By Kayla Rae Whitaker
Silver Girl has haunted me since I read it in the first days of 2018. I say read, but a more appropriate term, perhaps, is consumed. On the surface, it is a story of friendship between women: the book’s narrator and her best friend, Jess, attend a privileged university in 1980s Chicago, while the exploits of the Tylenol Killer spark a national panic. The setting elements alone were an immediate draw. This relationship narrative, however, is more fraught than the usual, dealing in issues of class, power dynamics, and control, and the devastating effects of all three. It details, in specific and intimate language, the experience of women attempting to locate identity and agency in a capitalist culture: in a life in which everything has a price tag, what am I worth?
I understood this story, and felt it deeply and intuitively. Like the best books, Silver Girl felt as if it had been written for me. And everything in my life stopped, that January afternoon, until I reached the story's end.
Silver Girl has remained with me after reading, so much so that I was compelled to interview its author, Leslie Pietrzyk, who very kindly provided insight into the making of this fantastic book.
Kayla Rae Whitaker: Why leave the narrator of Silver Girl unnamed? Was the decision to move forward without a name a conscious decision, or something you realized you had done, and wanted to keep, after you’d begun drafting this story?
Leslie Pietrzyk: Yes to both options! I often don’t name a character right away because I need their name to feel exactly right. (I spend a fair amount of time researching names.) In this case, I was happily writing away, unbothered by the narrator’s lack of a name—especially since I was writing in first person where it’s easier to avoid a name—but then suddenly I was bothered. Time to research obsessively…but I couldn’t settle on a name, despite scouring the lists of popular baby names at the Social Security website. So I shifted my obsession to thinking about why a person might not choose to reveal her name, thinking about what kind of story it must be where an unnamed narrator makes sense. I kept writing as I pondered these issues, letting the narrator emerge, and I came to understand the power of not revealing one’s self and why this girl might choose to retain that power. (I also understood the writing risk inherent in this choice; in fact, there were suggestions along the way that she reveals her name in the end, but I knew that simply would never happen.)
KRW: The idea of the reflective relationship, particularly for women, is really fascinating. While female characters famously enter into romantic relationships in which they see a better (if often simpler) version of themselves through the eyes of their partner, there are far fewer stories exploring this balance in friendship. I love the fact that, in Silver Girl, the narrator and Jess, her wealthy, charismatic roommate, occupy a reflective friendship in which no one—not the reader, not the narrator or Jess themselves, even—is quite sure who has the upper hand. Can you speak to this? What was the allure of writing about this kind of relationship? What do you think is the appeal of the friendship for the narrator and Jess, respectively?
LP: I’m drawn to writing about power dynamics, and with these two girls, I could work with class and money, with sexuality and looks, with book smart vs. street smart—there are so many ways that power plays out in any relationship. But that stuff’s churning below the surface, and what we also see is a friendship that feels—I hope—complex and important to each girl, intoxicating and thrilling to each, even as the reader senses the danger ahead. Jess has an audience, someone she believes to be utterly on her side, someone she believes she can mold a little bit and exercise power over, someone who admires her, and, most importantly, someone who hints of the darker truths that compose every life—Jess senses that the narrator might see below the shiny surfaces Jess’s parents present. The narrator is drawn to Jess because she sees someone who appears to be in control of her own life, who seems to have a happy and simple family, who can be careless because she has the safety of a home base to return to, someone who does not have to calculate her every thought and move, someone who offers entrée to a vaster world: the very person she imagines she wants to be. Most importantly, Jess says she loves her. Does this sound like a true friendship? I think complicated forces are at play in many friendships, especially in this vulnerable place in time, away from home for the first time, not a still girl but not yet a woman. I believe the narrator when she says that she loves Jess.
KRW: Complicating that idea of the reflective relationship in this book is the issue of class, and class ascension. The narrator is a scholarship student at a prestigious Chicago-area university, and is broke to the point of going hungry throughout much of the book, while wealthy Jess buys food, clothing, and cosmetics lavishly, stunning the narrator with a generosity that seems provided without thought. What role does class have to play in this story? What does it mean particularly for two young women like the narrator and Jess?
LP: I grew up in the Midwest, in a non-flashy college town, and when I went away to college, I was shocked to meet truly rich kids and to understand how much more “world” was out there. Like this narrator, I had never heard the word “Choate” before, had never understood how class informs our culture. (I’m talking pre-internet life!) This narrator understands class, to the extent that she knows there’s something she aspires to: Jess’s life, being part of Jess’s seemingly perfect family. The narrator is very adept at observing and, she thinks, learning the rules of this new world, though she can’t see the myriad unspoken, unwritten rules governing, well, all things—but especially all things class-based. Isn’t that what always gets us, the rules that exist but that are unacknowledged? Because wanting something doesn’t make it so, my question for the narrator became, in a class-based society how defined are we by our past? Can we leave our old selves behind or are they forever attached to us, an anchor we can’t cast off?
KRW: Without giving any spoilers, the story of the narrator’s past is told in shadow, with a sense of silence that tells its own story. This sense of unknowingness is incredibly effective – it renders our narrator a real person, cagey and self-protective and traumatized as only real people can be, and it gives the story a sense of reality, as well. How did you balance this sense of giving the reader what they need to know to read forward, but also providing for them this blank space that needs to be there to give the story the space it needs to become real, with gaps and questions that will never be answered?
LP: Can I say I don’t know? That is, this definitely was the big question for me as I collaged together the book. I knew there was a delicate balance: I didn’t want to overwrite and over-explain, nor did I want to leave gaping holes of plot. I slowly learned how crucial it was that the reader know the narrator’s past, that the reader had to understand the why of this complicated girl…yet I also knew that books unfold forward, that a reader is reading to find out what happens next, not what already happened. In the drafting, it was helpful to eventually realize that the narrator, too, is looking back on her college self from a place of deeper perspective. Reaching that understanding could be a moment of pieces clicking into place. The hardest thing of many hard things about the writing process is learning to trust yourself. So, as I worked, I never once felt as though I knew what I was doing—and yet, I never once doubted that I’d figure out the book…eventually. That’s the other hardest hard thing, learning to be patient. Each book creates its own puzzle.
KRW: Stemming from that question—and this is one for the writers in the room, who love peeking into the process of their author friends and neighbors—were there any scenes in the editing of Silver Girl that you thought gave too much, and that you cut? Did the story, as you were writing it, begin with the friendship, or did it begin with the narrator, on her solo journey?
LP: I started with the friendship, the relationship between the two girls. I belong to a prompt writing group, and for many months it was fun (and easy) to toss the two girls into action simply to see what might happen, without worrying about how to shape a larger story. (That’s what I love about this prompt group, the ability to experiment during a 15-minute assignment.) But at a certain point, questions arose: How did the narrator first meet Jess? How did the narrator get into this fancy college? Why doesn’t she reveal her name? Why is she so detached from her family? And so on. That’s when I turned to writing about the narrator’s solo journey. The trick was melding all these pieces together in a cohesive way that made sense for the reader and for the story. I spent hours and hours staring at a Table of Contents list covered with countless scribbled and crossed-out arrows, ordering and reordering.
KRW: Silver Girl is, in essence, a period piece—it is set in the early 1980s. There’s a scene at a shopping mall. The wall-mounted rotary phone is a central point for action in the girl’s apartment. The landscape includes the kind of boat-like sedans that clogged the roads then, and seem like dinosaurs, now. How did you approach the period setting? Were there details that, in the beginning, made themselves particularly known to you, that you absolutely had to contribute to the story?
LP: I couldn’t imagine these girls without pink cans of Tab in their hands! I knew Jess and the narrator would be influenced by Ralph Lauren and the whole preppie look, which also worked well to complement the themes of class that are threaded through the book. That’s always the challenge, to select the details that are accurate and that are vivid and interesting and that reveal character and that advance the plot and that reflect the thematic elements building in the story. I decided to throw in a Porsche just because, so I had fun researching exactly the right one for Tommy’s dad to give him. But again, once a Porsche shows up on the page, it must be meaningful, so it works here as a signifier of something simple the narrator will never attain, a carefree ride in that car, sitting next to this boy as night air rushes through an open window.
KRW: I’ve met a lot of writers—and nonwriters, as well—who are fascinated by mass murders and serial killers. What was the particular appeal of writing about the Tylenol Killer for you? Did you have any anxiety about incorporating a real-life event into your fiction?
LP: Early on I was anxious because there wasn’t much written material about these murders, as if they’d been forgotten. Also, early on, I wasn’t sure what sort of plot this event was going to provide: I quickly realized that I didn’t want to write a whodunit or a police procedural. Nor did I want to fictionalize one of the victims or explore the aftermath of a sudden death (that angle, in particular, felt too close to the work I had accomplished in my stories about the death of my first husband, This Angel on My Chest). Ultimately, the lack of source material ended up working in my favor, as I decided that instead of reading every article in old Chicago Tribunes, I could just take a real-life event and tweak it for my own fictional needs. (The beauty of Team Fiction!)
Here, what fascinated me is that no one has ever been caught and that this crime felt truly random, that something as innocent as having a headache on the wrong day might make you drop dead in five minutes. Arguably, these murders were an early form of domestic terrorism.
KRW: Were there any works in particular that influenced you during the drafting of Silver Girl? Books, films, television—what engaged you?
LP: When I’m working on a long project, I often look to other writers and artforms to help me discover the structure. In this case, I randomly came across a scrap of paper on which (who knows when) I had written something like, “Denis Johnson said that when writing the stories in Jesus’ Son he juxtaposed two scenes that had no relation to each other to see what would happen.” Since I was the one writer in America who had not read Jesus’ Son, I finally read it—at exactly the time I needed to. Concurrently, I was working with then-fiction-student-now-grad Sara Kuhl in the Converse Low-Residency MFA program where I teach fiction. She was writing her major critical paper about Willa Cather, and in it I read about how Willa Cather relied on juxtaposition of incidents as part of her writing process. My Antonia is one of my all-time favorite books, and reading the drafts of Sara’s paper and thinking about Jesus’ Son and pondering my accumulation of scenes from the prompt writing…well, I got busy placing pieces next to each other, hoping to create sparks and heat and raging bonfires.
To learn more about Kayla Rae Whitaker, visit her official website, like her Facebook page, or follow her on Twitter and Instagram. Also read author Julie Buntin’s review of The Animators in last June’s “Books That Should Be On Your Radar,” and listen to Whitaker's recent discussion with filmmaker Nick Kreiss.