Admit This to No One
by Leslie Pietrzyk
(Unnamed Press, November 2021)
Leslie Pietrzyk’s ADMIT THIS TO NO ONE takes on the intersection of the personal and the political through the lens of a group of women connected to a powerful Speaker of the House.
When the Speaker’s life is in danger, the women in his life collide for the first time and begin to re-evaluate their own beliefs and actions.
Pietrzyk merges a deep knowledge of Washington, D.C. power dynamics with strong prose that grapples with issues of white supremacy and misogyny. She discusses her journey in developing these linked stories and the role the pandemic played in finding the time and space to complete the project.
AUTHORLINK: Tell me about your apprenticeship as a creative writer. Did you have a mentor who offered advice that has stayed with you?
“The extraordinary part—for any writer, not just me—is finding the discipline and the perseverance to stick with writing…”
PIETRZYK: There was nothing extraordinary about my young writer path as a literature major followed by getting an MFA in fiction (though in retrospect, I wish I had taken a break after undergrad to spend some time in “the real world”). The extraordinary part—for any writer, not just me—is finding the discipline and the perseverance to stick with writing through all the ups and (many) downs and zigs and (many) zags. For that, a community is helpful, and I’m lucky to have landed in the DC area for so long, with its welcoming writing world. As for advice, Richard Bausch, one of my favorite writing teachers whom I met at the Bread Loaf Writers Conference, said something that helped me, something I repeat often to students: “Write until something surprises you.” When I sit down to write, that’s always my goal.
AUTHORLINK: James Dickey said the idea for Deliverance came to him as a vision of a man standing alone on top of a mountain. His job was to get the man off the mountain. Where do stories come from for you—image, first line, character?
“I need to think for a long time about a novel before launching in…”
PIETRZYK: I find that there’s a difference between where a story comes from and where a novel comes from. That is, I doubt I could or would start a novel based on an image or a line; I need to think for a long time about a novel before launching in: who are the people? Where do they live? What am I trying to say that needs 300 pages? With a story, however, I definitely have started with a line or a moment or a conversation that I was witness to or something from my life. “Green in Judgment” is based on something that actually happened when I was shopping for groceries. “People Love a View” and “We Always Start with the Seduction” is based on a setting I’m familiar with, a walk during which I had mental space to let my imagination roam. I also do a lot of writing to one-word prompts, which is where the draft of “Anything You Want” came from entirely in 30 minutes, the words “hammer” and “jacket.”
AUTHORLINK: How did you know you had a collection? Did you write ADMIT THIS TO NO ONE with building a collection in mind or did you find you had a set of stories that belonged together?
PIETRZYK: Originally, I thought I was working on a novel about this political family. But after Trump was elected, I abandoned that project, thinking that readers were as exhausted as I was at living through such an astonishing political landscape. I mined the novel for some short stories, which were published. Fast forward to just before the pandemic when I showed my editor a collection of stories that I had compiled. She wondered if I might try to create some cohesion by placing all of them in Washington, DC, and I was intrigued. The extended isolation and pressure during lockdown gave me the mental space and the time to consider how to create an arc for the stories I had and to determine which pieces were missing. I wrote about half the book (seven stories) during the first year of the pandemic.
AUTHORLINK: What authors and stories influenced your writing of these stories?
PIETRZYK: I admire a lot of classic and contemporary linked story collections; two I believe I’ve absorbed into my writer DNA are IN OUR TIME by Ernest Hemingway and THE THINGS WE CARRIED by Tim O’Brien. I admire the relentlessness of Lionel Shriver’s novels, especially WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN. During the lockdown I read George Orwell’s DOWN AND OUT IN PARIS AND LONDON, which helped me think about how to approach political topics.
AUTHORLINK: You’ve created a set of stories that speak very specifically to the times we live in, as people begin to grapple with imbalances in power and ideas of complicity. Talk about the experience of exploring these ideas on the page.
“One thing I knew is that I had to be hardest on ‘myself’…”
PIETRZYK: One thing I knew is that I had to be hardest on “myself,” that is, I wanted to interrogate the character who is the nice suburban white person with good intentions. How is that character complicit in maintaining and/or benefiting from these inequities; how is that character willfully blind to what’s going on and why? And there’s no point in creating an irredeemably evil villain the reader knows is supposed to be despised and mocked; that’s too easy. I wanted the reader to feel a bit (or more than a bit) implicated when the stories started taking apart these power dynamics. As the phrase goes, no one thinks they’re a racist. My goal was to try to capture the complexity of our times, to ask the hard questions while understanding that these questions are hard because they defy simplistic answers.
AUTHORLINK: How long did it take you to develop and shape ADMIT THIS TO NO ONE?
PIETRZYK: This question is always a challenge as much of my writing refuses to follow a straight line. I could say that I started thinking about the political family that forms the core of this book in 2014ish and the book came out in 2021. Yet there were a bunch of years in-between where this project was sitting in the proverbial drawer as I wrote an entirely different novel. I could also say that much of what I know about power and official DC and that unique culture was learned over 30 years of living in DC and paying attention and that without that embedded background, this book would have been impossible to write.
AUTHORLINK: Madison’s journey is complicated by family ties and upbringing, and she comes a long way from the start of the collection to the end. Talk to me about how you approach character development and the specific choices you made in reference to her.
PIETRZYK: I gave myself an assignment for this book: at every crossroads, choose the most uncomfortable option. I wanted the character to be uncomfortable, the reader to be uncomfortable, and most of all, for me, the writer to be uncomfortable. Pushing characters into extreme situations, denying them an easy out, shows who they are as people, letting the story open in interesting ways. I knew that Madison was going to maybe seem at first glance like a bit of a brat, but I also knew that her deep feelings, her secret desire—to be loved and cherished, to be seen—is actually quite normal, and rather poignant. I wanted all my characters—even the politician at the center, the Speaker—to offer poignant notes.
AUTHORLINK: What were the greatest challenges when writing ADMIT THIS TO NO ONE and how did you overcome them?
” I wasn’t sure how to end the collection…”
PIETRZYK: I wasn’t sure how to end the collection, what note to leave the reader with. I surprised myself by finding a hopeful note for Madison that felt exactly right for her (and for the reader).
AUTHORLINK: Talk to me about your revision process when working with your editor. What sort of changes did you make? Any tips on revision for apprentice writers?
PIETRZYK: My editor was very helpful with suggestions. She had some ideas about “I Believe in Mary Worth” and “Kill the Fatted Calf” that sharpened the endings of those pieces. I was also very nervous about “This Isn’t Who We Are,” a story about white privilege, so it was helpful to have my editor’s eye on that…though for as many sections that she removed, I added new sections. I really needed that piece to pack a punch given the risks I was taking with presenting it. Honestly, I was tinkering with that one until the last minute possible.
I have a couple of favorite revision tricks. One is to read everything out loud. Your ear will catch awkward moments that your eye will miss. Another is to put your completed draft file into a HUGE font on the screen, which will help you focus on only one sentence at a time. That’s for when you’re revising at the micro level, looking for that perfect and perfectly precise word. I also think a lot about verbs, and often read some poetry right before I sit down to revise.
AUTHORLINK: What advice would you offer to apprentice short story writers?
“Think about structure and how to create tension.”
PIETRZYK: Read lots of stories by a variety of writers, classic and contemporary. Think about structure and how to create tension. Practice writing scenes—not simply of people talking, but scenes where events of consequence happen. Cut out as much backstory as possible. One of my favorite craft books is READING LIKE A WRITER by Francine Prose.
AUTHORLINK: Discuss what you are working on now.
Because we recently moved to North Carolina, I’m not yet immersed in a new Big Project, so I’m poking around with short stories. Often I do that between novels, write stories until I suddenly see that I’m writing the same story over and over about the same big question. Then I know I’m ready to launch into a novel.
Leslie Pietrzyk is the author of the novels Silver Girl, Pears on a Willow Tree and A Year and a Day. Her collection of linked short stories, This Angel on My Chest, won the 2015 Drue Heinz Literature Prize and was published by the University of Pittsburgh Press. She received a 2020 Pushcart Prize, and her fiction/essays are in many journals, including Ploughshares, Southern Review, Story, Washington Post Magazine, Salon, Gettysburg Review, Hudson Review, The Sun, Arts & Letters, River Styx, and Cincinnati Review. She is a member of the core fiction faculty of the Converse low-residency MFA program in SC.