|photo: Susan Hale Thomas
Leslie Pietrzyk is the author of two novels, Pears on a Willow Tree (Avon, 1998) and A Year and a Day (Morrow, 2005). This Angel on My Chest (University of Pittsburgh Press, Oct. 2, 2015), a collection of unconventionally linked short stories, won the 2015 Drue Heinz Literature Prize. The stories, many of which have appeared in literary journals such as Gettysburg Review, Shenandoah, and The Sun magazine, meditate on loss, with each story about a different young woman whose husband dies suddenly and unexpectedly. A member of the core fiction faculty in the Converse Low-Residency MFA Program in Spartanburg, S.C., Pietrzyk also teaches fiction in the Johns Hopkins Masters in Writing program in Washington, D.C. She lives in Alexandria, Va.
On your nightstand now:
Tessa Hadley's Clever Girl and Richard Ford's Let Me Be Frank with You. A book of poetry, King Me by Roger Reeves; I heard him read an unforgettable poem about Emmett Till that made me buy the book with urgency. I recently admired and enjoyed Meghan Daum's The Unspeakable, so I'm mentally stacking another book of her essays, My Misspent Youth, onto the nightstand though it isn't physically there just yet.
Favorite book when you were a child:
I could name dozens, but I'll choose The Long Winter by Laura Ingalls Wilder. I grew up in Iowa, fascinated by pioneers, and apparently found it comforting to read about terrible blizzards and hay sticks while eating chicken and stars soup for lunch. Wait--Stuart Little by E.B. White. Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh. Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH by Robert C. O'Brien. A Wrinkle in--moving on to the next question....
Your top five authors:
...which is equally impossible. At this exact moment: Lionel Shriver, Flannery O'Connor, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Donna Tartt, Joan Didion. I would drive through a snowstorm to hear these writers read--the living ones, I mean.
Book you've faked reading:
The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner. Caddy. Benjy. I can say those names meaningfully without even have to consult Wikipedia, I'm that good at faking this one. While I'm at it, I'd like to title-drop that I did read every page of Ulysses by James Joyce, not that I'm angling to be quizzed.
Book you're an evangelist for:
We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver. Dark and relentless, ambitious and important, a chilling page-turner that kept me up all night, literally. People I recommend it to either grab me by the lapels and thank me profusely or never speak to me again.
Book you've bought for the cover:
I'm not very visual, so your tricks don't often work on me, marketing people! But I was browsing Elliott Bay Book Company the one time I was in Seattle, with a mission to buy a book I had never heard of by a writer I had never heard of, and I picked up The Homesman by Glendon Swarthout which, in paperback, shows a sod house on a dry prairie. Sold! I read the book on the plane home, sobbing and gasping and making a spectacle of myself.
Book that changed your life:
On Becoming a Novelist by John Gardner let me know I wasn't insane to think I might be a writer, and his The Art of Fiction taught me how in a smart, stern voice of utmost authority. I bow to him still, and consult both books for advice and solace.
Favorite line from a book:
"Isn't it pretty to think so." --The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway
Which character you most relate to:
Are we being honest? Probably Piglet in Winnie-the-Pooh by A.A. Milne. I, too, spend way too much energy worrying about Heffalumps.
Book you most want to read again for the first time:
Moby-Dick by Herman Melville. I read it later in life, having studiously avoided college classes where it might be required, and I devoted a summer to the project, self-shamed into tackling the Great American Novel. I read as a reader, savoring the prose and not worrying about footnotes and English department interpretations, and I often found my way to the pages at four in the morning thanks to a bout of insomnia, startled to find myself immersed in a postmodern book written before modernism was a twinkle in anyone's eye. I cried when I reached the end as Labor Day loomed, and honestly considered starting the whole thing over again right then. It remains the most majestic and perfect reading experience of my life.
First book you remember checking out of the library on your own:
The Castle of Adventure by Enid Blyton, about a group of British kids solving mysteries, possibly while on vacation. So exotic, calling their flashlights "torches!"