In her new novel Silver Girl, Leslie Pietrzyk deftly combines elements that don’t seem to go together — a nameless college student with a charismatic roommate, the fatal Tylenol poisonings in 1982 Chicago, and complex, troubling family dynamics — into a uniquely powerful story of a young woman coming of age both all-too-soon and almost too late. In a starred review, Publishers Weekly called Silver Girl “profound, mesmerizing, and disturbing.”
I spoke with Pietrzyk, a fellow alumna of the American University MFA program, to discuss the power of writing prompts, the challenges of a story that demands to be told non-chronologically, and why first novels are only the beginning. She’ll be in Chicago on Thursday, March 29 for an event at City Lit Books.
Several chapters of Silver Girl have appeared in literary magazines, such as Midwestern Gothic and Cincinnati Review. Did you start with stories about this character and move toward a novel, or did you always have the novel in mind?
Actually, I started with writing prompts. I belong to a group that meets monthly, and we write to two different, open-ended words (e.g. “blue”): fifteen minutes on each word. Typically, I’ll get about 800 words or so in this time. I had already decided to set a book during the time of the Tylenol murders, but I hadn’t settled on what type of story or who the characters would be, so I turned to prompts for some low-risk exploration. Jess and the narrator emerged and their tangled relationship totally hooked me. These early prompts led to some stories, and the stories grew into the novel. Incidentally, “blue” is one of the prompts that sparked the chapter “Bad Girl,” and “How We Leave Home,” originally a story in Cincinnati Review, grew from these two prompts: the word “adventure” and a sparkly headband that a group member brought in to spark our writing.
Why leave your protagonist nameless?
She has a name, of course, that she chooses not to reveal to the reader. My characters often start out nameless because I don’t want to lock them into an inappropriate name (and I find it hard to switch names midway through the writing). Initially I was unfazed that she was nameless, especially since she was a first person narrator. As I kept writing, I slowly understood that she wasn’t going to be named in the book, and I knew I had to understand why not. Who is the person who refuses to reveal something as basic as a name? I was drawn to the way an absence of a name paradoxically suggests both powerlessness and power; drawn to considering the factors in a life that might lead a girl standing along the sidelines, unnamed, imagining herself unnoticed.
I wouldn’t have thought of any of that — it’s so powerful when you put it that way. Your narrator is fascinating and so is your setting. Those of us who grew up near Chicago in the 80s remember the Tylenol poisonings well — that feeling of fear, of random danger, that you capture so skillfully in Silver Girl. Why did you choose to connect the story to that time and place?
Exactly for the reasons you note: that event evoked fear and random danger. Middle-class America of the ’80s feels practically exotic to me from my contemporary perspective, with its absence of terrorist attacks, gunfire in the streets, school shootings, and so on. To open a bottle of Tylenol back then was simply to unscrew the top, which seems practically subversive (and utterly foolish) now that we’re accustomed to layers and layers of protective packaging and surveillance cameras in retail stores.
This killer planned these deaths with purpose and intent: removing bottles from drugstore shelves, opening capsules and stuffing them with cyanide, returning the bottles to the shelves. How horrifying to contemplate that the intent was to target random victims, that anyone, anywhere could swallow the tampered capsule and drop dead. The deep fear, it seemed to me, was that this crime sliced through class and socioeconomic lines. Living in the “right” neighborhood wasn’t going to save you. I say “random victims,” but the killer hasn’t been caught, so we can’t be sure what motives may have been at work. That’s fictionally intriguing, too.
It is! Like all successful non-chronological stories, Silver Girl moves forward and backward in time while our understanding of the story, our perception of it, moves relentlessly forward. We only gradually realize our protagonist’s history, what’s been done to her and what she’s done. Did you feel that such dark material required an indirect approach? Was there something else that pushed you in the direction of unspooling the action this way?
Finding a way to tell this story chronologically would have saved me a lot of time, that’s for sure! But the book resisted simple organization. The narrator is someone with too many secrets, and she’s not quick to reveal anything below the surface of her life. I wanted to create a sensation of layers, with the reader knowing more than the other characters at times, and also, often, with the reader understanding the narrator in ways she’s unwilling to understand herself. When people reflect deeply on a time and place in the past, there’s a slow unwinding, as connections between various events form, as old myths are busted. That process of deep discovery about the past can be painful, filled with moments where one is forced to think, Did I really do that? Is that who I was?
Definitions of historical fiction vary, but whether or not Silver Girl is officially “historical,” it taps into a time and place that can’t be reached in the present. But your details here are precise and evocative, helping us latch on: Osco and Tab and “the Marshall Field’s special sandwich at the Walnut Room.” How much were you able to draw on personal knowledge and how much required research? What’s your Chicago connection?
I graduated from Northwestern University in the ’80s, though I never made it to the Walnut Room on my student budget, alas. Much of what I remembered from the time was supplemented with a lot of fun Google research; for example, I’d been to Field’s while in college and had a vague memory that there was somewhere fancy to eat in the State Street store, and then I filled the facts in with online assistance.
But you’re right that a lot of the smaller details—like Osco—were from direct, now-ancient, memories of spending time in Evanston and Chicago back then. I kept a daily journal my freshman year that I reread while working on the novel. While I didn’t directly use much of anything (because the focus of that document was a series of hopeless crushes and whiny complaints about classes), being immersed in that time of my life spurred my memory in interesting ways. And I still love Chicago! I get back every couple of years. The city is totally different, of course, but revisiting old sites jogged my memory. And I can report that Chicago pizza is as fabulous as ever!
Your three novels and book of linked stories have been published by four different presses, which I think is becoming more and more common as a writer’s journey. How have your experiences differed at different publishers? What do you love and hate most about publishing?
Publishing has changed dramatically since my first book was published in 1998, when I was told it was foolish to include an email address in my bio to allow readers to contact me. But all along, what I love about publishing has been constant: having a team of people working so hard to spread the word about a book they believe in, a story they believe must be told…this devotion is especially evident with the small press model, which is my situation with Silver Girl. I love that publishers now have countless interesting ideas about how to connect with readers, how to launch books into the world.
“Hate” is too strong for what I dislike about publishing, because I accept that this is the model we’ve got: while the people who work in publishing may love books, the fact is that “publishing” also is a business intended to make money. So I “dislike” the extreme focus on the first book and the cult of the young writer. Sure, plenty of first books are beautiful achievements, and plenty of young writers are immensely talented. But I know that time and experience and continued study of the craft have made me a better, deeper writer. I would like to see second, third, fourth, and fifth novels get more love from the publishing and marketing gods. And please stop thinking a writer is washed up at age 30!
Silver Girl by Leslie Pietrzyk
Published February 27, 2018
Leslie Pietrzyk is the author of Silver Girl, Pears on a Willow Tree, A Year and a Day and the short story collection This Angel on My Chest. Her short fiction has appeared in The Gettysburg Review, The Iowa Review, New England Review, The Sun, TriQuarterly, and Shenandoah. She holds a B.A. in English/Creative Writing from Northwestern University and an M.F.A. in Creative Writing from American University. She lives in Alexandria, Virginia and teaches in the Masters in Writing program at Johns Hopkins University, as well as the Low-Res MFA at Converse College.
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Bestselling author of historical fiction and historical fantasy. Out now: THE ARCTIC FURY. Up next: SCORPICA (The Five Queendoms #1, 2.22.22, as G.R. Macallister).