Pia Z. Ehrhardt
by SUSAN HENDERSON on NOVEMBER 7, 2007
Pia Ehrhardt has been unbelievably influential in my writing – not just because we’ve edited each other’s work for so many years, but because once you see what Pia can do with a single sentence – how you can pack it full of beauty, tension, secrets, love, imagery, and yet keep it so very simple – you can’t help but want to write better. Her writing has trained my ear and made me crave work that bubbles beneath the surface.
I like the crumminess of Channel 10 because after you watch it, real life seems prettier, like running with leg weights and then taking them off. You think you could jump an eight-foot wall. – “Running the Room,” FAMOUS FATHERS
I’m so happy to have Pia here, and I hope you’ll buy this beautiful little book. I brought it with me on vacation this summer and tried so hard to make it last the whole trip, but darn it if I didn’t finish it on the plane ride there. FAMOUS FATHERS dares to go to some very hard places and stand in the midst of terrible mistakes and find the heart and the humanity within the mess. I love this book, and I love this author.
Often, I find writers who create emotionally complex characters are not so good about getting their characters out of their heads and out of their homes. Your characters are on the move. Talk to me about that.
My characters tend to be high-functioning agorophobics with their hearts and bags packed for travel. It’s so hard to take the first step out the door, but en route to where you’re going, doesn’t grace seem possible? What I want for the people in my stories is the freedom and the space to unstick themselves, to bump into trouble and pleasures that aren’t going to happen if you stay in your chair at home under your afghan with your books and your journal. So I send a teenager on a road trip with the check out guy from Piggly Wiggly, or I have a woman driving around New Orleans late at night with a guy from night class, while her mother meets her lover at the Hilton. Cars are great containers for little romances.
Call your father. Test if you have what you had at seventeen. See if he still wants you in his bed. Convince yourself it was your choice, not his. Kids are never to blame. Use him now. Tell your side of the story and let him trash your husband, then defend your husband so he gets jealous and says more than necessary. Get him to say again that he’s the only man who can satisfy you because you’re cut from the same bolt of cloth. – “Stop,” FAMOUS FATHERS
I find there’s a restlessness with so many of your characters, who are fleeing or leading secret lives or taking real risks. What do think they’re searching for?
They’re searching for the safety and cover of Family, the closed loop. The sense of being home, and loved, without tricks or disclaimers. My mother had me when she was twenty and then she went on tour for three years and left me with my Italian grandmother, and I missed her even before I knew her. (My father left with her, and they’d come back for holidays and then take off again.) I think I felt from a very young age that I’d done something wrong, something to displease her or to make it easier for her to leave me. Childlike, I know. So I got the bright idea that the best way to not be left is to stay on the emotional move, and that’s what my characters do, in spite of the lead in their baggage. (Enough with the luggage analogies!) They take risks and live secret lives because they’re so afraid to just stay put and love, to ask right out in the open for what they want, which is basic and terrifying.
Mike and I check into the Hilton during the day sometimes, climb under cool sheets, open the little soaps and use every towel to make it look like we’ve been there longer than an hour or two. – “Tell Me in Italian,” FAMOUS FATHERS
Several of your characters seek this sense of belonging and importance in extra-marital affairs. What is it about affairs that draws them in?
Initially it’s the cliched stuff: The gamesmanship, the new sex, the freshly-cut routines of sneaking, the improvisational rush of near misses, which turns into a desire for the intimacy and stability of a marriage even when it’s someone else’s. My characters break into the sacred trust between husbands and wives because they don’t believe people can stay true to one another, but they also don’t want to replace wives i.e. I want to win you but not keep you because you don’t belong to me. It’s like relegating yourself to playing second chair with a shiny, rare instrument.
Infidelity in this book isn’t a means to an end; it’s a way to connect with parents whose moral compasses are on the fritz. A daughter wants to walk in her unfaithful mother’s shoes, or a woman empathizes with her father’s mistress when she becomes a mistress. How does it feel to be wanted like they are wanted, to be loved by them, to want what they want.
Brady and I meet for coffee and a sandwich. I want to stay in that small sweet space between friendship and affair. This meeting with Brady doesn’t have to resolve. If I sleep with him, what happens to the wish? – “Driveway,” FAMOUS FATHERS
It’s interesting how your characters have a tendency to flee, and yet one of the defining traits to your writing, I think, is how you can stay in emotionally complex and uncomfortable moments longer than most writers can. You don’t hurry to fill the awkward silences between characters or try to resolve their issues, which may well be with them for life.
When I’m in the heat and the squirm of a scene, I usually get a terrible craving for something from the fridge or the pantry, so I try to stay put and keep writing. (Ron Carlson‘s advice in an interview I read.) Or if I get up to nibble, I keep the scene in the front of my mind and return to my story. Sometimes I make things worse by torqueing a line of dialogue or adding a messy detail, or writing a reversal. My tendency as a person is to be a peacemaker and defuse trouble, but what does that get you in life? Delays, not resolutions. Delays don’t work in short stories. In life, well, sometimes it’s nice to buy yourself some more time.
I like my father’s friends. They were lawyers who liked classical music, and they’d come to our house and sit in opposing chairs to do comparative listening in the study. They’d drop the needle on different recordings, and listen to this or that pianist play Bach or Rachmaninoff, and argue about who was pure, who was a showman and a charlatan. I liked the showmen, but that was the wrong answer. – “How It Floods,” FAMOUS FATHERS
Something I love about your stories is how the characters don’t arrive at a clear-cut ending or resolution, and yet the story itself reaches closure. It gives the reader the sense that the characters will live beyond the page. Any idea how you create that effect, or is it purely accidental? And if you like, I’d love to hear you talk about issues of closure and resolution and endings in stories.
What I hope for at the end of my stories is that the currency I’ve been accumulating in scenes and actions and dialogue has been spent, but that doesn’t mean that people are home tucked safely in their beds. I like that the characters are still out in the world, susceptible but relieved, smarter, at temporary peace with their decisions. All of life’s possibilities for messing up are still there, but the daughter’s on her way home, the tempted wife’s touching her husband’s hand, the mistress says a wordless goodbye to her lover from a payphone. Things have changed, but not necessarily ended, which, I hope, gives the stories a tension that continues beyond the last page.
The doctors tried to reattach her right hand, but the damage was profound, so Lillian was fitted for a prosthetic. She prefers the days when she had no hand because it was harder for her family and her doctors to rush back to normal. When she put on the fake one, it made her mother and father feel better and their faces relaxed. They were amazed, and imagined her recovery was a full-blown display of the human spirit, but it was theirs, not hers. – “A Man,” FAMOUS FATHERS
New Orleans is featured prominently in your book. Talk to me about the New Orleans you wrote about, and tell me something about it today.
I used to live in a bedroom community across the lake from New Orleans called Mandeville, and when I found myself not setting stories there anymore (“Abita Springs”) and writing about characters in New Orleans (“Intermediate Goals”) I suspected we were fixin’ to sell our house. My whole family was ready to move to New Orleans. It’s a fragile, elegant, private, sumptuous, messy, delicious,100% authentic place, and I like writing about the nooks and crannies of it that people may not have seen. My next book, a novel, was set in the city that existed before Katrina, but I’m not interested in reminiscing about or romanticizing New Orleans, so I’ve been struggling with how to move the pages I had written into this new landscape. Everyone has been affected in every which way, and there’s the steady press – of fatigue, concern, faith, readiness, optimism – on the psyche of this region, on people’s faces at the supermarket. The recovery is slow, slow going. What took three weeks to destroy, will take ten years to rebuild. I’m hoping my novel comes together in the next month, so please light a candle for me and my sweet, hurt city.
I’d walked with Dow out to the Mississippi River. We were close enough to the passing train to hop aboard. The wheels were so quiet on the track, it was like everything was made of soft rubber. Now, when I hear the train I think of him. I hate that. It’s my train, and when it passes twice a day I want to think of nothing but the great sound of it. Connected to no one. Zero. – “Intermediate Goals,” FAMOUS FATHERS
City Park after people came in from all over the country to pick up fallen branches, dredge the bayous, and replant. We live across the street.
Before I go to bed that night, I leave a message on his office machine, something he’ll pick up on Monday when he checks. “Do you know about bow lakes?” I ask. “Imagine that marriage is a river like the Mississippi that twists and bends back on itself. Some of the water spreads out over open land and stays to make a lake, a bow lake. Still. Away from the current, with reedy banks and cattails and schools of fish and diving pelicans…”
“Renny,” he picks up. “I’m here working. Slow down. You don’t have to talk me into this.”
“It’s not you I’m convincing, love.”
I ask him for a secret his wife doesn’t know. – “Tell Me in Italian,” FAMOUS FATHERS
I’ll keep my mother’s hurricane glass as a souvenir of the night, to remember how rare it is to be loved for even a minute like you’re new. – “Running the Room,” FAMOUS FATHERS
I just want to close the interview by saying something about this book and about your writing, in general. Probably more than any other writer I’ve read, your sentences thrill me by your choice of words, your descriptions, the rhythm, the emotional honesty, and the note you end on. I’ve waited a long, long time to see your work collected properly between a pretty cover, and I can’t wait for the novel. xo
Pia Z. Ehrhardt lives in New Orleans with her husband and son. Famous Fathers & Other Stories is her first book. Her work has been published in McSweeney’s, Mississippi Review, Oxford American, and Narrative Magazine, and has been anthologized in New Sudden Fiction: Short-Shorts from American and Beyond. Her story “Driveway” was featured on NPR’s Selected Shorts. She has received numerous awards, including a Bread Loaf Fellowship and the 2005 Narrative Prize. You can also find her on Good Reads.
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