LESLIE PIETRZYK: SILVER GIRL

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One of the most exciting aspects of having this blog is the opportunity to discover new writers. There are so many fabulous authors out there—it’s impossible to find all of them on your own, no matter how many times you visit the library, haunt your local bookstore, or follow the feeds of writers whose work you love. When my friend and fellow writer, Leigh Statham, recommended that I interview Leslie Pietrzyk for the blog, I was thrilled to add such a talented author to my TBR pile. Welcome, Leslie!

Congratulations on the release of your new novel, SILVER GIRL! What’s the book all about? Give us a sneak peek into the story and your characters.

SILVER GIRL is set in the early 80s, in Chicago, during the time of the Tylenol murders, when someone was stuffing cyanide into capsules of Tylenol and returning them to drugstore shelves for innocent people to buy. Against this backdrop, the book focuses on two college girls, one of them affluent, and the other, the narrator, coming to this fancy school from a working class background in Iowa. They form one of those intense, insular, intoxicating female friendships that are also destructive and competitive…especially as it turns out that everyone is trying to hold tight to their secrets. 

SILVER GIRL deftly explores the intersection of female friendship, power, trauma and privilege. What drew you to write about these issues?

I start by writing about characters, not issues. I had to find a storyline to fit into the Tylenol murder setting I was drawn to, so in my prompt writing group, I started playing around with these two college girls, loosely based on an intense female friendship I had while I was in college. Prompts are an easy, low-stress way to experiment, so for a long time it was just fun to set the girls in motion and see what was revealed. After about a year of that, I felt invested both in the girls and the setting, and so it was time to actually “start” the novel. From there, it was a process of melding together these characters with a plot—and THEN understanding the issues that arose due to their circumstances and their bad decisions. I ask myself a lot of questions during this process: How did they meet? How could someone from this background end up at this fancy college? Why does the narrator act badly toward Jess if they’re supposed to be friends? How does the narrator feel about Jess’s mother; how does Jess feel about her mother; what secrets does Jess’s mother have? On and on and on…like a hamster wheel in my head!

It took me a while to realize that your narrator is nameless. Why did you make this decision, and what is its significance to the story?

I often don’t name my characters immediately as I’m drafting because I want to make sure they get the right name. (I find it hard to change a name partway through.) So I wasn’t worried when this girl started out nameless…but at a certain point, like you, I started to notice that no name was attaching itself to her. I shifted my thoughts to wondering why a character might be nameless and why a person might choose not to reveal her name (because of course she has a name; everyone does). This is about when she started to emerge as an unreliable narrator; as a woman looking back upon her painful past and a time when, perhaps, she felt that she was a different person. I realized that she was someone who wanted to be both noticed and unnoticed, someone who felt powerless and longed to feel more powerful, and what can be more powerful than refusing, ultimately, to reveal your name?

SILVER GIRL is your third novel, but you’ve also written numerous short stories—as well as a historical novel that was serialized on the Great Jones Street app. What do you love about writing short stories—as opposed to book-length fiction? And what tips can you share with authors who want to try their hand at short stories…what are the most important things they should know?

One thing I definitely like about short stories is that they are short! While I love feeling immersed in a big project like a novel, there are times where thinking about such a vast landscape feels overwhelming. When the writing feels crappy with the novel-in-progress, I jump into a story just so I can actually feel that I might finish something. Beyond this mental break, what I love about stories is that they are so compressed, that each word must accomplish about 50 different things on the page, that the writer has very little time to create conflict and get the story moving.

Some advice I have for short story writers: think hard about your beginnings. That opening should be revealing characters, moving forward plot, and setting forth the story’s themes. I like to recommend reading and studying the opening paragraphs of all the stories in a “best of” collection like the Pushcart Prizes, O’Henry, or the Best American Short Stories. It’s dazzling to see how other writers accomplish their stellar openings, how drawn in a reader can be with only one paragraph…sometimes only one sentence.

What didn’t I ask that I should have? Whatever it is, please answer it here!

Here’s a question I would love to be asked: I’ve noticed there’s a lot of food in your writing. What’s up with that?

ANSWER: For one thing, I love to cook and eat, so that’s partly why. Much of my writing serves as a secret scrapbook of my life, so that if I remember drinking a lot of Tab in the 80s, you can bet my college girl characters are going to as well. I once wrote a whole story about a restaurant in Baltimore that I loved, and now that restaurant is gone, but my story helps me remember it. My characters talk a lot, so I need to give them something to do while they’re arguing, lying, and revealing their secrets in conversation: eating and cooking are helpful in those scenes. But beyond the selfish reasons and some craft-oriented strategies, I think how people relate to food is very revealing of character. And people use food to express (or repress) emotions, to embrace (or deny) class and status. Honestly, there’s a lot of power swirling around what we choose to eat and why, starting way back when we first learn we can say “no” to lima beans. What a rebellious little thrill that is. (Check my website for some of my favorite recipes: www.lesliepietrzyk.com)

BIO

Leslie Pietrzyk is the author of SILVER GIRL, just released by Unnamed Press, and called “profound, mesmerizing, and disturbing” in a Publishers Weekly starred review. Her collection of unconventionally linked short stories, THIS ANGEL ON MY CHEST, won the 2015 Drue Heinz Literature Prize and was published by the University of Pittsburgh Press. Her previous novels are PEARS ON A WILLOW TREE and A YEAR AND A DAY. Short fiction and essays have appeared/are forthcoming in Washington Post Magazine, Salon, Southern Review, Gettysburg Review, Hudson Review, The Sun, Shenandoah, Arts & Letters, River Styx, Iowa Review, Washingtonian, The Collagist, and Cincinnati Review. Pietrzyk is a member of the core fiction faculty at the Converse low-residency MFA program in Spartanburg, South Carolina.

One of the most exciting aspects of having this blog is the opportunity to discover new writers. There are so many fabulous authors out there—it’s impossible to find all of them on your own, no matter how many times you visit the library, haunt your local bookstore, or follow the feeds of writers whose work you love. When my friend and fellow writer, Leigh Statham, recommended that I interview Leslie Pietrzyk for the blog, I was thrilled to add such a talented author to my TBR pile. Welcome, Leslie!

Congratulations on the release of your new novel, SILVER GIRL! What’s the book all about? Give us a sneak peek into the story and your characters.

SILVER GIRL is set in the early 80s, in Chicago, during the time of the Tylenol murders, when someone was stuffing cyanide into capsules of Tylenol and returning them to drugstore shelves for innocent people to buy. Against this backdrop, the book focuses on two college girls, one of them affluent, and the other, the narrator, coming to this fancy school from a working class background in Iowa. They form one of those intense, insular, intoxicating female friendships that are also destructive and competitive…especially as it turns out that everyone is trying to hold tight to their secrets. 

SILVER GIRL deftly explores the intersection of female friendship, power, trauma and privilege. What drew you to write about these issues?

I start by writing about characters, not issues. I had to find a storyline to fit into the Tylenol murder setting I was drawn to, so in my prompt writing group, I started playing around with these two college girls, loosely based on an intense female friendship I had while I was in college. Prompts are an easy, low-stress way to experiment, so for a long time it was just fun to set the girls in motion and see what was revealed. After about a year of that, I felt invested both in the girls and the setting, and so it was time to actually “start” the novel. From there, it was a process of melding together these characters with a plot—and THEN understanding the issues that arose due to their circumstances and their bad decisions. I ask myself a lot of questions during this process: How did they meet? How could someone from this background end up at this fancy college? Why does the narrator act badly toward Jess if they’re supposed to be friends? How does the narrator feel about Jess’s mother; how does Jess feel about her mother; what secrets does Jess’s mother have? On and on and on…like a hamster wheel in my head!

It took me a while to realize that your narrator is nameless. Why did you make this decision, and what is its significance to the story?

I often don’t name my characters immediately as I’m drafting because I want to make sure they get the right name. (I find it hard to change a name partway through.) So I wasn’t worried when this girl started out nameless…but at a certain point, like you, I started to notice that no name was attaching itself to her. I shifted my thoughts to wondering why a character might be nameless and why a person might choose not to reveal her name (because of course she has a name; everyone does). This is about when she started to emerge as an unreliable narrator; as a woman looking back upon her painful past and a time when, perhaps, she felt that she was a different person. I realized that she was someone who wanted to be both noticed and unnoticed, someone who felt powerless and longed to feel more powerful, and what can be more powerful than refusing, ultimately, to reveal your name?

SILVER GIRL is your third novel, but you’ve also written numerous short stories—as well as a historical novel that was serialized on the Great Jones Street app. What do you love about writing short stories—as opposed to book-length fiction? And what tips can you share with authors who want to try their hand at short stories…what are the most important things they should know?

One thing I definitely like about short stories is that they are short! While I love feeling immersed in a big project like a novel, there are times where thinking about such a vast landscape feels overwhelming. When the writing feels crappy with the novel-in-progress, I jump into a story just so I can actually feel that I might finish something. Beyond this mental break, what I love about stories is that they are so compressed, that each word must accomplish about 50 different things on the page, that the writer has very little time to create conflict and get the story moving.

Some advice I have for short story writers: think hard about your beginnings. That opening should be revealing characters, moving forward plot, and setting forth the story’s themes. I like to recommend reading and studying the opening paragraphs of all the stories in a “best of” collection like the Pushcart Prizes, O’Henry, or the Best American Short Stories. It’s dazzling to see how other writers accomplish their stellar openings, how drawn in a reader can be with only one paragraph…sometimes only one sentence.

What didn’t I ask that I should have? Whatever it is, please answer it here!

Here’s a question I would love to be asked: I’ve noticed there’s a lot of food in your writing. What’s up with that?

ANSWER: For one thing, I love to cook and eat, so that’s partly why. Much of my writing serves as a secret scrapbook of my life, so that if I remember drinking a lot of Tab in the 80s, you can bet my college girl characters are going to as well. I once wrote a whole story about a restaurant in Baltimore that I loved, and now that restaurant is gone, but my story helps me remember it. My characters talk a lot, so I need to give them something to do while they’re arguing, lying, and revealing their secrets in conversation: eating and cooking are helpful in those scenes. But beyond the selfish reasons and some craft-oriented strategies, I think how people relate to food is very revealing of character. And people use food to express (or repress) emotions, to embrace (or deny) class and status. Honestly, there’s a lot of power swirling around what we choose to eat and why, starting way back when we first learn we can say “no” to lima beans. What a rebellious little thrill that is. (Check my website for some of my favorite recipes: www.lesliepietrzyk.com)

BIO

Leslie Pietrzyk is the author of SILVER GIRL, just released by Unnamed Press, and called “profound, mesmerizing, and disturbing” in a Publishers Weekly starred review. Her collection of unconventionally linked short stories, THIS ANGEL ON MY CHEST, won the 2015 Drue Heinz Literature Prize and was published by the University of Pittsburgh Press. Her previous novels are PEARS ON A WILLOW TREE and A YEAR AND A DAY. Short fiction and essays have appeared/are forthcoming in Washington Post Magazine, Salon, Southern Review, Gettysburg Review, Hudson Review, The Sun, Shenandoah, Arts & Letters, River Styx, Iowa Review, Washingtonian, The Collagist, and Cincinnati Review. Pietrzyk is a member of the core fiction faculty at the Converse low-residency MFA program in Spartanburg, South Carolina.

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