Sunday, November 25, 2018

TBR: Virginia Pye, The Shelf Life of Happiness

TBR [to be read] is a semi-regular, invitation-only interview series with authors of newly released/forthcoming, interesting books who will tell us about their new work as well as offer tips on writing, stories about the publishing biz, and, from time to time, a recipe! 

Give us your elevator pitch: what’s your book about in 2-3 sentences?

My characters long for that most elusive of states: happiness. One reviewer called these stories bittersweet, and I agree they combine heartbreak and joy in equal measure. A young skateboarder reaches across an awesome gap, both physical and emotional, to reconnect with his disapproving father. An elderly painter executes one final, violent gesture to memorialize his work. A newly married writer battles the urge to implode his happy marriage. And a confused young man desires his best friend’s bride and, in failing to have her, finally learns to love. In each story, my characters aim to be better people—and some even reap the sweet reward of happiness. 

Which character did you most enjoy creating? Why? And, which character gave you the most trouble, and why?

I most enjoyed writing the old artist character, William Dunster, in the story White Dog, because he’s cantankerous and befuddled and more than a little bit drunk, yet also wise. He observes the other characters and the manicured setting in the Connecticut countryside with an air of detachment, seeing through the gallery owner’s vanity and his wife’s unhappiness. Basically, Dunster can’t turn off his bullshit detector, so he’s thinking what we all might be thinking if we allowed ourselves. Plus he’s especially smart about art. What matters most to him is “the ongoing lover’s quarrel with the work.” A part of me feels that way, too.

Tell us a bit about the highs and lows of your book’s road to publication.

This book has a lot of good karma behind it, or maybe a better word is kismet. It was runner up for the Press 53 short story collection prize twice and Kevin Watson, the publisher and editor, wrote to me soon after the second time to say they should publish the collection. But for some reason I never got that email. About six months later, I wrote to him to suggest the same thing. And later, I was delighted to have one of my closest friends create the beautiful cover. We’ve also gotten the most moving responses from writers who I admire enormously. The whole thing feels like a happy labor of love.  

What’s your favorite piece of writing advice?

Write. That’s about it. Just sit down and do it. The process will teach you things that no one and nothing else can. Trust that you’ll improve with practice. Assume you’ll write many things, so don’t get too attached to one. But mostly, just write.

My favorite writing advice is “write until something surprises you.” What surprised you in the writing of this book?

I wrote these stories over a ten-year span, and while I sensed they had something in common, it wasn’t until I started to pull them into a collection that I discovered the theme of happiness—or the theme of the search for happiness. I realized that each story, in its own way, was about that striving, that universal longing.

How did you find the title of your book?

Strangely enough, the title was originally from a story that didn’t make it into this collection. I had written a short short set in a grocery store, where a woman is on the phone with her brother, who is at the hospital with their dying mother. The woman wants to escape the sadness of losing her mother by noticing simple things like the brightly lit fruit, but instead, all she can see is how everything is tainted with sorrow and decay. She thinks about the literal shelf life of grocery items, and the phrase shelf life of happiness crosses her mind.

Fast forward to when I put together this collection and I realized that story, while one of my favorites, didn’t fit because it was told in the first person and all the others were longer stories in third person. But I realized that the idea of a shelf life of happiness fit with many of the stories. It struck me that an altogether different character named Gloria Broadhurst, who is a bit of a grand dame, might actually say that phrase aloud, because she’s clever and wrestles unabashedly with her own unhappiness. Gloria would feel comfortable making a pronouncement using that phrase. So I plugged it into that story and then changed the title of that story to Shelf Life of Happiness.

This helps to illustrate my earlier writing advice: assume you’ll write a lot and it’s all yours to mess with, tear apart and build back up, ruin and perfect, and enjoy!

Inquiring foodies and hungry book clubs want to know: Any food/s associated with your book?

You’ve stumped me on this one. I never noticed that my stories are so lacking in food! Off the page, I love Italian dishes (and was just there again this summer and had some amazing meals), and Moroccan, and French, and Indian; you name it, I like it! But in my stories, my characters clearly need to eat more.

I see that only one character has a food recollection: the mother in Her Mother’s Garden shares a distant memory of a meal she had on a cliff-side restaurant in Greece. She’s never mentioned it to her daughter before, which only makes the daughter feel more desperate about holding onto her mother before it’s too late. So food, in this case, shows how private pleasures are often kept hidden, even from those we love, and how the longing for happiness and connection can attach itself to even the most pleasant of reflections.





DC-area author Leslie Pietrzyk explores the creative process and all things literary.