THIS WEEK’S OTHER FEATURED BOOK, “MANIAC DRIFTER,” BY LAURA MARELLO, CAN BE FOUND BY SCROLLING DOWN BELOW THIS POST, OR BY CLICKING ON HER NAME ON THE “AUTHOR” PAGE. THIS MONTH’S “FIRST TUESDAY REPLAY” IS ALSO BELOW THIS POST.
THE BOOK: This Angel on My Chest.
PUBLISHED IN: 2015
THE AUTHOR: Leslie Pietrzyk.
THE EDITOR: This book won the Drue Heinz Literature Prize, so perhaps it’s fitting to mention instead the contest judge: Jill McCorkle.
THE PUBLISHER: University of Pittsburgh Press SUMMARY: This Angel on My Chest is a collection of unconventionally-linked short stories, blurring the line between fact and fiction; each story is about a young woman whose husband has died, and much (though not all) of the book plays with form, including stories told as a quiz, a craft lecture about writing, an index, and a YouTube video.
Based on my own experience of losing my husband at age thirty-seven, this book explores the resulting grief, fury, and bewilderment, mirroring the obsessive nature of grieving. The stories examine the universal issues we face at a time of loss, as well as the specific concerns of a young widow: support groups, in-laws, insurance money, dating, and remarriage. This Angel on My Chest ultimately asks, how is it possible to move forward with life while “till death do you part” rings in your ears—and, how is it possible not to?
THE BACK STORY: The assignment I gave myself as I started this project was to place at the heart of each story a single, hard, true thing about my own experience as a young widow and to go from there. I take a lot of literary license, of course, but this is by far my most personal book. I wouldn’t expect readers to try guessing what’s true and what’s made-up; the book isn’t a puzzle to decipher. But I like to think that the parts of “real me” that are in there give the book a recognizable authenticity.
And the start of this book came rather randomly: I was at an artists’ colony, chatting at breakfast about the literature of sub-cultures, and that afternoon I decided to write my own story about a sub-culture, which ended up being the young widow support group I had attended. The words spilled out, and I was fortunate to be in a place where I could follow the muse, as they say, and in that week I drafted several stories anchored by that “one true thing” that now appear in the book.
While the book’s opening story (“Ten Things”) was written many years ago, shortly after Robb died, the rest of the book was written in a period of about three years, following that visit to the artists’ colony.
WHY THIS TITLE?: I struggle with titles, and after much (much!) thought, I was pleased to land upon this one, which is adapted from a Bruce Springsteen lyric in the song “Backstreets”—suggesting someone’s passing with the word “angel” and suggesting a bit of heaviness on the heart, with “on my chest.” And “this” makes it utterly personal: mine.
WHY WOULD SOMEONE WANT TO READ IT? I hope my book is found by the person who has lost a spouse/significant other; the person rebuilding a life after divorce; the person mourning a loss that isn’t immediately recognized by Hallmark, perhaps their best friend or favorite work colleague or married lover; the person reeling from the bad crap that life hurls at us; the person who imagines random and terrible things can’t possibly happen on a Sunday or any day or ever. Each of us has, or will have, a story of loss. But I hope the reader of this book will close the cover understanding that whether we believe it or not, we are all equipped to survive these losses and find happiness once again.
I also think this book appeals to writers or anyone interested in the power of story, story-telling, and truth…there’s a meta level to the book about how and why we document lives through story.
“The author’s wit, clarity, and literary inventiveness dance circles around the omnipresent sadness, making this book a prime example of the furious creative energy that can explode from the collision of grief with talent and craftsmanship.”
— Kirkus Reviews (starred)
[named Best Books of Fiction, 2015]
“A powerful and moving collection. These stories are held together by the experience of grief; a husband dying too soon and a wife left to go on. There is an abundance of wit, and wise observations about life. I always felt firmly rooted in the emotion, startled again and again by the weight of the simplest everyday objects and situations, against a backdrop of loss.”
—Jill McCorkle, judge, author of Life After Life
“This Angel on My Chest is a really impressive piece of work, viewing a core event as through a prism, an ingenious concept for a book and fully deserving of any prize out there that recognizes literary brilliance.”
“A stunning book, a rare tour de force, this prismatic look at the devastation of losing a young spouse explodes with intelligence, with poetry, with personality, with a dazzling array of views from different perspectives all faced toward the same empty, motionless center. It is ablaze with Pietrzyk’s courage and her compassion. Pages fly by until the subject no longer merely frightens you but now terrifies, while making your heart more open, more understanding all at once. This, folks, is what writing is all about. I am in awe.”
—Robin Black, author of If I loved you, I would tell you this and Life Drawing.
I am the author of two previous novels, Pears on a Willow Tree and A Year and a Day. My short fiction and essays have appeared in many publications, including Washington Post Magazine, Salon, Gettysburg Review, TriQuarterly, The Sun, Shenandoah, Iowa Review, Washingtonian, and Cincinnati Review. I’m a member of the core fiction faculty at the Converse low-residency MFA program and also teach in the MA Program in Writing at Johns Hopkins University.
I live in Alexandria, Virginia, where I spend my free time cooking up a storm. Please check out my website for some of my favorite recipes, including the BEST Thanksgiving stuffing in the world! http://www.lesliepietrzyk.com; you can specifically find the stuffing recipe here: http://lesliepietrzyk.com/about/ (scroll to the bottom).
AUTHOR COMMENTS: I guess I’d like to talk a bit about why I chose to experiment with form, which is a stylistic departure for me. I definitely had fun playing around — amidst the torture of wrestling 10 different types of point of view into the 40-page craft lecture of “One True Thing.” [link below] But the underlying purpose of experimenting with form was to illustrate the utter impossibility of conveying the depth of loss and pain experienced after a loved one dies. Even mourning the death of the same person speaks to this impossibility: losing a husband is different than losing a child or a brother or a friend or a parent or a co-worker or an in-law, and none of these is the worst because they are all heartbreaking. The bereaved are plunked into an altered world, where nothing is normal, and the regular rules have vanished. I wanted the writing to reflect that reality.
SAMPLE CHAPTER: I am grateful that several of these stories first appeared in literary journals and are online. “Acquiescence” (flash fiction) ~ http://shenandoahliterary.org/622/acquiescence/ “Ten Things” (short story) ~ http://thesunmagazine.org/archives/807
“One True Thing” (see above; the long story that almost was my undoing!) ~ http://thecollagist.com/the-collagist/2015/2/6/one-true-thing.html
LOCAL OUTLETS: Politics & Prose bookstore, DC, http://www.politics-prose.com/book/9780822944423
WHERE ELSE TO BUY IT: https://www.amazon.com/This-Angel-Chest-Heinz-Prize/dp/0822944421
PRICE: $24.95 (HC).