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 My understanding of the genre of historical fiction is a bit skewed and outdated.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.


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