Monday, May 13, 2013

Virginia Pye talks about Her Indie Next Pick, River of Dust, working on two novels at once, and so much more

Oh yes, this is book tour season for me, but that doesn't mean I don't want to give support and showcase other great writers, and that includes  the great Virginia Pye. Her short stories are award-winning and has been awarded fellowships to the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts and the Acadia Summer Arts Program.  I'm totally honored that she's also become a friend, and I'm thrilled to have her here. Thank you, Virginia.

What sparked the idea for this novel? What was the research like and did anything about it surprise you?
I come to the territory of my novel through my father. He was born and raised in China as the son of missionaries. He then went on to become a prominent political scientist specializing in China and the author over twenty books on Asia. In the house where I grew up, our living room was an elegant shrine of Chinese objects and furniture--a rug decorated with cherry blossoms from Shanxi Province; a small, white Ming vase; and brown-tinged photos of my grandparents and father when we he was still quite small. Each of these objects eventually found their way into River of Dust. The feeling of an exotic country at an earlier time must have seeped into me.
When my parents were aging and needed to move out of their home, I ended up going through my grandfather’s papers. He was one of the first missionaries back in Shanxi Province after the Boxer Rebellion. He helped build roads, schools and a hospital. And he was a Christian zealot. He died when my father was only five and I always felt a mix of pride and shame about him. But as I read the yellowed, onion-skin pages of his journals, I found him to be a sensitive, poetic man who clearly loved and relished the Chinese countryside and peasanty.
His descriptions of the beauty of that unspoiled, desolate landscape somehow mixed in mind with the sensations that the Chinese objects in my parents’ living room had always stirred in me. The atmospheric elements of River of Dust came together: an earlier time, a strange setting, a poisonous zealotry, but also a pure love. Then, as you said, I had to do a little research, but not a lot. Mostly, the China in my novel is one of my own making and impressionistic in nature.
You've taken every mother's most terrible fear--her child being taken--and transformed it into something very new, by having the child kidnapped by Mongol bandits. Set against this backdrop is also the story of Christian missionaries in China. How does one inform the other?
Right from the start of the novel, we see the contrast between the upright, Christian misisonaries and the wild-seeming natives of China. Of course, such characterizations are cliché and, for the story to succeed, it needs to go forward and disprove, or at least explore, those assumptions. Without giving too much away, I wanted to see what would happen if the outward appearances started to crumble. The whole notion of civilized vs. uncivilized falls apart when you look at the larger human motivations of love and revenge.
I love that the novel is populated by ghost and memories. Why do you think the unseen world impacts the seen one so deeply?
I think we live on different levels of consciousness at once. I don’t remember all my dreams, nor do I do a good job of writing them down, but I know that they stay with me during the day and throughout the years. Ghosts, too, can hover around for years. I tend to say that I don’t believe in them, but in my heart-of-hearts I can’t quite believe they don’t exist. Maybe that’s because I have strong ancestors on both sides of my family: people who left their mark and demanded the world’s attention when they were alive. I don’t know what to do with that after their deaths.
My parents have passed away now, but I swear they’re still here. I built a little shrine to them on top of my bookshelf and I glance up there when I walk into my study. I say good morning and occasionally ask their advice. I keep them here with me. And why not? History, and the people who went before us, have so much to teach us. Everything has been figured out before and we’re constantly reinventing the wheel, so why not study the past and keep those ghosts alive. We’re smarter when we allow them to speak to us.
On another note, I recently heard Jeanette Winterson describe what novels can do. She said they can ask questions, not answer them. I thought that was supremely humble, given how wise she is. But it’s a relief that we’re not out to answer life’s conundrums, but instead to listen closely to the hints and currents and lessons that swirl around us, especially from the past. Then, at least, the questions we ask can be more informed.  
What's your writing life like? How has publication changed that life? And how do you write? Do you plan things out like John Irving or do you let the story unfold organically--if there is such a thing!
I find myself writing everyday now and I think I have for sometime. I’m vague about it because I try not to guilt-trip myself if I don’t. But when I’m working on a book, I don’t want to be away from it for long. I take my son to school, meet a good friend for a walk with the dog, and then hit by desk by nine. I write better and more clearly in the morning. I’ve become less persnickety over the years and now write whenever and wherever I can. I think I’m just so grateful to have gained confidence as a writer. I like the process more than ever and feel incredibly lucky to spend my days this way.
Though it’s my debut, River of Dust is actually my sixth novel. Each of the earlier books was written organically and took years to complete. I outlined River of Dust and wrote the first draft in less than a month. That’s unheard, not just for me, but for every writer I’ve ever met. Yet, something magical happened to create this book. I worked with a wonderful editor and writer, Nancy Zafris, and we tore up my previous manuscript and reconceived it as River of Dust. I then went at the new manuscript with a pent-up vigor that I’d never felt before. I was totally possessed and needed to get the story told. I made changes along the way in the original outline. Many things surprised me in the actual telling, but I also had this outline to follow, so I felt well-grounded. I would love to be so lucky again with a future book.
What's obsessing you now and why?
Right now I’m working on two previous novel manuscripts. I go back and forth between them like a bad mother setting up two daughters for a lifetime of rivalry. I can’t quite decide which is the stronger, more beautiful, and more promising one. And then there’s my manuscript of short stories that I tinker with as well. It really might be my favorite.
I read a lot of contemporary fiction. I want to see what other people are obsessing about. I heard Lauren Groff say recently that for every 1,000 books she reads, she writes one. That seems a steep ratio for me, but my study is piled high with novels that I’m either reading or about to read. So, in answer to your question, I’m obsessing on how to keep doing what I’m doing and to do it better. It still feels nearly impossible to write a good book. To write a great book would be…well, worth obsessing over.
What question didn't I ask that I should have?
How about why we write? It can start out as a way to deal with loneliness and alienation when we’re young, and then eventually, it becomes a lifeline to other people and a way to populate our lives with the most interesting folks we ever hoped to know. I had good friends when I was a teenager, but I also relied on books, more than music, to keep me company. I went around with a paperback copy of Denise Levertov’s poetry in my back pocket. This spring I moderated a panel for the Virginia Festival of the Book on literary biography and one of the panelists was Levertov’s biographer. I felt so privileged to share that passion with her. Not to mention all the amazing authors who I’m getting to know through the publication of River of Dust. The more we stick at writing, the less it remains a solitary, lonely pursuit. Instead, with each new project, I feel I’ve joined a guild.
And Caroline, I think it’s high time we crowned you as our Guild Master—our inspiration for diligence, hard work and total fun at what we do. You are masterful at bringing other writers along with you and into each other’s company, and I, for one, am crazy grateful. 

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