The End of My Book Hangover: Silver Girl by Leslie Pietrzyk
By Emily Moses
Leslie Pietrzyk, AU MFA alumna and local literary guru, agreed to meet with me to discuss her new novel, Silver Girl, out last month by Unnamed Press. Over a plate of charcuterie and a few glasses of wine, we talked about why we stop reading sometimes, who needs to know what in the craft of fiction, and what happens to characters after the book is finished. I also snagged the recipe for the book’s official cocktail, “Absolutly Silver Girl,” by Steve Ello.
Emily Moses: So. I’ve been on such a book hangover, that Silver Girl is the first book I’ve read, start to finish, in about a year and a half.
Leslie Pietrzyk: Let the record show that my mouth dropped open. What happened?
EM: I was trying to find muse texts for my graduate thesis, reading every piece of female-written nonfiction I could get my hands on, and I dug into Lidia Yuknavitch’s The Chronology of Water.
LP: Oh, is that the really depressing one?
EM: It’s not a happy read. It was gorgeous, and it devastated me. I think for that particular text, though, it was the craft that I was amazed by. So I read that book, then basically reconsidered everything I thought I knew about my thesis—which was a lot. The election happened not long after that, and I felt, at that point, like there were more urgent things for me to be focusing on.
LP: What you’re describing, though, seems to be a national trend. People are picking up books and not finishing them.
EM: I am trying to get back into it, though, and I really, really did enjoy Silver Girl. It was a great first book for getting into the groove.
LP: Ah, thank you.
EM: Also, full disclosure: I read almost zero fiction.
LP: I think I remember that from the last time we talked!
EM: But there’s so much about Silver Girl that I appreciated in its…well, I don’t want to say verisimilitude because that’s such an MFA Word, and also I wasn’t around in the 1980s, so I don’t know exactly what it was like. But there is so much about the book that lived in ambiguity, and yet I felt so rooted the entire time.
LP: Thank you, that’s a really lovely compliment.
EM: I am interested in hearing you talk about that tension. I know there is a fair amount of research that you did, and there are, of course, the craft elements of creating this tone and setting. But I am interested in knowing where you found pleasure in the ambiguity, or found yourself drawn to a lack of clarity, versus where you found yourself inserting clear details. For example, I felt very clear about the setting.
LP: Yeah. I knew the setting. I personally don’t like not knowing where things are, or not knowing how people are related to each other. I like the facts of the matter. But I think because I was taking cues from the Tylenol murders, and the idea that nobody had ever been caught for that act, in this way that sort of indicated anything can happen in the world. It can be true that the last decision that you make is taking a Tylenol, then dropping dead. That idea that we live in a world where anything is possible fascinated me. In a way, it’s nothing new because having lost my husband to sudden death at a too-young age kind of showed me that.
EM: Right. This Angel on My Chest.
LP: Also, this idea that having this friend who was your best friend, who you were competitive with, who you kind of hated but you also loved, deeply, who sort of showed you up but also knew you in a profound way was also a meaningful avenue to explore. That somebody could be a friend and yet not necessarily be what we think a friend is.
EM: Right! I loved so much the way you drew such complex female characters. You didn’t shy away from the complexities of real female friendship, which is a topic that is, honestly, so hard to find good writing about. I was wondering whether if you had any muse texts that you used?
LP: I love that, “muse text.” For this book, actually, I had more muse texts in terms of the structure than in terms of the friendship, and it has actually been kind of interesting when now people do say, “Oh, there aren’t many books about female friendship,” because I realized, wow, there really are not! Structurally, though, a muse text was Jesus’ Son by Denis Johnson. It was helpful, in terms of ambiguity, in putting two things together and assuming there has to be a connection somehow, then to work and define what that connection is, and being content if it’s not literal connect-the-dots connection, but juxtaposition.
EM: It really was interesting, after finishing the book, to go back and look at the ways you did juxtapose certain things as a way of creating a sort of constellation instead of a straighter narrative line. There were all these different points in time, and different types of chapters, and, as a reader, the act of becoming untethered from what you think is happening in the text, and loosening yourself from certain novelistic structural expectations in order to get your bearings within the book, are actually really compelling experiences while reading a novel. I really appreciated the way you described it in your Chicago Review of Books interview with Greer McAllister, that the book resisted a normal structure.
LP: Linear, yeah.
EM: Exactly. So, I am interested in knowing about the craft of that, the act of writing a novel in such structure.
LP: Well, some of the book was written in my prompt writing group where you can just explore anything. You don’t have to finish. You have half an hour to write so anything can happen. There were all these pieces of scenes that really helped me explore the characters of Jess and the narrator. I was trying to put together a bigger picture of those pieces into stories that then became chapters.
But, there was a point where I had this material, and I kind of had a plot where I was beginning to understand how I was going to connect the Tylenol murders, and then I had to figure out how I was going to piece all these things together, and it’s a combination of craft and vanity and wanting to be published. So, at one point I was thinking, “Oh, look, “How We Left Home” got published in The Cincinnati Review, so obviously that has to stay in the book.” I’m not advising that as a reason to insist a chapter stay, but that’s how I felt.
EM: I mean, it was a pretty important chapter.
LP: It was, and it helped me understand the narrator but, at a certain point, it really came down to the fact it had been published. So that’s what I’m saying, it became a craft of how the book was put together, and why is it not being put together in a nonlinear way. You can’t just jump around for no reason. What also helped me, on a more crass level, was when I put it all together chronologically, the Tylenol murders weren’t mentioned until at least halfway into the book. But you have to know about those up front. So there was this external pressure that felt sort of crass and unfortunate, but that actually helped me.
Then the rest of it was thinking: what does the reader need to know, what does the narrator know, what does the narrator not know, what does the reader know, what does the reader know that the narrator does not know, and then the factual information.
EM: You know, one of the compliments I have read often of this book is that it feels very much like a novel, in that it feels very complete. I felt so satisfied at the end. I was pleased—obviously wanting more—but there wasn’t anything untied about the story at the end that I felt like I needed to know. I felt like I was on a very healthy need-to-know basis and, after investing in the narrator for 300-something pages, I felt good about where she was. There’s so much we don’t know about our narrator—including her name. Anyway, I appreciated that, by the end, I felt like the book was done; did you feel like the book was done, or complete?
LP: I did feel like that part of her life was done. I have to say, I really miss her. I don’t usually miss characters in that way, but I really have missed her. There were a few days when I thought, “Let me dredge her up, let me try writing her again,” but what I found when I was trying to think who she would be and what her story might be, I wasn’t as interested as I thought I would be. I did start thinking about Grace, actually, and what might happen to her. I guess it would be interesting to ponder what might happen to Jess.
EM: I feel like I know.
LP: What do you think happened?
EM: In broad strokes, I think I know. Well. I know what I am worried about—her becoming her mother, right?
LP: Yes. I love that you said that.
EM: Which, let me back up and say that, yes, at the age the characters are in the book, the looming fear of becoming your mother feels so real. But now, as a sort-of-adult, I fully know that I would be so lucky, so blessed if I became my mother. But Jess’ mother, specifically, exuded this certain sadness that seemed so terrible to bear. Her sadness came across so clearly in your small details, like how she changed her dinner order.
LP: I think food is a really powerful way to express things that are going on in fiction.
EM: Right, those fancy dinner scenes were chock-full of emotional landscape to process. So, in regards to the narrator and the reader, we talked about ambiguity, and who is supposed to know what and when. I am interested in what you, as the writer, know that we don’t know.
LP: I know the narrator’s name.
EM: What! No, you don’t!
LP: Of course I do! She has to have a name. I know who she is, and what her name is if that were something to be included in the book. But I’m not going to tell you.
Absolut-ly, Silver Girl Cocktail (Served up)
1 oz Absolut Vodka
½ oz Fresh Lemon Juice
½ oz 1:1 Simple Syrup*
1 Dash Orange Bitters
1 Dash Cherry Bitters
Add the ingredients above to a shaker with ice and shake until chilled. Double strain into a chilled coupe and top with 1 oz of Korbel Brut Sparkling Wine and a Lemon Twist.
*How to make 1:1 simple syrup:
Boil one cup water. Add one cup granulated sugar. Stir until dissolved. Cool before use. (Can be stored for several weeks in the refrigerator.)
Leslie Pietrzyk is the author of the novel Silver Girl, released in February 2018 by Unnamed Press. Her collection of unconventionally linked short stories, This Angel on My Chest, won the 2015 Drue Heinz Literature Prize and was published by the University of Pittsburgh Press. Her previous novels are Pears on a Willow Tree and A Year and a Day. Pietrzyk holds an MFA from American University. She is a member of the core fiction faculty at the Converse low-residency MFA program and often teaches in the MA Program in Writing at Johns Hopkins University. Raised in Iowa, she now lives in Alexandria, Virginia. Follow her on Twitter @lesliepwriter, Instagram @lesliepietrzyk, and Facebook.
Emily Moses is a writer and editor who lives in Washington, DC. She holds a Master of Fine Arts, Creative Writing from American University, and curates the local reading series “the lowercase” through literacy-focused nonprofit, 826DC. She spends her free time walking the neighborhoods of DC, searching for overgrown secret gardens.