Interview: Virginia Pye

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Virginia Pye’s second novel, Dreams of the Red Phoenix, has been called by author Gish Jen, “Gripping, convincing, and heartbreaking…a real page-turner and thought-provoker—wonderful.” Kirkus writes: “There’s a comparison to Ballard’s Empire of the Sun, but this unflinching look…shares truth in its own way.” Her debut novel, River of Dust, (which I loved!) was chosen as an Indie Next Pick and a 2014 Virginia Literary Awards Finalist. Virginia has published award-winning short stories in literary magazines, and her essays and interviews have appeared in The New York Times OpinionatorThe RumpusHuffington Post, and forthcoming in Literary Hub. She holds an MFA from Sarah Lawrence and taught writing at New York University and the University of Pennsylvania. Since graduating from college, she has lived in Cambridge, Hartford, New York, Philadelphia, Richmond and now, coming full circle, Cambridge again.

Congratulations on the publication of your new novel, Dreams of the Red Phoenix. You have now published two novels set in the past in China. I’m curious why you chose that setting and earlier time?

I wrote a number of contemporary novels set in cities where I had lived and knew well, but it took writing about a distant place and time to really ignite my imagination. I found that by having to fully create a place, based on some research and a lot of envisioning, I was more likely to create a believable atmosphere. I could stake out my own territory in time and place—and only historians specializing in China can challenge me, though so far, they seem to say that I got it right.

So do you think of yourself as a historical novelist?

I’ve always thought of myself as a literary novelist who happens to have written two books set in an earlier time, but it’s probably time to revise that perspective. My understanding of the genre of historical fiction is a bit skewed and outdated. It used to be that historical novels were about real figures in history—kings and dukes and such—and often involved pomp or military maneuvers, but now historical fiction tells all sorts of stories from every strata of society. I’m happy to embrace the label now, although the novel I’ve just completed comes all the way up to 1990.

Tell us about your next manuscript. What have you been working on?

I’ve just sent my agent the third and final novel in this loosely based series about an American family in China. The first, River of Dust, which came out in 2013, was about an American missionary couple in northwest China in 1910. At the start of the story, their toddler child is kidnapped by Mongolian bandits, sending the parents on an odyssey into a desolate and dangerous countryside that untimely changes who they are and what they believe.

The second book, Dreams of the Red Phoenix, which is being published in October, 2015, is also about Americans in north China, but this time during the violent summer of 1937, just as the Japanese attack and Chinese political and military factions are fighting for control. My protagonist is a mother of a teenage boy, and shortly before the start of the story her husband has gone missing and is presumed dead. As the Japanese attack, she realizes she must offer her skills as a nurse to help the Chinese Communists. Quite quickly she becomes convinced of their cause and embroiled in the struggle. This leads her into all sorts of adventures, including a visit to a Red Army camp. The question that hovers over the book is whether she and her son will make it out of China alive.

The third and final book follows the next generation of Americans as they wrestle with their family’s missionary past. The daughter winds up involved in a student take over of Harvard protesting the Vietnam War, while her younger brother finds himself at the Fall of Saigon—two drastically different responses to their family’s complex relationship to Asia. The third book begins and ends in North China, in the same rural setting as the two previous novels.

Do you hope to visit China again soon?

I do! I’d love to go to Beijing this time and then travel out into the countryside to see my grandfather’s grave. I never knew him because he died when my father was only five, but I did know my grandmother when I was young. My grandfather was the inspiration for River of Dust, while my grandmother was the inspiration for Dreams of the Red Phoenix. To pay tribute to them, I would like to go there and see if the landscape is anything like what I imagined, although the region where my father was born and raised has changed drastically over the past century. It is now one of the most polluted places on earth. Not a great recommendation for a vacation spot, but when on a mission, writers aren’t always looking for what anyone else finds interesting. I would feel lucky to be there and soak up whatever hints of the past I could find.


 Congratulations, Virginia! I can’t wait to read Dreams of the Red Phoenix.

Book Recommendation: BIG MAGIC


“I happen to believe we are all walking repositories of buried treasure. I believe this is one of the oldest and most generous tricks the universe plays on us human beings, both for its own amusement and for ours: The universe buries strange jewels deep within us all, and then stands back to see if we can find them.” Elizabeth Gilbert, BIG MAGIC

Publisher Synopsis:

From the worldwide bestselling author of Eat Pray Love: the path to the vibrant, fulfilling life you’ve dreamed of.

Readers of all ages and walks of life have drawn inspiration and empowerment from Elizabeth Gilbert’s books for years. Now this beloved author digs deep into her own generative process to share her wisdom and unique perspective about creativity. With profound empathy and radiant generosity, she offers potent insights into the mysterious nature of inspiration. She asks us to embrace our curiosity and let go of needless suffering. She shows us how to tackle what we most love, and how to face down what we most fear. She discusses the attitudes, approaches, and habits we need in order to live our most creative lives. Balancing between soulful spirituality and cheerful pragmatism, Gilbert encourages us to uncover the “strange jewels” that are hidden within each of us. Whether we are looking to write a book, make art, find new ways to address challenges in our work,  embark on a dream long deferred, or simply infuse our everyday lives with more mindfulness and passion, Big Magic cracks open a world of wonder and joy.

My Recommendation: 

I have been a long-time fan of the writing of Elizabeth Gilbert, and only recently, have stumbled upon her joy-filled, wonder-full, awe-some Facebook and Instagram accounts. They are a well for anyone involved in creative pursuits; no, for all of us–for we are all creative and curious beings.

Gilbert’s joy is unabashed. She’s radical in her flagrant wielding of it. Her joy is the antidote to the abundance of trouble-making, politicizing, snarky, angry babel that infests social media. Gilbert addresses this joy in the opening pages of BIG MAGIC by quoting poet Jack Gilbert (no relation), so the reader knows what to expect from the onset:

“We must risk delight…We must have the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless furnace of this world.”


I’ve lately seen a sharp uptick in the amount of posts on Facebook and Twitter addressing divisive issues. I’ve been tempted to respond to these posts, retweet them, create my own, but often this leads me to a darkness that just doesn’t fit…me.

Does the need to share controversy arise from ego? (Do a certain amount of likes give me satisfaction?) Does it arise from a fear that I’m not doing my part? (We must not be silent.) Or is it more sinister? (Zuckerberg is playing with my emotions using data and share-metrics, and I am falling right into his trap.) I don’t know what it is, but increasingly, I find myself turning off social media (or retreating into the happy pictures of Instagram) in search of time off from Facebook and Twitter philosophers and politicians. More so, I find myself going OUTSIDE which has done wonders for my emotional and physical well-being, but more on that in another post.

All of this may seem like a digression from the purpose of this post; it is not. Read BIG MAGIC.

Liz Gilbert is a light-bearer. She brings energy and wonder and curiosity and gratitude back into fashion. She reminds the reader of simple things we know, or more complicated things we might not have understood, but all of it translates into a manifesto for embracing the joy of life, taking yourself and your endeavors lightly, and boldly going forth in the world bearing light.

Skeptics might grow uncomfortable with Gilbert’s talk of faith, of ideas as entities floating around looking for ways to be made manifest, and the divine cooperation the universe seeks with us, but read it anyway. Read it because it will not hurt you or make you angry. It will not make you lose sleep worrying over the state of the world, or whether you should share that political post, or if anything is worth fighting for any more.

Some things must be taken seriously. Some things must be shared and protested and addressed, but all of that seems to take care of itself, in excess. Give yourself the gift of BIG MAGIC to take care of the other part that needs tending: the glorious side of humanity when it engages fearlessly in the wonder of creation.



“I have had great length of days, and been many things. A reluctant warrior. A servant. A counselor. Sometimes, perhaps, his friend. And this, also, have I been: a hollow reed through which the breath of truth sounded its discordant notes.

Words. Words upon the wind. What will endure, perhaps, is what I have written. If so, it is enough.” Geraldine Brooks, The Secret Chord

Publisher Synopsis:

With more than two million copies of her novels sold, New York Times bestselling author Geraldine Brooks has achieved both popular and critical acclaim. Now, Brooks takes on one of literature’s richest and most enigmatic figures: a man who shimmers between history and legend. Peeling away the myth to bring David to life in Second Iron Age Israel, Brooks traces the arc of his journey from obscurity to fame, from shepherd to soldier, from hero to traitor, from beloved king to murderous despot and into his remorseful and diminished dotage.

The Secret Chord provides new context for some of the best-known episodes of David’s life while also focusing on others, even more remarkable and emotionally intense, that have been neglected.  We see David through the eyes of those who love him or fear him—from the prophet Natan, voice of his conscience, to his wives Mikal, Avigail, and Batsheva, and finally to Solomon, the late-born son who redeems his Lear-like old age. Brooks has an uncanny ability to hear and transform characters from history, and this beautifully written, unvarnished saga of faith, desire, family, ambition, betrayal, and power will enthrall her many fans.

My Recommendation:

Geraldine Brooks is a rare writer who is able to employ both gorgeous prose and spellbinding storytelling. Though some scenes in THE SECRET CHORD moved me to revulsion, or even tears, I could not look away. Many passages in my copy of the book are underlined for their potency and elegance. Brooks writes most lyrically when she describes David’s musical talent–arguably his most redeeming quality.

“It’s a kind of sorcery, a possession of body and spirit. Yet a wholesome one. And there is one chord, one perfect assembly of notes that no other hand can play. The sound of it–pure, rinsing sound, void, so that your spirit seems to rush in to fill the space between the notes.” 

In THE SECRET CHORD, King David’s story is told through a reliable narrator, which allows the reader to see a legendary ruler in all his unvarnished capacities. If we had heard David through his own voice, there may have been excuses, justifications, or omissions from his brutal history. Seeing David through a servant or advisor gives the entire picture, and that portrait–for all its beauty and glory–is blood-stained, torn, and decaying, even as the King makes his ascent.

Fans of WOLF HALL will be enthralled by this unflinching depiction of biblical royalty. The loyal and humble narrator, who helps the reader understand a time that feels both far removed and close to home, enchants. I give THE SECRET CHORD my highest recommendation.

I have one copy of THE SECRET CHORD to give away. Please comment below with your favorite work by Geraldine Brooks, or your favorite work of historical, epic, family drama by Monday, October 12th  at 9 PM ET. (US only, please.) Please share on social media, and good luck!

Book Recommendation: LITTLE WOMAN IN BLUE


“Clouds drifted below her. Mist rose over cliffs and caverns and a faraway lake. Yesterday’s rainfall still splashed over rocks and paths. She could now see that one wrong step could have ended her life…Her feet were cold in her boots. Her neck felt chilled where it was touched by her hair that hadn’t yet dried. But even the ache in her legs reminded her that she’d said she could make it here, where she could see the country where she’d be going. One valley in Italy looked small enough to hold in her hand.” Jeannine Atkins, LITTLE WOMAN IN BLUE: A NOVEL OF MAY ALCOTT

Publisher Synopsis

May Alcott spends her days sewing blue shirts for Union soldiers, but she dreams of painting a masterpiece―which many say is impossible for a woman―and of finding love, too. When she reads her sister’s wildly popular novel, Little Women, she is stung by Louisa’s portrayal of her as “Amy,” the youngest of four sisters who trades her desire to succeed as an artist for the joys of hearth and home. Determined to prove her talent, May makes plans to move far from Massachusetts and make a life for herself with room for both watercolors and a wedding dress. Can she succeed? And if she does, what price will she have to pay?

Based on May Alcott’s letters and diaries, as well as memoirs written by her neighbors, Little Woman in Blue puts May at the center of the story she might have told about sisterhood and rivalry in an extraordinary family.

My Recommendation: 

Please refrain from throwing pencils at me, but I despise Little Women. I think it is silly, saccharine drivel. Because of this, I was reluctant to pick up LITTLE WOMAN IN BLUE, but I’m so glad I did. Atkins delivers a marvelous reimagining of the very human story behind one of America’s most beloved novels.

Artists are often jealous by nature. They wish heartily for one another’s success when they’re struggling, and then covet it when another achieves a certain level of status. Equal parts self-doubt and ego, artists experience an incessant war within the psyche. Atkins fully animates these competitions and struggles, giving an unflinching glimpse into the tensions of a being a woman in the nineteenth century, in a working class family, in a nation at war. LITTLE WOMAN IN BLUE portrays these conflicts of sister and world with just the right touch–never burdening the reader with too much hopelessness, while creating intrigue and bringing the well-known writers and thinkers of Concord, Massachusetts to vivid life.

Throughout the reading of the novel I was often tempted to look online for May’s full life story, but I’m happy that I waited until I finished. LITTLE WOMAN IN BLUE is the Little Women I have always wanted, and for those who enjoy literature of this time period, and complicated female protagonists, I highly recommend it.



Sophia Peabody Hawthorne was born on this day in 1809. She and her husband Nathaniel Hawthorne had a gift in their love, which seemed to grow stronger each year. Even a decade into their marriage, Sophia wrote to her mother that she existed in a “blissful kind of confusion.” 

In the common journal the Hawthornes kept in their early marriage, when they lived at the Old Manse in Concord, MA, Sophia wrote this:

“[T]o be drawn forever into lower deeps, seeing only space beyond space, this is the true enchantment, the endless communion, and this is his–this is my mystery.”

To celebrate Sophia’s birthday, and if you would like to learn more about their unique love story and creative lives, an audio version of THE HOUSE OF HAWTHORNE is up for grabs on Goodreads:

Enter to win, and please help spread the word! The giveaway ends next Monday, September 28th.



“He once thought it himself, that he might die of grief: for his wife, his daughters, his sisters, his father and master the cardinal. But the pulse, obdurate, keeps its rhythm. You think you cannot keep breathing, but your ribcage has other ideas, rising and falling, emitting sighs. You must thrive in spite of yourself; and so that you may do it, God takes out your heart of flesh, and gives you a heart of stone.” Hilary Mantel, BRING UP THE BODIES, WINNER OF THE 2012 MAN BOOKER PRIZE

Publisher Synopsis:

The sequel to Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantel’s 2009 Man Booker Prize winner and New York Times bestseller, Bring Up the Bodies delves into the heart of Tudor history with the downfall of Anne Boleyn.

Though he battled for seven years to marry her, Henry is disenchanted with Anne Boleyn. She has failed to give him a son and her sharp intelligence and audacious will alienate his old friends and the noble families of England. When the discarded Katherine dies in exile from the court, Anne stands starkly exposed, the focus of gossip and malice.

At a word from Henry, Thomas Cromwell is ready to bring her down. Over three terrifying weeks, Anne is ensnared in a web of conspiracy, while the demure Jane Seymour stands waiting her turn for the poisoned wedding ring. But Anne and her powerful family will not yield without a ferocious struggle. Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up the Bodies follows the dramatic trial of the queen and her suitors for adultery and treason. To defeat the Boleyns, Cromwell must ally with his natural enemies, the papist aristocracy. What price will he pay for Anne’s head?

Bring Up the Bodies is one of The New York Times’ 10 Best Books of 2012, one of Publishers Weekly’s Top 10 Best Books of 2012 and one of The Washington Post’s 10 Best Books of 2012.

My Recommendation:

In this stunning sequel to WOLF HALL, the reader should be familiar with Mantel’s unusual stylistic choices–sometimes addressing the reader through the second person point of view, lines of great meaning and gravity embedded within the narrative the way gems are sewn into royal gowns, ambiguous pronouns (that Mantel makes great pains to illustrate clearly, almost rudely, in this novel)–and can sink immediately into the story that hums with the tension leading up to the death of Anne Boleyn and her unfortunate admirers.

The book is deeply cynical; there might not be an honorable character in the bunch, but all are starkly human, larger than life. Mantel takes a story that has been told, and told, and told, and somehow makes it new. Starting the book is like mounting a runaway horse approaching a cliff, knowing full well the horse will not stop, but going along anyway for the sheer terror and adventure of the ride.

In all honesty, this is a hard recommendation for me. It’s difficult for me to separate the work from the artist, but ultimately, there is no need. BRING UP THE BODIES is well served by its author, because its protagonist, Thomas Cromwell, is quite antagonistic.

Are you intrigued? Have you read this or WOLF HALL? I would love to hear what you think.

Cover Reveal and Giveaway!

The day has finally arrived when I may share the shiny, new, paperback cover for THE HOUSE OF HAWTHORNE. In case you missed May’s hardcover release, a paperback launch will come during the spring of 2016, which I know will make my book clubbers happy.

With the cover reveal, I will also give away an audio copy of THE HOUSE OF HAWTHORNE, for those of you who prefer to listen to stories. To win, please comment below by 9 PM ET on Friday, September 4th about which Hawthorne cover you prefer, or your favorite Hawthorne story. (US and Canada only, please.) Here is the hardcover for your reference:

House of Hawthorne cover Final

And now, without further ado, here is the trade paperback cover of THE HOUSE OF HAWTHORNE:

House of Hawthorne paperback final

What do you think?