|Virginia Pye, photo by Terry Brown|
Virginia Pye is the author of the new story collection Shelf Life of Happiness. She also has written the novels Dreams of the Red Phoenix and River of Dust, and her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including The North American Review and The Baltimore Review. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Q: How long did it take you to write the stories in this collection, and how did you decide on the order in which they'd appear?
A: I wrote these stories over many years, with the earliest published a decade ago. All are told in third person, inviting the reader into the thoughts and feelings of disparate characters in widely varied settings.
Most important to me when deciding the order was trying to assess how the stories might make the reader feel. Each story has its own internal arc in terms of plot and emotional resonance, and the collection overall builds in momentum as well, in a similar way to how a novel unfolds.
Q: Do you see any themes linking the stories?
A: The elusive nature of happiness is the overarching theme and it’s woven throughout each of the stories, though how it’s revealed differs a lot depending on the main character.
A young art dealer tempts a grizzled old artist to reshape himself in order to have a final chapter of his career; a son reaches for his father across a widening gap to convince him of his passion for skateboarding; a wife and mother in the Roman ruins is lured away from her family by the suggestion of forbidden love: each character must navigate easy temptations as they search for true fulfillment.
I like the way Jim Shepard describes the lives of my characters “as a tangle they urgently need to understand before it’s too late.”
He goes on to say, “They’re experts on how to keep their hearts in reserve, and they recognize the ache of their own shame in their fear that perhaps those lesser versions of themselves they so often glimpse are who they really are, and yet all they want is to access the appreciative tenderness that’s waiting for them within their best selves.”
My characters try hard to be decent and when they ultimately succeed, a certain happiness is their reward.
Q: How was the book's title (also the title of one of the stories) chosen, and what does it signify for you?
A: One of my characters, Gloria Broadhurst, an elusive, far from happy figure, utters the phrase “shelf life of happiness.” She asks, “When it comes down to it, who is happy these days, that’s what I want to know? Really. Tell me. Who is?”
Her old friend, a husband and writer who’s been in love with Gloria for years, puts his arm over her shoulder and knows the answer for himself, but doesn’t dare say it aloud, “for fear it might disappear on a cloud of moist breath and air.”
He doesn’t want to take his happiness for granted or jinx it in any way—that’s how precarious and precious it is. If we’re lucky enough to be happy, as I can say I am in my life, we must also know that life is full of grave uncertainties and nothing guarantees we’ll stay happy. My characters wrestle with this urgent understanding.
Q: Have you read any short stories lately that you particularly admire?
A: The final collection from the Irish writer William Trevor is unbelievably beautiful, his language precise and his touch deft. I sometimes have to read his stories several times over because his character’s inner lives are shaded with such subtlety.
And I can’t resist mentioning the extraordinary stories of Jim Shepard, whose imagination is more elastic than just about any other writer today. I have no idea how he puts himself into the minds of Neolithic characters, early French aeronauts, or pioneer wives of the 1800s. Yet somehow his stories feel current, not fussy or old. He’s a ventriloquist and a magician of sorts.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I’m returning to the literary/historical territory of my first two novels, though this new book isn’t set in China. It’s a story about a woman author of dime novels in snobbish, literary Boston and Cambridge of the 1890s.
It’s a feminist tale based on a real character, and also a story about writing, creativity, the publishing business, and Gilded Age New England. I grew up in the Boston area and recently returned after 35 years away, so I’m approaching my subject with a combination of fresh eyes and a deep love of home.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: People may think that reading fiction is frivolous in a time of great uncertainty, but literature invites us to keep our minds open and our hearts compassionate. We need that now more than ever.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Virginia Pye.