By Margaret Grant
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.
MG: 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?
VP: 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.
MG: 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?
VP: 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.
MG: 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?
VP: 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.
MG: 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?
VP: 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.
MG: 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.
VP: 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.
MG: The inevitable question arises — what are you working on now?
VP: 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.
Margaret Grant has published short stories in the Kenyon Review and Flash Fiction Magazine. She lives in rural Vermont, where she is a workshop leader for the Burlington Writers Workshop and a past managing editor of Mud Season Review. She is at work on a collection of braided stories.
Virginia Pye is the author of two award-winning novels, Dreams of the Red Phoenix (Unbridled Books, 2015) and River of Dust (Unbridled Books, 2013), and the forthcoming short story collection, Shelf Life of Happiness (Press 53). Her stories, essays, and interviews have appeared in The North American Review, The Baltimore Review, Literary Hub, The New York Times, Rumpus, Huffington Post and elsewhere. She lived in Richmond, Virginia for many years and now lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Find her online at www.virginiapye.com, and on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.