In her two novels, Virginia Pye wrote about China, but things are different with her short story collection. The nine tales in “Shelf Life of Happiness” are all set in the modern-day United States, and Richmonders will find a few glimmers of recognition.
“They’re each based on little gems of ideas,” says Pye, a former Richmonder who now lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts. “A short story for me is a crystallization of one of life’s moments.”
The stories — which Pye calls her “little sculptures” — are nine of many she’s written over the years, often while working on her novels, “River of Dust” and “Dreams of the Red Phoenix.” The common theme is happiness. “How elusive it is, how hard to hold on to it.”
They aren’t precise moments from Pye’s life, but elements of her life — her skateboarder son, her parents’ demolished Massachusetts home — make themselves known in the collection, which will be released in November. Other stories came directly from Pye’s imagination.
An old, crusty artist and a slick art dealer face off with a white dog. A mother wanders off from her small children on an Italian street. A womanizing artist named Redbone takes a long, treacherous swim. The discovery of a dead bird in a young boy’s dresser drawer — depicted in “Easter Morning” — did, however, take place in Pye’s home.
“You’ve got to write about that,” she says with a laugh. “He was a little boy. He was much younger than now. It’s inspired by life, you might say.”
In “Her Mother’s Garden,” Annie James lives a solitary life in Cambridge. She’s the daughter of a retired Harvard University professor and spends more and more time maintaining her family’s wild garden. A former football captain from her high school, Freddie Marcatelli, strikes up a romance with Annie, taking her for Italian dinners and opera. He’s a Harvard graduate but also the first in his family to attend a four-year college.
Pye herself lives a different life: She is married to John Ravenal, the director of the deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum in Lincoln, Mass., and is the mother of a grown son and daughter. They lived in Richmond for many years, and Pye helped start the James River Writers organization. She’s written for the North American Review, the Rumpus and the New York Times, and this is her third published work.
Pye also grew up west of Boston and looked after her parents, their home and their garden, just like Annie.
“There was a great deal of loss tied up in that time,” Pye says of her parents’ home, which was purchased after their death by a person she knew — and then knocked down. “I used that story to process my grief. It’s a weird kind of helpful thing.”
Grief is also present in “New Year’s Day,” told from the point of view of Jessica, a churchy, naive woman in her 20s who becomes obsessed with the murder of a family with two little girls. This story is likely to remind Richmonders of Bryan, Kathryn, Stella and Ruby Harvey, who were killed on Jan. 1, 2006, in their South Side home under similar circumstances.
Pye wrote the story 12 years ago while living in Richmond and acknowledges the similarities to the Harvey tragedy but also says that the story came about because of a feeling of danger and vulnerability in the air then.
“I had young children,” she says. “I was just thinking about random violence and how you can be taken down at any moment. There is no explanation. There is no making sense of it. I hope people take [the story] respectfully.”
“Jessica had grown up in a town a lot like this one, only smaller still. She had never seen a horror movie or even a thriller and was uneasy about detective films, but her grandmother had scared her when she was small with stories of hell,” Pye writes. She’s a naive and sheltered woman who is learning more about the world — a feeling Pye relates to.
“There’s always a struggle internally,” she says. “You also want to stay sheltered. You try to shut your eyes and pretend it doesn’t take place. A fuller person is not just hiding from the thing you’re afraid of.”
The Richmond launch party for “Shelf Life of Happiness” is scheduled from 5-8 p.m. on Oct. 11 at Page Bond Gallery, and Pye will teach a class on writing short stories Oct. 12 as part of the James River Writers conference.