Virginia Pye: Black Tickets & Feminist Poets of Another Time

Virginia Pye
photo: Tennessee Photography

I met Virginia Pye at a book festival down in Richmond ages ago, so I was delighted to hear that she’s got a new short story collection, The Shelf Life of Happiness. In her stories, you’ll see how an elderly painter being courted by a rich young art collector and a teenage skateboarding enthusiast embarrassed to be driven to the skate park by his dad are fighting similar battles. You’ll also spend time with a man who’s accompanying his old friend from college, who’s now dying of AIDS, as he gets married in a remote town that’s little more than a few stores and a motel lining either side of the highway, and a woman who’s struggling to make sense of a brutal murder that stuns her small community. In this essay, Pye shares some thoughts about a story collection, and the poems that preceded it, that helped her clear a path to writing about characters struggling to figure out, let alone assert, their identities.

When I was twenty, Black Tickets, the story collection by Jayne Anne Phillips, with its hard-edged prose about hard-edged people, hit me hard. I’d read Hemingway’s short stories. Fitzgerald and Chekov, too. Isaac Babel and Isaac Bashevis Singer, and that one about the yellow wallpaper that everyone had to read. Unlike novels, short stories seemed the place to start for an aspiring young writer. Stories were like small sculptures, carefully shaped and refined, seemingly comprehensible with a single walk around.

But when I tried to write them, mine tended to sprawl into an unruly mess. My pages grew dense and overwritten as I attempted to say too much. Then I read Black Tickets and saw that when you used restraint, you created meaning in a more powerful way. If you kept it minimal, you could leave your reader aching for more, at least that was the hope. But it wasn’t just Phillips’ style of writing that I admired and wanted to emulate. Her stories hit home because they were about women and girls, not unlike me.

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23 October 2018 | selling shorts |