from the reader (such as her name). What surprised me as I wrote was discovering that she was also keeping secrets from herself. Once I knew I had an unreliable narrator on my hands, there was no turning back from the first person. I shifted my focus from pondering my POV choice to embracing it--working to ensure her voice stayed true, and that life inside her head didn’t turn claustrophobic.

Q: How did your characters take shape in “Give the Lady What She Wants,” and therefore in Silver Girl?

LP: I knew my book was going to be about the insular and destructive relationship between two college girls, so initially Jess and the narrator were developed pretty much in synch. As mentioned, I do a lot of writing to prompts, so I did a lot of early exploration with them in that low-pressure environment of fifteen-minute, one-word, open-ended writing prompts. As I became comfortable with the idea of writing an entire book about these two, I was deeply drawn to the narrator. She was complicated, and I sensed she had secrets I didn’t understand yet; prickly but also so lost and alone, trying the best she could. Mostly I wanted to give her a hug (though I knew she’d despise my pity). I was so taken with her that I had to step back and give Jess the same attention and authorial love. I’m proud that a lot of characters in this book make some very bad choices, yet I can’t view any one of them as villainous. My character development is always based around the word “complexity”: in “Give the Lady What She Wants” we have what appears to be a simple shopping trip, but underneath are layers to capture the challenges of class and money and family dynamics.

Q: Class is certainly at the forefront of Silver Girl. In what ways are you concerned with class?

LP: Class is arguably the, or certainly a, core story of our American lives. The myth of the classless society irks me, with this idea that if one works hard enough, one can dance up the rungs of the ladder. That is harder and harder for the average American to do: a reason certain parents stress out about getting their kids into the “right” college. What interested me fictionally is thinking about what happens once you’re in the “right” college if you’re not an insider. Both of my parents were the first in their families to go to college, and my father earned a PhD. In theory, that’s a tremendous leap forward in terms of class, and for sure it’s a notable achievement. Yet when I showed up to college, I might as well have landed on Mars for what I had in common with many of the other first years. Discovering this vaster, harder world was eye-opening, and I wanted to create a character who could struggle with this dilemma. What does it mean to want to fit into a place that will never allow you all the way in? What toll does that struggle take?

Q: What research (if any) did you do for Silver Girl?

LP: I enjoy research, at least the kind of basic research accomplished with Google. I jump at the chance to, say, search the internet for a perfect detail or an object to describe. Silver Girl is set in the 1980s, so I spent a lot of time reading about the 80s, examining lists of 80’s vocabulary, wanting to find words that were authentic to the time without sounding ridiculous. Or, I looked up colors and brands of nail polish and perfume and lipstick. I know that on some level a writer can certainly make up the color of lipstick, but I always love that little thrill of knowing how precisely I’ve captured my world, wondering who will recognize Clinique’s Raspberry Glacé as being an exact shade someone could have worn in 1982. “Give the Lady What She Wants” involved a fair amount of time reading about the Walnut Room in Marshall Field’s in Chicago, trying to find something interesting that the narrator could order to eat, and that research gave me the title for the story. And because Silver Girl is set during the time of Chicago’s Tylenol murders, I read a number of articles and some books about that crime. That felt to me like what I’d call “real research.”

Q: And finally, what advice do you have for aspiring writers?

LP: If I could only offer one piece of advice to writers, I would say this, which I’ve stolen from my writing teachers, which is write until something surprises you. That’s when you know it’s good. I bemoan how much I dislike writing first drafts, but I have to say that it’s a pretty amazing feeling when drafting and I hit that abrupt moment of surprise. Makes the anguish worthwhile.

Silver Girl, described in a Publishers Weekly starred review as "a profound, mesmerizing, and disturbing novel" is about a nameless young woman who starts her freshman year of college with one goal in mind: survival.

Newly transplanted to the big city of Chicago, she is one of the rare few to leave her small working class town in Iowa, let alone for a prestigious university. She is not driven by academic ambition, nor is she a social butterfly. Her true gift is an ability to understand the needs of others, and to reflect back the version of themselves they wish to see, rendering herself invisible.

Deftly, she conceals her deeply troubled past—especially from her charismatic yuppie-in-the-making best friend and roommate. For a while, she assimilates, living a new life not in any way her own. But the mask she wears cannot hide her secrets forever, and at some point she will be truly seen, possibly for the first time in her life.

Set in the early 80s, against the backdrop of a city terrorized by the Tylenol Killer, a local psychopath rumored to be stuffing cyanide into drugstore meds, Silver Girl is a deftly psychological account of the nuances of sisterhood. Contrasting obsession and longing, need versus desire, Leslie Pietrzyk delves into the ways class and trauma are often enmeshed to dictate one’s sense of self, and how a single relationship can sometimes lead to redemption.

Leslie Pietrzyk is the author of two novels, Pears on a Willow Tree and A Year and a Day. This Angel on My Chest, her collection of linked short stories, won the 2015 Drue Heinz Literature Prize and was published by the University of Pittsburgh Press in October 2015. Kirkus Reviews named it one of the 16 best story collections of the year. A new novel, Silver Girl, is forthcoming from Unnamed Press in February 2018. Her short fiction and essays have appeared/are forthcoming in many publications, including Hudson Review, Southern Review, Arts & Letters, Gettysburg Review, The Sun, Shenandoah, River Styx, Iowa Review, TriQuarterly, New England Review, Salon, Washingtonian, and the Washington Post Magazine. She has received fellowships from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference and the Sewanee Writers’ Conference. Pietrzyk is a member of the core fiction faculty at the Converse low-residency MFA program and often teaches in the MA Program in Writing at Johns Hopkins University. Raised in Iowa, she now lives in Alexandria, Virginia.

About the Gettysburg Review

The Gettysburg Review, published by Gettysburg College, is recognized as one of the country’s premier literary journals. Since its debut in 1988, work by such luminaries as E. L. Doctorow, Rita Dove, James Tate, Joyce Carol Oates, Richard Wilbur, and Donald Hall has appeared alongside that of emerging artists such as JM Holmes, Lydia Conklin, Jessica Hollander, Emily Nemens, Charles Yu, and Ashley Wurzbacher, who was recently named a National Book Foundation 5 Under 35 honoree.


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