May 24, 2013
She thinks I approached her out of the blue. She thinks I wanted to interview her out of the kindness of my heart. The truth is this: ulterior motives. I must confess that I’m interested in the convergence of several elements in her work (emphasis on several): exotic locale (China, in this case), the thematic rubbing up against each other of missionary zeal (whether secular missionary zeal as found in Ann Patchett’s State of Wonder or sacred missionary zeal which you’ll find in Virginia’s book) with contemporary mores, and the fact that both Virginia and I showed up a little later than usual on the publishing field, despite our lengthy, lengthy, lengthy histories in writing without an audience. And Virginia and I have the same publisher (Unbridled Books). She sounded pretty interesting to me!
Actually, she has one of the most fascinating back-stories I’ve ever heard. Look for an essay by her in The Rumpus soon. River of Dust comes out on May 14, 2013—and I’m excited to see the book reach its potential. When Mongol bandits abduct the son of an American missionary couple in China in the early twentieth century, both husband and wife wrestle with identity. The word “identity” seems a bit easy in this case. How does one describe The Reverend’s role as the “Ghost Man”? How does one discuss Grace’s interactions with her Chinese servants, Ahcho and Mai Lin? How does one impress upon the reader the significance of landscape, from a poverty-stricken missionary compound to the villages where people die from illness and something like famine-induced frenzy? You’ve gotta check it out!
Virginia and I spoke!
What inspired River of Dust?
Around the time I read Gilead, I started exploring my grandfather’s journals written on yellowed and torn onionskin paper. He and my grandmother were Congregational missionaries in northwestern China from 1907-1926, when he died there. His journals are a strange mix of matter-of-fact church building reportage—the number of converts in a day, for example—and passages where he waxes poetical about the setting and the people. He read the Romantic poets and the diction of that earlier time flowed with verbal curlicues and arabesques from his pen. The man clearly enjoyed writing and, as a result, I developed a surprising fondness for him. He described with good humor and affection the Chinese around him and seemed to really love that very foreign land. I had always felt a weird mix of pride and shame about him: pride, because he was among the first to go back to China after the Boxer Rebellion, and he built a hospital, schools and roads that seemed to benefit the peasants there; shame, because he was a full-blooded missionary who was unapologetically intent on changing the hearts and minds of the native people—an imperialist of the first order.
On a related note, the sensation of being a tourist in one’s own life—someone who looks in from the outside with a sense of longing while other people somehow manage to be at the center of things—has often crept into my work. It’s a cliché that writers feel that way—a bit off to the side as we observe life. But I began to wonder how it must have felt to be such a startlingly visible foreigner in China. My grandfather stood six foot four inches tall and had flaming red hair. There was no way he could fit in.
But as I read further in his journals, I realized that he didn’t want to fit in. That wasn’t his purpose there. And yet, he felt he understood the country in which he was so clearly an alien. He could imagine he “got it.” That lack of acknowledging one’s own ignorance—of ignoring it despite all the signs—seemed both humorous and tragic to me, and worth exploring in a novel. I wanted to portray someone who was sensitive and deluded. I guess you could say, I wanted to write about the blindness of the ruling class.
Is this a story about a loss of faith? Related to this, I think it’s safe to say that Grace comes into her own, so to speak, in your novel. She becomes a “modern American woman.” Does part of this modernity involve giving up faith in a Judeo-Christian God?
As Grace’s story becomes more extreme and fraught with peril, she finally chooses her own course of action and is pleased with herself about it. She knows she’s stepping forward in a new way and sees herself in a new light. At the same time, I think she would say that she remains faithful to her husband and their God to the last. Sure, she sneaks around The Reverend and starts to call the shots. And she sneaks around God, too, and doesn’t behave in the usual docile way. She wants to be liberated, but she doesn’t want to be a troublemaker. That strikes me as pretty typical pretzel-logic for a woman of her time.
You mentioned somewhere that Marilynne Robinson was an inspiration for your work. Would you explain this because I love her so much? I think, personally, this is one thing that attracted me to your work.
Gilead and then Home were two books that confirmed my interest in writing about the early twentieth century. Robinson captures not only how people thought back then, but how time itself was made of a different substance. The slower, more contemplative pace of those novels is a revelation. I know some people who had to put Gilead down. It asked too much of them. But I admired how she took her time and got inside her Reverend’s mind and showed the texture of his thoughts. Paul Harding also accomplishes that beautifully in his novel Tinkers.
River of Dust is faster-paced than those novels. The plot charges forward, but I wanted the language and the inner workings of my characters’ minds to suit that time and place as accurately as I could.
I do have a question on this issue of pacing. How is a slower, more contemplative pacing created in fiction? What does that involve? I would agree that your book is not slow-paced. I’m not sure how I might explain how pace is created in prose. What do you think?
I suppose the simplest answer is that pace moves forward more rapidly when actions, not thoughts, are conveyed. As I say that, I’m already thinking of exceptions. But in general, Virginia Woolf, for example, is considered slower paced because so much of her narrative is internal. The books that literary readers tend to avoid are those where the plot hurtles forward with minimal narrative description. In River of Dust, I try to strike a balance between literary language and plot-driven writing. I’m not averse to a good story—one that is gripping and that the reader wants to know how it resolves. But I love language and try to write evocatively and with care. By the way, a good number of literary writers these days are doing genre fiction which requires different pacing and narrative concerns. It’s interesting to be in a moment when these categories are breaking down.
Did you grow up in a religious household?
I went to Unitarian Sunday School, where we learned as much about the Buddha and Moses as we did about Jesus. I remember on International Day, my mother put on a sari she had bought in India and stirred a pot of Chinese dumplings in the church basement. My father, who was the son of the missionary parents in China, ended up believing in rational thought rather than religion. He was a political scientist at MIT for fifty years. And perhaps because he grew up in China in a mission compound, he didn’t want to be hoodwinked by either religion or foreign cultures. On a parallel track, my mother as a twelve-year-old girl had refused to rise when called to be baptized at a revival meeting in South Carolina. There was no way she was going to be forced to show her faith like that. She switched over to the Methodists, but as soon as she moved north, she and my father drifted away from the imposing influences of their parents’ religions.
There are a lot of interesting implications in River of Dust about imperialism and the work of missionaries. When I was reading your book, I couldn’t help but think of others, including Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and Ann Patchett’s State of Wonder. Do you see your novel as part of that literary conversation?
I do think this is a book about colonialism and the dangers of what Junot Díaz calls “white supremacy,” meaning racism. The Reverend and Grace see themselves as different types of human beings than Mai Lin and Ahcho. Their blindness to the full humanity of their servants leads to their downfall. As a good friend said after reading River of Dust, “this is a tale of expiation for the sin of arrogance.” If that is true, then I’ve succeeded at conveying my subject.
What was your arduous path to success with River of Dust?
This particular novel started out as part of a larger novel that spanned one hundred years and three generations of an American family with ties to China and Vietnam. I worked on that book for over five years, went through twenty drafts and had over thirty agents read and consider it, several reading it more than once. The book was interesting, but flawed. A number of people said it should be two books, at least. Finally, I was able to take that advice when it came from Nancy Zafris, who is a brilliant writer and editor. She was so clearly on my side, so clearly wanted this book to work, that when she said I had two books, not one, I believed her. In River of Dust, I ended up using only the first pages and last twenty-five pages of the previous novel. Everything else was new and written in a startlingly short amount of time. All this has taught me to not hold on too tightly to anything I create. As they say, we have to be willing to kill our darlings.
Didn’t you once have a brush with Annie Dillard? I’d like to hear more about that, since I once had a brush with Ethan Hawke, which shows up in my novel, Love Slave.
Annie was my first mentor, at Wesleyan University in Connecticut. I was thrilled when she let me into her coveted year-long fiction workshop. If I remember correctly, the class met only once as a whole because all our work with her was to be done on the page. But at that first meeting she paced the room and ended up sitting on the windowsill as she told us that if we wanted to become serious writers we should be prepared to have no children or pets. We should even throw out our houseplants. Complete dedication was required. Then in great detail she showed us how to send out manuscripts to literary magazines—literally where to put the address and stamp on the envelope. It all seemed quite earnest and intense, which appealed to me perfectly at that age.
After that first class, we placed our stories in her English Department box each week and five days later she would return them to the box, covered with red pen. All of us got our stories back at the same time and I remember noticing which students’ papers had more check marks and even smiley faces in the margins drawn with her graceful hand. My stories were cross-hatched with corrections.
But by the end of that year, I had finally completed a long story. It went through many drafts, all commented on by her. On the last day, I went to pick up that final version and on it she had written something truly unexpected that seems to have stuck with me as a mantra, as well as a painful prod: “We all write awful junk first drafts. You have what it takes to turn them into a work of art. You will write books for the rest of your life.” What it had taken for me to write that short story, and what it has taken to write every piece of fiction since then, is what I learned from Annie Dillard that year: hard work, persistence, being willing to take criticism, and to simply keep at it.
By the way, that story, the one I slaved over, was called “The Loss of North China” and it took place in the fourteenth century. I didn’t touch that continent again in my work for twenty-plus years, until River of Dust. Who knows what would have happened had I just stayed put in China all along?
You’ve mentioned elsewhere being “an active and hopeful literary citizen. . . .” Would you explain this?
I’ve had a long road to book publication. Several near misses with publishers and several great agents over the years, but what I figured out with time was not to focus so single-mindedly on getting a book taken, but to enjoy my fellow writers as we pursue this common goal. Where I live in Richmond, Virginia, I helped run a literary non-profit for close to a decade. James River Writers attracts all types of writers—many of whom write in genres that I have no direct knowledge or understanding of. And yet, we’re all trying to do the same thing—get our voices out there, explore who we are through the written word, and make a difference by sharing our stories. I’ve enjoyed encouraging them, and many published authors as well. More than once I’ve been the lone member of a bookstore audience. All this has led me to believe in karma. Now that River of Dust is coming out, I feel greatly supported by people who I’ve supported. In this difficult publishing market it can be hard to believe that there’s enough success to go around. But–not to sound too Polly- Annaish–the success may well be in the relationships we make along the way.
Everyone wants to know—for good reason—what you’re working on. What’s next? Do you plan on re-visiting China in future work?
I do hope to someday write the story of the stolen American boy in Mongolia. I may have to visit there for real, and that takes some planning and funds, so if anyone knows of a mule train looking for an added helper, let me know.
But in the meantime, I’m working on two novels—both resurrected from my drawer—as well as a collection of short stories. It’s anyone’s guess which of these will fully win my affection next. But very soon, I’m going to zero in on one of them and throw my heart into it. Still, I like this period now in which I’m envisioning the stories going off in different directions. It’s a fertile time and I’m deeply grateful to be in the midst of it.
VIRGINIA PYE’S debut novel, River of Dust, is an Indie Next Pick for May 2013. Her award-winning short stories have been published in numerous literary magazines, including The North American Review, The Baltimore Review, Tampa Review and Failbetter. She has taught writing and literature at New York University and the University of Pennsylvania, and helps run a literary non-profit in Richmond, Virginia. For more about her, visit: www.virginiapye.com.