Out of Twenty: Virginia Pye, Author of River of Dust, Answers Six Questions


In this version of twenty questions, I send a list of questions to a willing victim virginiapyeauthor and they choose their own interview by choosing which questions, and how many questions, they want to answer! Virginia Pye’s new novel, River of Dust tells the story of an American missionary, and his wife, whose marriage and personalities undergo drastic change when their toddler son is kidnapped in China in 1910. Here is what Virginia had to say about reading, writing, and telling her father’s story.

Would you give us a bit of introduction and let my readers know who you are, how you got started writing, and what kind of books you like to write?

I have been writing ever since I was a young girl and have always loved it. River of Dust is my debut novel, but I’ve written other ones as well. In each of my stories, a woman winds up facing big challenges that helps her realize who she really is. In other words, the character arc of all literature since The Odyssey!

River of Dust takes place in China in 1910 and tells the story of an American missionary couple whose child is kidnapped in the opening scene. The father goes out into the dangerous countryside in search of their son. But, while his story is exciting and exotic, the novel zeros in on his wife, as a way to ask questions about faith, colonialism and what matters most in life. So, although this book starts out being about a man out on the rugged trail, in a way the most serious questions are raised by a woman who eventually faces life head on and with great bravery. I think that my female characters, no matter what their stage in life, tend to “come of age” in my novels, which I hope parallels my own life.

I am often struck by the different ways writers respond to the process of writing a book. Linus’s Blanket refers to my use of reading and other activities as a means of escape and comfort, can you share with us any routines, food or recipes, or favorite books or rituals that help you thorough the writing process?

I tend to be quite disciplined and over the years have learned to treat writing like a job. I’m at my desk every morning by nine. I don’t wait for inspiration to draw me there, but once seated, it’s not always easy to stay put. There are so many distractions!

But, here’s a little secret that helps keep me focused: coffee yogurt. There are mornings when I’m so antsy and want to drift away from my desk for any reason. But, if I go to the fridge and get my Dannon coffee yogurt, I can get back on track.

This little habit has gotten more complicated now that upscale, organic or Greek yogurts have taken over at my local grocery store. I have to drive across town to get my week’s supply of coffee yogurt from the one store in town that still sells it. I feel like an alcoholic with cases of beer when I stock up. But, I genuinely rely on my relationship to this one particular food. It’s Pavlovian: if I eat it, my mind just knows it’s time to concentrate again. I worry that Dannon will discontinue it one day, and then what’ll I do?

People live in stories, we are surrounded by them. What was it about this the story that made it the one you had to tell at this time?  What impact did telling this story have on your life?  Did you find that it had changed you?

River of Dust is an intense novel—one that takes off and just keeps charging forward. The stakes get higher for the characters, even though it begins already at a fever pitch with the child’s kidnapping. I wrote this book not too long after my father died. He was born and raised in China and his parents, whom I never knew, were missionaries there at the time that my novel takes place. So, in a way, this is a story “about” my father’s family—though the events and characters in it are completely made up. Still, my grandparents had experienced great losses: one child lost to miscarriage, another in infancy, and a third when she was six years old. I think that those losses hung over my father, their one surviving child, and, as often happens in families, the feeling of loss filtered down to me and into my novel.

River of DustAfter my father’s death, I dove into trying to tell this story. And then, when I finished it and sold it to Unbridled Books, my mother read it in manuscript form and I honestly think that it helped her in her final chapter of life. She passed away in January of this year, and sadly is not here to see the publication, but again, the book carries in it her spirit as well. I believe that these losses added urgency to the language and to the storytelling. What I learned from writing River of Dust is that we haven’t a moment to lose. Carpe diem: both in life and on the page. I hope that that understanding continues to guide me through my next book and the ones after that, not to mention in my life as well.

Do you ever look back at your early work? How do you feel your writing style or approach to writing has evolved since you first began?

Through practice I’ve become a better writer. When I first started writing novels, I did them long hand on legal pads. Then I bought my first personal computer—a desktop Mac with a huge, whirring external hard-drive tower that took up space under the desk. But, funnily enough, I still wrote by hand. I would then type up what I’d written onto the Mac, print it out, revise again by hand, then type in the corrections on the computer and print the next draft: incredibly time consuming and laborious. Thank goodness, I finally learned to create directly on the computer. But, still, I tended to ramble and always needed to pare down my drafts as I went along. I loved the writing of the Minimalists—Raymond Carver, Jayne Anne Phillips, Anne Beattie—and strived to write like them, but I started each manuscript as an extreme maximalist. No wonder I routinely wrote twenty drafts!

But River of Dust was different. I followed an outline more closely, rambled less, and generally knew where I was going in the story more clearly than ever before. As a result, the writing became crisper sooner in the process. In fact, my editor read the very first draft and wanted to publish the book! But, that victory hadn’t come easily. It had taken years of practice at writing to be able to produce that one, strong initial draft.

How many works in progress do you have going at any one time? How do you know when one has potential and when one just needs to be scrapped?

This is such a great and difficult question. I’ve always worked on one novel manuscript at a time, while also writing the occasional short story “on the side.” But, now that River of Dust is out of my hands, I’m writing essays and interviews like this one, which I’ve never done before. Once this period around the book’s publication ends, I’ll need to decide which of several book-length manuscripts I’ll return to. I have two novels at the first draft stage and a collection of short stories nearing completion. I want to choose based on what I want to work on, not on what I think I should work on. That may even mean scraping all the earlier books, and working instead on a story that is completely new. I’m trying to listen to my heart on this. The urgent drive behind River of Dust wasn’t based on some abstract decision. Instead, it came out of a strong urge to tell that particular story and wrestle with those particular themes. I need to cock my head to the side and quiet my mind as I listen for the whispers of what I want to say next.

Where do you most love to write? Are there places where it comes to you easier than others?

I have always loved to write near a window and preferably one that looks out on a peaceful and beautiful natural scene. Once, years ago, I went to an artists’ colony in western Massachusetts where I lived in a little red cabin with windows looking out on fields of wildflowers on all sides. I was both distracted by the incredible beauty of it, and also calmed by it enough so I could concentrate. Virginia Wolfe wrote in her journal that to write she must be “a clear vessel.” I find that condition best when near nature.

For the most part, I write in my study in my home, looking out at my back garden which, if I do say so, is awfully pretty, especially in springtime. As I type now, I can see blooming roses and irises, azaleas and columbine. I have a little fish pond that we converted from a sandbox when our children got older, and around it are daffodils in early spring, hostas all summer and pansies in the winter. We’re lived in this house long enough and cared for the garden consistently, so it offers deep shade and established shrubs, trees and plants. Something is always blooming. These days I don’t get out there to do the weeding and planting as often as I did when my children were younger. Instead, I’ve traded those hours of labor and love in the garden for hours looking up from the computer while loving the act of writing.

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