Paula Whyman is funny. In her online humor column for Bethesda Magazine, she confesses her failure at meditation, upon discovering that it involves sitting quietly for a long time, and thinking about nothing: “I thought meditating was when I sit at my desk and daydream about which direction to go with a story I’m writing, and without realizing it, I eat an entire box of crackers.” Later, when the instructor leads the class in the contemplation of a raisin, Whyman’s prolific imagination wanders off into hilarious, and relatable, territory: “I was thinking, how many people touched this raisin as they picked out their raisin from the cup?”
Paula Whyman is accomplished. Her debut linked story collection, You May See a Stranger, newly released from TriQuarterly Books/Northwestern University Press was just reviewed in Publishers Weekly: “…an honest and sharply observed linked story collection, spanning the life of Miranda Weber from her teens through her late 40s… Themes of love, sex, politics, and family run through the collection, and every detail has satisfying echoes later on. Together, these smart, artful stories capture a woman’s life and the moments that define her.”
Whyman’s work has appeared in McSweeney’s Quarterly, Virginia Quarterly Review, Ploughshares, The Hudson Review, and The Southampton Review. She was awarded a 2014 Tennessee Williams Scholarship in Fiction by the Sewanee Writers Conference and received a 2014 Pushcart Prize Special Mention for a story that appeared in The Gettysburg Review. She’s the recipient of grants from the Maryland State Arts Council and the Arts and Humanities Council of Montgomery County (AHCMC) and is a member of The MacDowell Colony Fellows Executive Committee (FEC).
Paula Whyman is a bit of a trickster. There is a lie in her biography on her web site, but it is so well crafted, the fiction fits neatly in with the truth (I fell for it!). It’s not meant to be deceitful, it’s meant to play with our expectations of who writers are supposed to be and the lives we think they lead. It’s an invitation to wonder and decide for ourselves what is definitive of the writing life, what makes an author’s work trustworthy, meaningful, and how that gives the work its measure of revelation.
In You May See a Stranger, we first meet a teenaged Miranda Weber in a driver’s education class, where love, sex, and violence become the knot she works to disentangle throughout her life. In the years that follow, she copes with growing up in a family where her sister’s disability requires a particular, and in some cases peculiar, view of reality. Her powers of observation are, unfortunately, not a panacea against selfish, clueless lovers, nor do they help her solve a disturbing family mystery or deal with the ever-present dangers of living in a modern city in terrorist times. But, she persists in her unsettled world, despite those failures to be loved or be safe or know the full truth, thanks to her wit, insight, and insatiable curiosity.
Bloom: Why did you write You May See a Stranger as a linked collection of stories rather than a novel? Is there something in your character, Miranda, that makes this the best way (or even the only way!) to reveal her to us?
Paula Whyman: I always imagined this as a book of connected stories, but at the same time, I never sat down and said, the best way to tell the story of Miranda’s life is through stories, and not a novel. It evolved the other way, in that I wrote a few stories independently of each other, and when I sat down and looked at them together, I realized they could be about the same person at different times in her life. I was enjoying that process, so I thought I’d go with it and see what happened. Once I decided to follow Miranda over a large part of her life span, I realized I wanted the stories to have an overall arc when taken together, to provide a fuller picture of who she is and the times in which she lives, in addition to the arc that I hope occurs within each story. I think of Miranda’s experiences as happening at transition points. She’s coming of age at each stage, which I think we all do. There are some large time gaps between some of the stories, and again, that was intentional. I didn’t think it was necessary or even desirable to write bridges between all of those moments. I thought it would be more interesting for the reader to fill in those gaps without my help.
Bloom: You’ve been praised for being a serious writer who is also funny – do you agree with the characterization? How is humor particularly illuminating or liberating when it comes to writing about serious ideas like disability, terrorism, and racism?
PW: That is one of my favorite comments about my work. It was Blake Bailey who said that. I’m drawn to humor in the fiction I read. I love Lorrie Moore’s stories, for instance, and her stories are both wry and serious. I love that. And my admiration for T.C. Boyle’s stories, Philip Roth’s novels, Martin Amis’s early novels—it’s in part about their ability to use intelligent, sometimes edgy humor in approaching dark subject matter. That combination keeps things from getting too heavy; it gives the reader an out, some relief, to be able to laugh, often at something one wouldn’t want to be seen laughing at in real life. Look at how quickly jokes get made following tragedy: We’re always asking ourselves, Too soon? It’s human to need that relief. That said, it’s not something I specifically work on, putting humor in my stories, which I suppose means it’s my natural way of looking at things. Sometimes I need to work to tone down the humor.
Bloom: You used your story “Driver’s Education” as a teaching module in an AP English class – were there things the students shared that surprised you about their experience with the story? Talk a bit about what it means to you to be a visiting writer in schools. What advice or guidance do you offer to your aspiring writers?
PW: My favorite writing-related activity, outside of writing itself, is visiting classes and meeting students. I’ve discussed “Driver’s Education” with a lot of different school groups, through writers-in-schools programs run by The Hudson Review in New York and Pen/Faulkner Foundation in DC. That story works well with teens, because in it Miranda is 15 years old (this is the first story in the book; she ages as the stories progress). The story includes racial tension, conflicts involving power and authority, and sexual tension. I’ve visited English classes from 9th grade on up, students in AP Lit, as you mention, and students who are having a tough time in school and are repeating their senior year. I’ve also discussed that story with teen parents in a high school program, and much older adult students in the community college setting. In other words, this story seems to strike a chord with students no matter their age or level of academic success.
The advice I give most often to students who are interested in writing is to read, read widely, everything they can get their hands on. In fact, quality probably matters less than quantity, if the goal is simply persuading someone to try picking up a book. I’ve been impressed, actually, with the number of students who report that they read outside of school. I’m always happy, and relieved, to hear that.
In answer to your question, Yes! The students always surprise me. I was apprehensive about teaching that story to 9th graders—I thought that was a little young, given the content. But here’s what a student in that class had to say about Miranda: “Before she figures out what kind of guy she likes, she needs to figure out who she is.” Well, there you go, that’s the story in a nutshell. Maybe it’s the whole book. And a 14-year-old said that. I was thinking, Honey, you are miles ahead of most young women, and a lot of middle-aged women. I want to know what she does when she grows up.
Bloom: From your biography on your web site, it sounds like you have had many adventures in professional writing! What was it like to write “cheesy real estate guides” and edit material for the American Psychological Association? How did these experiences help or hinder your goal to write fiction?
PW: It’s all material. The job at the real estate magazine publisher was not a writing job per se. I started out as a production editor, meaning I was assembling the 650-page doorstop that was the DC Apartment Shoppers Guide. And when I say assemble, I mean, on paper, with a linotype printout for every page. And bluelines. Does anyone know what a blueline is anymore? The Guide doesn’t exist anymore, of course; all that information is online now. I eventually did some writing in that job, which involved finding new ways to say “beautifully landscaped grounds.” My favorite apartment advertising slogan was “The lifestyle you deserve.” You had to have a sense of humor to work in that office.
My time at APA Books was an entirely different situation. I not only had the best boss ever (Ralph Eubanks, who happened to publish one of my stories in VQR, 20 years later), but the work was fascinating. I edited books on everything from PTSD among refugees to longitudinal studies of personality. But I eventually decided to go back to school. I was taking night classes, and the only way I could enroll full-time in the MFA program was to quit my job. It was a difficult decision.
For a little while, I had an awful job writing resumes. People would pay me to “help” with their law school application essays. That was great preparation for writing fiction.
Bloom: Speaking of professional experience, your biography mentions that you were a Solid Gold dancer – how did that experience lend itself to building characters and exploring plots?
PW: I was never actually a Solid Gold dancer; I’m sorry to disappoint! That was a tongue-in-cheek comment. When I wrote that, I was thinking of 8th grade, when my friends and I would watch the dancers on TV, mocking their exaggerated gestures and, even so, wishing for gold lamé bodysuits. The closest I came was probably in my twenties, when we would go to a club in DC’s Adams Morgan where you could dance in a cage on a raised platform above the dance floor. Although I suppose there were some people who took this cage-dancing very seriously, for my friends and I, it was all done in fun.
Bloom: I found a couple of the stories in You Might See a Stranger used genre elements in subtle and compelling ways: “Jump” reads like a suspense, and my favorite, “Drosophila,” has a beautiful speculative quality to it, when Miranda first tells us her sister is a fruit fly. Was this an intentional strategy?
PW: That’s interesting that “Drosophila” was your favorite. I’ve always been interested in biology and genetics; when I was in high school, I did an independent project on recombinant DNA. I’m also a big fan of Andrea Barrett, and she incorporates science into a lot of her fiction. I wanted to try something like that myself. I wasn’t intentionally going for speculative fiction, though I did that in another story that was published in McSweeney’s Quarterly (also a Miranda story, but not in the book). Miranda does a lot of daydreaming and fantasizing throughout these stories, making up her own explanations for whatever she doesn’t understand, like in the story “Jump,” where it can be hard to tell where Miranda’s imagination ends and the “facts” of the events begin.
Bloom: Miranda is coping with people who are both familiar and strange to her – her sister; Pogo, her lover and the father of her unborn child; the unborn child itself – what is it about this balance between comfortable known and curious unknown that drives her, informs her observations about the world, and contributes to her own state of being a “hot mess?”
PW: Gosh, if I could answer that, I could open up a thriving psychotherapy practice! Seriously, I think most of us are interested in some balance between the comfort of the known and the mystery of the unknown. I think life requires both. Miranda may take it to extremes, but she probably wouldn’t be as interesting to read about if she didn’t.
Bloom: Your biography says: “She has always been a writer.” Tell us a bit more about what that means. Are there other professions or passions that define you or your life?
PW: No. None. There’s nothing else I can do. Except, I do hope that I’m a good parent! I think I became a writer because I’m interested in everything; it was impossible to choose one subject. When I was a kid, I wanted to be a veterinarian. What that really meant was, I wanted to have a lot of animals around. Later on, I developed an interest in conservation biology, a serious interest, but I wanted to write about it. What drew me in were the stories. I’ve always been interested in stories, in both hearing the stories of others and in making them up. Even if I were not a fiction writer, I would be doing something where people would tell me their stories. That’s life, isn’t it? A series of stories we tell ourselves to help us understand what the hell just happened or is going to happen.
Bloom: I love your honesty in your column, Semi-Charmed Life for Bethesda Magazine – “I’ve enjoyed writing this column, especially as it has given me a plausible excuse for not being further along in writing my book.” Discipline (or maybe just time) seems to be a huge challenge – every writer I meet expresses the same sentiment. Why do you think it’s so hard to immerse ourselves in the work?
PW: I once painted our basement in order to avoid working on a novel. Two coats of primer (to cover dark, warped paneling), caulk in the joints, and two coats of paint, in a 500 square foot space. Why do we have trouble? Because just about everything else is easier to do. The world is all too ready to distract us, to help us break the tenuous thread of our attention, and we are all too ready to – Wait a minute, I have to check Facebook…
Bloom: Who were your inspirations when you were finding your voice and style and intent as a writer? Who are you reading now?
PW: The original Winnie the Pooh stories are linked stories. And they’re funny even for adults (at least, for me), but also with serious underlying intent that doesn’t ruin the entertainment value. Those might have been the first linked stories I ever read.
I always made up stories, so it’s hard to know exactly what helped me. I watched too much TV, which is of course episodic, so that may have contributed unconsciously to my interest in the short form. I also read too much, and by that I mean, I wasn’t out “doing life” as much as perhaps I should have. When I learned to drive I had no idea how to go anywhere.
In thinking about this particular book, I was reading Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively, and that led me to consider the weblike way personal history works. The protagonist in that book is a historian explaining her own life history, and she says “There is no sequence; everything happens at once.” Past, present, and future all in one moment.
As for what I’m reading now, I just finished Lily King’s Euphoria, which satisfied my thirst for science-related fiction with its portrayal of a Margaret Mead-like anthropologist and her men. I also recently read Parallel Lives Five Victorian Marriages by Phyllis Rose, which was a revelation. I’m now starting Robin Black’s collection of essays, Crash Course, and also picking up The Good Soldier by Ford Maddox Ford. I read that one in college but don’t remember it as well as I’d like, and I’m interested in the unreliable narrator—that’s for my next project.
Bloom: Talk a bit about “Transfigured Night,” the music theater piece being developed based on one of the stories in You May See a Stranger. What is it like adapting your story to the stage? Did you envision this story as music theater when writing it?
PW: The composer, Scott Wheeler, had the idea to adapt the story. I was thrilled, because I’m in awe of his work. He’s worked with writers on many, many successful projects, including opera and ballet. He recently collaborated with the poet Paul Muldoon on a song cycle called Ben Gunn. So, no, I didn’t have this project in mind when I wrote the story, not at all. I wanted to write a story set at the symphony, and “Transfigured Night” was the result. It’s a lot of fun and extremely challenging to re-envision a story as a stage piece that’s dependent on music. It’s a different art form, to state the obvious, and the story will be transformed as a result, I expect, with more emphasis on fantasy or the dreamlike elements in the story. I like doing things I haven’t done before, and the idea of telling the story another way, through a different art form, is very exciting to me.
Bloom: Lastly, what will you be working on next?
PW: I’m already well into writing a novel. I don’t want to say too much about it, except it’s also set in the DC area, and bad things happen to good people, or let’s say, okay people, normal people. I’m always interested in what makes us anxious, and there’s a lot these days to make us anxious, let’s face it. So what if one of the terrible things you worry about that seems a remote possibility were to happen? Or what if the one thing you weren’t worried about is the one thing that happens? That’s what I’m investigating. And, of course, there are funny parts.
Click here to read an excerpt from Paula Whyman’s You May See a Stranger.
Photo courtesy of Curt Richter.