My First Time is a regular feature in which writers talk about virgin experiences in their writing and publishing careers, ranging from their first rejection to the moment of holding their first published book in their hands. Today’s guest is Virginia Pye; her debut novel, River of Dust, is an Indie Next Pick for May 2013. Annie Dillard called River of Dust "terrific, tremendous, wonderful...a strong beautiful, deep book." Virginia Pye's award-winning short stories have appeared in numerous literary magazines, including The North American Review, Failbetter, The Baltimore Review and Tampa Review. She holds an MFA from Sarah Lawrence and taught writing at New York University and The University of Pennsylvania. In Richmond, she has helped run James River Writers, a literary non-profit organization. Click here to visit her website.
My First Six Novels
As with so many writers, my debut novel is not my first, but instead, my sixth. My first novel was accepted by a top-notch New York literary agent shortly after I received my MFA from Sarah Lawrence College. I took the elevator to the sixty-sixth floor and sat in her office, not entirely sure why I was there, until she started to speculate that Meryl Streep would play the mother in the film version of my novel and Judd Hirsch, the dad. I was twenty-seven years old and my life was about to change. But as it happened, it didn’t. No editors wanted that first novel, which was titled American Girl before the dolls became popular.
I wrote several more novels that a different excellent agent tried to sell, yet still no takers at the publishing houses. I taught writing and literature at New York University and at the University of Pennsylvania, and had two children. With young ones central to my life, I didn’t feel interested in returning to my most recent manuscript about a married woman who discovers she’s HIV-positive. The story was too dark for a kid-friendly life in full swing. In general, writing books had become woven with rejection in my mind and so, for close to a decade, I wrote very little.
But as soon as our second child went off to kindergarten, I started another novel. So it goes with novels: they serve as bookmarks for key chapters in an author’s life. They chart our obsessions. One manuscript in particular kept trailing me for years. It became the chapter that might never end.
Sleepwalking to China told the story of three generations of an American family in China and Vietnam. I was convinced it was my most promising effort. Around thirty agents ended up reading it, several more than once, and although there was positive feedback, each found it flawed, though not always for the same reason. The writing was strong in parts; the characters rang true at moments, or the setting was often evocative, but somehow it didn’t hold together as a book. More than one agent told me I needed to re-envision the entire structure.
Nancy Zafris (a novelist, short story writer and editor) to finally help me see how. We met for a long weekend at The Porches, a writing retreat in rural Virginia. Nancy, who judges the Flannery O’Connor Prize and was a long time editor at The Kenyon Review, had read my novel before we met and warned me ahead of time that my book was actually two manuscripts, not one. I arrived at The Porches prepared for surgery. Together, we rolled up our sleeves for a weekend of conversation and brainstorming. What a gift of forty-eight hours! For once, I wasn’t alone in trying to figure out how to do the impossible alone.
I left the Porches on a beautiful spring day and drove with the windows open. I felt free and exhilarated to have two novels plotted and ready to be written. On April 1, 2012, I sat down and began writing like a fiend, saving about a chapter of the earlier book and producing thirty new ones. Every other novel I had ever worked on was a slow, somewhat meandering process of organically discovering story and character. This novel, which would soon be called River of Dust, shot out of me like a torpedo. I finished that first draft on April 23, 2012, twenty-three days after starting.
Nancy kindly agreed to read that first draft and within several weeks Greg Michalson, editor and publisher of Unbridled Books, had read it, too, and offered me a contract. By mid-June, my debut novel was on its way to publication. Now, only nine months later, it has been chosen by independent booksellers to be an Indie Next Pick for May 2013.
The pace of those weeks, the startling ease of the writing, the fact that my editor took a first draft after I had spent years perfecting manuscripts with up to twenty drafts: none of it made much sense. And yet, strangely enough, it did. I’ve learned that, for me, it takes an inordinate amount of practice to write a good novel. And the road was necessarily long and winding between my first first and my last first.