Photo by Curt Richter
Interview by James Hancock, 2018-19 Online Nonfiction Editor
Paula Whyman’s story collection, You May See a Stranger, explores the life of Miranda Weber. Quick-witted and hyper-observant, Miranda is, as the jacket copy describes, “a hot mess.” In one story, for example, she has a sexual awakening in the display tent of a sporting goods section. Whyman has skillfully crafted a collection of self-contained stories that also speak with one another. We’re with Miranda from her late teens through her late forties. We watch her date deeply flawed men, struggle with the fate of her sister who’s developmentally disabled, and witness the crack cocaine epidemic in her hometown of Washington, D.C. No matter the situation, Miranda is always searching, always looking for the fine details in others’ personalities, making acute guesses about their thoughts and actions, never afraid to crack a joke no matter how tense things become. In every story she’s a little older, but also a little wiser. By the end, You May See a Stranger becomes an impressive example of a collection of stories that manages to continuously build on itself, with Miranda becoming a character who has gone through not just one, but multiple arcs in a natural progression through the course of her life.
Paula Whyman has published stories in McSweeney’s Quarterly, Ploughshares, Virginia Quarterly Review, and other literary journals. She has received fellowships from Yaddo and The MacDowell Colony, and is also the founding editor of Scoundrel Time. She recently received the Towson Prize for Literature and read on Towson’s campus. After her visit, she and I corresponded by email to discuss her writing process.
JH: At one of your readings, you said that you knew from the beginning that Miranda’s story would be told through connected short stories. Why is that?
PW: I wanted to touch down at certain points in the protagonist’s life and examine them closely. I was interested, especially, in the obscure moments that stay with you for reasons you might not always understand, and how they eventually fit into the larger picture. Why do you recall one situation or moment or experience and not another that may seem to an outsider to be more significant? Sometimes we don’t figure out the meaning of things like that until well after they’ve occurred; sometimes we never do.
I always imagined a nontraditional structure for this book; I wanted to leave some open spaces in time. Between the events that take place in the stories, time passes. Events occur that are not on the page, and, as far as I can tell, they don’t need to be on the page for the reader to get a sense of Miranda’s lived experience. The reader fills in what might have happened, what seems to have happened. The gaps are part of Miranda’s story.
I see the narrative of a person’s life as a series of linked stories; stories we tell about ourselves and stories we tell ourselves.
JH: Miranda’s life isn’t run by men, but most of her experiences are greatly influenced by the relationships she’s in at the time, along with the choices she makes in relation to them. Why did you choose to highlight those moments in Miranda’s life?
PW: This may sound simplistic, but our lives are influenced by our relationships, and we come to an understanding about ourselves in part by examining our behavior through that lens—the relationships we choose, and those we’re born into. Miranda’s intimate relationships illuminate character and show evolution (or lack thereof) and, especially, track the theme of “judgment” that’s introduced in the first story by the teacher in her driver’s ed class. Will she develop good judgment, as the teacher suggests is important for driving a car—but also, no surprise, when it comes to driving one’s life decisions? Also, it was fun writing the sex scenes.
But Miranda’s most important relationship in the book is with her sister. I see Miranda as someone who needs to define herself as different from her sister and someone who, at least some of the time, feels guilty about her sister, so to some extent she punishes herself by getting involved with men who don’t treat her well. On the other hand, good relationships make for dull fiction. As others have explained more famously and pithily.
JH: You just brought up that Miranda’s relationship with her sister is the most important one. What went into creating her character and developing their relationship throughout the writing process?
PW: The way I develop any character is by writing about her, writing a lot of stuff I don’t end up including in a story but that is indispensable for my own understanding. I wanted to make sure I got Donna “right.” I didn’t want her to be pathetic or angelic or unrealistically wise or any other stereotype, the way some developmentally disabled characters are portrayed in fiction. The story “Drosophila” shows Miranda as a teenager watching out for Donna, while it also flashes back to when Miranda and Donna are kids together and demonstrates the cruelty Miranda is capable of. I was curious about the way both of those strands exist in sibling relationships, and writing that helped me understand Donna’s character, and Miranda’s, in a more fine-grained way. I also think that having a sister, especially a disabled sister, makes Miranda seem a little less self-involved. Like, she has a reason for being the way she is at times, for building a wall around her heart.
JH: Most of the short stories in your book are told in a similar style and structure. What made you decide to change the narrative to third-person perspective in the last two stories?
PW: There are two stories in the second half of the book that are written in third-person point-of-view. (The final story returns to the first-person point-of-view that characterizes the rest of the book.) Although the book is arranged chronologically, I wrote the stories out of order. Those two third-person stories were the first ones I wrote knowing that I was planning to write a whole book of linked stories focused on a specific protagonist, the person who turned out to be Miranda (though at that point I hadn’t named her). I decided to start working on this project during a stay at Yaddo. I drafted those two stories one after the other, each in less than ten days, which at the time was perhaps the fastest I’d ever written a story that ended up working.
I wrote the story set in Mexico first (“Threat Potential”). I remember talking with my housemate at Yaddo about it, saying, I know they’re going to a ruin like Coba, but I don’t know what will happen there. I assumed it would be something bad. So, I wrote that draft (it eventually went through many more drafts), and then I came down with a terrible stomach bug. This illness happened on the day my housemate left the colony, and before a new artist moved in. I was completely alone in a house that seemed haunted (everywhere at Yaddo is haunted). I spent most of the night lying on the floor in the bathroom. Once I could claw my way off the bathroom floor and look at solid food again, I drafted the story about Miranda and the psychologist.
In both of those stories, the protagonist is called “the mother.” Because that’s where she is in her life. Her kids are at an age where that’s her primary identity, and she’s completely focused on them—over-focused, especially in the Mexico story. She’s distanced from herself. So, the third person seemed appropriate. In the doctor story, she’s too busy dwelling on her own past to focus on the problem at hand, what’s happening with her daughter, and she seems self-absorbed. She is transitioning away from the extreme focus on her kids, that distanced self. Not necessarily at the right time for her daughter, though.
When it came time to publish the book, Mike Levine (my editor), Dan Menaker (my agent), and I discussed whether those two stories should be revised to first person. In fact, I’d tried them in first person myself, much earlier, once I realized the other stories would be in first. But to me they work better in third; they do what they’re supposed to do. Mike and Dan agreed. It was a short discussion.
JH: In addition to writing, you also run the online literary journal Scoundrel Time. How has working as an editor influenced or inspired your own writing?
PW: I worked as an editor in various capacities at magazines and in scholarly book publishing for eight years before I went to MFA school. I can’t overemphasize how much I learned from those editorial positions. I think that background has made me more attentive to certain details, attentive to consistency and structure, to trying to tease out and develop ideas, themes. To me, it’s fun–I love editing the work of other writers; probably there’s something seriously wrong with me. I see an essay or a story as a puzzle that has many possible solutions, and I like the challenge of helping an author reach the best possible solution that is true to that person’s vision.
In college, other students paid me to edit their papers. I enjoyed it so much that I remember staying up late working on these other papers rather than working on my own. Plus, beer money.
Still, it took time for me to develop editorial judgment about my own writing. The MFA program helped a great deal toward that goal.
The downside–fiction writers often talk about having to block out the “editor” voice when writing a draft, and that’s true for me. I must let go of any ideas of perfection that the editor in me tends to reach for, or I’d never be able to start…or finish.
JH: You mentioned seeing stories as “puzzles with many different solutions.” What were some other “solutions,” or directions you could have taken Miranda and the other characters, that popped up while you were working on You May See a Stranger?
PW: The linked collection itself, what should go into it and how to structure it—that was a puzzle with many possible solutions. My concept of the book evolved over time. When I started planning it, I didn’t realize the sister would be as important as she turned out to be. And for a long time, I thought the stories would be told by different people in Miranda’s life—a parent, an ex, one of her kids, and so on. I started to write a few of those stories and then realized that the book was really Miranda’s—that it belonged in her voice. Giving myself permission to stay with Miranda’s perspective was a big deal. Then, I spent time wondering whether the stories should appear in a different order. They’re chronological, but within each story, the narrative jumps around in time, so in a way it would be okay to mix them up. You might get a different perspective on Miranda if you read the stories out of order. After all, I wrote them out of order.
When I’m writing a story, I have a few pieces of the puzzle to start but I don’t know how they fit together. Like in the story “Transfigured Night,” I knew Miranda and Devin were planning to go to a concert, but I wasn’t sure they’d ever actually get there. They might just keep arguing about having kids and miss the concert completely. Then I wasn’t sure what piece they’d listen to at the symphony, until I heard the Schoenberg myself, and right away I knew. Then I had the idea that something bad had to happen, because there was a feeling of foreboding that needed to be fulfilled, but I didn’t know what would happen to them or how bad it would be. For that story, I wrote a lot of material that I didn’t use to find the pieces that fit.
JH: With this being your first book, where do you see yourself going with your writing from here? Are you interested in doing another collection of short stories, or do you see yourself writing a novel?
PW: I am writing a novel. It’s dark humor, set in the approximate present. It’s called Head Games. I’m also writing a memoir called A Hole in the Heart.
Several years ago, I was writing a different novel. I kept getting ideas for stories, and these ideas kept gnawing at me, so I’d set aside the novel and write a story instead. I wrote a lot of stories that way. Still, I kept sending myself back to the novel I was working on. I had this idea that my first book “had” to be a novel. But once I drafted those two stories at Yaddo, I decided to give the linked collection a chance; I gave myself permission to write the stories I felt like writing. That was a good decision.
Right now, I have no desire to write a short story. It’s an odd feeling; I’ve been writing short stories since I was nine years old. I’m sure I’ll write more stories later on, but right now, I’m driven to write the novel and the memoir. I’m torturing myself a little, but I’m also having fun with it. Which, if you don’t have fun, what’s the point?