Leslie Pietrzyk is the author of the new story collection This Angel on My Chest, which focuses on young widows. Pietrzyk's first husband died when he was 37 and she was 35. She also has written the novels A Year and a Day and Pears on a Willow Tree. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including The Washington Post Magazine and Salon, and she teaches in the Converse low-residency MFA program and in Johns Hopkins University's writing program. She lives in Alexandria, Virginia.
Q: The stories in This Angel on My Chest are based on your own experiences. How difficult was it to write this book, and over how long a period did you write these stories?
A: I guess all books are difficult to write, though maybe difficult in different ways. This Angel on My Chest was difficult because I didn’t really know what I was doing for a very, very long time.
I knew I was writing stories about Robb’s death, and eventually I knew that I wanted the stories to be linked, though not through traditional linkages such as the same characters or a common setting.
Once I realized that the linkage was incident—in each story, a young husband dies (or has died) unexpectedly—the challenge became how to make that premise work, because it sounded sort of crazy to me. Yet that was the book I wanted to write!
So I plowed ahead on the stories, hoping that the larger narrative of the book would get sorted out eventually—and it was difficult to maintain that faith steadily throughout the writing process.
Finally, while I approached this material from a place of distance and perspective, starting the project 14 years after Robb died, of course there were emotional points to contend, both expected and unexpected.
It feels to me that this book came about after a long and winding journey—yet it was a fast book by my standards: only two years of writing (though “Ten Things” had been written years earlier).
Q: How did you choose the book’s title, and what does it signify for you?
A: I’m notoriously bad at titles, so I’m fairly savvy about all the titling tricks: reading poems for lines or phrases; skimming the Bible, which is the source of many wonderful titles (i.e. The Sun Also Rises, East of Eden); studying song lyrics.
Bruce Springsteen was an influence on the book, and “Backstreets” is one of my favorite songs, so I was intrigued by the line “you’re like an angel on my chest.”
But it wasn’t quite right for a book title, and—surprisingly or not—it took me at least a month to find the simple fix that turned the beautiful line into a title I could love.
While using the word “angel” initially made me nervous, suggesting sentimentality, the connotation of an afterlife overrode my fear, and the word “this” brought in a sense of the personal. I liked the sense of heaviness and weight (on my chest). And, of course, the chest is where the heart resides.
Q: Can you say more about whether you planned initially to write a collection of stories focused around the same theme, or whether the idea developed gradually?
A: I never actually planned to write about this time in my life. But I was eating breakfast at an artist’s colony and a poet mentioned a university class she was teaching about the literature of subcultures.
Rather randomly, I decided to spend my day writing about a subculture and started listing ideas. The instant “young widow support group” showed up, I knew that would be really hard to write about and that I was going to forge ahead anyway.
By the end of the day, I had another list going, of at least a dozen memories from that grief-stricken time in my life that I wanted to tackle, and I understood the basic concept: that at the heart of each story would be one hard, true thing from my personal experience.
Q: Many of the stories deal with the writing process, or include a character who is a writer. What is your writing process, and does it vary from story to story?
A: In general, my writing process is fairly standard: sit at the computer and write. Not very glamorous, and certainly harder to execute than it sounds, but that’s really the only way I can get the job done.
I like to write in the afternoons, and I try to write regularly Monday through Friday, about four hours at a time. I’ll print out pages for line editing and revision, but generally I draft and do big-picture revising on the computer.
Maybe if I’m feeling stale, I’ll write by hand or go to a coffee shop or try writing in the morning…but really, I think I respond best to the dull discipline of the writing routine.
This, of course, is my plan for the ideal world, and unfortunately there are plenty of afternoons that are taken up by writing biz tasks and/or teaching duties. But I like that I always feel a little bit guilty if I’m not writing during those hours.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I recently finished a novel and I’m now about to fling myself whole-heartedly into the world of queries as I search for an agent. As for the next writing project, I have a few ideas tickling at my brain, but I haven’t settled on anything just yet. Maybe a couple of short stories to ease back in after the fun of launching this book.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: The secret to making great banana bread is to use really old bananas, so old that that they’re almost liquid—basically, the day before the fruit flies show up. This sounds disgusting, but I won a blue ribbon at the Virginia State Fair for my banana bread, so I feel confident offering this advice.
Also, I hope readers won’t be afraid of my book because it’s “depressing.” The book is also filled with dark humor and inventive playfulness and, truly, grief and loss are things that unite us all. If you haven’t lost someone yet, you will. For me, the purpose of art is to try to make sense of our collective sorrows and our deepest, more difficult questions. How is that “depressing”?
--Interview with Deborah Kalb