It’s rare, but sometimes—if I’m very lucky—a fictional character becomes so real to me I feel as if I’ve made an actual friend. This is what happened to me with Miranda Weber, the protagonist of each of the ten stories in Paula Whyman’s intimate, wrenching, funny, and sexy debut short story collection You May See a Stranger.
You May See a Stranger showcases Miranda from her teens to her late forties, presenting a collage-like portrait of her life in Washington, DC starting in the 1980s. “Tell me your secrets” could be the writing prompt here, and Miranda—through her author Whyman—does, with tremendous authenticity. It’s all laid bare: charming and troubling boyfriends, an accidental pregnancy, drug dalliances, sibling laments and heartbreaks, uninspired jobs, good and bad sex, marital stalemates, and worried mothering, with nothing held back. Miranda isn’t figuring it out, but she is moving forward with her fair share of laughs and sexual satisfactions and plenty of music and pop culture to buoy her along the way, like maybe a little Depeche Mode or Thelma & Louise.
If I spied Miranda across the room at a party, she’s the one I’d make a beeline for, wondering what I might learn about her this time. Will her latest revelation make me laugh or cry? With Miranda, I’m betting both. Best of all, I know Miranda will be as confused and ambivalent about life’s choices as I am. And such not knowing, and being honest about not knowing—to your friends and yourself—are what cement a friendship for me every time. By email, I had the pleasure of questioning author Paula Whyman about the book that delivered my new friend Miranda to me.
The Rumpus: Why did you decide to write a collection of stand-alone stories to portray Miranda’s life rather than using the format of a novel? Do you consider the collection a novel-in-stories?
Paula Whyman: I always thought of these stories as episodes from Miranda’s life that, taken together, would create an arc and add up to a cumulative meaning. I was a big reader growing up, but I have at times blamed my episodic approach to writing on watching too much TV as a kid. I liked the way the tension would build but then the plot would resolve in a half-hour or an hour. I hated two-part episodes, where you’d be in a state of suspended animation for a week until you could find out what happened. On the other hand, I liked it when time would pass noticeably between episodes, as if the characters continued to carry on offstage, their lives still in progress, or so I imagined, until the next part I was invited to witness.
The moment of impact and its aftermath are what I’m most interested in exploring. I wanted to touch down at times that would be meaningful and continue to resonate for Miranda. In the spaces between the stories, Miranda presumably has experiences the reader can intuit and doesn’t need to actually see.
I think most people agree that the book is “novelistic,” and I might call it a novel-in-stories. If I recall, Olive Kitteridge wasn’t designated either way, but I would consider it in the same animal family—a novelistic book of connected stories.
Rumpus: For me, You May See a Stranger feels more novelistic than Olive Kitteridge because we stay in Miranda’s point-of-view for every story. Are there any short story collections featuring a single point-of-view protagonist that served as inspirations for you? Alice Munro has a beautiful trilogy of stories in her collection Runaway that depicts the same point-of-view protagonist Juliet at various stages of her life. Did you have any models? Are there any authors or books that you would be thrilled and honored to have people think of when they read You May See a Stranger?
Whyman: I love the linked Munro stories. I especially like the way they refer back and forth in time. She also does this in her wonderful linked story collection, The Beggar Maid, which bears some structural resemblance to my book. The past reaches into the future—and vice versa—and makes your hair stand up a little. But I didn’t read The Beggar Maid as a whole, only a few of the stories, until I was finished with my book. I always worry about influences being too… influential, which is probably silly. While I was working on these stories, I read novels, primarily. Maybe that helped me absorb lessons in creating a novelistic arc.
I did think of Olive Kitteridge as a model early on, and that may be why I initially planned to write the stories from different characters’ perspectives. As in Strout’s book, each story would involve Miranda somehow. But I ended up writing all the stories from Miranda’s perspective instead. Once I decided to do that, I couldn’t think of any specific models that stuck to one perspective for an entire book. Recently, though, a friend, author Dave Singleton—I think he deserves credit for noticing this—pointed out that The Chester Chronicles, a novel-in-stories by Kermit Moyer, does just that. Kermit was my mentor and thesis advisor, and after I finished my MFA in 2000, we exchanged work for many years. I critiqued his stories and his book in manuscript form several years before I even thought of writing my collection. His stories are chronological; they’re all told by Chester, about coming of age and growing up as an Army brat. The book covers a different time span, from boyhood to college years.
To be compared with any of these writers would be dreamy, by which I mean, I’d be expecting someone to shake me awake and tell me it was all a dream. Lorrie Moore’s stories have been mentioned in connection with mine by a few people, perhaps because of the wry humor. That just about knocks me over. She’s one of my idols.
Rumpus: Sex is a prevalent pursuit of Miranda’s throughout the collection, and I loved the forthright portrayal of sexual desire in the stories. I also loved that the collection melded humor with sex in some instances. Do you have any advice for writing about sex naturally and with humor?
Whyman: As you might imagine, I’ve been asked about the sex scenes before… I suppose it’s disappointing if I say I write those kinds of scenes the same way I write any scene. First, I have to be able to imagine it, see it in my head the way the point-of-view character would see it. What would she focus on? Where is her hand right now? Is it important to know where her hand is right now? I need to feel that it’s convincing, just like I want the dialogue, or anything else, to be convincing. I have to slow it down in my head, so I can see which details are important. I think sometimes writers err on the side of providing too much unnecessary detail, which can sound clinical or labored; or, they might use too much abstract language, and then the reader doesn’t feel grounded (cf., most descriptions of what an orgasm feels like); or there is too much overwrought emotional language, which pushes the reader away.
I don’t want to write sex scenes that are unintentionally amusing—I used to read Penthouse letters because they were funny; they reminded me of the Mad Libs my friends and I did when we were thirteen. But I think humor is often appropriate and realistic. Philip Roth’s Sabbath’s Theater is a good model, because many of the sex scenes are both achingly sad and hilarious. Sex is inherently weird and awkward and funny—if you consider the mechanics objectively, maybe remember what it was like when you were a little kid and you first learned about those mechanics, it probably sounded horrifying. Real sexual encounters almost never look the way they do, say, in 9 1/2 Weeks. I mean, not once do I recall Kim Basinger telling Mickey Rourke that his elbow is on her hair. Really?
Rumpus: One of the pleasures of Miranda as a character is that she is both honest and funny, often even in painful circumstances, as when she describes her response to an emotionally distressing revelation as a “test of the Emergency Small-Talk System,” to give just one example. Can you talk about how her candor and humor intersect?
Whyman: Miranda has an amused outlook on her situation, which I think is healthy. Maybe if she didn’t make a joke, she’d have to cry. And if she took things too seriously, if she took herself too seriously, some of the events in the book might seem melodramatic. I needed her to be clever enough to find the humor in those dark events. Part of the humor may come from that candor you mention, her willingness to admit to her “dangerous” thoughts. Her sense of humor, admittedly, is similar to my own. But Miranda may be better at keeping her thoughts to herself.
Rumpus: Of all of the experiences that Miranda encounters in the decades that span the book, from an abortion, to her intellectually disabled sister’s suicide, to her marital challenges and more, what do you think her chief agony is? I have my own guesses, and I’m interested in hearing what you have to say about the struggles that dominate her psyche. What has marked Miranda most?
Whyman: Certain things are unknowable, and any analysis I do of Miranda’s character is only after the fact. That said, I think Miranda carries around a lot of guilt—for her feelings about her sister, for the abortion, for the ambivalence that becomes a prophecy of sorts. I also think she feels short-changed by her parents. Siblings always think the other one gets more attention, but in this case it may be true.
Miranda starts out as a teenager wanting to know who she is, and as she goes on, she’s always searching. I’ve known people like that, who go through life perpetually trying to figure out who they are. Miranda doesn’t seem to know that there’s no perfect answer, and there’s no perfect life. How many people can accept that?
Rumpus: I found myself angered by many of the men in this collection, from the belligerent and entitled Pogo to the “I know best” nice guys Kevin and Miranda’s eventual husband Devin. I admired your ability to create characters who infuriated me in the same way real people do, and at opposite ends of the spectrum, from the outrageous to the reliable. Despite their flaws, I sensed the appeal these men would hold for Miranda. Can you discuss Miranda’s predilections for these problematic, and to me, stifling, men?
Whyman: I love it when readers have a strong reaction one way or another, so I like that some of the characters infuriate you. Is there anyone who isn’t problematic, given the right circumstances? I’ve asked myself whether some of these men would be as problematic if they were with a different woman—especially Kevin and Devin. And by the way, I’m a little sorry that their names rhyme, but I guess they’re related, as characters, though not by blood. Regarding their behavior, Kevin at least has the excuse that we only see him when he’s sixteen years old; he’s still a work-in-progress. But if you were to predict what he’d be like at forty, well, you might very well end up with Devin. Devin ages along with Miranda in these stories and should maybe know better. But Miranda should know better, too. One has the feeling she gets too deep into something before she really gets to know the other person.
With Pogo, when he’s paying attention to her, she feels like she exists in some more solid fashion in that moment. She realizes she’s being manipulated, but she allows it. At least that’s my take on it. If you’ve ever had a friend who’s a charmer in public, a magnetic person, it can be very flattering and affirming to be singled out by a person like that. Until you learn it’s all a show, and the charmer needs an audience to reflect back the self-admiration (I’m describing a type of narcissist, I realize). Any audience will do. In my experience these people usually have a vast archive of entertaining anecdotes, and groupies who hang on their every word. In my mind, that’s part of Miranda’s attraction to Pogo, the bright light of his gaze, which, when we see the two of them, is complicated for her to secure. The other part is the sex. And that can’t be minimized. Look at how she responds when he touches her. A lot of relationships last longer than they should because of the sex. And, a lot of relationships last longer than they should despite the sex…
Rumpus: For me as a reader, the greatest tragedy of the book seemed to be the suicide of Miranda’s sister Donna. I got chills when I read the line “I am not making this up,” in the story describing the sister’s suicide. Something about the way that story was rendered and its tone reminded me of stories like Lorrie Moore’s “People Like That Are the Only People Here: Canonical Babbling in Peed Onk,” a story that though fictional suggests it is intertwined with real-life events. Does “Jump” have any personal connection to real-life events for you? Can you talk about the burden and guilt Miranda faces as the only sibling of a sister who is intellectually disabled?
Whyman: Thank you for the comparison with that Lorrie Moore story; that’s wonderful to hear. I love that story. It’s a perfect story, as far as I’m concerned.
Fiction writers want to be thought of as having great imaginations—and we do—so the suggestion that a story might be based on “true” events is touchy, and tricky to navigate. I’m always flattered when someone finds a story convincing, because that tells me it must seem emotionally true, which is exactly what I strive for. I also think that just as we can imagine ourselves into situations we haven’t experienced, but perhaps someone we know has or we’ve read about it or heard about it—most of the events in my stories are just that, me imagining a situation that Miranda has gotten herself into and figuring out what she’ll do about it.
The line that you single out, “I am not making this up”—I was definitely playing with blurring the lines by doing that. I want people to wonder, because in the context of the story, while I don’t think the reader is going to question Miranda’s experience, there’s a lot that she’s fabricating. With that statement, she’s differentiating between the part that she “knows” actually happened, and the part she’s guessing about or making up—like the activity of the couple upstairs. She wants to emphasize what is “real” to her, and that she knows the difference.
I had a younger brother who was disabled. I wouldn’t want anyone to mistake Miranda’s sister for my brother. Those who knew my brother have commented that they’re nothing alike; he was a delightful person to be around, and as a result, he had a large circle of friends. We had a very different relationship than Miranda and Donna. Still, I do know what it’s like to be the “normal” kid—or what we now call “neurotypical.” The attendant responsibilities, resentments tempered by empathy, and so on. My brother had a genetic disorder called Williams Syndrome. Oliver Sacks has written about it. He had friends who had different types of disabilities, and my description of Donna’s behavior grew out of watching the behavior of some of his friends and classmates, though there is no specific source. Donna herself is entirely made up. That’s often how it works for me; I might start with a bit of something I know about, but by the time I’m done, I don’t recognize it.
All that said, it’s tricky to mention my brother in the past tense and not reveal that he died, and then of course you’ll want to know how he died, and that’s the thing—that he did in fact die in much the same way as Donna. But if I’d written a character who was my brother—which I’d never do—that kind of death would not make story-sense. This is the advantage of writing fiction. I’m under no obligation to stick to anything real, except human behavior. It must be convincing: that’s the only rule.
The other risk of revealing that there is some basis for that death is then people may be tempted to believe that the book is autobiographical. And when you’re a woman writing stories that are mostly narrated in the first-person—well I’ve been asked many times whether the stories are autobiographical. They’re not. I write fiction because I like making up stories—that’s fun for me. It’s much more interesting to read about, and write about, a character whose life is pushed to the extremes, and I’ve been making up stories like that since I was a kid. When I was maybe nine years old, I’d improvise plays in which I’d act out all the roles myself, and there were always edgy things happening that would be too scary in real life. It was a safe way to explore an alternate existence. Writing fiction is like living an alternate life in your head, without having to really live it.
Rumpus: I appreciate your courage and bravery in writing “Jump,” just as I will forever appreciate Lorrie’s Moore’s courage and bravery in writing “People Like That Are the Only People Here.”
I understand the rewards of writing fiction about edgy things that have never happened to you in real life. But I’m also curious about the experience of writing fiction about something scary that you really did live—albeit through invented characters who are very different from real-life persons. It seems like the emotions of that kind of writing could be different. I’m wondering if the fictional vehicle allows access to an understanding of real-life events that otherwise might be unattainable? Or does the process all come down to the same thing for you as a writer in the end?
Whyman: Have you ever noticed that in a writing workshop, when students point out what isn’t working in a story, it’s often the part about which a writer—often a novice—will protest, “But that really happened!” A “true,” remembered event, in my experience, is much trickier to render successfully, because the writer is blinded by the bias of his memory. In order to render a scene in a way that the reader can experience, the writer needs a certain distance. When you’ve lived through something, in writing about it, you’re reliving it, you have your “version”—you focus on certain aspects and exclude others, and you may not notice other details at all. You have to make the experience new, you have to “see” the scene for the first time. The details that are excluded from your memory might be the very ones the fictional character needs to focus on, and they may be just what the reader needs to see in order to “experience” the scene, to feel it, to believe it. That difficulty is compounded when you have an event that’s so heavy, with so much emotional baggage. That’s why it was ten years before I could write a description of this kind of death and make it work. I had to let go of whatever it was I focused on in my memories of that time. In other words, in order to make it “real” for the reader, I had to make it up.
Did the writing deepen my understanding of the actual events? Probably. When I write, I’m always trying to figure something out about people, about behavior. In this case, having the fictional Miranda face that trauma was a way of examining and comparing my own response. I’m not inclined to write nonfiction about myself—I would find that as dull to write as I think you would find it to read—and I was curious to find that writing about it in fiction was still scary and upsetting in the moment, but, eventually, much more of a relief.
Rumpus: Miranda becomes a wonderful mom to her daughter and son, both nurturing and protective, some would argue to a fault. Can you talk about her transformation from a risk-taking, sometimes reckless twenty-something young woman to a mom who is on red alert to any dangers and grapples with guilt that her efforts are never enough?
Whyman: Given Miranda’s reluctance to becoming a parent early on in the book, it makes sense to me that once she’s “in,” she’s all in. Her protective behavior is over-the-top at times—perhaps in a similar way she went overboard with her previous irresponsibility—the pendulum swings back? When her kids are young, she’s anxious about their well-being, and the known and unknown threats they might face—I think a lot of new parents are shocked by the fear and protectiveness they feel toward their kids, and it can take time to shake out. But some of those threats are very real. Because of Miranda’s earlier reckless behavior, she knows more of what’s out there; maybe she knows too much. She’s aware of the temptations and the dangers. One of the stories, “Self Report,” is about a danger that actually comes to pass with her teenage daughter. I don’t think Miranda’s at her best as a mother in that story. Her focus turns inward and jumps back in time. It’s really about what her daughter’s behavior reawakens in Miranda.
Rumpus: There’s an abundance of music and pop culture references in the book, everything from The Breakfast Club, Law & Order, to a Stretch Armstrong doll. Song references and lyrics also abound, from Eric Clapton to Duran Duran. What approach did you take to accessing cultural touchstones? Are you a media or music junkie in your own life?
Whyman: The pop culture references are ways I grounded myself in the time I was writing about, and they were markers that I thought the characters would be thinking about. Some of these I remembered accurately, but many I had to verify—eg, when did The Breakfast Club come out? Could Donna have owned a Stretch Armstrong doll? Would they have played “Never Say Never” in the Adams-Morgan bar called Heaven? Yes—and yes, it was a real bar; in fact both that and the downstairs part, known as Hell, of course, are still there.
I’m not sure I’m a music “junkie,” exactly, but I used to be sort of a band chick, a term I can’t stand, though I don’t know what else to call it, when you’re not a groupie, but you go to all the shows because you’re dating a band member. Maybe you don’t have to go to all the shows, but when you know there are girls who are going to the shows primarily in order to throw themselves at your boyfriend, well, you go to the shows. And you have to not look bored after the tenth or twenty-seventh performance. For a little while, I was pretty well steeped in the “scene,” or at least a subset of the scene.
Music-wise, these days, I think like many of us, I listen to the music that once made the strongest impression on me, in my “formative” listening years. I’m underwhelmed by some of the most popular new alt-rock. It puts me to sleep. Maybe that’s because they play it in my yoga class. I associate it with corpse pose.
Rumpus: You May See a Stranger is set in the Washington, DC metropolitan area, with the exception of one dazzling vacation story that takes place in Mexico. What qualities of Washington most intrigued you when you chose it as your setting for the book?
Whyman: I resisted setting my fiction in DC for so many years. Then, one day I just got tired of people dissing the city, as if it wasn’t a “real” city where people lived, but existed only as a seat of government and a place for people to pursue their political ambitions. I was interested in writing about people who weren’t ambitious politically. I wanted to portray a side of the DC area that’s not often portrayed in fiction, the regular people who live here, who have lived here for decades. Both of my parents were born here. My family moved here in the 1930s. My father’s family had a little grocery in Anacostia, a block from St. Elizabeth’s Hospital. They sold things like lard by the pound, and loose cigarettes—a single cigarette with a single match. My mother’s parents ran a beauty school and salon in downtown Silver Spring, that’s a town just over the Maryland line. In the 1960s, Lady Bird Johnson and daughter Lynda would get their hair done at my grandmother’s salon.
These days many, many more people pay attention to the ins and outs of politics, but it seems to me that people living in DC, even those who are not involved in government, have always been aware of it in a different way. Growing up, I often felt like I was explaining to people who don’t live here how things “really” worked—beyond “how a bill becomes a law” (or doesn’t, as we’ve seen recently)—the whole “inside-the-Beltway” mentality. I’m interested in the contrasts. Back in the early 1990s, a few blocks away from the US Capitol, there was a thriving open-air drug market. Also, I think you can count on one hand the number of DC mayors who were not somehow corrupt.
Rumpus: Apart from Miranda, I found Pogo to be the most memorable and complicated character in the collection. I’d love to see a companion book telling his life in stories. Do you find Pogo as compelling as I do?
Whyman: Pogo was fun to write, because he could be bad and get away with it, and seem not to care, even though he clearly does care what people think of him. He’s seen as rather charming by other characters; some readers have called him “affable.” I invented Pogo years before I invented Miranda. I was responding to a challenge that came up in a writing group, when someone in the group wrote what he called a “bad friend” story. The theory goes that every guy, when he gets married, has a friend his wife absolutely does not want in the house. So I created Pogo. In that early story, he snorts coke around a toddler and hits on his best friend’s wife, while his own girlfriend is in the next room with the husband. That story doesn’t appear in You May See a Stranger, because it has nothing to do with Miranda, but for my own amusement, I refer to Pogo’s girlfriend from that early story in the collection: “The one before the one before me,” I think is what Miranda calls her. I wouldn’t rule out writing more stories about Pogo.
Rumpus: What will your next project be? Miranda still has many decades of her life left, and you leave her at a transitional point when the book ends. Have you considered another volume of stories that tell the rest of her life story? And do you have any advice for writers trying to publish short story collections as their first books, especially those who don’t also have a completed novel manuscript?
Whyman: I don’t know if I’ll write more about Miranda. I’m writing a novel now, a completely different set of characters, different story altogether. I’m excited about it. It’s set in the DC area; that’s probably the only similarity. And there’s humor, of course, and it’s dark. It’s set during the last recession, and it tells the story of two families who are linked by an act of violence. It used to be that when I was working on a novel, I felt a constant pull to stop and write short stories. I don’t feel that way anymore. It’s as if I got the story collection out of my system.
My advice for publishing a story collection as your first book? Why would you do that? If you have any choice at all, make your first book a novel. Yes, of course there are notable exceptions, like anything, there are always exceptions. And the exceptions prove the rule: story collections are the bastard children of literary publishing. Even a linked story collection like mine is not as desirable a product, not as easily marketed and explained as a novel. I’m not blaming anyone—publishing is a business. A weird business that often doesn’t make much sense in economic terms, but still a business. The great news today is that small presses and some notable university presses, like my publisher, TriQuarterly, which is part of Northwestern University Press, are publishing lots of terrific story collections that might otherwise be overlooked. Still, these are small organizations with small, very selective lists. They can’t pay much and can’t publish tons of books. You’ve heard this a million times, and it’s true: there are many worthy books that don’t find a home. Why make it harder for yourself—if you have a choice? What I’m trying to say is, there are enough obstacles to publishing a book of literary fiction. You better know the obstacles. You better only write one out of love.
Author photograph © Curt Richter.