An Interview with Novelist Virginia Pye Part 1

K.E. Ogden
April 4, 2016
Comments 12

Part 1 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 “[g]ripping, 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.

Your first novel, River of Dust, began from an investigation into retelling the lives and experiences of your family; how did you begin research for this book?

The spark for my first novel came from my grandfather’s notes and journals. He was a Congregational missionary in northwest rural China in the early twentieth century. He came out of Oberlin College Seminary and Carleton College and was a highly educated, renaissance man. In his journals, his observations about Chinese culture were interwoven with quotes from his favorite Romantic poets and peppered with Shakespearean asides. I loved his witty, literate voice, and yet had trouble with his actual mission there in China. Among his papers, I found his tally book showing how many Chinese he had succeeded at converting to Christianity in any given month. I had always tried to ignore my family’s missionary past, but discovering my grandfather’s writing—at the same moment I was reading Marilynne Robinson’s brilliant novel Gilead about a minister of that same era—I realized I wanted to try to capture the voices and attitudes of an earlier time in a story informed by our twenty-first-century understanding of imperialism. In other words, I wanted to write a novel of American colonialism.

I know you worked with Nancy Zafris (former Fiction Editor for The Kenyon Review) editing River of Dust, and you’ve credited her in many conversations for helping you to open up imaginative possibilities for your novel. It’s a challenge for some writers to take tough criticism and learn new things; however, many writers are often navigating identities as teachers and, in their own writing lives, as students also. What was this editing experience like for you, as a seasoned teacher of writing yourself, now in the role of student?

I received help from Nancy at exactly the right moment. I had been struggling with a manuscript called Sleepwalking to China for over five years. Thirty or more agents had read it, several had read it more than once, and it had gone through at least twenty revisions. I had had way too many cooks in the kitchen for those pages. Before meeting Nancy, I had put the troublesome manuscript aside for a year and wrote a much easier, breezier contemporary novel set in Richmond, Virginia, where I lived at the time. I’m not sure why I was able to write the new novel so quickly, but I think it was perhaps because I had felt so burdened by Sleepwalking to China and just wanted to have fun again with writing. Working on the manuscript set in contemporary America inadvertently gave me the distance I needed on the book set in historical China. When I finally met Nancy I could look at the complicated manuscript with fresh eyes. By that point, I didn’t have much ego involved in keeping it as it was. I just wanted Sleepwalking to China to succeed, in whatever form it might take.

I heard that Nancy read your book and basically told you that you had two books, not one. That must have been a surprise!

It was something other publishing professionals had tried to tell me earlier but I wasn’t yet able to hear. When Nancy said it, I finally understood and accepted that she was right. Together we re-envisioned the entire project and I went on to write River of Dust quite quickly and with great clarity. My editor, Greg Michalson at Unbridled Books, was also a huge help in making the book stronger. I still have plans for the rest of that earlier manuscript and hope it will come out as the third and final novel in my trilogy about four generations of an American family in China. So no wonder I struggled with that earlier manuscript: it was three books, not one!

I’m already excited about that third book, but your second book, Dreams of the Red Phoenix, came out this past October and has been very well received. How did the composition process for this second novel compare with your process for River of Dust?

Like River of Dust, writing Dreams of the Red Phoenix was pretty smooth and swift. For both books, I used a technique taught to me by Nancy. I outlined the story on 3 x 5 cards that I hung on strings attached to my bookshelf. Each card listed the central action of a scene, and noted how that action affected the key character. As I went on to write the novel, the emotional heart of each scene and character came out organically, but the plot was formed before I started. Once I finished writing a scene, I would tear the card off the line. It felt gratifying to have fewer and fewer cards hanging, which helped speed up the writing even more. I think both books have a quick pace because I was eager to tell the stories. I let the momentum pull me along and hopefully it has that effect on the reader, too.

What a great technique to help keep track of the story, but also as a motivator! I know that many novelists who have worked with Nancy and her team in KR’s novel workshop have learned similar techniques that helped them really streamline their stories and get motivated again. A lot of writers struggle to get that momentum going—especially writers who also juggle duties as full-time or part-time teachers or as workshop leaders and conference or writing retreat organizers, let alone moms and dads. You’ve done all of these things while trying to write, but your persistence and your discipline are legendary. How have you been able to carve out a writing discipline for yourself?

I really enjoy the magical act of writing and I love the process of concocting stories in my mind while I go about my daily life. For me, walking into my study in the morning is a thrill because I’ve saved up ideas that I’m excited to explore. I try to carve out time to escape to my study—little snippets sometimes—before breakfast or after dinner—and these days, I can be in my study for hours without interruption. I realize I’m very lucky to have that kind of time and am grateful for it.

I remember your talk at the Kenyon Review Writers Workshop a few years ago in which you shared the publication journey for River of Dust and the many, many years it took to secure an agent and bring that book to fruition. Now you’ve just released your second book! How did you keep the faith that your hard work and persistence would pay off one day?

I’ve become somewhat inured to rejection, but I think that comes with the territory of writing over many years. So many writers have at least one or two novels tucked into drawers that they’ve tried to sell without luck. Prior to my debut novel being published, I had four previous novels that were represented by excellent literary agents, none of whom were able to place my books with a publisher. That meant a lot of hopes raised and then dashed.

That’s persistence; that’s someone who’s been writing a long time. How did you first come to writing?

I started writing when I was around ten years old. I grew up in a house full of books. My parents read all the time and my father wrote his own books about Chinese politics in long hand on yellow legal pads. My mother edited his manuscripts, so I saw her marking up pages. In a way, my parents made a cottage industry of writing.

My brother also influenced me. He’s seven years older and had a huge vocabulary. I read to try to understand what he was saying, and I started writing to try to be like him, too.

Virginia Pye's Grandfather, Watts O. Pye, reading. Photo courtesy of Virginia Pye.

Virginia Pye’s Grandfather, Watts O. Pye, reading. Photo courtesy of Virginia Pye.

This photo of my grandfather reading while out in the desolate Chinese countryside gives a sense of our family’s passion for books. I’m grateful to my family for being people who continued to educate themselves throughout their lives, reading constantly and writing, too.


Come back next Tuesday for Part 2 of the interview and a special, downloadable excerpt from the book. Virginia Pye will talk more with me about writing with imagination, discovering your writer’s voice, and exploring the intersections between writing and teaching.

 To purchase Dreams of the Red Phoenix, click the cover image below.

Cover. Dreams of the Red Phoenix.


12 thoughts on “An Interview with Novelist Virginia Pye Part 1

  1. Though I have never heard the name of this write before, but i have an impulse to purchase her book after reading the interview. I can see her passion for writing and this kind of perseverance from which all of us should learn. The story about the genration of our grandparents are also intriguing and exciting beause we have never lived through that era.

  2. Bravo Professor Ogden, I am so proud to have such a distinguished Professor. The way that you interviewed Virginia Pye, was fascinating. As I read through the interview, I imagined hearing your voice (like the Voice Thread). It was reassuring to see that such a seasoned and established Author, could experience writer’s block, and be apprehensive about having her work edited. The thought of Pye being uneasy having Nancy Zafris critiquing her work, in a weir way, gave me inspiration, if she can become apprehensive from about having her manuscripts revised, who am I to be nervous about the process. I can relate to her saying how she just wants her Novel to be appreciated and succeed. I found the use of the index cards, describing the central action of the scenes in her book a brilliant idea. Professor Ogden, I liked the way that you titled the interview “Intersection of Writing, Teaching, and Identity”. Pye’s desire to illustrate her families experiences in rural China, support the point that “everyone has a unique story to tell”. She is parallel to Nancy Goldberg and the idea of writing freely from your personal experiences, making sure that you vividly express your thought, and describe your personal feelings. Writing freely about something we have an actual connection to, can be enlightening not only to the author, but to the reader as well. Sharing our personal experiences with others, not only gives insight to our identity, it makes for more insightful reading.

  3. I very much enjoyed this interview. Kirsten Ogden asked intuitive questions that I as a reader would want to ask myself, such as how Pye got past the writers block and found the direction of her story. I think it is also interesting how Virginia Pye based her story off the handwritten journals from her grandfather. Pye’s writing technique of flash cards to help propel her story lines is definitely a technique I will be using, thanks. I love handwritten letters, I feel that you can gain much insight through the handwritten notes and letters of others. After reviewing this interview and other works from Virginia Pye I really want to purchase her book. History is a subject that has always piqued my interest and “Red Phoenix” is now next on my book list.

  4. After reading this interview, it makes me want to go and buy her books! I find it amazing how she wrote a book starting from her grandfathers journal. I loved how you can really feel her personality shine through this interview and adding in that photo of her Grandfather was nice. In the interview, she states, “I love the process of concocting stories in my mind while I go about my daily life.” It reminds me of the practice of Natalie Goldberg and how you just write with your feelings and emotions going through your life. Overall, really amazing interview and what an exciting experience to be able to share this time and ask these questions with an amazing author!

  5. I think one of quote is my favorite that we should keep in mind is that “ really enjoy the magical act of writing and I love the process of concocting stories in my mind while I go about my daily life. .” This is a amazing statement. I think the interview was great in that. I think the interview taught us what it is like to be a writer.

  6. The story of “Red Phoenix” is very intriguing for me because I believe my grandparents’ generation have experienced the Japanese invasion in China first hand before they fled to Taiwan. There is similar stories published from Japanese/Taiwanese/Jewish perspectives but this is the first time I see a story from an American’s perspective. And the story is from a female/missionary’s viewpoint also, it must be a good read. I already checked on Amazon and planned buying it.

    Maybe in the interview (or next part), could Dr. Ogden ask Pye about why does she want to write a story about war-time China? How does she keep the details accurate?

  7. I found the interview to be very interesting. I had never heard of author, Virginia Pye before and love being introduced to new authors. I find it fascinating to live in a foreign country as an American, so I will probably look into getting my hands on her books to read over the summer. This interview flowed nicely and felt as though I was listening to it and not reading it. I am looking forward to the next part of the interview. I think the index card idea for making a way through a novel is great and could be applied to a college student’s tasks as well. I do a similar technique with lists. Thanks for sharing this with us.

  8. I enjoy reading this interview for three things I can learn from Pye.

    The first lesson is the surprising technique of “3×5 cards” that I think can be used in any type of work. As I read this part of the interview, I can imagine a bookshelf covered with strings of cards and the feeling of relief every time a card is taken off. This is a great way of visualizing and prioritizing tasks.

    The second lesson is how Pye started with reading. Pye’s words is another evidence for me that reading is the source of writing.

    And the third lesson is about the process of Pye writing her debut novel. When Pye said she struggled with her manuscript for over five years, I know it is a really long time. But I can’t comprehend how much she had set her mind into it over such a long time. It is tremendous. This is the biggest lesson for me.

    Finally, I appreciate Kirsten Ogden’s work to publish this interview. Conversations like this are really a medium for readers to learn what Pye has put in those pages. I’d like to learn about the author of a book as much as about its content.

  9. Gaining an insight into the process that Pye uses for her storytelling was very inspiring. The 3X5 index card technique for her story outline was a simple clever way to stay organized and on topic, and at the same time it allowed her to see the light at the end of the tunnel as she removed each card one by one. This interview gave me a nice perspective into a writer’s process and encourages me to find my own process.

  10. I think one of the most notable quote that we all should keep in mind is that “I really enjoy the magical act of writing.” This is a marvelous statement. I think the interview was amazing in that this is a very motivational speech for a writer. I think the interview was amazing in that it taught us what it is like to be a writer and what it takes to dedicate to write.

  11. I am not one for reading interviews, but I really enjoyed reading this particular interview. Kristen Ogden asked a lot of great questions and got a lot of information and detail about the novel and the process of writing the novel. I also really love how she asked personal questions such as, how Pye got into writing. Ogden seems very knowledgeable about Pyes’ other works such as, River of Dust, and that is what I believe made for such a great interview.

  12. “I really enjoy the magical act of writing and I love the process of concocting stories in my mind while I go about my daily life.”
    This quote from the interview really spoke to me as a reader and writer. For myself I find it easy to think of a simple storyline with the inspiration of art or music. What I find difficult is developing context and imagery details that flow with the theme of the story. Virginia Pye’s dedication, persistence and accomplishments in her writing truly is inspiring and humbling.

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