Interview with Jersey City Author Laryssa Wirstiuk
On The Prescribed Burn, self-publishing and playwriting
Laryssa Wirstiuk is the author of The Prescribed Burn, a collection of short stories which she self published. The stories all follow the character of Veda, an aspiring artist, through various stages in her adolescence and early adulthood as she tries to navigate the anxieties that come with growing up, including friendship, sex and body image. Readers will find her to be a very relatable yet singular character. You can purchase the book on Amazon or theprescribedburn.com.
Laryssa was recently featured in our Feel Good Issue’s “Feel Good Accomplishments” piece, so it was a pleasure to talk to her again and learn more about her book, self-publishing journey, and recent—not to mention, successful—foray into playwriting.
When did you start writing The Prescribed Burn?
LW: I started writing The Prescribed Burn in graduate school which was about the fall of 2007, when I started graduate school and I finished in May of 2009.
Was that your thesis?
LW: Yes, it was my thesis.
What made you decide to self publish?
LW: I decided to self publish in early 2012. I had sent out the manuscript to hundreds of literary agents and also sent out the individual stories to contests and literary magazine just to build up some kind of publication record with it. And I wasn’t really getting any good responses. I think what bothered me wasn’t so much the rejection, I guess I’m used to that as a writer, but the fact that I wasn’t getting any feedback and I felt that I was sending it into a black hole. Where is this going? Who’s looking at it? Why am I wasting so much time doing this? I was also spending a lot of money on these writing contests because many of them have fees and it costs money to mail the manuscript places. Lots of agents want you to physically mail them, and I’m like, “Why am putting so much money into this when I can be using the money to find other ways to get this out there?” So it was at that point that I decided, I want to use my money more wisely and maybe put it into self publishing.
You got your funds for publishing through Kickstarter. Was it surprising, the support you received?
LW: It made me feel great that there were so many people that were supporting me. I don’t know if I was surprised, I mean, I worked really really hard to reach out to people and spread the word. So it wasn’t like, “Where are all these people coming from?” So I wasn’t really surprised because I had done all the work of reaching out to people and explaining to them what I was trying to do. And most of the people that had contributed to the campaign knew that I had been working on this project, that I was working on my writing, that it was something I had been working on for a while. So it wasn’t like total strangers were giving me money, these were people I had connections with and knew how important it was to me to make this happen.
Did you include samples of the stories to incentivize donors?
LW: Yes, I had one sample story, I think was “Fireworks” was the sample story. I made a website for it and made it available for PDF download. That was one way people could at least see what I was working on.
Veda is a really interesting and compelling character. She’s relatable but also has a unique identity as a Ukrainian-American. What made you want to tell that story?
LW: You know, it was my thesis advisor in graduate school who really encouraged me to push that aspect of the character. When I started writing the thesis, that was present in the story, but maybe not so much as it is in the finished product. I guess also at that time when I was in graduate school, there was a little bit of a trend in publishing that these hot contemporary fiction writers had this double identity of American and something else. I don’t know if you know Jhumpa Lahiri, she’s an Indian-American writer who was very popular at the time and Junot Diaz had the Hispanic-American thing going on. And I think my thesis advisor saw that as a marketable aspect, because people like to read about those who are unlike them, so he really encouraged me to really develop that aspect of Veda’s character. And I felt like I could write about it because I am Ukrainian-American, so it’s something that’s close to me and personal to me, so I had a lot to say about it.
Do you think this dual identity contributes to her anxieties and insecurities about herself?
LW: I think so because growing up she felt a little bit different from her peers and some of the stories illustrate that. “Welcome to America,” for example. Just the contrast between some of the I guess Ukrainian cultural things, while in the mean time living in America and trying to I guess come to terms with the differences. So she’s struggling through that her whole life. She’s dealing with that whiling going through things like puberty and just the awkwardness of being a teenager so it’s just one extra thing that she has to deal with. I definitely think it complicates her.
Do you think you’ll return to Veda in future writing? Will she be a recurring character?
LW: You know, someone just asked me that recently. I think it’s an interesting question. I am not sure at this point. I have no plan to do that but 10-15 years from now it might be interesting to revisit her. I know a lot of writers do that, like John Updike, for example, the very prolific fiction writer, he would have recurring characters which he would constantly revisit in books, that was his thing. I don’t know, it’s not on the agenda.
So you’ve been writing plays lately, what attracted you to playwriting?
LW: I, for some reason, got more into dialogue. I really like it, I think it’s one of the hardest things to write. So I really like a challenge and plays are all dialogue. I think I’m also very motivated by writing contests and calls for submission. So when I see a contest or a call that looks interesting to me, even if it’s something outside of my comfort zone, I’ll try to write something new to submit it. So I think at that time when I was writing all these plays last fall, there were a lot of calls that I saw and I thought, “You know what, why not? Why don’t I try something new and different?” I’m motivated because I have a place to send stuff. And it just so happened that my stuff got accepted. And now I’m like totally crazy cause it’s happened all at once.
Which plays got accepted?
LW: One play, “Do Not Call List” was accepted to the Strawberry One-Act Festival. And the first performance of that is August 24, and I’m actually acting in it, which I haven’t really done before so that’s been another layer of challenge. Then, my play called “Hold Your Peace” was accepted to the New York New Works Theater Festival which is being performed August 20, so that’s very soon, and then I actually co-wrote a play with my friend and Rutgers colleague Chris [Rzigalinski], and that’s called “34th and 11th.” That one was accepted to Manhattan Repertory Theater Fall One-Act Festival which is in September. And I’m acting in all three of these plays (laughs), so it’s a little bit insane, I don’t think a normal person would do that to themselves.
But it must be really nice to have these plays be performed. Is it strange to see it come to life? Being a fiction writer, you’re used to just seeing the story on the page but now having it played out before you, is it surreal?
LW: Yea, it’s so fun. No other form of writing can you see something…You have to imagine when you read poetry, when you read fiction.This is a total departure from that, so I like it.
When you published The Prescribed Burn, you did so under Painted Egg Press, which is basically your very own publishing house. Do intend to publish other people’s novels or books in the future?
LW: When I started it, that was kind of in the back of my mind, that maybe it could turn into something. I don’t have immediate plans to do that because I’m busy with other projects but yea, it’s a possibility for sure.