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Virginia Pye

Virginia Pye is the author of two award-winning novels, Dreams of the Red Phoenix and River of Dust, and the short story collection, Shelf Life of Happiness. Her stories, essays, and interviews have appeared in Literary Hub, The New York Times, The Rumpus, Huffington Post, The North American Review, The Baltimore Review, Tampa Review, and elsewhere. She lived in Richmond, Virginia for many years and now lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Find her online at www.virginiapye.com, FB, Twitter, and Instagram.


"These are terrific stories. The deep surprises their characters keep offering each other show a rare understanding of human nature. From a dying man's marriage to a small town's mysterious murders, the emergencies of ordinary life illuminate this book. A joy to read."

– Joan Silber

“The characters in Virginia Pye’s Shelf Life of Happiness experience their lives as a tangle they urgently need to understand before it’s too late. They’re experts on how to keep their hearts in reserve . . . . yet all they want is to access the appreciative tenderness that’s waiting for them within their best selves. These are deft and moving stories.”

– Jim Shephard

"Shelf Life of Happiness is remarkable. Virginia Pye writes with a sharp eye and a compassionate heart. Sly, insightful, and vivid, these are some of the best stories I have read in years. These tales amaze with their yearning, with their wisdom, and with their love."

– Jennifer Finney Boylan

“…a deeply moving meditation on the complexity and potential generosity of love.”

– Kirkus Reviews

"Shelf Life of Happiness is a collection of impressive range and deep emotional intelligence. These are stories...that are remembered later with such clarity and feeling that they seem like one's own memories."

– Kelly Luce

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Shelf Life of Happiness

An Interview with Virginia Pye


It's rare to open a book, read any given page, and find oneself utterly absorbed. But that's precisely what happened to me as I read Virginia Pye's marvelous new collection of stories, Shelf Life of HappinessWith supple prose and truly immersive worlds, I found myself neglecting the dishes, my ringing phone, and refusing to turn off the lamp and get to sleep. Pye's book simply had more meaning and urgency than any of those things.

I met Pye as a fellow writer in Boston, where we met at numerous readings, events, and gatherings hosted by GrubStreet, an independent writing center. She immediately struck me as sharp-eyed and generous, and before long I got to share drafts with her in a local writing group. I'm grateful to read her fiction, and to pose some questions to the woman whose work swallowed me up.


Sonya Larson: To me, the great engine of Shelf Life of Happiness is how it juxtaposes life's tranquil, peaceable, and lovely moments with the dark, sinister, betraying, exploitative, and even murderous. Characters may be attending a theme party, planting flowers in the garden, or vacationing in Italy, but the claws of danger, envy, and manipulation are always on their heels. Do you think about such themes in your work, and how do you manage to have contrasting forces coexist?

Virginia Pye: Thanks for that description! I think you’ve captured well the source of tension in these stories. I suppose I think that in the midst of happiness there’s always the possibility of its expiration. That’s what the title of the collection means to suggest. Even knowing that joy can be snatched away, we have to fully throw ourselves into life anyway. In fiction, I’m interested in those moments that teeter on the edge. They allow us to see into the hearts and minds of characters. We figure out who we are when tested by life. The same is true in these stories.

SL: Your book exhibits wonderful range; somehow you're able to inhabit many different characters from all walks of life—aspiring young skateboarders, aged painters, slick art dealers, wily adulterers, a dying groom, and a town in the aftermath of a family massacre. Where do you get your ideas for these characters, and how did you stretch your imagination to render each one?

VP: I love writing about people I’m not. To me, that’s what fiction is for. Writing gives me an excuse to imagine the inner workings of strangers. A lot has been written recently about how fiction increases empathy in readers and writers, but to me that seems so obvious: art has always been about stretching and enriching our hearts and minds. My characters may be inspired by people I’ve rubbed elbows with, or by people whose situations I’m intrigued by, but then I enlist my imagination to move beyond the real and create new worlds with their own challenges. I think a good story needs a crux—an inner or external conflict—that brings out who characters really are. By putting them in dramatic situations, hopefully they come to a life of their own.

SL: Several of the stories also manage a remarkable feat of craft: they capture an entire person's life in a tiny, heightened sliver of time. An artist, for example, reflects on a lifetime of longing and regret while struggling to swim. How did you go about writing a short story that's so ambitious in its scope? Did you begin with that aim in mind? 

VP: Usually I know where a story is headed, though I don’t always know how I’ll get there. In the case of Redbone, the story you allude to, I sensed a tragedy, but had to write it to discover how it would unfold. Sometimes, in a story, you need to give the reader an encapsulation of a character’s past. The trick is figuring out how much or how little to share. I think reading and writing a lot of fiction over the years has helped me to make an educated guess. I also think about rhythm in my writing—not wanting to get stuck on one note for too long, or bore the reader, but instead keep a story humming along.

SL: Which story was most fun/most difficult? Which taught you the most as a writer? 

VP: My first thought was that there’s only one story, Her Mother’s Garden, that taught me something: it helped me to move on from the grief I felt over my parents’ deaths and the sale of the house where I grew up. But actually, each story in the collection helped me in some unique way. Best Man helped me absorb the loss of a friend who died years ago of AIDS. An Awesome Gap helped me accept my son’s devotion to skateboarding—and therefore who he is as a person—even though I didn’t fully understand it. Each time I succeed at imagining a story, I think I evolve a bit as a person. It’s hard to explain, because these stories aren’t about specific things I’ve gone through. And yet, they each do the job of helping me to move forward in life with greater understanding. Perhaps they do something similar for the reader. To me, at least, this explains the joy I feel when writing each and every one of them.

SL: Describe your process. How do you go from idea to first draft, and first draft to final draft?

VP: These stories come out of small gems of understanding and serendipitous moments when life suggest deeper meanings. One Easter morning, at a brunch in our backyard, my husband and I realized that our young son had dug up a dead bird he and his father had buried a few days before. We were suddenly dealing with a resurrection on Easter morning—almost too perfect a gift—and I had to use it as inspiration for a story.

After considering some specific conundrum or irony of life, I write a draft, then rewrite and rewrite and rewrite, sending out the story to literary magazines and getting it back, then revising more until it’s finally placed. It’s a long process. The stories in Shelf Life of Happiness were written over a dozen years and rewritten all along the way. I even continued to edit on the spot during a recent reading.

SL: You've also written two award-winning novels: Dreams of the Red Phoenix and River of Dust. How do story-writing and novel-writing differ for you?

VP: A story can come from a single idea or gem of understanding, but a novel has to have many themes and characters and an arc that can sustain it. A story is more of a snapshot, although I like my stories to have a beginning, middle, and end. By the end of a story, I want my reader to have a feeling of completion. Each one should be a small sculpture—coherent in theme and style and execution. In a novel, there’s more room for elaboration and excess. I like my stories to be tight.

SL: What are you working on now?

VP: I’m working on something very different. A Woman of Letters is a novel set in 1890s Boston, about a woman who writes romance and adventure tales and must fight to be taken seriously in the world of men of letters. She decides to change her writing style to be more literary, upending everything for herself and her publisher, and ultimately allowing romance to leave the page and enter her life. It’s a feminist tale, and a writer’s tale, and a lot of fun!

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