The big lies, the bigger truths of SILVER GIRL, the new starred novel by Leslie Pietrzyk

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Let's pretend you want to read one of the most interesting, well-starred books released this very season. One of those, wait, did she really say that, did that really happen, do I really like this character who is lying so much and doing so much wrong and still so very empathetic novels?

Let's pretend you want to know the story behind the story.

Okay, then. We're making this official.

Beth Kephart interviews Leslie Pietrzyk about her new novel, Silver Girl.

Pietrzyk is the author of SILVER GIRL, a new novel set in 1980s Chicago during the time of the Tylenol murders. Her collection of short stories THIS ANGEL ON MY CHEST won the 2015 Drue Heinz Literature Prize, and she has published two previous novels. More information:

Kephart is the award-winning author of 22 books, co-founder of Juncture Workshops, editorial director of the nationally syndicated arts and culture show “Articulate with Jim Cotter,” a lecturer at the University of Pennsylvania, and a frequent reviewer for Chicago Tribune. She recently produced a truth-saturated workbook, TELL THE TRUTH. MAKE IT MATTER.
Don’t look to Leslie Pietrzyk for easy binaries. Don’t think she has easy in her. In 2015 she won the Drue Heinz Literature Prize for This Angel on My Chest —sixteen stories whose subject matter—the early death of a husband—remained fixed while the form, the mood, the accusations, the willingness to confess or not to confess, to blame or to forgive, to tell the truth or to construct the truth remained fluid.

Now, in February 2018, Pietrzyk has published, with Unnamed Press, Silver Girl, a thrillingly voicey novel featuring an unnamed narrator who will do almost anything—monstrous anythings, if you’re measuring by sister and best-friend standards—to cage the monster within. Anything so that she cannot disclose who she actually is and where she actually came from and why she does what she does. She’s at college when we first encounter her—forging a friendship with the girl (this one has a name; her name is Jess) who declares, right up front, love, the word the narrator “longed most to hear.” 

Two best friends: like sisters. Except nobody is a sister but a sister, and both Jess and our storyteller have sisters of their own, complicating matters with implicating stories. Both also have histories with men—and ideas about what a man might be, what a man should and should not be trusted with.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves, and this is starting to sound like a review, and my point is that with sharp-tongued, sharp-edged episodes that defy chronology and disclosure (but offer up out-of-sequence survival tips) Pietrzyk’s narrator yields a careful, messy life. She has to destroy to live, or so she thinks. She has to take to give. She has become systematically unsympathetic until the frozen ice of her skin shatters and we see (and then might choose to love) the actual person that she is.

Crazy, crazy, crazy. The word appears again and again in Silver Girl. As a joke. As a threat. As an amateur diagnosis. The repetition is intentional, controlled, controlling. So are all the lies. “Most about anyone leaves shit out when they’re telling stories and lies their ass off,” a minor but major character says to a slightly younger version of our unnamed. “That’s what a story is, a long, fearless lie unwinding.”

The lesson has been learned. The story has been made.

I met Pietrzyk years ago at Bread Loaf , where I was writing truth and she was writing fiction. I’m still pondering truth and she’s still bending it, and so I had some questions for her about the slippery slide that fuels this most propulsive book.

Silver Girl is a deck of cards shuffled thrice. We have, in this order, a Prologue, The Middle, The Beginning. The End. Where Every Story Truly Begins. We have, additionally, time stamps, that come at the reader like this: fall, freshman year; fall, junior year; winter, freshman year; winter, before college, and so on. Finally, we have survival tips—numbered (for our narrator is a list maker) but presented out of order. The question is: What calculations did you make as you were sequencing this story on the page? How do the jumbled times and themes comment on truth, memory, and trauma?

This is the only novel I’ve written out of order. Early on, I simply wrote about these two girls, exploring the prickles of their relationship and wandering through their lives by writing randomly to one-word prompts. (I belong to a monthly prompt writing group.) I was no hurry for the bigger story of the plot to arrive…until, suddenly, I was totally in a hurry to hone in on the plot, feeling paralyzed by so much freedom (and so many pages of hand-written material I was certain would burn in a fire or be lost in a flood). What was my actual story? All along, I’d known three things: college girls, Chicago, and the Tylenol murders. So I leaned into what had been revealed in the prompt writing to discover the events of the story and to make meaning of those events.

So that’s the structural answer. But more so, I think exploring one’s life from a distance—as this narrator is doing—likely requires a sideways approach, re-envisioning memories with a clearer, colder eye. And that means all the memories, ALL of them. That’s painful work. The narrator’s revelations on the page needed to mirror that difficult untangling, a sense of spinning through time, literally being unable to tease out which was that first bad turn. I often focus on characters longing to make sense of something awful from a later, safer space, and in each of my books, time is a character of sorts, the way other books might use weather as a character or the landscape. One of my first writerly decisions is how much time will pass in the story I’m about to tell. I ordered and reordered this book a hair-pulling amount of times.

What about this word, crazy? What about the casual fling of “inappropriate” observations about religion, sexuality, race? What about a narrator who can say “I didn’t want to be evil, but I was.” What about the freedom you gave yourself to occupy this narrator’s head without censure? What happens to a novel when the novelist chooses to play by nobody’s rules?

From the beginning, I felt immense compassion for this troubled and troubling girl. She sees herself as fighting the best she can to fit into a world she doesn’t understand (though she imagines she does). Her immense desire to escape made me view her as someone uninterested in the usual rules and best practices. I also pondered the way literature’s males and females have traditionally escaped, or, the “jump on a raft and head downriver” novel vs. the “marriage plot” novel. Honestly, I wanted this girl to escape like a boy. Once I understood that about her, I knew she was going for broke and that I’d let her. It WAS liberating. I could never in a thousand years be so bold. Channeling her determination and desperation set free the novel (and the novelist).

Since we’re at it, you have never played by any rules. How did you learn that you didn’t have to?

Ha! Growing up as a good girl of the Midwest, I’m pretty sure I followed every rule there was. In my ordinary life I’m fairly rule-bound (always on time, standing behind the yellow line, etc.). This Flaubert quotation was pinned on my bulletin board to make me feel better about being so hopelessly Midwestern: “Be regular and orderly in your life, so that you may be violent and original in your work.” But it was around the time that I started working on THIS ANGEL ON MY CHEST, stories about the too-soon death of my first husband, that I started thinking about the “rules” of the writing life: the way New York publishing works vs. the way art is created. My motivating principle became something along the lines of, If I were guaranteed of getting one last book published, what story would I want to tell? (To be clear, I had no guarantee from anyone!) That focus offered clarity and a powerful internal sense of, let’s stop wasting time here. Amazing how easy it can be to shed rules when you see how much time they waste.

“I loved her in a fierce and confused way, like a sister,” the narrator tells us. “I loved Jess for saving me from who I was.” What is a sister? What is a best friend? What is sympathy, and what is empathy, and what is their role in this novel?

These are questions I struggle with, which is why this story grabbed me. I have one sister, younger, and while we’re very different personalities, there’s a core of similarity between us. I wanted the narrator to have this ace, a little sister who’s under-valued at the moment, as family often may be when we’re young. I confess that for me, the best friend is tricky. I have beloved female friends, but not the one and only, the true-blue, the “spill all the secrets to” best friend, unwavering from grade school to death. My past experience has led me to be wary of the “best friend” relationship, which I lament. Isn’t that what we all want, one person who knows and loves us for who we truly are? Is it even logical to expect such a thing? To me, it’s such a miracle when it happens, and that’s the push and pull between Jess and the narrator. They’re living in this miraculous—and fragile—space.

I have sympathy and empathy for each character in this book, for all my characters; I doubt I could write effectively if I didn’t understand who these people are and where they’re coming from. One of my favorite observations about writing—and life—is that no one thinks they’re the villain. It was important to me to expose at least one moment of vulnerability for every character in the book, even those I wanted to despise.

In the novel, I longed to explore this tangle, where our loyalties lie ultimately, what family can do and be that friends can’t, and, at its core, pondering what might be left if there is no family. The popular idea of family as savior is troublesome for those who grew up in a toxic situation or for those whose family members have died or headed for the hills. Maybe they won’t take you in when you show up. Saying we can simply “choose” our own family, as advice columns often do, feels simplistic to me. My narrator wants to connect, with no clear path to do so. How can the heart not ache at such a simple desire?

What makes shame such a fascinating story—to you, to us?

Shame takes us to our most vulnerable space, and when we’re utterly vulnerable, we’re likely either to reveal our deepest selves or to lash out in fear. Or both. That’s what I see this narrator doing. One of my favorite exercises in a writing class is to ask everyone to think about the events from their lives that are the most horrifying to them, the most shameful, the stories that scare them, and to write a list no one will see. “That’s what you should be writing about,” I say. There’s a moment of pure silence where I feel them knowing I’m right.

“I took a deep breath, feeling that superior look settle onto my face, that careful, untouchable composition the only weapon I had, the only weapon I ever had, that mask of utter boredom and vast superiority,” the narrator says, and already, at this point, we understand the source of her badness, the degree of her shame, the events from which she herself could not escape. You have written a blaze of a novel about a seemingly unsympathetic character, and yet I sense that you loved her deeply. Tell us more. Tell us why.

Absolutely: I do love her deeply. She’s the first character I’ve missed writing about after finishing the book. (I even cheated on my current novel-in-progress to write flash fiction about her!) I was pulling for her as I wrote, even as writer-me loaded her with increasingly worrisome plot turns. Like her, I showed up at college utterly ill-equipped, and I worked my ass off trying to catch on to my new environment. I wasn’t the first in my family to go to college, but both of my parents had been, and because no one had explained anything to them, not much was explained to me. Now I understand that most people feel unsteady at the beginning of any vast, new venture, but back then I was certain I was the only one. That vulnerability, that deep desire, that fear of being revealed as a fraud…I just wanted to hug this girl. She does a lot of bad things, but I’m pretty sure we all do.

More and more (and then some) the stories that are emerging—on the big screens and little screens, in the memoirs and the essays, in the novels—center around defiantly irredeemable characters who either ultimately do redeem themselves or don’t bother to (or can’t). Why have we come to this? Why are we thrilled by this? Have we lost our capacity for, or interest in, the authentic quest for truth?

I’m a fan of several T.V shows featuring complicated, bold antiheroes—The Sopranos, Breaking Bad, Mad Men—the shows that arguably started the movement. Or did they? I know now that for obvious reasons GONE WITH THE WIND is not a good role model of a book (or movie), but as I grew up in Iowa, its antihero, the conniving and crafty Scarlett O’Hara, influenced me tremendously. Intellectually, I got that I shouldn’t want to emulate her; after all, sweet Melanie possessed Scarlett’s same iron-core strength and resilience. Still, it was Scarlett inhabiting my imagination, scaring me with the rawness of her desires (which were thrillingly selfish). I’d like to see more portrayals of women that show us as the complicated, challenging, flawed people we are, filled with rage and desire…not just “moms” and objects of the male gaze. That’s an authentic quest for truth I can get behind.

Or, maybe this is our authentic quest for truth, antiheroes worming behind the fa├žade of the life-is-good, happily-ever-after bullshit, returning to the original Grimm brothers’ fairy tales, where at the wedding, Snow White’s evil stepmother is forced to dance to her death wearing red-hot iron shoes. We have to know in our hearts that life is not ONLY good, so let’s say so and stare into that dark abyss. Or—maybe the thrill of irredeemable evil is the only authentic truth we can accept during these coarse times. OR—maybe during these coarse times, this darkness is what passes as authentic truth. These are the questions that keep me writing.


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