Several weeks ago, I had the pleasure of meeting AU MFA alumna Leslie Pietrzyk at Bittersweet Cafe in Alexandria for coffee and a chat about her new collection of short stories, This Angel on My Chest (University of Pittsburgh Press), winner of the Drue Heinz Literature Prize. Pietrzyk was gracious and thoughtful in her answers, and our conversation ranged from reminiscing about graduate school to why she decided to write one true, hard thing in each short story in her new collection.
Pietrzyk will be reading from This Angel on My Chest this Saturday, October 17, at Politics and Prose at 6 PM. If you are unable to make it out to Politics and Prose this weekend, you can catch her at The Writer’s Center in Bethesda on November 15 at 2 PM.
CA: Thank you so much for meeting me for this interview, I appreciate your time. Let’s jump in. So you were a student at AU in the 80s, right?
LP: Let’s just say the 80’s, yes.
CA: And you are one of the co-founders FOLIO. Can you tell me a little bit about your time at AU?
LP: I showed up sort of not knowing what to expect, probably like a lot of people. You go on this trajectory of, like, in high school everybody says, “Oh you’re such a good writer,” and then you get knocked down a little bit in workshops in college. Then I came to AU and learned how much more there is to learn about writing. It was, at the time, very humbling and also exciting because what you really realize is you’re never done learning and you never know all the things you don’t know about writing.
And, as for founding FOLIO: so I found a little group and we bonded immediately, which I think happens often in writing groups – you find your people. One guy, W.T. Pfefferle, was one of those incredibly dynamic people who says “Let’s do something,” and then, instead of just saying it, he says “Actually, let’s do something and here’s how we’re going to do it.” So he said let’s start a literary journal and I said, “Okay, let’s!” and, basically, then we did. Again, we didn’t know all the things we didn’t know, which was probably good. It took a lot of time and energy but we really loved doing it. It’s probably one of the proudest achievements that I have, that it is still being published thirty years later.
CA: So you had this writer’s trajectory and you went through graduate school. Now you teach?
LP: I teach at a low residency MFA program that is based in Spartanburg, South Caroline at Converse College. Then I teach from time to time as an adjunct at the Johns Hopkins program that is at Dupont Circle in their the MA program in writing. I also teach at Politics and Prose bookstore and The Writer’s Center.
The low-residency program, which barely existed when I was thinking about where to go for graduate school, has been a really interesting and different way of teaching. I think both types of programs have benefits for the students and for me, personally, as a teacher. I love going down to the residencies in Spartanburg. They are ten days of just intense goings-on, all revolved around writing.
CA: And, on top of the teaching, you are the founder and editor of Redux. Tell me about Redux; the concept seems so interesting.
LP: That was just one of those odd ideas that I got one morning – my best ideas come in the morning – where I was thinking about a story that I had published in a literary journal that went out of business. It was a story that I really liked and I was thinking it’s just a shame, you know, a great story nobody will ever read. I was thinking it’s so sad and then, to think of all my friends and all the writers in the world who also have stories like that. Why cant someone put those online? Then I thought, “Oh I could.”
The first people I solicited were friends of mine. I got some friends involved as contributing editors and they got some of their friends to send work. Somebody did note, “Leslie, you can’t just have your friends in here,” so I had an open reading, which brought in a whole new set of new work. The open reading was great for me because I met a whole set of new people.
I never did run the story that sparked the whole idea because, at a certain point, its kind of embarrassing to run your own work. (Although I did, several years later, put one of my own things up.) Early on its like a vanity project – I knew it couldn’t just be a vanity project.
It was one of those ideas that was fun to do, not that hard for me to do, that has reaped so many benefits for me and I like to imagine for other people who get to see their work out there.
CA: I love that you thought of something that you wished existed and made it happen. Do you often get relatively new work or do you sometimes see submissions of work published long ago?
LP: Well, the gist of Redux is that the work has to be previously published in a literary journal, it cannot be elsewhere online, and it cannot be in a book or anthology or chapbook. So a lot of people will choose something they really like from four or five years ago. But every now and then I’ll get something from 1985 or something.
Actually, a pretty well known poet sent the very first work that he had published. I’m sure that, in one way, that was hard for him to do becaue that was his early work. But it was really fascinating to see how the work has changed and developed.
When you’re published in Redux I ask a little short essay about the piece, or the writing process, or where it came from. A lot of people tell me they like thinking about the work, especially older work, in that way.
CA: So I did some research on you and your work, and I noticed you’ve published both fiction and nonfiction. Do you have a preference of genre?
LP: I am definitely a fiction writer. Every time I write something true, its very scary for me. I like being able to hide a little bit and say I made it up. But there are some things you need to write as the truth that don’t lend themselves to a story or, at least in my mind, I don’t see how I would turn them into a story. And I think its good to push myself into doing things that aren’t comfortable, trying out new forms and genres. Poets don’t need to worry – I wont be trying out poetry.
CA: Okay, so I want to talk to you about autobiographical fiction because thats what your new book of short stories is marketed as. And, in the same vein of fiction versus nonfiction, can you tell me why you chose to write these stories as autobiographical fiction?
LP: Well, first I would have to say that I think a lot of fiction has a lot of autobiographical elements, you just don’t always announce it.
CA: Right, I’m actually not sure I believe in pure, complete fiction.
LP: Well, I believe in that, too, but it’s hard not to let anything from your life bleed into fiction. So I’ve always been writing things that are related to my life and for this book, I never really actually thought that I would be writing about Robb, my husband.
After he died I wrote one story, the first story in this book, called “Ten Things,” and I kind of thought, “Well, that was my thing about him.” Years passed and I was at VCCA, a writers colony, and was sitting at breakfast with a poet who was teaching a class about the literature of subcultures, which sounds like such an amazing class! So I thought I’d try writing about a subculture and I chose to write about the young widows support group that I had gone to. It was one of those great writing experiences where you’re just writing and writing and you’re so happy with how its going and, as I was writing, being back in that place and time it felt like I had to keep writing about this stuff.
So I came up with a long list of various ideas that I had on the subject and I gave myself the assignment that each story had to have one true and hard thing about my grieving experience and the loss of Robb. It wouldn’t necessarily have to be a thing that happened; it could be a way I felt or something I observed.
In the beginning I didn’t know if I was going to do a collection; I just wanted to write some short stories because I was tired of writing novels. In the beginning the stories were much more fictional – plot, characters with names – they still had the one hard, true thing, But as I kept going in the project I found that the fictional stuff was dropping aside and, by the end, I was writing much truer things. I also ended up playing more with the form. The stories aren’t all in typical short story structure, beginning middle end. There’s an index of food and a quiz!
I think part of why the book evolved in that way was because I was really struggling with how to try and capture that idea of grieving someone and going through that mourning process, where you can’t believe what has happened. You don’t know how to tell the story, you don’t know how to keep hold of the person who’s gone. They’re gone, but you have these powerful memories and you want to keep the person with you so desperately – so how can you do that? Fiction doesn’t always work when you’re grasping for a way to hold onto the person.
I was also trying to create the sense that grieving is universal. We’ve all been through the grieving process, or we will, yet when you’re going through that it feels like the loneliest time. Like you’re the only person who has ever suffered this. It’s so individual yet so universal, and I was trying to capture that paradox.
CA: So, do you think that fiction is always better for some things and nonfiction is better for others? Like, do you think you might ever try to write about this in pure nonfiction?
LP: Oh my god, that sounds so scary. Well, never say never, but I kind of doubt it. What was really great about this auto-fiction was that I had the truth of what I was writing about. Sometimes it was real events, but when the real events seemed boring to me or not as interesting as they could be, I could make something up to fill in the gaps.
I will say there is a limitation to that form because my life is not that interesting and I don’t know that I have any more subject material to work with. I’m not sure I want more material like this, more conflict, from my personal life! But I think this approach worked perfectly for this book. I did write truthful essays about losing Robb, but I don’t think I would have thought to write a whole memoir about him or about myself. It would be really hard to say, “Read 200 pages about me,” but I can say, “Read about these people and these experiences and, in parentheses – secretly, this happened to me.”
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Emily Moses is the editor in chief of Café Américain and a second-year candidate in the American University’s Creative Writing MFA program.