Writing Toward Surprise: A Conversation with Leslie Pietrzyk

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Leslie Pietrzyk is fierce. You don’t read her slouched in your bed. You read her while sitting upright, alert, bracing yourself for the inevitably unforeseen twist or the uncomfortable confession. Her novel, Silver Girl, about female friendship, fraudulent affections, and dangerous envy, spared its characters nothing. Her Drue Heinz Literature Prize-winning, This Angel on My Chest, a collection of linked, grief-infused stories, took as its start Pietrzyk’s own experience of losing her first husband at the age of thirty-seven. Pietrzyk makes her readers itch at all the ways we grapple.

Her new book, Admit This to No One, is a very different kind of story collection, one whose atmosphere and plot arrive straight from Pietrzyk’s long experience living in the Washington, DC area. At the collection’s center stands the third most powerful person in the country, an unnamed, fictional Speaker of the House. He’s not done much to elevate his standing in the lives of the women who surround him—ex-wives, daughters, staffers—and each of the stories slice us into the wreckage he’s left behind. And the Speaker is himself a wreck, his life in peril from nearly the moment that we meet him.

Pietrzyk and I met at Bread Loaf decades ago. Recently we spoke about Admit This to No One.

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The Rumpus: “My monthly prompt group is a constant source of inspiration and support,” you write in the acknowledgments of Admit This to No One, and I’d like to begin there. What kinds of prompts sparked which kinds of these stories? And can you also say a bit about the story “Green in Judgment,” which begins with and is interlaced with fiction-teacher advice like, “Every story needs a long list of possibly irrelevant details.”

Leslie Pietrzyk: My neighborhood prompt group has been meeting monthly for ten years, and by now we have a system that works for all of us. We write to very, very open-ended prompt words: the first word for fifteen minutes, then a second word. (And I do mean simple words: Last month we worked with “pin” and “excavate.”) Usually we incorporate the second word into whatever we’re writing. Then we share, or not. The best part of prompt group is that there are no rules and no critiques, only questions, conversation, and affirmation. I find the process perfect for exploring characters and flushing out conflicts, for feeling free and writing in a low-stakes way. I mean, it’s half an hour. What can be expected?

As for “Green in Judgment,” I liked the idea of an internal voice directing the reader, that internal narrative voice we may feel observing the intimate moments of our lives. I also didn’t want the reader to feel absorbed into this story unfolding; I wanted the reader noticing the guiding hand of a writer shaping events, as, indeed, Christine imagines she will do herself at the end when she wants to share what transpired with her co-workers but doesn’t. I wanted the reader to feel distance from this uncomfortable exchange at the grocery store and through that distance, my goal was to push the reader into examining their own actions. One can feel superior to Christine until one can’t. I fiddled with the story, and tried several approaches, and it wasn’t coalescing until I heard that voice offering commentary on the way we think about stories, about ourselves as participants in an event that, at the time, seems unremarkable.

Rumpus: At what point in the crafting of individual stories did you know you were writing a collection that revolves, in its surprising, engaging, wait-did-that-just-happen way, around a fictional Speaker of the House?

Pietrzyk: This book had a circuitous journey. Originally, I wanted to write a full-out novel about the tangles of this political family, starting with the Speaker, who is, technically, the third most powerful person in government. (Third-most: So close, yet so far. What would that feel like?) I tinkered with various characters in countless prompts, having lots of fun and very much enjoying the milieu, but every time I started thinking, Okay, so now we need a plot, my mind collapsed. And then Trump took office, and working on this novel became something I dreaded. What a huge moment of relief when I gave myself permission to just stop and take up another project. I didn’t want to write about political stuff. Flash forward to January before the pandemic, and my agent and my editor and I had an interesting conversation about these stories, and I saw how to shape the book without turning it into a novel. Returning to this world during a pandemic was oddly comforting, like finding old friends.

Rumpus: There are stories here that unspool as monologue—interior, psychological, Woolf-sonian—and some in which the landscape itself (places like the Wilson Bridge that crosses the Potomac) is the provocateur, the incitement of action and entanglement. How do you decide, when writing a story, about how much place will force action versus the nattering of one person’s mind?

Pietrzyk: Early on, as I was developing the character of the Speaker, I knew I’d never name him and that I’d use this idea of “speaking” in a metaphorical way. Here’s someone who is two deaths away from the presidency, who is a truly important person in a crowd of people who virtually all think they’re important—but who has never spoken of the truth he thinks and feels deep within. I wanted to capture this interiority of official DC life that I believe must be there, somewhere, even though the armor the general public sees seems impenetrable. So that idea bled into many of the characters, who know things about themselves that they would never dare put into words, not in this town, not to the people who surround them. And then how much of the sadness of that silence is due to this place, this “Washington, DC” that outsiders think they know from CNN or the high school spring break trip? Out in the rest of the United States, when I say I live in the Washington, DC, area, almost every single person either has been to DC or knows someone who lives or lived there. It’s a place that everyone feels connected to in some way. But the city is nothing like the place people think they know, which offers a lot of tension when writing about people who may or may not be the people they’re presenting themselves as. In the end, I think that place is deeply intertwined into these stories, and I’m not sure I could have written this book if it were set anywhere else. 

Rumpus: Admit This to No One features stories presented in third person, second person, first person, plural first person, and dual perspectives. Is there a POV that you frightens you? Is there one that you would always lean into, if you weren’t so fabulously invested in surprising us at every turn?

Pietrzyk: POV is one of my favorite tools as a writer. I love pondering why a story is told one way versus another, is told by one character versus another versus a distant narrative voice. It seems to me that the default POV should always be third person limited unless the story offers a good reason to deviate, and luckily there are many, many good reasons. My favorite POV might be second person, though I try to be judicious in using it, so it’s more like a special treat. My comfort food POV is probably a first-person narrator who’s unreliable. And, ironically, the POV that scares me the most is third person limited—probably because I can’t hide behind tricks and fireworks. It’s like being all alone on a big stage, just telling the story.

Rumpus: “This Isn’t Who We Are” is a story without scene, a story without named characters, a story of bare-knuckled confession that has at its heart and all its edges implied, embarrassed racism. “Pretend that you never notice that there is maybe one Black couple at the parties you go to,” it demands. “Pretend not to feel instant relief when you see that couple there, clutching their glasses of Trader Joe’s wine…Pretend you’re outraged at the gentrification of DC, once proudly called ‘Chocolate City’….Pretend that when someone mentions ‘a professor,’ the image in your mind is of a Black person wearing tweed.” The specter of white privilege haunts many pieces in this book. How long have you wanted to write stories like these? How hard was it to write them?

Pietrzyk: I knew I risked getting things not just wrong but very wrong, risked hurting or antagonizing readers and writers I respect, risked the wrath of social media. I live a privileged life in all the ways, and I had to find out how to write beyond the protection of good intentions. What I really wanted to do was think about my own complicity as a person comfortably living within a system based on racial inequality. As I got deeper and deeper into this sort of thinking, what I finally understood is that if I was going to go there, I had to go all the way, that I couldn’t step back and point the fingers at others: I had to point it squarely at myself.

There were a few moments that informed my thinking, including an early-morning panel at AWP in 2017 titled, “No One Thinks They’re Racist” and some research on the issue of reparations for a different failed novel project. But honestly, what made me start thinking about writing about racism from the view of complicity was when I first got onto Facebook, ten years or so ago, and I started reading comments and threads from writers of color who expressed anger among themselves at various microaggressions and transgressions, illustrating for me a larger way of seeing the world. I didn’t comment; I tried to listen and absorb. I definitely felt uncomfortable, especially as I was a voyeur, but I’m grateful for this secret education. There are other influences: Citizen by Claudia Rankine. Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Ahmaud Arbery. Every name on that list that won’t end. Facing the statue of the confederate soldier standing on a pedestal in the middle of the road every time I drove down Prince Street here in Alexandria, VA (recently removed). Having my eyes at long last opened forced me to begin to reckon with my own tiny life. I remember writing a list of incidents in my past, microaggressions I perpetrated or witnessed that I would be afraid to write about, knowing I should challenge myself to write them.

Rumpus: I’m desperate to ask you about the perfect and perfectly economical details that populate each story, such as this description of a teenaged boy, the son of a friend of the narrator: “Ben’s a gawky teenager: skin stretched over toothpick-thin bones that seem too long, and a stiff, ravenous face. His dark eyes are enormous. An aura of discomfort manifests around him as eerie, near-perfect stillness.”  Were you looking at someone when you wrote that? Were you merely conjuring?

Pietrzyk: No question could ever mean as much to me as this one, because one of the things I dread most in writing is describing things, especially people. I’m definitely not a natural. Because I recognize this flaw in myself, when I do undertake descriptive writing, I really work at it, either by looking up images on the internet (every piece of furniture or clothing mentioned in my writing can be purchased online!) or by rolling through the synonym function on Word. I’m usually in a later draft stage at this point, knowing I have to face the dreaded “MORE” that I’ve typed 500 times as a placeholder for some sort of description.  I start with some basics, for instance, “He was skinny,” and then search for synonyms, and synonyms for those synonyms, round after round. I close my eyes and try to see something interesting about the person, something that suggests a greater story, and try to think of an unusual way to convey that. In short, I work.

Rumpus: You live outside DC, but these stories feel as if you have worked as an assistant to the very Speaker of the House—they feel that insiderly. What was your research process? Or do you just absorb things and they emerge later in your work?

Pietrzyk: I did acquire a fair amount of research simply by paying attention. I read the Washington Post every day and have for, wow, maybe thirty years? I still get a paper copy, and when you turn every page of a newspaper for thirty years, you pick up quite a bit about the locale covered. When I started thinking about writing a book set in insider DC, I saved articles and read more closely. Washingtonian magazine is another publication that I’d been reading and absorbing all along. I listened to CSPAN radio, especially hearings, letting myself absorb the ritualistic language (“I yield my time.”) In the DC. area, you’re never far from people employed as cogs in the wheels that keep the machinery running: lobbying firms, think tanks, military, NGOs, trade associations, the press, and I love asking questions about people’s jobs, especially at dull receptions. And thank you to my wishing-to-remain-anonymous friend who gave me a behind the scenes tour of the U.S. Capitol building, including a moment where I stood on the Speaker’s balcony and surveyed for myself that iconic landscape of the Mall unfurling, and the Washington Monument piercing the sky. Honestly, that view, that feeling, is intoxicating. Of course, in the end, I remind myself that I’m writing fiction, free to make up whatever I want.

Rumpus: Of all the characters in this collection was there one in particular that you yearned to go gentle on, to give him or her a kinder outcome, to leave one in less existential despair?

Pietrzyk: I didn’t start out with a soft heart toward anyone (even as I feel compassion for each character, wanting to understand and capture their complex vulnerabilities). My unspoken goal is to write with devastation in mind, using as a model the jolt of that final line of Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises. I don’t see myself as having ever achieved this secret desire because always, along the way I’m reminded that many of the books I love most offer a note of hope at the end, that readers like hope, that people like to feel hopeful, that even I like to feel hopeful! Here, I originally envisioned a somewhat different fate for Madison, the youngest recurring character, something darker. But when I was thinking about how to end the book, evaluating what quintessential DC experience I might explore, I thought of last summer’s big protests for social justice, so I sent her to one. And, surprisingly—and I never, never say things like this, or even believe other writers who claim their characters “took over”—she sort of did take over, and she found that moment of hope for herself and she made me end that story in a place I wasn’t expecting. Not that it was easy; I spent an entire afternoon wrestling with the final sentences, eventually adding two simple words that snapped the ending into proper place. That sensation of surprising myself is also what I write toward, and in a pandemic, it feels right to choose a hopeful surprise over a devastating one.

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Photograph of Leslie Pietrzyk by Susan Hale Thomas.


Beth Kephart is an award-winning writer, teacher, and book artist. Her new books are Wife | Daughter | Self: A Memoir in Essays and We Are the Words: The Master Memoir Class. Visit her Etsy shop at: www.etsy.com/shop/BINDbyBIND, and find her on Twitter: @BethKephart. More from this author →