Authors in Conversation: Paula Whyman talks with Leslie Pietrzyk about her new novel, SILVER GIRL


 

A nameless narrator arrives at a prestigious Chicago-area university lugging a cheap suitcase along with some deep psychological baggage. What ensues is a riveting novel about a female friendship complicated by money and class, set in the 1980s in the time of the mysterious Tylenol killer. Unlike that Tylenol, I wanted to swallow this book whole. Silver Girl is a nuanced examination of character, compellingly readable, completely absorbing, a literary thriller in the sense that one reads it with a growing awareness of a kind of terrible truth lurking beneath the surface of the story. The suspense builds as the reader gradually figures out what is really going on, who this narrator is—which is something she hides from the world and from herself.


PW: This is a taut, tension-filled story, in part due to the clever, unconventional way you structure the timeline. How did you arrive at this structure? How did you know it would work? Did you know?

LP: At a certain point, I understood that this book had to be told in a non-linear way and I’d have to make this unconventional structure work…though I was hoping it wouldn’t take me twenty years to figure out how to do so. The book was not written chronologically (which is not my usual process), and as I was piecing sections together, I spent a lot of time thinking about the purpose of a non-linear narrative, because the last thing I wanted was for the book to feel gimmicky. The unnamed narrator is hiding information from the reader, yes, but as you note she’s also hiding from herself, and at first she’s unwilling or unable to make deep and difficult connections about herself. Naturally one doesn’t leap into the process of reconsidering the past, especially a traumatic past, with absolute clarity and an immediate willingness to confront challenges, which felt like a compelling reason for the book’s twisty unwinding.

PW: I read elsewhere that you started out writing this novel because you were curious about the Tylenol murders. What an awful and bizarre episode in our history—and what great story material! (Aren’t writers terrible? That is how we think…) Is that the way you’d normally approach a novel—starting with a historical event? How exactly did you go from your interest in those murders to the discovery of your central focus, the relationship between the narrator and Jess? Were you surprised that two ideas or stories that seem completely separate at first end up fitting together so well, or is this something that you encounter often when you’re writing fiction?

LP: I locked into the Tylenol murders after spending some time thinking about my own life as a historical witness: what events had I lived through that might be interesting to someone a hundred years from now (i.e. similar maybe to me wanting to hear stories from someone who had survived the influenza epidemic of 1918). At the same time I was interested in this tangled relationship between these two college girls, characters I’d been teasing out in my prompt writing practice. So while the girls were in the Chicago area, which was the location of the Tylenol murders, nothing else was connecting the two storylines. It was a joy to remember that I was a fiction writer and that I could deviate from actual historical facts and find that way to merge the stories through an invented murder victim. And yes, this often is how I think about novel writing in general: each novel is composed of a number of elements I’m passionate about (i.e. an interesting setting; a thematic question; characters), and then the wrestling begins as I struggle to connect these elements through plot and create an actual story that someone else might want to read.

PW: A related question: How much do you know, and how much do you discover? How much did the story change from your original expectations?

LP: I’d call most of my writing discovery, which is what keeps me going. Readers read to find out what happens next, and that’s how I write. There are points in drafting a novel where I might have a vague outline of events to come…but what I’m really looking for are those moments of surprise, where the act of writing wrenches the book into some thrilling new direction. As a quick example, I had no idea what Jess’s father and the narrator were going to talk about in either of their two private conversations until I sat down to write them.

PW: I’ll often create a backstory for people I see in public places, like at the grocery store or on the subway. To me everyone has a compelling story, even if it’s one I made up for them. That’s my version of a writing prompt. I know that you do prompt-based writing—have you discovered whole characters that way? Even the secondary characters in your book are vivid and fully imagined. I’m curious about Jess’s dad, because he comes across as a nuanced person. How has your prompt-writing helped illuminate character?

LP: I love my prompt group, which meets once a month. We write to very open-ended, one-word prompts, and the rule is “no rules.” That means we can write from our lives; we can make up something on the spot; or we can work with larger writing-in-progress, as I did with characters in Silver Girl. But I have, plenty of times, just started a prompt and then found a character through those 30 minutes of writing. I think the pressure of potentially reading out loud at the end (which isn’t pressure at all, since no one is forced to read) pushes my writing into action more quickly, and that my usual meandering around—spelling out the whole scenic drive, describing what everyone’s eating for lunch, etc.—falls by the wayside during the 30 minutes as I scribble to find the plot point, that dramatic moment where everything shifts. That helps me capture a character, by forcing them into confrontation: action is character, said Fitzgerald. (Later, I add scenic details as needed and revise, revise, revise.)

PW: Even though the narrator of Silver Girl has a lot of flaws and behaves rather badly at times, the reader grows to understand her sooner than the narrator understands herself. A queasy kind of recognition occurs, whichever character the reader identifies with. I think the best novels are like this, they lead you to turn the mirror on yourself. Maybe that’s what’s behind the whole “unlikable” female character debate? (The argument that says a novel’s protagonist should be likable.) Is it that uncomfortable self-recognition?

LP: There’s definitely something to that, that Americans aren’t always keen on seeing our flaws held up to our faces. I’ve always found flawed characters to be more compelling right from the beginning: as a young reader, who didn’t identify more with Laura than goody-goody Mary in the Little House books, or who wasn’t immediately drawn to the chaos of Jo March? The reality is that we are all flawed, and we are all “unlikable” to some extent. Shouldn’t female characters be given the courtesy of being allowed to be true to life and also deeply interesting?

PW: What about the idea of doubling or twinning? I recall studying this device in Faulkner’s novels. Your narrator and Jess and their families are like funhouse mirror images of each other. Even the two sisters in the story—one in danger and one dead, and the one who has died is “replaced” by another “twin.” You could say the narrator herself wants to replace Jess—and in a way she does, invisibly, without Jess’s knowledge, with Jess’s fiancé, at least for a time, and even in an oddly disturbing connection with Jess’s father. It seems like almost a subconscious inclination by some writers to represent the two sides of the coin, and there’s no forgetting that those sides are attached to each other. Did you think about this when you were writing, this idea of doubling, even if you didn’t necessarily call it that? Did you intentionally draw out that aspect?

LP: Yes, I definitely wanted that image in the reader’s mind, that these two girls, from such different socioeconomic backgrounds, could on the surface feel so similar in the circumstances of their lives: secrets in all families, tragedies in all families. (This is one of the reasons the Tylenol murders felt so fictionally rich, as it was a crime that cut through class.) Beyond the surface, though, is the deeper reality, that money does help resolve various problems, that one’s past can’t be erased simply or completely. Once the narrator meets Jess, she hopes she’s found a place where she can slide right in, where she can learn the “rules” of this new environment and at long last she can be the daughter/sister she longs to be, she can experience the love she’s not feeling from home. I only wish it were that simple, right?

PW: The power dynamic in this novel is fascinating to me. It’s a novel about class differences, but as such it’s also a novel about power. Jess was raised to believe she’s the one with the power, and she takes it for granted—it comes with her class status. But Jess’s power has a blind spot, her self-absorption. On the other hand, there’s a surprising power in the narrator’s shape-shifting and invisibility. Who is more powerful—the narrator who seems afraid to be known, who hides her true character, or someone like Jess whose strongest desire is to be known, and who so obviously wants to be understood?

LP: This is exactly the tension I was trying to create between these two and their silent struggle for power. In the end, my personal view is that it’s the narrator who wins this battle—or maybe “wins,” because is it really a victory to remain hidden? But she’s the one whose name we don’t even know. I came to see that as her gutsiest power move, withholding the single word of a first name.

PW: The narrator’s yearning for more of what Jess has, for Jess’s life—at one point, the narrator asks herself what is enough—this bottomless desire guides a lot of her behavior. It also seems to me a very American perspective. The idea that more is always possible, that advancement, rising above one’s class, more money, more status, is not only possible but desirable as a goal. Any thoughts on the culture that helped create the narrator’s limitless yearning and her sense of the possibilities of self-invention?

LP: I’m so Midwestern and middle-class (and, I guess, American) that I literally can’t imagine a way of life other than striving for various advancements. While it seems tacky to strive for a nicer car and material goods, I can’t deny that this “can do” attitude has helped keep me banging my head against various walls in the writing world until I found (or made?) a crack and weaseled my way in. So it’s a double-edged sword, for me, for us, and for this girl…who did find—all by herself—a way to escape her dire situation. One moment that struck me personally was writing the chapter “What Do You Want for Christmas, Little Girl?” which setting-wise is fairly rooted in the mall in the Iowa college town where I grew up. I thought it would be pleasant reliving my fond memories: this Waldenbooks was where I bought Nancy Drew books with my babysitting money…but writing about all those unaffordable books through the narrator’s eyes stirred up anger instead. (Not that I begrudge writers making money off their books!) But I felt the weight of just how many things there were and are, and how their presence feels solely designed to make us feel bad that we don’t have “enough” of them. As a child—faced with rows of Nancy Drews—you’re up against it in a visceral way, even if you don’t fully understand at the time.

PW: You are one of the most persistent, hard-working writers I know. You put your head down and get it done. You create something surprising and deep and gorgeous, stories that think and feel and succeed at moving the reader. You don’t make it look easy—you make it look like this is what it takes: talent plus work, time, work, more time. You have to have prodigious talent AND you have to be willing to work and stay with it. You have to block out the noise and the rejection and ignore any hype. And you have to redefine “success” over and over—almost like your narrator! Sometimes I think newer writers are not prepared for this reality. I know that in addition to being a writer, you are a talented, hard-working, and much-admired teacher. What would you say to a new (young or not) aspiring writer right now? How do you prepare someone who is starting out for the reality?

LP: These are the best compliments EVER! I say that because I tell aspiring writers pretty much what you’ve said: that there are basically four components needed for a successful writing life (IMHO), which are talent, hard work, perseverance, and luck. It’s clear only two of those are in our control: hard work and perseverance. Focus your efforts and energy there. (Ack—this isn’t to say don’t take workshops and study craft books to improve your talent, but more like don’t waste time worrying that others seem more talented than you.) That you have observed the way I focus my energy is more heartening than you can know—because hard work and perseverance are not the most glamorous buzzwords in the writing life, but I believe they are the foundation to any scrap of “success” I’ve achieved.


Leslie Pietrzyk is the author of Silver Girl, a novel published by Unnamed Press in 2018. 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 short fiction and essays have appeared or are forthcoming in Southern Review, Ploughshares, Washington Post Magazine, Salon, Gettysburg Review, Hudson Review, The Sun, Arts & Letters, Cincinnati Review, and others. She holds a B.A. in English/Creative Writing from Northwestern University and an M.F.A. in Creative Writing from American University. Pietrzyk is a member of the core fiction faculty at the Converse low-residency MFA. For more information: www.lesliepietrzyk.com

Paula Whyman is the author of the linked story collection You May See a Stranger (TriQuarterly/Northwestern University Press), which won the 2017 Towson Prize for Literature. Paula was selected for the first-ever Poets & Writers Magazine “5 Over 50” list. Paula is a fellow of The MacDowell Colony and Yaddo, and founding editor of the online journal, Scoundrel Time. For more information: www.paulawhyman.com 

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