An Interview with Virginia Pye, Author of Shelf Life of Happiness

We at Dead Darlings are thrilled to share author Jodi Paloni’s interview with Virginia Pye about her forthcoming short story collection, Shelf Life of Happiness, which  Kirkus Reviews called “…a deeply moving meditation on the complexity and potential generosity of love.”

Virginia is also the author of two award-winning novels, Dreams of the Red Phoenix and River of Dust. Her stories, essays, and interviews have appeared in The North American ReviewThe Baltimore ReviewLiterary HubThe New York TimesThe RumpusHuffington Post and elsewhere.We hope you can join Virginia for the book launch for Shelf Life of Happiness at Porter Square Books on Tuesday October 23, 2018 at 7PM.

 

Jodi: Virginia, I’m so excited about Shelf Life of Happiness. I got into bed early on the longest day of the year planning to read a story or two, and before I knew it, I finished the book. It was some time in the middle of the night, my husband snoring heavily beside me, that I was struck by the breadth and depth, the range of motion, in your collection—time and place, seasons and weather, character and tone and point of view, relevant content—while at the same time, I felt as though a steady beat was being struck throughout. After I thought about it some more, here’s where I landed: While reading about the tumultuous and often disturbing lives of your characters, I actually felt quite grounded. I think it has to do with how you deal with place as a mirror, the great pause in the fever pitch of a character’s trajectory, and also, how compassionate you are towards your characters. But more on that later. Let’s begin with place.

While there isn’t one setting in which all of the stories take place, I still think of the book as a place-based collection of a certain fashion. For the most part, your characters are highly aware of their surroundings. In fact, character awareness of the setting is often the moment in the story when what’s outside of the character becomes the mirror that enables him or her to finally “see.” So, interior landscape interacts with exterior landscape in a very lovely way again and again. I wonder if you could talk about your choices around your use of place in story.

Virginia: Thanks for those kind words about the collection. I’m so happy that it kept you up late! And I like your suggestion that place is a strong element in the stories.

The lead story, Best Man, begins with the sentence: “Snow fell hard up in Reno.” So both place and weather are established right away. The overheated interior of the car as it drives through the snow provides a contrast born out as the story continues: heat and blood and life in opposition to cold and snow and death.

At one point the main character stands in the middle of the street during the snowstorm and looks up at a stoplight as it changes from red to green and back again, though no cars are within sight at the deserted intersection. The futility of that stoplight doing its job with no one around mirrors the character’s feelings. He’s lost and helpless in the face of his friend’s illness and his own misspent love.

And in other stories, too, place and the natural elements reflect interior landscapes. In Father Demo Square in the West Village of Manhattan on a stark, chilly morning, a young man sees his surroundings with exquisite clarity because he knows he’ll soon be leaving it behind. Or on the back patio of a wealthy home in the Connecticut countryside as a misty dusk rolls in, an elderly artist senses he’s reached the end of his career. Or the Roman Forum on a blisteringly hot summer day when a wife and mother senses romantic passion all around her, propelling her to face what she’s been missing for too long. I guess in a way, these characters become one with their settings.

Jodi: Yes. Those are wonderful examples of some of the moments that really stood out to me, how characters are observant, reflective, even mindful, and maybe that should go without saying when speaking about short stories, but it’s not an easy feat to show that level of interiority while the dramatic plot moves right along. More often than not, I find that stories lean one way or another.

I think what adds to that balance you strike is how your characters tend to interact with the physicality of their surroundings in highly visceral ways. You mentioned the passion at the Roman Forum. I remember feeling so much tension in the sensuality of the scene in which Sara, wife and mother, watches an embrace between two lovers where the man’s hand “disappears into the fabric between [the young woman’s] legs.” Before this, Sara noticed “the sunlight in the folds of her summer dress,” but then worries that the young woman’s dress “will be wrinkled.” Moments later, Sara “rubs the toe of her sandal against the back of her leg, warm from the sun and firm.” She flows in and out of head and body, as if she has to teach herself not only how to feel certain sensations again, but to convince herself that it’s okay.

I like how you slow that scene way down, leading us along paths and into secret places along with the lovers followed by their spy. While I was both fraught with worry at the possibility that Sara’s peeping would be discovered and even more anxious by what she was willing to risk of her children as she delved more deeply into the voyeurism, at the same time, I experienced how the graver danger was in what Sara was discovering in herself, and the ramifications of that discovery. That you allow Sara to take the path of that discovery is what I mean when I talk about how you have compassion for your characters. Does that make sense?

Virginia: I think you’re right that compassion is the human quality that makes us want to understand what motivates others—both in fiction and in life. Empathy fuels curiosity. It helps us seek out common ground with people entirely unlike ourselves.

And, as you suggest, I’m definitely not only concerned with what goes on in my characters’ minds, but in how they act. It’s important to me that action pushes them to new understandings: a conflict or a challenge brings them to a striking moment of self-revelation. The plot in my stories creates consequences in the characters’ hearts and minds.

Perhaps my stories are old fashioned in that way. Joy Williams wrote, “The work of the story is to keep the story from becoming what it is about.” My stories aren’t ambiguous in that way, though they can play with the idea of ambiguity. Some of my characters think they know what’s going on when clearly they don’t. But the reader is able to discern what’s going on. The arc of story itself isn’t ambiguous.

The compassion you suggested I feel towards my characters may be because I don’t leave them stranded. Their plights, while not always good, are at least known. I guess you could say there are principles at work in my stories. Destinies play out. Stuff happens, tallies are taken; hearts are broken, or reborn.

Jodi: I like how you say, “hearts are broken, or reborn.” It brings me to one of my favorite stories in your book, “An Awesome Gap.” Whew! I love a good coming of age narrative. This story really embodies that time of life, literally, as in your character Patrick is so in his body, and as such, so am I, your reader.

First you let me experience being inside the character as he skates, “the soft roar of his wheels, the clack and rattle and bang of the other boards,” you let me sense the cold “breeze off the river” against the sweat on his neck. Because of that, I could then easily feel the anticipation of Patrick’s attempt at his feat, his flight, as well as, the burn of flesh skidding against asphalt.

For Patrick to want something so badly that is also so physically demanding and to be met with an emotional obstacle (the resistance from his father) far greater than the feat itself, well, I think that level of emotional stakes were served well by the sensorial details within the course of the dramatic action. Patrick, by squarely facing his physical challenges, is shored to face his emotional ones. Again, in bringing Patrick (and your readers) straight to that edge, you serve him (and us) well. You nailed the teenage boy point of view, and skateboarding, and the father-son dynamic, too, at least how I imagine it. What was the impetus for writing Patrick’s story, I wonder?

Virginia: Well, truth be told, my son is a serious skateboarder, starting when he was six years old and now sponsored by several companies. He’s dedicated and skates everyday, weather permitting, and it’s his life and his universe of friends and acquaintances. As parents, my husband and I had some adjusting to do to accept that—but it happened gradually over many years. I think you have to recognize another person’s passion, whatever it may be, and you have to respect that. It may not be anything you’d be drawn to doing yourself, but the comparison between, say, me sitting down at my desk to write every day and my son skating day in and day out is pretty obvious.

This is where the idea of empathy comes in again—and curiosity. I’m curious about a young skateboarder’s commitment to his craft and the world of skating that he wants so much to be a part of. So I had to write about it, though truthfully, I know very little about it.

Jodi: From the closeness I felt in this piece, I guessed you had some personal connection to the stakes, which may be true of all your work; I hesitate to presume, but your curiosity certainly came through. I’ll never look at a skater again without thinking of the struggle, how someone’s sheer delight may be somewhat thwarted by it causing possible distress to another, as in a child’s passion causing a parent to fret, which brings me to theme of happiness in your book.

Of course, I love the title of your collection, which, although it’s also the title for the final story in collection, it seems to me to represent the entirety of the book. The expression “shelf life of happiness” comes from the dialogue between four characters discussing the idea of happiness in marriage, but the stories read together as a whole deal with issues of happiness in all aspects of relationship—romantic, plutonic, familial—but more, to me, as we’ve mentioned, these stories are about the conscious relationship characters have with the self. It’s as if every character understands at some level that there is a shelf life to his or her happiness, and that also the expiration date could be re-issued moving forward. So, there’s plenty of hope amidst the despair. Could you speak to the idea of how your characters often reach the point of self-compassion, or at least come to a place of self-acceptance? It’s very refreshing. Was there deliberateness to this?

Virginia: I suppose you’re putting your finger on how I view life: there’s plenty of despair—the expiration date for us all is none negotiable—but the way we strive to be our better selves even in the face of that is what makes us fully human. I couldn’t write something that is simply despairing, because I have a lot faith that we try our best to be decent to ourselves and to others.

I realize this is a tough moment to be standing by that conviction, but I remain convinced that people are good. My stories necessarily reflect that. I tend towards wearing rosy-colored glasses, but I also am keenly aware that I’m wearing them! In other words, my characters often realize over the course of a story that their perceptions have been wrong—but I think that’s one aspect of being human. We can continually correct ourselves and need to assume we make mistakes in our understandings of others. The self-compassion comes from knowing we get so much wrong and yet must continue to try.

Jodi: Again, refreshing. But perhaps my descriptor falls short next to the notion of necessity. One of the most memorable stories in the collection for me, the one that haunts, is “New Year’s Day.” If we’re talking about compassion, that’s the story that, for me, stretches farthest out to the greater reaches of community (and nation) at large.

The arc of the story reflects what you say you hope to do in your work and in life. In “New Year’s Day,” off-stage, there’s an act of supreme violence in an unsuspecting neighborhood, followed by what we see on-stage, an expression of an extreme fear in the protagonist, Jessica, of her almost reflexive judgment against one of the victims and an innocent bystander, and the eventual articulation of that judgment causing additional pain to the already pained.

When later in the story, the protagonist sees her behavior through the lens of a character in a play, Jessica’s epiphany comes to her first as unwelcome. Yet she persists in teasing out her responses until she is satisfied thusly: “Because even though there was indeed a hell, Jessica felt certain of that, there was also a heaven, and here on earth we strained toward it every day, each in our way.” Then “…she looked around at the subway platform with new eyes.” Again, an example of how you use of exterior to reflect her interior. “So many things were remarkable or terrible or both.”

“New Year’s Day” reminded me very much of the short stories by Elizabeth Strout, who is one of my favorite contemporary authors. I admire how she can take the mundane lives of ordinary, often rural, people and infuse a sudden tragedy of extreme but realistic proportions, and then show us how the protagonist makes sense of it in his or her effort to keep on going, to keep trusting in the good. The key to me is that she’s unflinching in bringing forward the challenging issues of our time.

Earlier you mentioned that we are in “a tough moment” regarding decency. Would you be willing to speak more about how your writing habits and/or chosen content may be changing along with a heightened national awareness of fracture and incivility, the gaps in poverty and privilege, and the on-going struggle against mental illness and addiction, hate and violence?

Virginia: Thanks for that lovely comparison. I love the stories of Elizabeth Strout. She writes with great restraint, but also great heart, which is a hard balance to strike.

I feel blind-sided everyday, practically every hour, by the terrible news. I’m a deer in headlights now, though self-aware enough to understand that that is exactly where the opposition wants me to be. Because feeling stunned creates inaction. And inaction lets the chaos continue.

The feelings of being inadequate in the face of treachery and hypocrisy and even evil are common in my stories as well. Often in them, and also especially in my two novels, good-hearted, well-meaning, often myopic characters are faced with some disaster that insists they wake up and take action, or at least become aware of their own blindness.

The woman you mention in New Year’s Day literally sees things clearly for the first time because of the tragedy she is forced to understand. In Her Mother’s Garden, the main character is forced to literally leave the garden (a.k.a. her private Eden) and finally start her own life.

The veil drops from the eyes, both in my stories and, I suppose, these days in my life. Like everyone else, I’m trying to take stock of just what’s going on—the level to which greed and power have corrupted our country. My stories have dealt with milder versions of such problems, but now is a time when life is far more dramatic and unbelievable than fiction.

Jodi: So true, isn’t it? I think it’s difficult not to be influenced by the news of the day these days, in our daily lives and how it affects our work in “waking up” as writers. But as you say, you’ve been making conscious choices about this in your work all along. My final question for you then is this: What are you working on now?

Virginia: In the context of these last few questions, my answer to what I’m working on may sound like I’m trying to escape through writing, which is somewhat true. But I’m hoping that my current project, while set in an earlier era, will shed light on the issues of today. I’m writing a novel set in the late 1800s in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where I live now and also grew up. It’s about a women author of romance and adventure dime novels in the stodgy, literary world of Boston. Among other things, she ends up suing her publisher for underpaying her, although her successful novels help keep in print the much-respected men of letters of her day. It’s a feminist tale, a story about art and life, and the journey of a woman coming into her own intellectually. Plus, it’s a romance, so plenty of fun to write and, hopefully, to read.

Virginia Pye is the author of two award-winning novels, Dreams of the Red Phoenix and River of Dust, and the forthcoming short story collection, Shelf Life of Happiness. Her stories, essays, and interviews have appeared in The North American ReviewThe Baltimore ReviewLiterary HubThe New York TimesThe RumpusHuffington Post and elsewhere. She lived in Richmond, Virginia for many years and now lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Find her online at Virginia Pye, FB, Twitter, and Instagram.

Jodi Paloni is the author of the short story collection, They Could Live With Themselves (Press 53), a runner-up in the Press 53 Award for Short Fiction, a 2017 IPPY Silver Medalist, and finalist for the 2017 Maine Book Award. Her story “Deep End” won the Short Story America Prize. Jodi has an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts. Her stories have been published in a number of literary journals found on-line and in print. She lives on the coast of Maine. For more information: Jodi Paloni

1 comment

  1. Thank you for sharing Virginia’s new story collection. interview was informative and instructive. I love to get into the mind of the short-story writer. Using place as a reflection of a character’s interiority is something I’m working on.

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