Writers, especially established writers, can easily get into ruts. It’s always refreshing to hear about writers who push themselves into new realms. With her collection of 16 short stories, This Angel on My Chest, Leslie Pietrzyk does it and does it so beautifully she makes it look effortless. Winner of the distinguished Drue Heinz Literature Prize, This Angel on My Chest looks at different young widows’ grief from many angles.
- Leslie, you normally write novels, yet this is a collection of short stories with a common theme. How did the collection come about?
I’ve actually been writing (and publishing) short stories all along, but I never thought I’d have a collection, that my stories would shape up into a book as opposed to “here’s a bunch of stories” (not that those collections don’t make for good reading, but those books are especially hard to get published, so I focused my pub-biz energy on novels). And I did not plan this collection initially; nor did I plan to write about my first husband’s death. But I was at a writer’s colony (VCCA) and over breakfast fell into a conversation with someone about a class she was teaching on the literature of subcultures, and I thought writing about a subculture would be a nice way to fill my work day, and—seemingly from nowhere—I landed on the subculture of the young widows’ support group I had attended (“The Circle”). By the end of the day, I had a mile-long list of other ideas that I might write about from that time of my life. I’m not sure I saw a collection at that moment, but I did see a lot of material to explore.
- The stories are fiction but they have an element of your life in each one. How does this mixture of fiction and nonfiction go together?
My writing assignment to myself was that each story had to contain one hard, true thing from my own personal experience of losing Robb. The earlier stories I wrote were more fictional in nature, and it wasn’t until I got deeply into the project that I started throwing in more and more nonfiction. From a writing standpoint, I found benefits to this auto-fiction because the base of each story was something with immense emotional resonance, yet I could twist the facts and action to better serve the story and to add interest (so I hope!). My intention is to unsettle readers a bit, to remind them that in the background of this book, an actual person died—my husband—and perhaps more unsettling, that there is no escape for any of us, that loss is part of every life.
- Your collection contains nontraditional story elements, such as a list, a quiz, a speech, an annotated index, and so on. Why did you include them?
I was eager to shake up my own writing and try something new. I found the challenge of creating emotional depth in an index or list to be exhilarating (note: not every experiment was successful! Such is the nature of experimenting, right?). As I tried new forms, I asked myself what these forms or unusual points of view were adding to the book, because it’s not enough to say, “Hey, look! A story in a list!” There has to be a reason for the list, for the story as a list, otherwise it’s gimmicky. What I realized is that I was trying to mirror the fractured and surreal life I experienced in the midst of my grieving, doing mundane things like grocery shopping and working while at the same time feeling utterly crushed. Nothing feels “normal” after the death of a loved one, so I didn’t want my book to look normal either. And, honestly, I think I was feeling hampered by the classic fictional structure of beginning-middle-end: that wasn’t capturing the complexity of what it’s like when another human being is torn from your life. Finally, using unusual forms and playing with point-of-view (i.e., second person) was the avenue I needed to get me to the deeper material—it felt easier to write “you” instead of “I.”
- You’re a writing teacher: Did you learn anything new about writing while working on this collection?
Ha…I learned a lot, as I think most writers do with every book they undertake. In particular, here, I learned that it’s very easy for me as a teacher to cajole students into writing about emotionally difficult, personal material—the stories from what I (and others) call “the dark place”—but that the reality of tackling that material is altogether different. So I’m still nudging students to push themselves with material, if they feel ready, but I feel less guilty doing so, knowing that I can show them that I practice what I preach 100 percent in this book.
- What was your editing process? Will you later use the stories you omitted somewhere else?
A couple of stories just failed utterly, so they’ll remain computer files. (I never delete anything! My hard drive is a mess!) Some of the stories I reluctantly let go because of page restrictions—either the contest I entered had a specific page limit, or because it was suggested to me that the manuscript felt long. I imagined maybe I could slip in the deleted stories at some point, but alas, the press immediately told me I wasn’t allowed to do that, even before I asked (guess I’m not the only one juggling the contents). In the end, eliminating those stories was absolutely the right decision. One in particular was very hard to let go—though it was very different in tone and approach and it truly didn’t fit. It remains in the book in my head, and sometimes I have to stop myself from referring to it. And thank you for asking if the stories I cut stories have found homes…yes! All of them! I love that different sections of the book will be out there, sort of living a secret life in some lovely literary journals.
- You took on a sad topic—grief. How did you write about the topic without it seeping into your regular life?
Who said it didn’t? I’m not sure that I could write about anything with intensity and not have it creep into my life somehow. Many years have passed since Robb died, so I’ve gained new perspectives and some distance, which helped me manage the grief (and, I’m thinking, helped me see the book differently). But, yeah, it was sometimes hard to think about this part of my life when I was writing, to be back in those days. I started a journal right after Robb died and wrote in it religiously for two years or so. As I was writing this book, I imagined I would dig up those old journals and read over them, but I never did. I think THAT would have been too hard for me. (Not that I’m ready to throw them away!)
- What is your next writing project?
I just finished re-re-re-revising a new novel, so one project is to find an agent and/or a happy home for that book, which is set in Chicago in the 1980s. And I have the glimmers of another novel dancing through my head, which is always the most delightful part of the process, before the first draft writing actually starts and all you’re thinking about is how you’re screwing it up.
Leslie Pietrzyk is the author of two novels, Pears on a Willow Tree and A Year and a Day, and collection of linked short stories: This Angel on My Chest. Her short fiction and essays have appeared in many publications, including Gettysburg Review, The Sun, Salon, Washingtonian, the Washington Post Magazine, and others. Please visit her website to learn more about her work, www.lesliepietrzyk.com
Carollyne Hutter, www.HutterWriter.com, enjoys writing for children and adults. Often her work focuses on environmental, scientific, health, and international development issues.