Q&A With Virginia Pye

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Q&A With Virginia Pye 

Last weekend I finished reading Virginia Pye’s recent release The Literary Undoing of Victoria Swann, whom I have the honor of doing this Q&A with today! Virginia Pye is also the author of two other historical fiction novels which are set in China, titled Dreams of the Red Phoenix and River of Dust. Virginia’s essays have appeared in The New York Times, The Literary Hub, Publisher’s Weekly, Writer’s Digest, and many others. Virginia is also an editor at Pangyrus and has taught writing at NYU, UPenn & at GrubStreet Writing Center in Boston. 

Q: Virginia, would you like to tell the readers of the blog who haven’t read The Literary Undoing of Virginia Swann a little bit about it? 

A: Sure! Victoria Swann is a successful author of romance and adventure novels who becomes a champion of women’s rights as she takes on the literary establishment and finds her true voice, both on and off the page. Everything changes for her when she goes against her publisher’s demands and abandons her frivolous style of writing to tell her own story. Her new, young, Harvard-bred editor becomes her unexpected ally as she fights for the women who have been her faithful readers. Set in Gilded Age Boston, The Literary Undoing of Victoria Swann shows writing and reading as acts of defiance and revision in life and revision on the page as intimately entwined. I loved telling Victoria’s story because it has so many resonances with women’s lives today, including pay equity, abortion rights, as well as immigrant rights and issues around addiction. But the novel isn’t overly serious. It has a lot of humor and is really a book lover’s story. All the good guys are readers, and all the bad guys are not. Book people are the heroes as much as Victoria herself. 

Q: In the acknowledgements section you mentioned a woman author Gail Hamilton inspired your novel. What was the research process like when writing the book and which similarities did Gail & the fictional Victoria share? 

A: I moved back to the Boston area some years ago and was struck with how bookish it is. People read here, more so than in any other city where I’ve lived. And I loved that. But I also noticed all the historic markers to the gentlemen of letters from earlier decades, especially in Cambridge, where I live. I began to feel the weight of all that literary history—the shadow of the men who make up the American literary cannon. That led me to wonder what it must’ve been like for women of letters of an earlier time. What if you were a woman writer who didn’t write philosophical tracts or high literature, but instead you wrote fun romance stories for women. I began to do research on nineteenth century women writers and came across the name of the author Gail Hamilton. She published over twenty-five books and was famous in her day. Actually Hamilton was her pen name. Her real name was Mary Abigail Dodge, and in 1967 she sued her Boston publisher for underpaying her as a woman. When I read that I got excited. Here was a woman who clearly felt mistreated and unappreciated by the male literary establishment. My character of Victoria Swann began to emerge in my imagination. 

Q: I know you wrote two historical novels Dreams of the Red Phoenix and River of Dust. Besides the fact that both novels take place in China, what else sets these two books apart from The Literary Undoing Of Victoria Swann? 

A: I’m proud of those two novels, as they both weave social conditions and themes into fast-paced, adventure stories. In River of Dust, a young missionary couple has their toddler son kidnapped by Mongolian bandits and must go deep into the mysterious countryside to try to find him. Dreams of the Red Phoenix also takes place in northwest rural China, but in the summer of 1937 when the Japanese are attacking, the Communists and Nationalists are fighting each other, and in the middle of that chaos, an American woman and her teenage son try to escape, except then she gets caught up with Red Army and joins them instead of leaving. Both stories have danger, and the big question is whether the main characters will survive in their difficult circumstances.

In The Literary Undoing of Victoria Swann, her challenges are great, too, but I don’t think we ever imagine she’ll die, though she does get knocked down several pegs and goes from being a fine, elegant lady to something altogether different. But I use a light touch and humor to create what I hope are loveable characters who rally around our heroine. And from the feedback I’m receiving, readers are saying that Victoria is quite appealing. Readers like where she winds up by the end of the story. Her arc is a joyful one.

Q: What lessons do you hope readers take away from The Literary Undoing Of Victoria Swann?

A: I don’t know about lessons. I don’t really think that novels are supposed to teach. I think they’re supposed to entertain and enlighten, which is close to teaching but not quite. I want the reader of this novel to have a good time. To enjoy a somewhat outrageous and spirited yarn. And, to also notice the many ways that life for women in our country hasn’t changed all that much. The themes woven through the novel point to the fact that history does repeat itself. Being set in 1899, my novel takes place in a Puritanical era, much like ours today, and the constraints that puts on women’s lives are real. Hopefully, my story allows the reader to feel the pain and anguish of how women’s lives are compromised. 

Q: Virginia your essays have been featured in famous publications such as The New York Times, Literary Hub, Publisher’s Weekly, and Writer’s Digest. What advice would you give to those of us who would want to submit pieces for those publications? What’s it like having work being featured in those publications?

A: I’ve enjoyed having my essays out there and have received some meaningful correspondence from readers in response to them, which I love. It’s great to connect with readers! And I suggest for anyone who wants to write essays or short stories, it’s always best to study the publication you’re interested in published by. See what they’re looking for then do your best to respond. And know that you’ll need to revise whatever you write multiple times. Writing takes practice. There’s no way around it. And rejection is always part of the process. No way around that either. 

Q: Would you say having your essays published in famous publications & being an editor has been an influence in you writing your novels?

A: I don’t think so. I enjoy reading the short stories that writers submit to the literary journal where I’m a co-fiction editor, but that doesn’t change what I write. And the essays that I write mostly accompany my novels. They’re written on assignment to illustrate themes from my research. I don’t write the novels to fit with the essays, but the other way around.

Q: Does Hollywood have the rights to your work? They could use more original content. 

A: I’d love that! No one has offered, but if you or your readers want to connect me to anyone, I’d so appreciate it. I know I’m partial, but I honestly think this novel would make a great movie. 

Q: Are you currently writing your next historical fiction novel? If so, what is the topic of this novel?

A: My next novel is a contemporary story set in the summer of 2020 in Richmond Virginia. The marriages of two sisters implode spectacularly over the six weeks of summer and set against the backdrop of the social protests and the removal of the Confederate monuments. Of Monuments and Marriages is a crisp, fast-paced story about love, deceit, and redemption that also deals with themes of racial justice and social engagement. It shows how secrets within a marriage erode trust and how for a couple to evolve they must first be true to who they are as individuals and as members of an imperfect society.