Interview with Maureen Pilkington

Nathan Leslie

Maureen Pilkington’s fiction has appeared in anthologies, journals and magazines including The Antioch Review, Ploughshares, Puerto del Sol, Confrontation, Bridge: Art & Literature in Chicago, MSR Fiction Anthology, Santa Barbara Review and numerous others. Her personal essays, “Stuck on an Elevator with Sixteen Republicans,” “Climbing Jungfrau with Five Spouses,” and “How to Start a Story or a Marriage,” appeared in the Weston Magazine Group’s fifteen NY/CT/NJ editions covering the New York City metro and suburban luxury market. Additional essays have appeared in journals, magazines and websites including CoveyClub.Com, Fiction Southeast and Still Point Arts Quarterly. Pilkington worked in book publishing as a Subsidiary Rights Director and received an MFA from Sarah Lawrence College. Her new story collection, This Side of Water: Stories, published by Regal House publishing, is the 2019 Winner of the American Fiction Award in the short story category. She is currently working on a collection of essays and a novel that takes place in Manhattan and Provence. Pilkington is the founder and director of Page Turners, a literacy program of the Archdiocese of New York that brings authors into the inner-city schools to teach writing. Born in New York, Pilkington lives in Rye and Manhattan.

This Side of Water is your debut collection of stories. How excited are you to share this volume with the reading public?

Maureen Pilkington: Pablo Picasso said that a finished painting “changes further according to the condition of him who looks at it.” I think this observation can be applied to a finished piece of fiction as well, and this is why I’m excited to share my collection. Very often, what we believe matters exclusively to our characters is really universal to the human condition. Hearing from readers who have connected, in some way, to a story, or were drawn in further by unexpected turns, is what makes a story successful for me. Also, a reading public keeps stories alive. These are the things we do not think about when we are alone, writing. Finally, I’m invigorated to know that the short story form is still loved. I believe they have the power to revitalize us.

This collection is thematically connected—all of the stories included involve water in some form or fashion. What draws you to water specifically?

Maureen Pilkington: No surprise, growing up I spent a lot of time at the beach, swimming, boating and fishing. I lived with the smell of salt water, it’s source always in the background like a companion. (Although, when I got older, getting a tan took the place of going for a striped bass). Now, we live on the Mill Pond adjacent to the Long Island Sound. When I’m at my kitchen window, I feel like my ankles are in the water. The view changes continually, especially before and after coffee.

When I had a stack of stories, I looked for common elements that might fit together thematically, and only then did I notice that water ran through the majority of them! It was those that I included in This Side of Water.

During the writing process, I never thought—Oh, I need an old cracked pool in Delray Beach here, or a fish pond there. I just wrote about characters in their predicaments, and any surrounding water, as big as the Atlantic or as small as a puddle, seemed to complement their interior lives. What draws me specifically to water: the constant movement and disturbances. The unpredictability. (How often I think of Virginia Woolf, filling her pockets with stones, and wading out into the water. How sad and ironic! Water imagery is so prevalent in her work.) To push this imagery even further, the act of writing a story, for me, is like standing in the water, heart level. You feel something wiggle around your legs, it becomes more intense until a wave surge and hits you, and then there is a return to calm. Maybe.

One of the many standout stories for me is “Toward the Norwegian Sea.” I’m wondering if you could talk about the inspiration for this story.

Maureen Pilkington: I distinctly remember where the inspiration came from—a pair of white Mary Janes and a box of chocolates. “Towards the Norwegian Sea” was inspired by a photo of a couple, and I knew these two facts: the man was an American and the woman was a Russian dancer. His expression and posture told me he was proud to be with her. Left his wife for her. She looked considerably younger, delicate to frail, wearing a skimpy top and above-the-ankle bellbottom jeans—and, white Mary Janes. The woman was looking up at the sky as if she longed to be somewhere else, perhaps back in St. Petersburg. (Assumptions and fictive details on my part. Can’t help it). He was so foolishly into her she could do anything she wanted to him—even make him suffer. And, she was holding a box of chocolates as if it was some kind of offering, but not for the American next to her. At least I assumed it was a box of chocolates.

It was the shoes that told me everything about Toshy—and this story. The Mary Janes were the stylish shoes she once believed she could never afford. And, since I had never been to Russia, I quickly did some research to dispel the clichés that came to mind: rampant caviar, onion topped cathedrals, Putin riding bare-chested on a horse. I put myself in Toshy’s shoes (no pun) and walked the streets of St. Petersburg with empty pockets and a child to care for. As Toshy, walking to work, I could smell pirozhki, see the pretty boy at the souvenir shop in Ostrovsky Square, taste the smoked sprats in my mouth while making my way to work as a “dancer.” I imagined her standing outside the Alexandrinsky Theatre—it was like a temple of worship to Toshy. She believed she was as good as any one of those ballerinas inside, before she made her way to the strip club, Fish Fatale, where she danced on a raised platform over small tables.

Isak Dinesen said, “I start with a tingle.” That tingle, for me, was Toshy’s Mary Jane’s.

I’d love to hear more about your writing process.

Maureen Pilkington: I don’t write in the car much since I’m not sitting in school parking lots anymore, waiting for my kids! But, I must say, I miss being trapped into instant focus. However, once a project is underway, I can write anywhere. Ideally, very early in the morning as close to the dream state as possible.

Whenever I start a new piece, I need to push off alone in my kayak, so to speak, to feel estranged and a bit off kilter. It is only then when I can hear all the murky stuff that makes me uncomfortable and bubbles up to the top where I can get at it. If I’m settled in the voice of a piece, if the voice feels right, then I can move through, and work anywhere. But, the beginning has to be right.

Also, I try to follow Haruki Murakami’s advice—about running. He says that being active every day makes it easier to hear your inner voice. Taking a quick run or working out with a few weights does the trick for me.

Will you be doing many readings this year from This Side of Water?

Maureen Pilkington: Since the book came out last spring, I have done readings in some of my favorite independent bookstores including Books & Books in Miami, McNally Jackson and Book Culture both in Manhattan, Banksquare Books in Mystic, Connecticut, and soon, in Pittsburgh. I have been reading with my brother, poet Kevin Pilkington. The audiences have been very receptive to sibling writers and we’ve been having a great time during the Q & A’s.

I hope one of my future stops is at Reston Readings—love this series!

You also write personal essays for the Weston Magazine Group. Do you think the essay/article writing influences your fiction style in any way?

Maureen Pilkington: I love the essay form, the way it meanders, but needs coherence and drive. Essay writing has influenced my fiction writing in this way: it’s a constant scraping to get to the truth, or my own perception of it, a truth I don’t know when I start. It sounds “false” to say you are getting at the truth in fiction, but I think Andre Dubus III explains it best. He said that self-consciousness has gotten toxic. So it’s important that we are not trying to sound a certain way in our fiction, or thinking of an audience, but that we are reaching deep inside for authenticity. Consequently, I think the specifics of both forms of writing strengthens the other. When we exercise certain muscle groups in the body, we are ultimately strengthening our entire selves. I think this analogy holds true for writing.

I’m curious to hear more about Page Turners—a program in run in New York City. Tell me more.

Maureen Pilkington: Thank you for asking, Nathan. Knowing what the writing life has done for me, I felt that our inner city students should have the same exposure to authors, writing, and books. Given the financial constraints of Catholic schools in New York, enrichment programs are extremely limited, if they exist at all. Under the umbrella of the New York Archdiocese, I started, very slowly, asking local authors to come and volunteer their time, by teaching just one class in an elementary school. From there the program grew to what it is today.

Some of our Page Turners authors were raised in the same neighborhoods as the schools where they have volunteered. How is that for motivation? We’ve had science writers, fiction, non-fiction, copywriters, illustrators, poets, middle grade fiction, and picture book authors for very young readers, including New York Times bestselling authors. We also donate the authors’ books to the class. I do believe our mission—enhancing your life with just pen and paper—comes to fruition every time an author steps inside a classroom.

You have a real way with one liners. One example is, “It was so much easier to kiss Jay than to talk to him,” from “Past the Clubhouse.” Are the one liners something you are cognizant of for their own sake or do they come about organically in the process of writing a given short story?

Maureen Pilkington: I love hearing this observation because I have never thought about dialogue in my work as one liners! Hopefully, if the character is fully developed, I will just let the character talk. And, in a perfect story world, the character will say something surprising and catch me off guard—and send the story off in another direction that I never anticipated. This is the magic. And, it has to happen organically. I believe it was Alice McDermott who said—it all happens in the writing.

Are there certain writers who inspire you or push you to try new things in your fiction?

Maureen Pilkington: My “first” was Ray Bradbury. I still go back to his stories and his writing advice. When I read “All Summer in a Day” in junior high school, the sound of the seven-year-rain in that story has never left me. I have never stopped thinking about Margot, the washed out looking girl, originally from Earth, who was bullied and locked in a closet because of her endless complaints about the “drum and gush of water.” Maybe this is where my water relationship started.

My list of writers who inspire me to try new things is endless, but here are a few: Andrea Lee, Jorge Amado, Laura Esquivel, Juan Rulfo, Juno Diaz, Lara Vapnyar, Elizabeth Hardwick, Kurt Vonnegut, Bruno Schulz, Ursula LeGuin, Patricia Highsmith, Oyinkan Braithwaite.

What are you working on next?

Maureen Pilkington: I like to have several essays and stories in progress at all times. But my current focus now is a novel draft, or maybe this is the third draft? As Bradbury said, “You fail only if you stop writing.