Leslie Pietrzyk
Leslie Pietrzyk reads from Admit This to No One on Nov. 13; Credit: Susan Hale Thomas

Leslie Pietrzyk is known throughout the D.C. area for her award-winning prose. Her short story collection, This Angel on My Chest, won the 2015 Drue Heinz Literature Prize, and her 2019 novel, Silver Girl, received a Publisher’s Weekly starred review. She also won the Jeanne Charpiot Goodheart Prize for Fiction from Shenandoah, the Chris O’Malley Fiction Prize from Madison Review, and she was awarded the Pushcart Prize in 2020 for her story “Stay There” in The Southern Review.

After nearly three decades in the area, Pietrzyk recently moved away, but not before writing a collection of interconnected short stories related to Washington. Admit This to No One comes out November 9 from Unnamed Press, but already it’s gathering tremendous reviews for its authentic tone and deeply human lens. Pietrzyk loves D.C., even as she interrogates it—sometimes ruthlessly.

Pietrzyk sat down with City Paper recently to let us interrogate her back, discussing her craft, her inspiration, and what she’ll miss about the city now that she’s moved away.

Washington City Paper: How would you describe this collection?

Leslie Pietrzyk: Admit This to No One is a collection of linked-ish short stories set in official D.C. Recurring characters include [an imagined] Speaker of the House, his two daughters from various marriages, and Mary-Grace, his personal fixer. Family estrangement, race, gender, abortion—nothing is off the table as these characters grapple with the ways the pursuit of power ripples and informs personal, work, and societal relationships. Can anyone emerge unscathed?

WCP: Who did you write this book for?

LP: Myself, the toughest, most exacting audience I know. Everything I write arises from impossible-to-answer questions I’m trying to tease my way through. Here, I was thinking about various power dynamics.

WCP: What inspired you to dive into politics for Admit This to No One? What was it about D.C. that finally demanded to be written?

LP: Can it be as simple as running out of locations to write about because I’ve lived in D.C. for nearly 30 years? …  I wondered why I had never written an entire book set here. I know I didn’t have to turn to politics, but the challenge of the political novel interested me. How to find an arc that feels true without falling prey to the stereotypes? What is the arc, or the cycle, of someone immersed in official D.C. life? How does power become a currency, and what happens to the people who view their life through the lens of power structures? What are the unspoken rules that govern lives here, and what happens when those rules are broken?

WCP: One of the wonders of this collection is the specificity of the setting. Every story feels like home to those of us who live here. How did you decide where to place the stories?  

LP: As this book moved from casual idea to project, I knew I wanted to commemorate some of my favorite D.C. places, especially those that aren’t among the usual suspects of monuments, museums, etc. The Kennedy Center enthralls me; if I could go to one place the night before dying, it might be the opera on a fall evening that’s pleasant enough to stand outside as dusk settles. I’ll grab a Manhattan and appetizers upstairs before the performance, followed by a slow, lingering return to the parking garage at the end of the night. I love being alone in the dim light of that grand hall when the shows are over. So, yes, I wanted to try to find spots that people who live here would recognize but might see anew, as the special places they are.

I admit to thinking about stories and plots as I walked across the Wilson Bridge because that’s what I often do as I walk—distract myself from the sweat of exercising in 3H August (hot, hazy, humid). Honestly, I had about half of a murder mystery in my head one summer! Whenever I had to send characters to a particular place, I tried to think about iconic D.C. details, for example, the caricatures on the wall of the Palm or the way passengers eye other passengers at night in the reflections in the Metro windows. Many people visit D.C. and see the surface, but I wanted this book to observe real lives here.

WCP: Much like your novel Silver Girl, Admit This to No One’s first story, “Til Death Do Us Part,” pulls us into the daughter’s world completely. The teen angst, the layers of frustration and resentment; the realization, after the fact, that it’s all been an act. How do you tap in to that voice?

LP: Young girls are possibly my favorite characters to explore. Technically, they have no or little useful power—can’t vote, aren’t earning buckets of money—yet there’s nothing scarier than a group of mean teenage girls, or even one teenage girl, rolling her eyes with disdain. (Maybe that’s just me?) Physically, our youth-obsessed culture considers young women and girls to be at the peak of their beauty and “worth”—I’m speaking culturally; of course, beauty exists at all ages, in countless ways. Yet that fleeting physicality brings a dangerous power that often is misused or misunderstood or unwelcome. Or maybe squandered?

When I’m working with new characters for a big project like these linked stories, I often work with 30-minute writing prompts, pushing my evolving characters into difficult and troubling situations to see how they react, what they’ll say or do. “Til Death Do Us Part” started that way. I also need characters who lie, which teenagers are prone to do. All that said, young girls as characters make me work super-hard, trying to keep their voice on the page sounding current and relevant. In the end, I’m inventing a sort of slangy talk that sounds right without being true to life, since slang passes so quickly through the zeitgeist.

WCP: What was it like to publish a book with an independent press? Why did you choose that route?

LP: Each book takes its own individual journey with highs and lows. In this case, with Unnamed Press, I started with a bunch of stories that I’d basically shoved together because they were all “done.” But the editor took the time to share a vision of how she imagined the stories coalescing into a stronger arc. She left the “how” up to me, which is my favorite way to work: feeling inspired by great ideas and then spending the months ahead puzzling out the bigger picture for myself. […] And small presses can be quick: I’m grateful to insert an allusion to the January 6 insurrection at the Capitol into a book that appears less than a year later. Small presses make a writer feel her book matters; that books aren’t a commodity but a crucial part of the larger, ongoing conversation about why words matter, why art prevails. Talk about power!

WCP: What would you tell a reader who isn’t from D.C.?

LP: Visit your checklist of monuments and museums, but also take time to walk through the city, especially as the light is changing, or just find a place to sit and stare. Pre-COVID, I loved to park myself on a bench outside on Capitol Hill and watch busy people pass and cluster—that self-imposed aura of importance fascinates me. Know that D.C. is way wider and deeper and more diverse than those sites on the mall. Check out Old Town Alexandria, where my heart is. Above all, for the love of god, STAND TO THE RIGHT on Metro escalators.

WCP: You’ve recently moved away from D.C. What will you miss? What are you happy to let go of?

LP: Bye-bye, traffic! What I miss, along with some of the sites already mentioned, is that sense of being in an important place where important things happen. This realization is totally unexpected—the sensation must be part of my internalized landscape. But shortly after we left, there was mention of an upcoming march or protest, and I thought with a pang: Oh, I don’t live there anymore. I also miss feeling that the people around me devour books and publications and ideas and want to talk-talk-talk about what they’re think-think-thinking. I miss that paper copy of the Washington Post delivered to my door every morning, and I miss listening to WAMU or C-SPAN radio in the wee hours of the night when I can’t sleep. (Logistically, streaming means disturbing my husband.) I miss walking down Connecticut Avenue from Dupont Circle to Farragut West on a warm summer night. I’ll sob with abandon when it’s Scottish Walk weekend in Old Town come December. I’ll miss the elegant cocktails at the Columbia Room. And oh…the amazing community of D.C. writers, flourishing amid the backstabbing politicos. 

Pietrzyk reads from Admit This to No One at 5 p.m. on Nov. 13 at Politics and Prose.