Photo by Ash Daniel
Virginia Pye's debut novel, River of Dust, unfolds from the perspective of four characters — an American missionary couple in China, the larger-than-life Rev. John Wesley Watson and his wife, Grace, and their longtime servants, Alcho and Mai Lin. For background, Pye utilized journals kept by her grandfather, the Rev. Watts O. Pye, himself a missionary in China. For almost six years, she had been working on an epic multigenerational work set in China, Vietnam and America, with many rejections resulting in 21 rewrites.
A discussion with writer and editor Nancy Zafris changed everything, and after that, Pye completed River of Dust in a 23-day fury of writing that incorporated the first and last 25 pages of the previous novel. It was accepted on its first draft, and it will be released this month through Unbridled Books. (Full disclosure: Pye will serve as the final judge for July's Best Unpublished Novel contest, sponsored by James River Writers and Richmond magazine.)
RM: You start off at a gallop, swooping along with a kidnapped child before exploring the brutal struggles of what is frontier life at the edges of the Chinese desert, but the heart of the story deals with significant crises of faith.
VP: Yes, their beliefs are severely tested. It's significant that they are Americans in China. They're in this position of Americans participating in colonialism. Underneath the shifting sands of the desert is a false bottom that makes for the precarious position they're put in.
RM: There are journeys and exotic places. But it's for a grand purpose, and it doesn't go easy.
VP: Every novel worth its salt ends up being some sort of odyssey story. The greater the stakes, the more the characters demonstrate who they really are, what they believe.
RM: The novel features heavy themes of gender, sex, race and politics, but in service of the story. And we see it unfold not just through the perceptions of one person.
VP: To tell this story completely, I couldn't rely on the two main characters. It's four people observing the events. They each have their own perspective, and some are more reliable than others.
RM: Is the character of Dr. Hemingway, the missionaries' physician, a literary joke?
VP: That's actually Ernest Hemingway's uncle. He was my grandfather's and my father's doctor. It's kind of a nod to Hemingway, who influenced me, but it's also interesting that Dr. Hemingway ends up ordered around and giving in to Mai Lin, because she knows better.
- A Sarah Lawrence College MFA graduate, Pye's teachers and mentors include the celebrated writers Annie Dillard and Allan Gurganus.
- Pye served a term as chair of the nonprofit James River Writers and for seven years helped run its annual conference.
- A River of Dust book launch is being held on May 7, from 6 to 8 p.m., at Candela Gallery. On May 30, Pye and Zafris will be at the Children's Museum for James River Writers' "The Writing Show," starting at 6:30 p.m. Admission is $10 in advance, $12 at the door.