Leslie Pietrzyk is the author of two novels, Pears on a Willow Tree and A Year and a Day. Her short fiction and essays have appeared in many publications, including Gettysburg Review, The Sun, Salon, Washingtonian, and the Washington Post Magazine. She has received fellowships from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference and the Sewanee Writers’ Conference. She is a member of the core fiction faculty at the Converse low-residency MFA program and also teaches in the Masters of Arts Program in Writing at Johns Hopkins University.
Pietrzyk ran my very first fiction workshop when I attended Hopkins. I confess that ever since then, I have often read my own work wondering what she might think of it, how she may critique it. I imagine many students who have worked with professionals they respect and admire will do this from time to time—silently continue to seek their favorite teacher’s approval even when they are no longer in the classroom. Her teaching style, a complex mix of encouragement, knowledge, and brutal honesty, has always stuck with me as the cornerstone of good critical feedback.
It is Pietrzyk’s brutal honesty in her own writing that I admire the most. This Angel on My Chest, her collection of linked short stories that won the 2015 Drue Heinz Literature Prize, was published by the University of Pittsburgh Press in October 2015. In this collection, Pietrzyk explores a topic that mirrors her personal experience: the untimely death of a husband. Each story involves a woman who has lost her husband at a young age. Pietrzyk herself suffered that same tragedy when her husband died of a heart attack at the age of thirty-six.
As a writer who likes to explore the border between fiction and nonfiction, I spoke with Pietrzyk via email about how one does so ethically, when to know what to share and what not to share, and how to tap into the most honest part of yourself when writing.
The Rumpus: This Angel on My Chest doesn’t feel like a collection of stories, but much more than that. There is a quiz, a monologue from a live performance, a craft lecture, an index of food mentioned throughout the book—so many different forms of discussing the same topic all combined into one cohesive book. Why did you decide to explore the topic of a spouse’s death in ways other than straightforward narratives?
Leslie Pietrzyk: I’m not sure I started out with this approach as my master plan, but the process of writing about, accessing and exploring and pushing into this difficult time in my life, seemed to require more than the usual fictional bag o’ tricks. This discovery, of letting the book become what it needed to be, seemed organic and natural as I was writing, but in retrospect, I saw that the stories that I wrote first tended to be traditional (and some of these were later cut from the manuscript). Turning to different forms came about when I was tackling the emotionally tough material, I think, perhaps as a way to distance myself, perhaps as an attempt to dig deeper. One of my guiding quotations, which I managed to toss into “A Quiz,” was of James Agee, who wrote in the Preface of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, “It’s only a book by necessity,” when faced with his story that was more than a book.
Rumpus: The format complexity also gives another impression: that instead of this collection being that of made-up stories, that they are instead creatively written “true life” accounts, assumed to be from the author’s life. I am now calling this the “Lemonade Effect” after everyone assumed that Beyoncé’s Lemonade film was a confessional feature about her life living with a cheating husband. There is a tendency now, especially with the confessional nature of social media, to assume that gut-wrenchingly true-felt art means that it must be a recounting of the artist’s personal life. It may or may not be, but there seems to be less accounting for artistic license. What is your opinion on how heartfelt art is received these days? Did you encounter the “Lemonade Effect” while promoting your book?
Pietrzyk: Let me revel in seeing my work mentioned in the same breath as Beyoncé’s! [Fans brow] But moving on, I think this is a great question for every writer to ponder. What do we reveal of ourselves and why? In my case, I made the decision early on that I was going to be very open about this book and claim upfront that each of these stories was based on my life experience. I think my reasoning goes back to what I was saying earlier, about wanting this book to be “more than a book,” that I wanted the reader to feel a little unsettled about what they were reading: there’s a core of factual truth here, yet only some of it is true; how can I sort this out as a reader, and should I? I also wanted the reader to sense the living person behind this abstraction of the “dead husband”: my husband, Robb. On the other hand, I published two other novels and have written numerous short stories, each containing scraps and chunks of my experience, and I didn’t feel the need to run around announcing that. In our confessional time, the question feels urgent for the writer: how do you want to handle the “Lemonade effect”? (Yes, I’m adopting your phrase as a literary term.) Many readers will want to know what’s “true” and “real”—will you tell them? Why or why not? There’s no universal answer, but asking myself the question was instructional.
I dislike that this premise implies that a fiction writer is incapable of dreaming up stories that can bring readers to tears, that if you are lucky enough to be living a pretty sedate life (as I am) you’ve got nothing worthy of writing about, that you’re incapable of making a reader’s gut wrench. Frankly, that’s what makes readers nervous, the sorcery of you or me or any good fiction writer making up characters who feel like real people, of telling a story that feels true but isn’t. No audience of mine was ever angrier than the one I (gleefully) informed that the beloved Polish folktale in Pears on a Willow Tree was entirely made up by moi, not passed down from my Polish great-grandmother.
Rumpus: I read or heard someone say that women are asked more than men whether or not their fiction is autobiographical. Was there a part of you that thought about keeping your husband’s death a secret?
Pietrzyk: First, I doubt I could keep it a secret. For several years after Robb died, when I met new people, I told them this fact almost immediately, rather inappropriately (i.e. in line at the bar at cocktail parties). I thought no one could understand me without knowing this fact. Maybe that was what led me into being so blatant about this book’s underpinnings from the beginning, that I felt people would read “me” into the stories anyway. My second novel, A Year and a Day, is about a fifteen-year-old girl in small-town Iowa grieving the loss of her mother to suicide. For me, that was my secret book about Robb’s death.
Rumpus: You adapted your story “Ten Things” from Angel into an essay for the Washington Post entitled “Ten Things Only You Know Now.” In reusing some of the material from the short story that was indeed from your life, how did you decide just how far or how much to share? Did you find it difficult to transition this piece from fiction to nonfiction?
Pietrzyk: This was so hard for me! By nature, I’m not a very revealing person, and every time I make a foray into CNF-land, I have the vapors. And here I am, plunging into the Washington Post, land of reporters’ notebooks and Bob Woodward and journalistic ethics. But… is it terrible to say that I really, really wanted to see my work in the Post Magazine? That particular story was about eighty percent true as written—and the editor at the Post wanted it to be shorter—so the surface solution felt simple, to eliminate words and various tiny details. Yet the big event I had invented is the climactic moment in the end, what I consider the emotional wallop of the story. So, all I had to do was find something with that sort of resonant power from my own real life and share that deep personal thing with the Post’s readers… that’s all. Easy!
(Interesting side note to this conversation: when the Post contacted us about running the piece, they had not realized it was presented as a fictional story, though they were reading from a bound galley with the word “stories” on the cover. I took that confusion as a kind of compliment.)
Rumpus: I’ve been exploring in my own writing the boundary between fiction and nonfiction, especially regarding memoir. I’ve been thinking about the fact that just because a piece of writing is fiction, doesn’t mean that it isn’t true. When you write fiction that borders the line of your own personal reality, how do you separate your own narrative to then create fiction? I find that it isn’t just as simple as changing a few names or making up a few facts.
Pietrzyk: Very true! Maybe the above example of “Ten Things” provides a few clues as to how I tended to approach this task, which was to write the “true” things until the truth wasn’t as interesting as what I could make up. That is, for me, the story and the crafting of it were much more important than getting all the facts in there. I knew that “Ten Things” needed something big at the end, and the imaginative writer in me got to work. Another story, “The Circle,” the first story I wrote when I started this project in earnest, is about a young widow support group that I attended, where I met two women who were important to me during the grieving process. That wasn’t enough plot or conflict to sustain a fictional story, so I invented a character to braid in, the social worker who is running the group, who can’t accept that she likely has breast cancer and may be dying. Even the stories in this collection that I consider the most truthful have been embellished, whether that means details that are more interesting or condensing events into a more coherent timeline. This is why, when we’re choosing up, I’ll go Team Fiction, for that flexibility and the wide open range. (Though to be contrary, this is a good time to remind myself that what I liked about this particular project was the additional structure gained by using factual material, that my assignment to myself was that each story had to contain something real.)
Rumpus: When I read the essay version of “Ten Things” based on your short story, I made a deliberate shift in how I digested the information. I imagined you, specifically, in those scenes, such as I would with any personal essay or memoir. But, then, when I went back and reread the short story version, I didn’t do that. In fact, the character I envisioned was who I always see when I read fiction, which is some altered version of myself. It could just be me, but I did not make the transition from believing that the events happened in “real life” as I do when I read the essay version. Why do you think readers digest stories differently in this way, even when we know what parts come from real life and what parts may be imagined? Are we trained to interpret fiction and nonfiction differently? Are there any benefits to the readers and to the writers in making this distinction in our response to different categories of stories?
Pietrzyk: How fascinating. That tension of how to read this book was what I was going for, for the reader to be holding a collection of stories that are crafted and presented as fiction, all the while knowing that this central event actually happened to the author. I thought about how I, reader and writer, read stories and memoir differently, and what that means, though I’m not sure I came up with grand conclusions. In both forms, there’s the artifice of the story, the writer pulling strings behind the scenes, and I was thinking about the invisibility of the fictional author vs. the more present narrator of the memoir (“this happened to me”). I wanted my book to include that layer, the narrator beyond—perhaps similar to the classic, fictional omniscient narrator, though more personal. (Am I saying I’m the “voice of God”? I hope not!) I think in our internet age there’s an ongoing shift in the way we view truth and fiction and story, that boundaries that used to matter to the utmost perhaps don’t, that what we want is a good story, however it’s told. (I’m not saying this trend toward truthiness is right or wrong, just what seems to be happening.) In the end, I was reaching for the best of both worlds, the immediacy of memoir, that breathless sense of I-can’t-believe-this-really-happened, while allowing myself the advantages of fiction, I-can-think-up-a-better-ending.
When I was in the place of my deepest grieving, I didn’t want to, and almost couldn’t, believe that what had happened was true; yet, factually it had happened. Maybe that’s the foundation of my book, wrestling with that problem: how do we come to terms with the death of someone we love when it is impossible to come to terms with such a profound loss? The path I found where I could even ask that question, or maybe advance it beyond what I’d attempted in A Year and a Day, was by straddling the line: this is fiction and memoir, it is true and it isn’t.
Rumpus: As you can see, your book has me thinking a lot about the difference between fiction and nonfiction, and whether or not it really matters to good storytelling where the actual story comes from. Was this one of your intentions with the book? To create such a dialogue? What were some other goals regarding discourse were you hoping to create with Angel?
Pietrzyk: One interest I had was point of view, how the story is told. I was so immersed in this topic that I nearly killed myself writing a forty-page story told in ten different points of view! I think POV is one of the under-explored issues in the writing workshop, so I like thinking about it—but really, here, the point of view I was pondering was the way we view the people we have lost and how their lives shift once they’re no longer in control of that narrative. Robb was a different person to me than he was to his mother than he was to his best friend and so on. I can present my view of him through this book, but it’s incomplete, viewed through the narrow lens of my bias, and possibly entirely wrong. Yet because I’m left to tell the tale, I have all the power. Such power of storytelling translates immediately to a broader picture, of course. History is written by the victors, right? My interest in point of view gave rise to a meta level of writing about the writing, which, as I recall from a long-ago undergraduate fiction workshop is one of those basic rules that must not be broken, NEVER write about writers. Oh, well.
Rumpus: Most writers acknowledge the moral and ethical implications of sticking to the truth when we say a piece of writing is nonfiction, but do you believe that same moral and ethical responsibility exists when you make a claim that a piece of writing is fiction? If there are obligations concerning fiction, what are they?
Pietrzyk: Before writing this book, I would have said that my only obligation as a fiction writer is to the story, to make it good, so good the busy reader doesn’t feel that flipping those pages was a waste of time. And I still believe that. But maybe there’s more. Even in fiction, you want to be mindful of the people in your life and of your responsibility in portraying either them or their roles (in my particular case here, for example, “second husband” or “mother-in-law”). A lot of people lost Robb, not just me—and even fictionally, I wanted to be gentle with them while staying true to the story I needed to tell. So my obligations as a fiction writer have grown to include always being hardest on myself. I focused on the “young widow” figure, having her do the worst things (i.e. sleeping with her brother-in-law, being cruel to the mother-in-law) knowing that I would and could handle any flak or emotional fallout. Readers may think those incidents are in the “true” side of the equation of the book, and that’s a risk I’m taking—for myself. I could have drawn in other “true” people from Robb’s life, but that didn’t seem fair to me since they didn’t ask to be part of this highly personal book. (Maybe this kindness keeps me off Team CNF?)
Rumpus: When it comes to writing about personal experiences, I know I tend to draw from the more traumatic events in my life, whether I am writing fiction or nonfiction. Why do you think writers are drawn to those events more than the happy ones?
Pietrzyk: As writers (and readers), we’re drawn to conflict. It’s that ancient theory of plot that’s written on the whiteboard during every fiction workshop, characters who want something overcoming obstacles as a way to create narrative momentum and suspense. So there’s that, that trauma gives us more plot. Beyond that, writing is my way of trying to understand vast things that probably I’ll never truly understand, a way of exploring a Big Question, of wrestling meaning from the chaos of life. Consequently, when I choose to write overtly or even secretly about my real life, it’s always something difficult and complicated that I’m longing to make sense of. Finally, the jinx factor: would writing about something happy draw attention from the wrathful gods? Joking! (not-joking)
Rumpus: I love how honest your writing is without feeling saccharine or overwrought. Putting on your teaching hat, what advice would you give young writers aiming for that same level of honesty in their own work?
Pietrzyk: Think about the stories you have inside that scare you. That’s what you should be writing. I (and others) call that writing from the dark place. Our humiliations and secret fears and deepest anxieties, those times where we were at our worst: that’s the best material. Whenever I say this in class, there’s immediate silence, and everyone stares down at the table… because they immediately know what those stories are. When you’re ready, write that. There’s a quote from Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird that I love: “If there is one door in the castle you have been told not to go through, you must. Otherwise, you’ll just be rearranging furniture in rooms you’ve already been in.”