By Amana Katora
Virginia Pye’s debut novel, River of Dust, was released in May 2013 through Unbridled Books and continues to gain recognition and praise. But Virginia has a long history in writing. She’s won awards for her short fiction, holds an MFA from Sarah Lawrence, has taught writing at New York University and the University of Pennsylvania, and is a three term past chair of James River Writers in Richmond. River of Dust, a historical fiction, is set in Northwestern China in 1910 and follows the characters of Reverend Watson and his wife, Grace, missionaries who must face harsh realities and their darkest fears. I had the chance to talk to Virginia about her novel and her craft.
Amana Katora: Since River of Dust is partly inspired by your grandfather’s journals and the history of your father’s family, could you talk a little about some of the challenges and benefits associated with creating a historical fiction that had these primary documents and first hand experiences available for you to work with? Did you ever worry you were too close to the material?
Virginia Pye: You’ve pinpointed a major potential pitfall when writing fiction based on family stories. When I started working on a novel set in China, where my grandparents and father had lived, I went through many, many drafts. I found myself trying to tell our family tale in a straightforward, lockstep way: it fascinated me, why shouldn’t it fascinate a reader? As much as I loved the material, however, I hadn’t made a true creative leap in my storytelling. In order to make it come to life, I had to abandon the idea of retelling what actually happened. Instead, I had to force myself to allow my imagination to take hold and invent an entirely new tale that only superficially resembles my family’s story. Perhaps other people can bring their own family’s precise story to life, but I found that I needed to use my family’s story as a jumping off point and then, ultimately, discard it and create my own.
AK: Paul Harding discussed his use of language in Tinkers as a deliberate choice to allow the story a timeless quality—letting readers today and twenty years in the future the opportunity to engage with the text in a similar way. I see River of Dust doing this, too. What kind of choices did you have to make with the language of the narrative and/or how your characters (both American and Chinese) spoke?
VP: Thank you for that kind comparison to Paul Harding’s Tinkers. I admire his book enormously. I also learned from Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead and Home. These works aim for that timelessness of language. I was also influenced by the Victorian language of my grandfather’s journals. He was an eloquent writer, and I enjoyed his metaphoric and poetic language. When I sat down to write River of Dust, I naturally mimicked his old fashioned tone as a way to create a sense of an earlier place and time.
I had to make some careful choices about how to represent the Chinese characters and their use of language. I didn’t want them to sound like caricatures in their use of pidgin English. Still, there are particular speech patterns used by Asian people when they pick up English. I tried to show that in moderation and, whenever they spoke to each other in their native tongue, I wanted their voices to be distinctly fluent and precise.
AK: A lot of the themes in River of Dust are speaking to each other in what feels like very organic, natural ways. I can’t imagine a writer would sit down and think, “I’m going to write a story about identity, faith, the starvation/sickness of body and soul and make all of these things fit together.” But I also imagine a writer can sense when these threads begin to appear. Could you talk about when you started to notice the connections your story was making and, perhaps, how you knew some of them might have been important to follow through on, while some, perhaps, weren’t?
VP: These ideas grow organically, and it’s difficult to fully articulate how. An idea starts to assert itself and I let it. Then I sense it simmering on a back burner, waiting for another moment to reassert itself. I’m not exactly sure how I make decisions about when to allow it to and when not, but I do know that making that type of decision is one of my favorite parts of writing. I’m not analytical as I do this, but follow intuition, which is based on having read a lot and sensing what works and what doesn’t. When it doesn’t work, the theme is overdone, or too spelled out. Themes need to blend in with their surroundings; otherwise readers become annoyed with the author for trying to cram ideas down their throats.
AK: This might be an unfair question to ask, but do you have any regrets when it comes to River of Dust? Anything you wish you had done differently or known earlier? Maybe lessons learned?
VP: I think I could keep tinkering with it forever, because that’s what I do with manuscripts. It’s probably a good thing that my editor wrenched it from my hands after only a few drafts. There are one or two typos in the book, but those will be fixed in the paperback edition which is coming out in the spring of 2014. But, to consider your question a bit more deeply, I think I’d have to talk about changes I might have made to the plot which I don’t want to do because some people might not have read it yet. Suffice it to say, I’m pleased and intend to leave River of Dust as is.
AK: Is there an element of craft that you struggled with in the past? If so, how did you work it out or move beyond it?
VP: I sometimes let manuscripts go out to editors too early. That’s not a craft problem, but more a problem that came out of my feelings of urgency as a writer. I could have stuck with the work a bit longer, made several more passes at it, in order to ensure that it was fully cooked before it went out the door.
AK: Since you have experience writing both short stories and a novel, what are some of the differences in approach or method you’ve had to navigate?
VP: Short stories, needless to say, have a narrower focus. They tend to zero in on a character in a moment of conflict or consciousness. I’ve sometimes had a hard time keeping my focus narrow enough in short stories. I tend to write expansively and then pare back. Novels allow me the room to flesh out characters in many scenes over time. Transformation takes place over an accumulation of moments in the course of a much longer and more detailed story. A novel has to progress with good pacing, especially in today’s market, which values faster-paced stories. A story can be a bit slower, but not stagnant. Change needs to take place in both.
AK: Who are you currently reading? Or, what’s next on your “to read” list?
VP: I’m reading Graham Greene right now. I had never read The Heart of the Matter and The End of the Affair. He’s extraordinary—his language is so precise and I love how he takes his time, carefully showing the facets of a character. I’m also reading various non-fiction books about China in the 1930s under Japanese occupation. My next novel will be set there at that time.
AK: What do you do when you’re not writing?
VP: These days I’m doing a lot of writing and reading, with some purposeful movie watching on the side. When my children were younger, I juggled being a mother and writing, but now, as one child has left home for college and the other is an independent high school student, I have lots of time to work. I’m relishing it. I also garden, but less so these days. I’m pretty single-minded now.
AK: Sometimes I think there’s this idea that being a writer is solitary work when in reality, a lot of the insight into manuscripts or support in taking the next writing step comes from peers. It seems that with your work for James River Writers, you have an interest in being a part of/helping cultivate a writing community. What are your interests, goals, and passions when it comes to writers and creating a community of writing?
VP: I love writers. I like sharing my work with them and helping them with theirs. For years, I’ve helped run James River Writers, a literary non-profit with close to 400 members located in Richmond, Virginia. The writers involved work in a wide range of genres, and we share a generous camaraderie as we struggle to improve our craft and make our way in a difficult market. Such solidarity is incredibly helpful as we face rejection—which everyone does.
Virginia Pye’s debut novel, River of Dust, was chosen as an Indie Next Pick by the Independent Booksellers Association. Carolyn See in The Washington Post called it “intricate and fascinating;” Annie Dillard said it’s “a strong, beautiful, deep book;” and Robert Olen Butler named it “a major work by a splendid writer.” Virginia has published award-winning short stories in literary magazines, including The North American Review, The Tampa Review and The Baltimore Review. Her essays can be found in The Rumpus, Brain, Child and forthcoming in The New York Times Opinionator blog. She currently serves on the James River Writers Advisory Board, a literary non-profit based in Richmond, Virginia. www.virginiapye.com
Amana C. Katora is a graduate from The College of William & Mary and is pursuing her MFA at ODU in Fiction, where she works as an instructor. She is also a co-managing member and an editor at Hark! New Era Publishing. Her favorite works include those by Emily Brontë, Jean Rhys, Charles Portis, Mona Simpson, Maxine Hong Kingston, and Carol Birch. She also enjoys Victorian Gothic, film, running, vampires, cooking, and art.