A BARRELHOUSE INTERVIEW WITH LESLIE PIETRZYK
In My Big Little Break, we ask authors to talk about the first piece they ever had published, how it felt to finally break through, and what they’ve learned since then. This week, writer Leslie Pietrzyk answers.
What was the title and genre of your first-ever published piece?
I’m going to go split personality here because I was an oddly ambitious, utterly clueless teenager who started sending out work when I was fifteen or so. Sadly, some went to The New Yorker! No, they didn’t take my wretched poetry about lonely sunsets. Lucky for me—and editors—I eventually learned to focus submissions, so my first published piece was a brief, humorous personal essay in a section of Seventeen magazine that published teen work.
In a more literary vein, what I call my first “grown-up” publication was a story called “Morning” published in South Carolina Review, accepted shortly after I got my MFA from American University. This combination of events made me feel like an official writer.
Who published it? Are they still around?
I’m happy to report that South Carolina Review is definitely still around, with a fabulous new editor (Keith Lee Morris) and that I have a story forthcoming in fall or winter—my first reappearance there.
Seventeen is also still around, though I can’t determine whether they continue to publish teen writing. (Wikipedia helpfully notes that Sylvia Plath “submitted nearly fifty pieces to Seventeen before her first short story, ‘And Summer Will Not Come Again,’ was accepted and published in the August 1950 issue.” Guess she should have tried the teen section.)
Give us some context: how old were you? How long had you been writing and submitting? How many times had the piece been rejected? Anything else we're missing.
So, I’m fascinated by the audacity of that teenage girl reading The Writer magazine at the public library to learn the submission process. It’s crazy to send work to The New Yorker as a fifteen-year-old—and I DON’T advise doing so—yet I know that jumping into the submissions game so early, while being both hopeful and dumb, helped me develop the world’s thickest skin when it comes to the writing life.
As for “Morning” and South Carolina Review, I still have the index card with my submission record, and I see that The New Yorker rejected that one, too…along with 9 other places.
Did getting that acceptance feel as triumphant as you'd always hoped? Walk us through the moment when you found out.
I was—and am—super-proud of both publications. Getting my work into Seventeen—a magazine I subscribed to and adored—was a thrill and an affirmation (though their editing was so severe that I barely recognized my short piece). Back then, the excitement was about the byline, I think. I sold several other pieces to Seventeen, and I parlayed that relationship into a visit to their office during my first trip to New York City. What could be more electrifying than walking into a glittery office building for my first meeting as a “writer” at age 19? That early experience gave me a vision that it all could be possible—though I didn’t know what “it” even was.
And the South Carolina Review showed me the literary side of my new world, that my words could be in a journal that published Joyce Carol Oates in the SAME ISSUE…that maybe your name is a byline, but your words are the art.
Are you still proud of that piece? Have you re-read it recently?
At the time, I was pleased that “Morning” was about adults, rather than college/grad students or being autobiographical, as many of my early attempts were. I remember being especially proud of an extended metaphor woven throughout the story. But let’s not rush to place this story in a collection now! I could re-read it…but I think I’ll just remember it with fondness.
Now that you've been doing this for a while, collecting plenty of rejections and acceptances along the way, what advice do you wish you could give your younger self?
I love that I was bold and ambitious and dumb. To follow that sentence I originally typed out an answer along the lines of “wait to submit work until it’s ready, blah-blah-blah”…but I deleted that, though that’s definitely the logical and wise advice I pass along to students. But thinking about my baby-writer days has made me reconsider. Maybe my advice to younger writers is SUBMIT your work! Be bold and ambitious. All that rejection will not kill you. Really, it won’t. And knowing that is maybe the best thing to know about the biz side.
Leslie Pietrzyk is the author of Pears on a Willow Tree and A Year and a Day (novels). Her 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. A new novel, Silver Girl, is forthcoming from Unnamed Press in 2018, and Reversing the River, a historical novel, is being serialized on the literary app Great Jones Street in summer 2017. Her short fiction and essays have appeared/are forthcoming in Washington Post Magazine, Salon, Southern Review, Gettysburg Review, Hudson Review, The Sun, Shenandoah, Arts & Letters, River Styx, Iowa Review, Washingtonian, The Collagist, and Cincinnati Review. Pietrzyk is a member of the core fiction faculty at the Converse low-residency MFA program. More information: www.lesliepietrzyk.com