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.
Editor’s note: Why, yes, I’m interviewing myself for my own blog interview series! Seems about right when I’m the all-powerful editor here and the author of a book of short stories that examines power….
Give us your elevator pitch: what’s your book about in 2-3 sentences?
ADMIT THIS TO NO ONE is a collection of linked-ish short stories set in official DC. Recurring characters include (an imagined) Speaker of the House, his two daughters from various marriages, and Mary-Grace, his personal fixer. Family estrangement, race, gender, abortion…nothing is off the table as these characters grapple with the ways the pursuit of power ripples and informs personal, work, and societal relationships. Can anyone emerge unscathed?
Which character did you most enjoy creating? Why? And which character gave you the most trouble, and why?
I love all my characters, especially because they’re each uniquely complicated and uniquely flawed and maybe a tiny bit annoying from time to time, just like the people I know in real life, just like I am in real life. Maybe my favorite to work with was Mary-Grace, the all-powerful, all-knowing fixer in the Speaker’s life (also known as the She-Beast). It was fun to contemplate someone who is so skilled yet content to remain in the shadows. She showed me the value of hiding one’s power and reminded me that yielding is sometimes the more powerful move.
The Speaker was tough to write. I didn’t want him to be a cardboard villain, and I didn’t want him to be what readers think of when they think “politician.” Nor did I want him to be some sort of idealistic hero. All that, and then I couldn’t find my way into first person POV with him, which meant I had to push myself to use third person, the POV that I find the most challenging to write.
Tell us a bit about the highs and lows of your book’s road to publication.
I don’t exactly have highs and lows with this book, but I do have a journey. First, some of these stories come from a failed political novel that I started working on in early 2015. I could never quite get to a plot, but I wasn’t overly worried because I loved the characters and the milieu. Then—you guessed it—Trump was elected, and in the spring of 2016, I realized that I didn’t want to be immersed in fictional politics (and I wondered whether readers would want to be either). What a relief when I decided to shelve this book, though I salvaged parts for short stories, one of which won a Pushcart Prize, giving me a boost of confidence.
Fast forward to late 2019.
I thought I had a book of random short stories—some published, some not; some from the failed political novel, some not—that I could enter in contests. Contractually, I was required to show the next book to my SILVER GIRL editor at Unnamed Press…who saw that the stories were linked more closely than I’d envisioned. I was intrigued. We were at the precipice of hammering out a contract and talking more about a vision when—you guessed it—the pandemic struck. As you’ll recall, that wasn’t really the time to be putting together book deals! Needing to surround myself with comfort, I decided to pull together some half-written pieces about some of these characters and themes and finish them, writing toward an evolving vision of how this book could coalesce into something more than a book of “random short stories.” In the fall of 2020, I reconvened with my editor, who was ready to talk about a future and ready to read what I’d done over the past months. She was excited about the direction the book was taking, and in the fall and winter of 2020-1, I wrote more stories, filling in the gaps…my book emerging as the vaccines were inching closer to general availability. Feels weird to say this, but the isolation and slowed-down life of the pandemic definitely helped me find the focus for this book, and working on this book definitely helped me cope with the pandemic.
What’s your favorite piece of writing advice?
You’ll see it below when I play interviewER, so instead I’ll offer one of the most concrete, useful bits of writing advice I’ve picked up along the way, about writing dialogue: when revising, always try taking off the first few words of each line of dialogue you’ve drafted. The result usually is tighter and truer to life.
My favorite writing advice is “write until something surprises you.” What surprised you in the writing of this book?
The last story, “Every Man in History,” surprised me with its hopeful note. I had in mind a whole involved plot with a bunch of difficult twists and turns and hidden (likely pompous) commentary about various social ills, but in the end, Madison, one of the Speaker’s daughters, demanded a better outcome for herself and, really, for the reader and the collection. I’ve never in my life been a writer to say that characters “take over,” but in this case I remember thinking as I typed out the draft of a scene, “Wait, what? This is the ending? Could this really be the ending? OMG…this IS the ending.” I do feel that Madison found this surprising yet inevitable perfect ending for me (though she was nowhere to be found when I spent an entire afternoon wrestling with the last paragraphs, eventually adding two words that finally clicked everything into place).
How do you approach revision?
I love revision, which is good, since this book required a lot of it—yes, even though many of these stories had been published already. I had to revise stories that I considered finished, needing them to capture the tone of the overall book and link in with the vibe of people working in “official DC”; it was hard re-entering a world I thought was complete. I also had to revise because various technologies and/or events and/or references were outdated or because some new and horrible thing happened that I wanted to acknowledge or because wily teenagers and their interests shift by the minute, affecting the POV and voice of a story. The structure of “Kill the Fatted Calf” almost killed me, trying to organize a non-linear, impressionistic story that contained the core of Lexie’s relationship with her father. Most of all, and most importantly, I did a lot of revising and hard thinking and listening because I wanted to get right the stories that involve race.
Inquiring foodies and hungry book clubs want to know: Any food/s associated with your book? (Any recipes I might share?)
This is my absolute favorite question on this list that I myself created, so it’s going to haunt me that though there’s plenty o’ food in this book—tuna tartare, overcooked fish, crab cakes, arena popcorn, an orange, a secret to frying chicken (that I’ve not yet tested), bagels, doughnuts, beef jerky, Talenti, shrimp, lobster at The Palm, Triscuits, martinis—there are no truly notable meals. In my real life world, good food is the highest currency, but these characters have a different agenda. Everyone here is on the run with no time to focus on cooking, which I hadn’t noticed until now. I suppose that’s how it’s going to be in a book that’s exploring power dynamics. In contrast, here’s a very humble recipe that I must admit comes from a surprising source:
(scroll to the bottom to learn how to make “Boys Town Chicken”)
READ MORE ABOUT THIS AUTHOR: www.lesliepietrzyk.com
READ MORE ABOUT THIS PUBLISHER: https://www.lesliepietrzyk.com/books/admit-this-to-no-one/
BUY THIS BOOK FOR YOUR OWN TBR STACK: I’m not going to get worked up if you prefer the ease of ordering via Amazon, but if you’d like to support independent bookstores, try your favorite or Bookshop— https://bookshop.org/books/admit-this-to-no-one-collected-stories/9781951213411 -- or if you’d like to support small presses, order from Unnamed Press here— https://www.unnamedpress.com/books/book?title=Admit+This+to+No+One
READ A STORY, “Hat Trick”: https://www.storymagazine.org/hat-trick/