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.
KS: 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?
VP: 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!
KS: 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?
VP: 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.
KS: 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?
VP: 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!
KS: 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?
VP: 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.
KS: 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?
VP: 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.
KS: 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?
VP: 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.
KS: Tell me about Press 53. How did you find them, and what was it like to work with them?
VP: 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.
KS: Last question: is there a book for which you are an evangelist, which you recommend to everyone?
VP: 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!
Virginia Pye is the author of two award-winning novels, Dreams of the Red Phoenix and River of Dust, and the forthcoming short story collection, Shelf Life of Happiness. Her stories, essays, and interviews have appeared in The North American Review, The Baltimore Review, Literary Hub, The New York Times, The 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, FB, Twitter, and Instagram.
Kathleen Stone lives in Boston and writes nonfiction. Her essays, reviews and interviews have been published by Ploughshares, the Los Angeles Review of Books, the Arts Fuse and the Timberline Review. She holds graduate degrees from the Bennington Writing Seminars and Boston University School of Law, and you can find her website is at www.kathleencstone.com.