Part 2 of the second interview in a series about the intersections of Writing, Teaching, and Identity
Virginia Pye’s second novel, Dreams of the Red Phoenix, was published in October by Unbridled Books. Gish Jen called it, “Gripping, convincing, and heart-breaking. . . A real page-turner and thought-provoker—wonderful.” Kirkus Reviews says, “There’s a comparison to Ballard’s Empire of the Sun, but this unlashing look. . . shares thrush in its own way.” Her debut novel, River of Dust (2013), was an Indie Next Pick and a finalist for the 2014 Virginia Literary Award. Her award-winning stories have appeared in numerous literary magazines and her essays are at Literary Hub, The Rumpus,The New York Times Opinionator, Huffington Post, and elsewhere.
Virginia Pye holds an MFA from Sarah Lawrence College and has taught writing at New York University and the University of Pennsylvania. She recently moved back to Cambridge, Massachusetts after thirty-five years away.
To read Part 1 of this interview, click here.
Both of your novels were inspired by your family’s real life experiences. How were you able to make those experiences your own? Many others might have just written a biography about such interesting family members. Why novels?
My first attempts to write about an American family in China weren’t distanced enough from my family’s own history there. The recounting of my grandparents’ years in China, my father’s childhood under Japanese occupation, and then his return with the Marines at the end of WWII, all seemed pretty interesting when I talked about it at cocktail parties. But when I tried to turn those facts into a novel, my imagination hadn’t yet taken hold of that distant place and time.
If River of Dust and Dreams of the Red Phoenix succeed it’s because I let go of the literal and allowed myself to create my own version of China and the Americans who lived there. My novels come to life because I heightened the drama, reimagined the characters, and embellished the setting. In other words, I wrote a new world, instead of trying to invest the authentic past with meaning. Some writers can succeed at writing vividly researched long-form nonfiction, but I’m not one of them.
In the past you’ve been a college instructor, and I know you’ve conducted many community workshops. How has your teaching life intersected with your writing life?
For many years, I helped run a writing organization called James River Writers in Richmond, Virginia, and as part of that, I helped run conferences and panels and did occasionally teach. Prior to that I had been an adjunct at several universities, taught writing in high schools, and even in my home. I wrote several unpublished novels while teaching and running James River Writers. Like many teachers, I wove the writing into my other commitments—waking early on days when I had to teach or attend meetings. Those work activities felt complimentary to the writing, but they didn’t feed me as a writer the way reading does. I’ve never found, as some teachers do, that helping students with their own writing actually helped my own. But I always enjoyed the contact with people who cared about writing and books. That in itself was a boost. When helping others to take their work more seriously, I had to take mine more seriously, too. In telling them not to give up hope on getting published, I also had to not give up.
How would you characterize your writer’s voice, especially as a woman writing in today’s market?
That’s hard for me to say. I’ve been told I write with strong, declarative sentences—that my writing is straightforward that way. I’ve also been told I’m a good storyteller—but I started out as a poet, so I hope there’s some poetry in what I write as well. As a woman, or perhaps just as a writer, it’s taken me many years to develop my writing voice. I tell stories from lots of different perspectives—most often not in the first person, but through the eyes of a central character who can be male, or older than me, or much younger. The more I’ve written, the less anxious I’ve become about whether I can pull off writing in a voice that is distinctly different from my own. As a white person, I want to be aware of my assumptions when I create characters who are people of color. Same thing when I write from the male perspective. But stretching and daring to imagine how another life is lived is what fiction is all about. Fiction gains its full scope when an author takes a daring imaginative leap fueled by empathy and understanding.
How has your identity as a writer affected your role as a teacher over the years?
Being a writer has helped me to be more empathetic to my students as they struggle to find their own voices. It can take a while to feel confident as a writer and we all flounder at first. Early drafts are terrible messes—and can still be messes after twenty drafts, too! But the main thing that a writer needs is the conviction to keep trying. To stay in his or her seat until the work improves. For me, a stronger writing voice comes with time. I try to remember that as I encourage others to write better.
How do you deal with students when it comes down to the nitty-gritty of critiquing their work? Sometimes it’s hard to teach those lessons about confidence and practice.
When I first started to teach writing, I remember scribbling comments all over student work. I was so eager to share my perspective that I overwhelmed the poor fledgling writers. Students were resistant to too much advice and instruction. Over time, I learned to back off and only comment selectively.
My experience with Nancy [Zafris] taught me that a writer has to reach a stage of understanding with their own writing in order to be able to take in and incorporate outside voices. You can’t force someone to look at his or her work more objectively. Sometimes time and distance is needed before a writer can take the work to the next level.
That has certainly been your experience; as you said, you heard similar feedback over the years but you needed to hear it at the right time from the right person. As a working writer, how do you deal with rejection in trying to get your work out there?
I write and send out short stories to journals all the time, and they are often rejected many times before eventually finding a home. Literary magazines take something like one half of one percent of all submissions. A writer can’t let rejection get to her with odds like that. You just have to keep writing and assume that one of the darts will eventually stick to the board.
Also, we get better as writers with practice. I can’t stress that enough. I almost always continue to rewrite the stories that are rejected. A piece of work can always be improved. And it’s only the failed novels and stories that make the successful ones possible.
What advice would you give to writers, especially women writers over 35, who are still hoping to get their first book published?
I’ve noticed that some people—women more often than men—hold onto their manuscripts for too long. They only show them to friends who already love them or their work. As writers, we need to get tough with our work and trust that it can withstand outside scrutiny. Share it with fellow writers whose work you admire. Deeply consider the criticism you receive. If your manuscript isn’t working, if you receive repeated negative feedback, and if you still don’t see a new way of approaching the material, then set it aside and believe in yourself enough to write something else.
In general, we—and here I think I’m speaking more to women writers than men—need to be less precious about the whole process. We’re plumbers of words. It’s the work we do, no matter if we sell that work or if everyone, or no one, likes it. It’s simply what we do.
So my advice is this: keep writing, but don’t necessarily keep writing the same thing. Give yourself permission to set a manuscript aside if you’re feeling stuck. Assume you have many books in you, not just the one you’re working on now. Just keep writing and discover the next book already taking shape in your mind.
To Purchase Dreams of the Red Phoenix, click the cover image below: