Writing and Publishing after the MFA:
An Interview with Graduate Leslie Pietrzyk
By Jessamine Price
Leslie Pietrzyk is the author of two novels, Pears on a Willow Tree (Avon Books) and A Year and a Day (William Morrow). Her short fiction has appeared in many journals and magazines, including The Iowa Review, New England Review, The Sun, TriQuarterly, and Shenandoah. She teaches in the graduate writing program at Johns Hopkins in Washington, DC, and is a member of the core faculty at the low-residency MFA program at Converse College. She lives in Alexandria, Virginia.
CA: Can you describe your process of developing as a writer? What role did the MFA play?
LP: I got my MFA right after I graduated from college, which I think was not the best idea. Now, I always recommend that people spend some time in the real world first. One great thing about the MFA, however, was it gave me the courage to call myself a writer.
After graduating, I worked as an editorial assistant in New York, then I went to Arizona and did freelance writing, and then I came back to the DC area and worked ten years as an editor at a local Chamber of Commerce. At that point, my first novel was published and I began teaching writing.
My writing career continues to develop as I launch Redux. When I was studying at American University in the eighties, two of us MFA students--W.T. Pfefferle and I--decided to start the literary magazine Folio. It was hard work, but I loved the excitement of working on a journal. I have that feeling again with Redux.
CA: Your new literary magazine, Redux, is an online journal devoted to previously published works--stories, essays and poems that have appeared in print literary magazines. What prompted this idea?
LP: My original motivation was purely selfish. I was thinking about a story I love that wouldn't fit into a collection. So I thought, other writers must be in this similar situation, so why not give these stories a home? The goal is to post a new piece every week, but right now the schedule is every two weeks. In the future, I want to contact literary magazine editors and solicit their suggestions for pieces that have stuck in their minds. And someday I'll slip my story in there.
CA: Your blog, Work in Progress, has regular, thoughtful posts about writing and literature. How do you feel about blogging compared to print? How can writers make good use of this medium?
LP: I started my blog four or five years ago, when everyone was saying you have to blog for marketing purposes. I like structure, so I made rules for myself. I had to post four times a week and post something longer on Thursdays. Sometimes it's hard to meet these goals: any day I run a recipe you know I'm stuck.
Today I don't know that blogs are the key marketing tool they used to be. But I enjoy the fact that my blog is a scrapbook or journal of my writing life. Though blog writing allows me to indulge "bad habits," like using too many parentheses, I like the immediate satisfaction of writing something, reading it over and posting it right then.
CA: How does teaching influence your continued development as a writer?
LP: What I love about teaching is being surrounded by people who are excited about writing. I’m lucky enough to have classes of sharp students who ask great questions. Because I'm the teacher I have to come up with answers to writing problems I may not have considered. Teaching is also great because it gets me out of the house, and writing is so isolating. The downside is that teaching can take time and energy away from my own work.
CA: You’ve published two well-received novels, Pears on a Willow Tree and A Year and a Day. Some students worry about losing focus after graduation: what did you do to keep moving forward after getting the degree?
LP: I wrote. Before Pears on a Willow Tree, I wrote three novels that weren't published. Luckily, during that time I was getting short stories and articles published. I don't know many authors who don't have at least one book stuffed in a drawer. It's part of the apprenticeship. Patience and perseverance are necessary in a writing career--along with luck. You have to be stubborn.
I had an agent for my first unpublished book, and she had many close calls, but it didn't work out. When I was working on Pears on a Willow Tree, a young agent read one of the chapters in a literary journal and asked if I had a novel. I was able to say yes and send her Pears. So that might seem like luck—and it was—but the publication process always involves a lot of patience and perseverance.
CA: What writers would you suggest that current MFA students be sure to read? What fiction are you excited about right now?
LP: Do they have to be recent works? I'm embarrassed to admit this, but I avoided reading Moby Dick all the way through high school and college. Last year I finally decided I had to read it. It took me all summer, but it was absolutely stunning. It's a big, ambitious book, worth the reading. I also think The Great Gatsby is a nearly perfect novel that every writer needs to read, especially before the movie with Leonardo diCaprio comes out.
And Lionel Shriver's We Need to Talk about Kevin is an amazing recent work of fiction. Shriver uses the technique of the unreliable narrator in creative, insightful ways.
CA: What are the positives and negatives of writing in Washington, DC, a city that most people don’t associate with art and literature?
LP: DC can be a great place to fly under the radar, which allows you to focus on the writing. My friends in New York are always thinking business--for instance, they worry, "I didn't go to this party or that reading." Here we can just write.
But we do have a community of writers here. Most of my friends in the Washington area are writers. And we have great literary institutions like the Writer's Center, Politics and Prose, the PEN/Faulkner Foundation and all the MFA programs.
CA: What advice do you have for MFA students who are finishing up the degree?
LP: At this moment, you think your thesis is the best thing you will ever write—and maybe it is, for right now. But trust me when I say that there’s more ahead: you’ll write things that are even better. Keep moving forward and keep working at your writing.