By Susan Hale Thomas (Photo/Susan Hale Thomas)
As a young girl, local author Leslie Pietrzyk always walked to school with her face in her book. She loved to hear her teacher read aloud.
In junior high, she wrote what she described as “terrible angsty poetry with no capital letters.” She wrote for her school’s student newspaper. Now, she writes stories in the solitude of her car along the Potomac River, in the silence of a library or the bustle of a coffee shop. She finds inspiration for her stories and characters all around her.
This year, one of the nation’s most respected awards for short fiction, the Drue Heinz Literature Prize, was awarded to Pietrzyk for her manuscript “This Angel on My Chest,” a collection of short stories from the perspective of young women who suffer the sudden loss of a husband.
Pietryzk’s work is a reflection of her own life. Her husband died of a sudden heart attack in 1997 at the age of 37.
Although Pietrzyk already has two published novels, “Pears on a Willow Tree” and “A Year and a Day,” this award is particularly special to her.
“It’s knowing how hard it is to get a collection of short stories published in the publishing world,” she said. “It’s really exciting. Also, it’s a very personal book for me … They’re all special, but this one means a little extra to me since it’s about my experience of losing my first husband when he died.”
Pietrzyk was at a writing colony at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts eating breakfast and found herself in conversation with a poet, when inspiration struck.
The poet was teaching a class on the writing of subcultures. Pietrzyk found the genre interesting, and with a little extra time on her hands, set out to her writing studio to work. She decided to write about the young widow support group that she had gone to.
“I knew I would write about it at some point, but I didn’t know when or where, but plenty of time has passed,” she said. “All this stuff came out, so that was the first story that I wrote when I started taking this seriously as a project. And I thought, wow, I think there’s more here to write.
“The assignment that I gave myself was to write about this experience in an open-ended way in short stories. I knew I wasn’t going to write a novel, and at the core of each story is one true, hard, thing about the experience, and often it’s a thing that people won’t want to talk about, like that bitterness … in the story “I Am the Widow.”
Pietrzyk said that although each story in the collection is fiction, they all feature at least a some autobiographical material.
“Even though the book is short stories and it’s fictionalized, it’s not as if these things happened exactly, but there is one tiny little nugget of total difficult truth,” she said. “I like to think it’s kind of an emotional truth.”
Having grown up in Iowa, Pietrzyk always felt like she would end up on the East Coast.
“I like living in a place where everyone is smart,” she said. “Washington is a book kind of town and there’s a very big literary community here that I have a fabulous time hanging out with, learning from, and being supported by, and supporting.”
The urge to surround herself with other writers gave Pietrzyk the idea to start a local writing group. She posted a message on Rosemont’s neighborhood listserv more than three years ago looking for other creative writers to meet monthly and write based on one-word prompts.
“The first meeting had five or six [people],” Pietrzyk said. “People come and go, but four have been here all three years, and a very steady core of seven meet at Bittersweet [Catering Cafe and Bakery].”
“The writer’s prompt group is responsible for the spark of something being published,” said resident Nina Sichel, who’s been with the group for a year.
“A lot of characters or character sketches started [at Bittersweet] often show up in my work,” Pietrzyk said.
Pietrzyk’s writing group colleagues are supportive of her work.
“We’re so very proud of Leslie,” said Nancy Carson.
“And excited for Leslie, because it’s so hard to get book of short stories published,” Sichel added quickly.
Pietrzyk remarried in 2006 and lives with her husband in Alexandria. In addition to her writing, Pietrzyk teaches fiction and novel workshops in the Masters in Writing program at Johns Hopkins University and for the low-residency MFA program at Converse College in Spartanburg, S.C. She currently is working on the first draft of a novel about two college girls and the challenges of female friendship.
But despite all of her obligations, Pietrzyk always returns to the group she started at Bittersweet.
“Writing can be lonely but prompt group is not.”