Archive | July, 2015

WIPs Conversation: Leslie Pietrzyk on her work in progress

Leslie PietrzykLeslie 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 will be published by the University of Pittsburgh Press in October. Her short fiction and essays have appeared in many journals, including Gettysburg Review, The Sun, Shenandoah, River Styx, Iowa Review, TriQuarterly, New England Review, Salon, 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 teaches in the MA Program in Writing at Johns Hopkins University. She lives in Alexandria, Virginia.

Literary blog:
Twitter: @lesliepwriter

Leslie, in “Headache,” an excerpt from your novel in the works Silver Girl, the unnamed narrator’s friendship with her housemate Jess is taken to task. They became “besties” during their freshman year of college, but now, beginning their sophomore year off campus together comes with significant challenges. Jess’s sister has died in a car accident that summer and she’s broken up with her fiancé. These are both difficult subjects for the narrator to touch upon—and for good reason. Set in Chicago 1982, with the city’s Tylenol scare/murders as another topic of interest, what can readers expect to discover as the novel progresses? Does Jess remain a pivotal figure or is this primarily the narrator’s story?

Jess is definitely pivotal, though I see the story as ultimately belonging to the narrator. The rest of the book, which jumps around a bit in time over a couple of years, explores the complicated relationship between these two girls, each negotiating power as they know it, which for girls at that age is pretty much limited to sex or money. The backdrop of the Tylenol murders creates (I hope!) a terrifying sense of randomness; this incident may have been the first time modern, middle-class America truly felt vulnerable, when an unknown (to this day) person stuffed cyanide into capsules of Tylenol and returned them to drugstore shelves. Seven people died in the Chicago area, changing the way manufacturers package products. Of course, it’s not enough simply to have a “backdrop” in a novel, so I took a few historical liberties and wove the Tylenol murders into my plot.

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Leslie Pietrzyk: “Headache,” a chapter excerpt from the novel SILVER GIRL

Suburban Chicago, 1982

The phone on the kitchen wall rang. Jess and I stared at it in surprise. Though we had been sharing this college apartment for two weeks already, we still didn’t feel as though we belonged here and the ringing phone seemed to emphasize exactly how out of place we were.

“You answer,” she whispered.

It was eleven AM, hardly a time for whispering, but I whispered back, “No, you,” and then we laughed.

We had met last year when we were freshman living in the same hormonal all-girls dorm that had been built with money donated to the university in the early 1960s by some uptight woman who sensed—and feared—the coming sexual revolution. Allison Hall. The school packed all the freshmen girls there. The halls smelled like hairspray and popcorn. The joke was that entire floors of girls synched their periods. It was a place to escape from.

And we had. Now Jess and I were sophomores—long since free of all those girls, free of Allison Hall, uninterested in sororities, and living together off-campus on the first floor of a small house half a block from the el tracks.

The phone still rang. This was a time before answering machines, before voice mail, email, instant messaging, and Skype. Letters and phone calls were what we had. This was a time where not answering a ringing phone was an act of subversion. We wanted to be subversive—or I did, anyway, secretly—but we were basically good girls, depending on how “good” might be defined. Anyway, letting a phone ring was something we couldn’t do.

Jess picked up the phone. “Hello?” she said, her voice croaking slightly. She cleared her throat, spoke more forcefully. “I mean, hello.”

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