The Pia Z. Ehrhardt Interview

May 2, 2003

Today is the day to take your loved ones for granted.

I met today's interviewee through the usual online writing outlets; Opium, Pindeldyboz, what have you. For those of you who are not 'in the know' with online literary sites, I bet it can be hard to keep these folks together. So I'll make it short and sweet. Why did I interview Ms. Pia? 1.) She's a fabulous writer. 2.) She's won money not only to prove that she's a fabulous writer, but to prove that there is gold in that thar internet. 3.) She's super cool to talk to. 4.) She shows off her thang in the next 19 questions. 5.) I am mad that I haven't met her in real life, and probably you will be too, now.

The Pia Z. Ehrhardt Interview: Slightly Less Than Twenty Questions

Can you tell us about the story that won you $1,000 in the Fictionline contest and why, in your opinion, it was worth a grand?
I was shocked that it was chosen out of 500 entries. I'd written these three small stories for a class I was taking with Mary Robison, and two of them had cigarettes in them, but they all dealt with mother-daughter confusion/sadness. I liked the elegant loneliness of the title "Three Cigarette Stories," so I added a cigarette to the third story.

I don't know that it was worth a grand; I didn't read the other stories, but I like what I wrote and don't want to futz with it.

How did you spend the prize money?

I bought a great pair of burgundy boots and put the rest in my checking account where I piddled it away on groceries, and video games for Andrew, CDs, and tubes of red lipstick.

Tell us about some great new cosmetic/beauty products that you're currently enjoying.
I'm all over Flex Shampoo and Conditioner again. Nothing smells like that. And Worthington shampoos have this cool oblong packaging. I'm growing my hair out again so I can smell it. And I tried Aruba in a Tuba for little tan but it looks like a little too much fake tan. Damn that skin cancer. What's the point of summer?

Your last name used to begin with a Z. Did you feel something lacking when you changed it? (because you'll always be a Z-Woman to me.)

My maiden name is Zaninelli and at the time when I changed it to Ehrhardt I was anxious to get out from under my family's name. But now I wish I could go back to it without hurting my husband's feelings and confusing the hell out of my son. And ruining my google.

Speaking of names, "Pia" is not one you hear every day. How did your parents pick you out? What are Pia's like?
It's the female version of Pio, which, in Italian, means pious. I don't know what my parents were thinking. Growing up I had to hear the pee-pee jokes. (Don't even THINK about it.) I wanted to die and change my name to Lynn. When I complained to my parents they said, "well, it builds character." My ass. When another Pia finally appeared it was Pia Zadora (speaking of asses) and I had to suffer through that. Pia Lindstrom is the only other famous Pia I know of. (Ingrid Bergman's daughter. She used to be a news anchor in NYC.)

What's the key to writing a good sex scene?
Are you saying I do? Or that I need to keep trying? Trying is okay. I work hard to get the Vaseline off the lens and look at it flat, like a video camera might. Where's the arm, where are the legs, what do they kiss on each other that isn't a cliché? The fingers? What are they doing? This process doesn't sound very sexy, does it? Oh, hell, I'll admit it: there's not a lot of love in my sex scenes. Anger helps me write them.

Do you have a writing schedule or approach, or do you just write what comes?
I write like a demon when I should be doing something else. Like working, or paying attention to the five 13-year old boys in my house listening to Fifty Cent and watching MTV Real World. I'm a binge writer. And I let myself rest in between as I try to convince myself that I'm not a lazy ass. And I revise and revise and revise.

Where/when do you get most of your ideas?
I write out of my life. Privacy = Isolation = Agitation = Implosion = Story. I always ran a secret life next to my open life, and then the two merged. (Not without a lot of grief and pain and near divorce.) I started admitting stuff and people seemed interested. My marriage is happy, though, finally, and my parents are getting older and I'm not so damn angry at them anymore, so the material's running out. I'm doing some crime stories right now, though, and those are torn from the headlines and then expanded upon.

Is copywriting a good job for writers or a terrible job for writers?
I found it debilitating and I urge copywriters who come to me for a job and admit that what they really want is to be a writer to do something else. I used to think, well, at least I'm writing, but ad copy isn't art. It can be pointed and brilliant and thought-provoking, but it's meant to sell something, elicit something. It's manipulative. And facile. And collaborative. And compromised. And draining. The hours in an agency are long and they take you away from writing. This is a miserable way to make a living: never again. I do work on some great accounts -- like this one and this one and those are a pleasure. Now I freelance and mostly work from home.

You live in New Orleans. Is it more an Ann Rice gothic dark paradise, or a pukey frat boy Mardi Gras theme park? Or neither?
It's lovely. The most sensuous city in America. Humid, overgrown with vegetation, laid back, forgiving, sly, humble, hedonistic, private. Bourbon Street is frat-boy and locals don't go there. I don't read Ann Rice. The city's diverse and funky and sort of a mess, but I live in the middle of it and it's my mess.

When you were guest editor at Opium Magazine, what was your method for choosing stories?
I read many of the submissions that had been sent to Todd ; I asked writers I admire but who don't submit to the web if they'd send me work to consider; and, because I'm real involved with Zoetrope's on line workshop I had access to some amazing new voices.

Why do you want an agent? Have you been successful in your search? What would you like him/her to do for you?
I want an agent so I can sell my short story collection, and sell the novel I need to finish. I just started sending out query letters. I'd like him/her to be an advocate of my work, and of me, to love me, to think I hung the moon, and to deal with the business part of writing, and to love me, love, love, love, me, me, me.

You're reading a book that you've heard is great but after about 100 pages, you're not into it or you don't like it. Do you put it down and move on or muddle through?
100 pages into something that I'm not into would be rough. I'm impatient and I have books all over the house waiting to be read, so I abandon ship and start another book. There's some guilt attached to this, as I could be writing a novel that people will only read 100 pages of. I worry that what goes around comes around.

Is it true you're working on a novel? What's the hardest thing about writing a novel?
I'm used to the pace of short stories, and flashes, so settling in and taking my time telling this story - all the while doubting that I can keep a reader's attention - is a big hurdle for me. I have this problem in life, too. I'm not one to hold the floor. I'd rather stand in the back and make small odd comments. I've always tried to take up as little space as possible, so my novel's probably gonna be short.

How do pretty women cheat, and what is some bad advice you can give us?
They use the exterior stuff to power the interior stuff. They work backwards. They are ruthless and careful. They think they are something rare and so they don't believe they can be left or, if they're left, they don't believe they will be forgotten. Bad advice? Make him think your past started with him.

I like your story "Stop" on Pindeldyboz. Would you say that body image and self esteem is a driving force behind many authors? Why?
Because I think about it all the time I think everyone thinks about it. I'm hoping it isn't the driving force for many authors. It is an underpowered car with a long fucking trip ahead. An affair is great way to lose weight, writing about having affairs is snack-city. Cheez-its ALL over the desk.

At the risk of being labeled a sycophant, you're incredibly pretty. How did you get that way?
Ugh. I'm not. Oh, hell, I'm okay. How? Practice. Lots of practice.

How does it feel to be the second Devicette interviewed for
Carrie Hoffman is my hero, so it makes perfect sense.

How does it feel to be the 58th person interviewed for
Late to the party. Pretty girls aren't 58th.