You May See a Stranger by Paula Whyman
Paula Whyman is the author of the linked story collection You May See a Stranger, which won the 2017 Towson Prize for Literature. Her work has appeared in places like Ploughshares, VQR, McSweeney’s Quarterly, The Hudson Review, The Washington Post, and on NPR. She is Vice President of the MacDowell Fellows Executive Committee and a fellow of MacDowell, Yaddo, and The Studios of Key West. In 2019, she was awarded a Maryland State Arts Council Individual Artist Award in fiction. Paula is founder and editor-in-chief of Scoundrel Time, the online journal of arts and resistance.
I’m daydreaming about a white box truck.
And look, it has just pulled into my driveway. It could be the very one they talked about last night on the news, the one we’re supposed to watch out for and worry about.
Except, on the side of this truck there’s a picture of a horse, a bucking bronco, and in brown lettering it says Mustang Fence. The horse reminds me of my son’s pajama. My son, who’s at school now, who for the first time didn’t refuse to get out of the car when I pulled up to the front of the carpool line, who didn’t complain when his sister reached over, as always without my permission, and unbuckled his seatbelt for him too soon, before I’d even stopped at the curb. If she could, she’d shove him out the door while the car’s still moving, so eager is she to have him utterly out of her life. I do understand this impulse, as I had a sister once whom I sometimes thought to shove to her death, and then, by the time I no longer thought of doing it, she went and did herself in with no help from me at all. Which doesn’t let me off the hook. Funny how that works, that the dead keep the living in ways both good and bad.
But as for the boy, to my amazement, this morning he didn’t protest or whine, he simply got out of the car when he was supposed to, said “Bye,” as if he’s been doing it for twenty years, like a man being dropped off for his daily ride on the commuter train into the city. He waved, he was gone. His sister slid across the seat and followed. And I came home to meet a man who’ll build a fence around our yard, which I’m telling myself will keep the bad guys out and keep my children in.
[Excerpt from “Bad Side In” from You May See A Stranger with permission from Triquarterly Books.]
CORINNE GOULD: It’s rare to read a story collection focusing on the same protagonist—and rarer that it’s pulled off as eloquently as You May See a Stranger. The snapshots of Miranda Weber’s life progress chronologically, and this “novelistic” form suits the protagonist’s evolution beautifully. What is it about short stories that make them so magnifying?
PAULA WHYMAN: I’m pleased that you think this approach works so well. Maybe the magnifying you refer to occurs naturally in short stories, because we’re focused on a moment or series of moments, a tightly defined space and a minute set of actions. And because the stories follow Miranda through time, we’re seeing Miranda’s development in a long-term accumulation of these small moments (or as The New Yorker put it, the mundane along with the “acute”).
I always conceived these as connected stories, never wanted to write the “bridges” between them. I believed that readers would create their own continuity, filling the gaps between the stories with their guesses about what had occurred in the interim, based on what they learned about Miranda from the other stories.
I was curious about the events that stand out in a person’s memory for often obscure, private reasons—not the births, weddings, deaths, but the less heralded moments—and how, when we think of the past, the time spanning between those events is often cloudy and vague and fades into the background. Why does a particular memory surface, and not another, when you think of this or that time? We often don’t know why—or perhaps we figure it out years later.
I began writing these stories while I was working on a novel (a different novel than the one I’m writing now). I know the new idea is often more seductive than the project one is currently struggling with, but in this case I think I was fighting my inclination to write stories, having convinced myself that my first book of fiction had to be a novel. When I was bogged down in the novel, I’d pause to write a short story. In part, I needed the satisfaction of finishing something. But ultimately, I was ready to write them, almost as if I’d been suppressing them—once I started, I couldn’t stop.
CG: In the title story of the collection, we meet Pogo, showing off a wad of cash to Miranda in the car on the way to dinner:
“It’s mine, all mine,” he laughed maniacally and sipped his drink, which was in a real glass he’d brought from home. He’s the only person I’ve ever seen do that, bring a drink in an open glass in a car that isn’t a limo. But I never saw Pogo or any of his friends without a drink, a wisecrack, or a woman. They were not-quite Southerners in the not-quite South, pretend gentility and bad behavior coexisting without any apparent discomfort, like Pogo’s dress-code- correct pressed khakis with no boxers underneath.”
By the end of this story, we know Pogo to be the father of Miranda’s accidental and eventually terminated pregnancy. Even from these first moments, we know Pogo is magnetic, attractive and engaging, but simultaneously self-centered and unctuous. One of your greatest strengths is the capacity for saturated character description. Even in brief snapshots, vivid and complete characters are conjured. How do you consciously balance physicality and pacing in your characterization?
PW: One answer is, I write way too much, and then I cut. When I cut, I try to be careful about choosing among the details. Years ago, I took a workshop with Karen Shepard at the Tin House Summer Writers’ Conference, and she talked about “seconding”—how writers will say something, and then say it again in a different way. She called our attention to this habit and instructed us to choose—because one of those ways of describing something will always be better somehow, more on point, and the habit of stating and restating is usually a failure to make a decision, an unwillingness to part with one’s words, or a hesitation about choosing the direction of the story. Ever since then I’ve tried to be conscious about that when I revise. Maybe that gets to a little of what you’re saying. It can be hard to make a commitment to something in a story, especially when you’re not sure where it will go—and I usually try not to know too much in advance.
I pay close attention when I read fiction that seems to find the balance between detail and movement, dialogue and narrative, present action and flashback—fiction that achieves what I think of as Euclidean perfection. I’m probably misusing Euclid. And nothing is perfect. What I mean is, a piece of fiction that feels “true,” by which I mean “honest” rather than factual. I think the reader is attuned to the difference between a detail that feels true and one that feels fabricated to serve the story.
As a young adult, when I started taking workshops, and even when I started in an MFA program, I remember trying so hard to come up with a character’s gestures. Instead of thinking, well, what WOULD this person do here, and do we really need to see it? I thought I needed them to do something for the sake of variety, so I’d have them move an arm this way or that (or shrug! ugh). I didn’t yet understand that gesture has to convey character somehow. I needed to stop thinking so hard about it and instead really see the people. Back then, I had this very conscious, plodding process, but, luckily, along the way, I picked up some important lessons. Now, if I find myself worrying over, say, how to move a character across a room, I try to remind myself that what’s important is what happens once she’s on the other side of the room. I finally learned just to put her there, wherever she needs to be. A reader is rarely distracted trying to figure out how a character got from point A to point B in space, but is often distracted determining how she got where she is emotionally, intellectually, morally, and so on.
CG: While crafting these stories, did you write chronologically? Did you see the plot in a larger trajectory, or did linked stories release you from plot conventions in some way?
PW: I didn’t write chronologically, although the first story in the book, “Driver’s Education,” was written first, years before I thought of writing any other stories about that girl. I wrote what became the title story, “You May See a Stranger,” about six years later. Over time, I began to think there might be a connection between the two protagonists. I was working on a novel at the time, and I had a three-week residency coming up at Yaddo. While there, I decided to work intentionally on stories about that girl, and I ended up writing drafts of two stories that later appeared in the second half of the book. One of these was the Mexico story, in which Miranda is already forty years old. After that, the protagonist (she still had no name) had a husband I realized I knew almost nothing about, and I had no idea how they’d reached the place in their marriage that’s represented in that Mexico story. I went back in time to try and figure it out, and that’s when I wrote “Dubrovnik 1989” and “Transfigured Night,” stories that cover some of Miranda’s early years with Devin.
The very last story I wrote is the second story in the book, “Drosophila.” My editor, Mike Levine, recommended that I develop the relationship between Miranda and her sister a little more. He left it up to me to decide how to do that. Since I’d been thinking that I needed another story about them, I decided to write one that was set during Miranda’s youth, something that would attempt to explain her conflicting attitudes about Donna. A lot of people are surprised when I tell them I wrote that one last.
Because there’s movement back and forth in time within many of the stories, people have asked me how I decided where in the book to put certain flashbacks; for the most part, it was intuitive. I wrote them as I wrote each story. Some of the stories were like puzzles that I’d assemble by moving the pieces around until I found the organizational logic that seemed to work.
I wanted there to be an overarching “plot” or trajectory, and I hope I achieved that. I thought of it as the trajectory of Miranda’s life, at least to a point. I started with the beginning of her awareness about identity, her questions about what kind of person she might become—the early coming-of-age events depicted in the first story. I thought of each subsequent story as a transition point. Miranda “coming of age” at different ages in different ways. I wanted to portray the moments that made her and changed her. I didn’t realize, until I reached the natural stopping point in the last story, that the retrospective narrator had already predicted an ending of sorts early in the book. But once I saw that was the case, the book felt circular to me, rather than linear. I hope that the way time works in the book is the way time works in a person’s mind. We’re never only in one time in our heads. The accumulation of moments, experiences, and the meaning Miranda derives, I suppose that’s the plot.
CG: Most of the stories feature Miranda’s connection with a man: an early boyfriend, a lover, a gay companion, an adult partner, a husband, and a man sent to build a fence around her suburban yard. In stories so richly about Miranda becoming a woman and surviving in a world that can be painful and unsafe for women, why did men feature so prominently?
PW: Throughout the stories, Miranda’s trying to figure out who she is, and, beginning in “Driver’s Education,” she’s also trying to figure out who men are and how to relate to them. I think the answer is somehow in the question—that becoming a woman and surviving in a world that can be painful and unsafe for women, Miranda has to try and figure out how to be with the men in her life. She wants them around, she wants to find that closeness, that soul mate thing, but she’s not so good at going about it. And there is something about the fact that her closest friend in the book is a gay man. She’s drawn to him in part because he doesn’t want anything from her—or, he wants something different that is perhaps both more and less dangerous.
Judgment is a theme throughout the book, and Miranda’s judgment about men is often suspect. The way her interactions with men, her attitudes toward sex, and her sexuality and physicality evolve over time, these were ways into her character.
These are not the only ways into her character. In my mind, Miranda’s most significant relationship is her relationship with her sister, even though her sister is mostly off-stage. I think that’s the defining relationship of Miranda’s life, or at least the part of her life we see in these stories.
CG: You’ve received numerous glowing reviews for your debut collection. I was especially entertained by the only Amazon single-star review from a serial critic who offers comments like “didn’t finish it…too wordy,” “good read until the last half…then i fell asleep!” and “couldn’t get past the first 50 pages. way too dark a book.” I hope you find this kind of thoughtless dismissal as hilarious as I do. What have you learned about defining success as a writer?
PW: This is funny, because almost all writers get these reviews at some point and then mostly refrain from speaking about them publicly, but we do joke and grouse to each other privately. My very first review on Goodreads was a one-star review, before the book was even available, in which the reviewer admits to never having read the book. Apparently, I was honored with this attention because my book got a starred review in Publishers Weekly, where one star is a coveted designation. But I think my favorite review is the one where someone says, “This is a dumb book.”
I’ve always gauged my “success” against my own goals. It does no good to compare oneself with other writers. Instead, I discover that there’s something I want to accomplish, and I work toward it. It can take a long time. I’m stubborn. I mean “persistent.” For instance, there’s a certain very competitive artist colony, and as soon as I learned of its existence, and about the many talented and famous writers who’d gone there to work on books that I love, I started daydreaming about going there one day. Years later, once I had some publication credits, I starting applying there. I still considered it a fantasy. I was rejected multiple times, and I was ready to give up on it—I thought, maybe they don’t like my work. Why continue to put myself through that process if there’s really no chance? But then another artist told me, “If you don’t apply, you reject yourself.” (Thank you, Andrew R.) I applied once more, and that time I got in. I couldn’t believe it, really. After that, I figured, if something like that can happen, a lot of things are possible. I’ve learned to allow for the unexpected, stay open to serendipity, instead of always having a specific outcome in mind.
Continually revisiting and revising what success means to me has been crucial. When I was twenty-five it meant, I’ll have my first novel published before I’m thirty. (That didn’t happen, obviously.) Over time, I became more realistic. I think as we get older and gain experience, and maybe maturity, we’re less likely to cling to a conventional definition of success, or of artistic success. We’re more likely to be comfortable with our limitations and know our skills. Which does not preclude dreaminess.
CG: You recently retweeted Amanda Loudin’s article on why runners should take up writing and vice versa. What kinds of activities, other than writing, do you find best support your creativity? How do writing residencies and retreats support your productivity?
PW: Jamie Quatro, whose short stories I love, has also talked a lot about running and the role it plays in her work. I took up running relatively late, and I felt that it had an immediate, positive impact on my writing. My “runner’s high” occurs when I pass into creative mode, the meditative state where my mind wanders. Falling into that trance while running is easier than getting there while sitting at my desk. That said, I have to work to remember the strands that appeared while I was running so I can retrieve them and continue to follow them later. This is sometimes complicated. One writer-runner told me that she brings a pen when she runs and writes notes on her arms. I’m accident-prone, and if I tried to write on anything while I was running, I’m sure I’d lose my balance and fall. Instead, I try to use mnemonics to remember where my mind was going with the work. Sometimes taking a long drive will have a similar effect, though I don’t recommend lapsing into a trance-like state while driving…
I find that anything that puts me in a different physical space will improve my productivity and the quality of my ideas. Sometimes even sitting in a different chair or turning to face a different part of the room where I’m working will make a difference.
Some of my most productive times have been spent at artist residencies. At a residency, I’m able to reset and refocus my creative energies. The other artists are there for the same reasons. Artist colonies provide a supportive environment, quiet and with minimal distractions, for doing creative work. At most colonies, there are no interruptions to the work day. For me, a residency is the writing equivalent of running a marathon—if I were able to run actual marathons, which I can’t. At a residency, I might stay in the trance-like state for hours, perhaps days. No one around you questions it, because it’s happening to everyone. Even at dinner, you usually dine with the other artists, and everyone has that same look in their eyes that tells you they’re only partially present. Their inner eye is still on their work.
That’s as it should be.
I remember when I was at MacDowell Colony, I was conscious of the privilege and rarity of being invited to that place. I didn’t do any leaf-peeping or hiking; I didn’t go to the apple festival. I only left the grounds when I needed something at the store in town. After a residency, that’s when I need a vacation. But that in itself is complicated: a “vacation” that doesn’t allow any time to write is not so much fun for me.
CG: This collection includes the pain and tragedy of racism, abortion, addiction, disability, suicide, marital challenges, etc. These are honest renderings of suffering, and I wonder if you consciously left room for hope.
PW: Did I want to leave room for hope? Yes, I always hope there’s hope! In fact, that’s one reason we (the editor and I) ultimately decided to cut the story that originally ended the book; we decided it was too dark and ambiguous an ending. I consider the current ending a hopeful one for Miranda, in which she’s figured something out about herself, and her outlook is shifting as a result. I’m not sure that everyone sees the ending that way, though, and that’s fine. The reader’s take on it is what matters.
Originally published with Late Night Library on November 15, 2016.