"It seems sort of crazy to say that my proudest accomplishment is being stubborn. But without stubbornness (or its kinder cousin, perseverance) I can’t imagine that anything I value having achieved would have come about." Leslie Pietrzyk
Over the past six years, I have learned a lot from Leslie. She is a great teacher, her craft lectures are always thought-provoking, and she is a wonderful reader. She advocates for, supports, and promotes her students and her fellow writers. But beyond all that, Leslie reminds me to stand up for myself by always standing up for herself and speaking her mind, and for that I am thankful.
Out of all of your accomplishments, what are you most proud of and why?
It seems sort of crazy to say that my proudest accomplishment is being stubborn. But without stubbornness (or its kinder cousin, perseverance) I can’t imagine that anything I value having achieved would have come about. As an example: I wrote three novels before I published my first (PEARS ON A WILLOW TREE). Few people think, “My plan is to write 900 pages of ‘practice books,’” yet that’s essentially what I did. The disappointment in not seeing those 900 pages published was immense at the time, after each attempt—yet I can’t remember a moment where I thought I would give up writing. I’ve learned that the writing life doesn’t necessarily get easier after that first novel, so being stubborn is pretty much what still keeps me going. I’m so thankful for the strong Polish woman gene that’s been passed down to me.
What are you currently working on? How long have you been working on it? How did you become interested in it/ where did you get the idea for it?
I’m working on a new novel, something mostly in my head at the moment, which is a happy, not-so-risky place. On the other hand, I’m getting anxious to put the words on the page to see what happens. It’s all well and good to think “my character will do X,” but it’s not until you write the sentences that the magic happens, and suddenly you know with all your being that your character’s path must be Y. One of my favorite writing teachers used to say, “Write until something surprises you.” That’s a thrill.
On a different note, I recently bought an Instant Pot, and it sort of terrifies me (can I admit this on Fierce Friday?). But I love to cook and I want to learn how to pressure cook. I love short ribs, and why can’t I whip up a batch at home for a quick dinner whenever I feel like it, damn it?
What issue are you currently most passionate about? What is the one thing you would like people to know or understand about this issue?
Clearly the world needs so much help! Generally I try to focus my support toward arts organizations, which in a broader sense may translate to my being passionate about knowledge and learning. Maybe what I would most like people to understand at this particular point in history is the utter importance of READING, which I think is about the best way to expand your boundaries and find empathy. READ the newspaper(s), and support journalism—READ articles and books that make you uncomfortable, seek out people who are smarter than you are or have a different life experience and open yourself to learning from them. Why would I not seek out those voices? Why would I ever assume my opinions could not be informed through READING? Why would I ever think I’m done learning?
What book or film with a female protagonist would you recommend and why? and/or What female author’s, artist’s, or musician’s work would you recommend and why?
I know that she has said and done some unfortunate things recently, but I’ll advocate for Lionel Shriver’s novels anyway, particularly WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN. It’s the story of a school shooting (which the reader knows right away) told from the point of view of the killer’s mother, but really it’s an exploration of mothering, American culture, and the nature of evil. Shriver is a relentless writer, pushing into dark territory, asking the hard questions, never letting up for a minute. (Skip the movie—bleah.)
Name one woman who has influenced you/ had an impact on you, perhaps as a mentor. Why and how did she impact your life?
I’ll point to a mentor who didn’t necessarily know how she was influencing me—and at the time, neither did I. In retrospect she was an incredible role model for the writing life, and I think I’ve adopted her approach when I work with beginning writers. Mary Kinzie, my undergraduate poetry professor at Northwestern University, was austere and scary-serious about the pursuit of poetry. I was a freshman, definitely in over my head with the upper-classmen. I was writing horrible, high schoolish poetry without capital letters, and I was clueless about the immensity of how much I didn’t know. Mary Kinzie’s expectations were astronomically high and uncompromising, and in retrospect, her great gift to us was assuming that we were equally serious about writing. Her pursuit was perfection, capital-A Art, work for eternity, and she made me feel that accepting anything lower than that standard was foolish and a waste of time. Without saying these words that she would immediately red-pen as cliché, her classroom presence conveyed: Aim not for the moon, but the stars, for what’s beyond. Undoubtedly you’ll fail, but that’s what writing is. I realize she doesn’t sound like the traditional, encouraging mentor seen in the movies…but she is exactly who I needed most to meet at that point in my life, and she is who I most want to be in my writing life.
Leslie Pietrzyk is the author of two novels, Pears on a Willow Tree and A Year and a Day. This Angel on My Chest, her collection of linked short stories, won the 2015 Drue Heinz Literature Prize and was published by the University of Pittsburgh Press. Her short fiction and essays have appeared in many publications, including The Washington Post Magazine, Salon, Gettysburg Review, The Hudson Review, The Sun, Shenandoah, River Styx, Iowa Review, TriQuarterly, New England Review, Washingtonian, and Cincinnati Review. She has received fellowships from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference and the Sewanee Writers’ Conference. Pietrzyk is a member of the core fiction faculty at the Converse low-residency MFA program and teaches in the MA Program in Writing at Johns Hopkins University. She lives in Alexandria, Virginia.
Of This Angel on My Chest, Kirkus Reviews wrote, “The author’s wit, clarity, and literary inventiveness dance circles around the omnipresent sadness, making this book a prime example of the furious creative energy that can explode from the collision of grief with talent and craftsmanship,” naming it one of the best short story collections of 2015.
For more information: www.lesliepietrzyk.com