In Admit This to No One, Leslie Pietrzyk makes even tertiary characters feel alive, flawed, and full of longing. In her collection, life brims at every corner of Washington, D.C., and those lives are bound together by power. What does power do to people, Pietrzyk asks in her collection; how does it shape people, contort them, to figures beyond their own recognition?
We meet female protagonists in the stories whose narratives intersect in some way with the Speaker of the House, and though the women do not speak to one another often, they do speak to each other metaphorically across the collection’s pages, sharing intimacies, questions, and truths about their and their nation’s trajectories.
“Leslie Pietrzyk takes a scalpel to white Washington, D.C., and doesn’t flinch as she cuts it open. In these breathless (sometimes jaw-dropping) stories, Leslie dissects with precision, giving us every lonely, sad, and selfish thought from characters we’ve met at least once in the nation’s capital,” writes Melanie S. Hatter, author of Malawi’s Sisters. Pietrzyk gives us everything: the ugly, the beautiful, the mundane, daring us not to look away.
Leslie Pietrzyk is the author of the novel Silver Girl, released in 2018 by Unnamed Press, and called “profound, mesmerizing, and disturbing” in a Publishers Weekly starred review. Pietrzyk’s collection of unconventionally linked short stories, This Angel on My Chest, won the 2015 Drue Heinz Literature Prize and was published by the University of Pittsburgh Press. Kirkus Reviews named it one of the 16 best story collections of the year. Short fiction and essays have appeared in Southern Review, Ploughshares, Gettysburg Review, Hudson Review, The Sun, Shenandoah, Arts & Letters, River Styx, Iowa Review, Cincinnati Review, TriQuarterly, New England Review, Salon, Washingtonian, Southern Indiana Review, Washington Post Magazine, and many others.
She has received fellowships from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference and the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, and in 2020, her story “Stay There” was awarded a Pushcart Prize. Pietrzyk is a member of the core fiction faculty at the Converse low-residency MFA program and often teaches in the MA Program in Writing at Johns Hopkins University. Raised in Iowa, she now lives in North Carolina, and is the founder of Redux, an online journal featuring previously published work.
One way these stories are all linked together is by place. All of your characters live in or interact with DC and its vast social and political landscape. But characters also come from outside DC’s networks and experience the place as outsiders. A narrator in the story “I Believe in Mary Worth,” who works for the Speaker of the House, comes from a small town in North Carolina where she states “no woman…had ever mattered.” Could you talk a little bit about the importance of place in these stories, especially as it might relate to belonging for these characters?
I think place/setting is one of the writer’s most valuable tools. When it comes to a longer work, I find it impossible to imagine the book outside of its setting, in the same way that I feel I can’t really understand a person unless I know where they grew up. In my case, I’m from Iowa, but I lived in the Washington, DC, area for more than 25 years, and as I started contemplating writing about “official DC,” I was surprised at how deeply the culture had seeped into me: the unwritten rules, the etiquette, the cultural values. A city is a neutral place—i.e. Washington, DC, is not inherently a “swamp”—yet often we assign characteristics, attempting to personify cities, particularly Our Nation’s Capital, the seat of political power. Much of DC’s population—and the characters I’m writing about here—is composed of people who come to the city with idealistic intent, hoping to effect change. There’s an interesting tension there, as that idealism shifts in various ways over time. In these stories, I was thinking a lot about how being part of a place changes people.
To me, one reason this collection is so powerful is that it is unafraid to explore seemingly “nontraditional” or “taboo” relationships. One relationship explored is between Lexie, an almost 40-year old art professor in Durham, and her 24-year-old former student. What drew you into writing about relationship structures like this one?
All along, I envisioned this as a book about various power dynamics. Predictably, I took a whack at exploring power dynamics in the political structure and the workplace and structural racism, but I was also deeply fascinated in the unexpected ways power informs our daily lives through interactions with people, whether they’re two strangers in a grocery store or a father and daughter or this lopsided love affair with Lexie and Tay or a sexual affair of convenience. Thinking deeply about this book as I wrote got me wondering if any relationship is free of some sort of embedded power dynamic or ongoing power struggle, though it’s probably a bit taboo to say so.
The question of perspective is so dynamic within this collection. The stories follow the perspectives of different characters—who form a collage of interconnected lives—and also consider perspective in the larger sense. “People Love a View” considers dynamics of race and geography. Patrick, who is on a semi-date at the Woodrow Wilson Bridge with a woman he recently met, observes that “the walkers and joggers starting on the Virginia side, Alexandria, tended to be white, and the people starting from the Maryland side, Prince George’s County, were virtually all Black.” I came away from this story and collection thinking about the boundaries between people, the ways we can and can’t cross into each other’s lives. What sorts of questions were on your mind when thinking about perspective in the collection?
One thing I knew for sure was that in writing about race, I had to carefully consider perspective as the last thing I wanted to do was to be insensitive or create pain. From the beginning, I knew that I couldn’t and shouldn’t try here to write across race. Nor should I expect that a reader of color was going to find anything new in my portrayal of incidents like microaggressions at a grocery store or conversation around a painful word. I thought about who my perceived audience needed to be. Finally, I also had to acknowledge that I might screw up, badly, so the story I was going to tell had to be worth the risk, had to really go for making the white characters (and readers) (and myself) uncomfortable.
I also worried about The Speaker, who had to feel believable as a politician but who couldn’t be either a stereotype or a simplistic villain. While we do get his POV, I also liked showing him through the eyes of his daughters and his loyal staffer, Mary Grace. Yet none of them understand or even sense the secret side he can’t admit to himself.
Ultimately, the people of official Washington, DC, can be cagey about revealing themselves which made a fascinating writing challenge: how to cross into these lives and see not who these people position themselves to be, but who they truly are?
The story after this one, “This Isn’t Who We Are,” is written in second person like a handbook to people on how to appear anti-racist. Within it, we see many examples of virtue signaling, like: ““Order an Etsy “kindness sign” for your front lawn like all your suburban neighbors, and pretend you’re not a coward who’s still afraid of getting your car jacked in the city. Add a #BlackLivesMatter sign when you see three others on the block. Add a Little Free Library and slip in books by Black authors during Black History Month.” The story’s ending shifts towards the author—the writer—as an actor, too, in creating fiction and distancing themself from it. Could you discuss this choice of an ending and some of your questions when constructing this powerful piece?
I’m glad you’re citing those lines, as they were the last words added to the manuscript at a late date in the editorial process…which is to say, that story took a lot of work and constant updating and considering/re-considering. (I think it’s the story that made my editor the most nervous—and definitely the one I was most nervous about including.) I knew some of the notes it hit would feel uncomfortable, perhaps incendiary, to white readers—which was my purpose. However, rather than simply harangue “well-meaning” suburban folks, or take on an ironic narrative distance, it felt crucial that I expose and interrogate my own complicity as a “well-meaning suburban white lady.” I’m hopeful that the reader feels compelled to do so as well, and since this story is mentioned virtually every time I’m questioned about the book, maybe it’s achieving my goal.
The sequencing of these stories is so compelling as a reader because by the end of the collection we have a sense of a collective story. The stories become interconnected, the characters intermingle, revealing pieces of each other. I was particularly struck, in later stories, with the ways that disconnected sisters Lexie and Madison see and don’t see each other. At the hospital, Lexie sees Madison, her younger sister, and thinks, “How could it be wrong to want to be loved, to admit needing to be loved? Why did I never just tell him that, in words? Wouldn’t a father—my father—know? Here I surprise myself, understanding suddenly how a sister, my sister, my sister Madison might want, need, expect, hope for the same from this man we share, our father.” Their father, the Speaker, is the person who connects many of these characters together, but in my view, the stories seem to focus less on him and more on the people who surround him, people who each live complex and vivid lives. What was the process of sequencing these stories like for you, and why did you choose to write this in a linked story format?
Originally, I saw the book about this tangled political family as a novel. When I’m thinking about a novel, I write to prompts and try to generate lots of material to help me understand the characters and their conflicts. That’s a fun part of the process for me because there’s no pressure…just a lot of writing whatever, and surprising discoveries. After Trump was elected, I found there was absolutely no fun at all in writing about this family, and a happy (but hard) day was when I decided to abandon the novel. Flash-forward to right before the pandemic, when my agent and editor read a group of stories I crammed together, and they wondered if linking the stories through place might be an interesting through-line. I was intrigued, and lockdown offered the focus and isolation to really think about the pieces of the abandoned novel—and the family—and DC—and life in general—in new ways. Writing helped me handle the stress of pandemic life.
What I like about linked stories is the ability to disregard chronology and work instead toward interesting juxtaposition, toward collage. I also like the idea of taking a single subject—power—and examining it through many different viewpoints, which is harder to do seamlessly in a more straightforward novel. Maybe because I was writing during a pandemic, still suffering under the Trump years, that I started pondering whether the traditional idea of “plot” has shifted. Is there really a 3-act, “beginning, middle, end” to our modern lives anymore?
Since the book is non-traditional and deals with uncomfortable topics, I knew I had to order the stories with the reader in mind. Additionally, it was important to set up the structure of the book early, so the reader knows some characters reappear and others don’t. It’s amazing how much goes into making the sausage of a linked story collection—all the while knowing the reader might pick up the book and open to a random page and start there!
The portrait of DC we get in these stories is not singular—at once, it’s a place full of ideas, politics and culture, and also a place of apathy: in “People Love a View,” after a dog is killed, people notice the dead dog and then seconds later resume their conversations, saying: “Are we there yet? Did you hear what the president said yesterday? Have you seen that movie where they blow up the Eiffel Tower?” At once, in this collection, we see people who are careless and also people wanting to make a difference; it’s an honest and beautiful depiction of the range of human possibility. I think the stories end on a note of hope, and so I wanted to ask what you hope people might take away from your book as a whole?
Thank you for appreciating that note of hope. I often start out thinking I want to end my books in despair and anguish, and always along the way, I find a better path. Here, I was happy to take an iconic DC experience—a protest—and match that to an emotional triumph of a character who sees the city anew, as a place of possibility and not of disappointment. It felt cleansing as I wrote, and surprising. I’ll confess that I love the last line, and I’ll also confess that I spent an entire afternoon tinkering with it, finally knowing I got it right with the addition of one simple word.
Most of all, any writer wants a reader to take away an excellent reading experience from a book; that’s what I want as a reader. As a writer, I try not to get wrapped up in grandiose visions of what readers should learn from my writing; who am I to teach anyone anything? I’m here to show you what I see: a simple, yet likely impossible mission. Still, if a reader feels a bit unsettled after reading my book, is examining their own interactions regarding race, is pondering the secrets they’re concealing from themselves, and wonders if someone really can walk across the Potomac River on the Wilson Bridge/I-95 (absolutely!), then I’ll be happy.
Leslie Pietrzyk’s collection of DC stories, ADMIT THIS TO NO ONE (Unnamed Press, November 2021) was called “insidery, insightful, and deftly executed” by Washingtonian magazine. She’s the author of three novels, including Silver Girl, published by Unnamed Press in 2018. Her first collection of short stories, This Angel on My Chest, won the 2015 Drue Heinz Literature Prize and was published by University of Pittsburgh Press. Short fiction and essays have appeared in Ploughshares, Story Magazine, Southern Review, The Gettysburg Review, The Iowa Review, Washingtonian, The Sun, The Washington Post Magazine, and others. Awards include a Pushcart Prize in 2020 and the 2020 Creative Arts Prize from the Polish American Historical Association. Organizations awarding fellowships include the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, the Hermitage Artist Retreat, Virginia Center for the Arts, and Hawthornden International Retreat at Hawthornden Castle in Scotland.