Sunday, May 22, 2016
Paula Whyman talks about YOU MAY SEE A STRANGER (and you can read an excerpt), writing, sex scenes, and so much more
Crackheads, bad behavior, sexual awakening. You're gripped, right? And get a gander at that fantastic cover. Paula Whyman's astonishing new collection of stories, YOU MAY SEE A STRANGER, is genius.
Paula Whyman's writing has appeared McSweeney’s Quarterly, Ploughshares, Virginia Quarterly Review, The Washington Post, The Rumpus, and on NPR’s All Things Considered. She is a member of The MacDowell Colony Fellows Executive Committee. A music theater piece, “Transfigured Night,” based on a story in this collection, is in development with composer Scott Wheeler.
I'm thrilled to host Paula and to offer an excerpt from her book. Go and buy it RIGHT NOW.
I always want to know what sparks a book. What was haunting you that made you want to follow Miranda from teenaged years to her late forties?
I’ve always been kind of obsessed with how people change—or don’t change—over the course of a life. When I meet someone for the first time, I often try to imagine what he or she was like in high school. That’s usually the first big coming-of-age moment in our lives—and I think we come of age many times, not just one. I want to understand how a person’s identity develops, how we evolve and become who we are. When I was an editor at APA Books, I worked on a volume of research about personality change over the life span, and those questions stuck with me.
I wrote the first story in the book, “Driver’s Education,” many years before I decided I was going to write the book, which is weird considering how little I had to change about it for it to make sense as the starting place for Miranda’s story. Several years later, I realized that a few of the stories I was working on might feature the same person at different times in her life. When I understood I had been doing that unconsciously, I began to approach it more intentionally.
At the same time, I had resisted writing stories about a woman growing up in D.C. I thought that my habitat was boring. That whole “write what you know” nugget did not appeal to me. I spent a lot of time writing stories set in other places, like Thailand, or the Andes, and told from points-of-view unlike my own, a male security guard for instance. But, these stories always turned out to be about a person who was coming-of-age in some way. I finally gave in to my natural inclinations and just wrote that book. Still, I didn’t write “what I knew”—I wrote about what I was trying to understand.
What was it like writing these linked stories? Did anything surprise you?
One thing that surprised me is that I didn’t get tired of writing stories from one person’s point-of-view. Before working on this book, I’d never written the same point-of-view character twice. The novel I’m working on now is told in multiple points-of-view. I think it’s funny/strange that I wrote a book of linked stories all from one perspective, but I don’t ever conceive of novels that way. And I never thought of this book as a novel; it was always going to be linked stories. Go figure.
I love the title, You May See a Stranger, particularly because Miranda becomes known to herself by the end of the book, at least as best she can. Care to comment?
In my head, that was the title for a very long time. I like that it both refers to the protagonist—she is a stranger to herself for much of the time—but also implicates the reader (that “you”). And I like that it refers to the very romantic song, Some Enchanted Evening, even though the kind of enchantment that happens here has more to do with Miranda’s flights of fancy when she’s trying to understand the people she encounters, than it does with anything remotely “enchanting” in the usual sense.
I did try out a few different titles along the way. One of them was JUMP (after the story by that name). But when I mentioned it to a friend, she said, “Like the Van Halen song?” I like Van Halen, but did I want people to hear my book title and think of David Lee Roth in Spandex?
There’s such an incredible sense of place in the stories, where Washington D.C. becomes a microcosm of all that Miranda is struggling with. Why did you pick that particular city?
The simple answer is because I’ve lived there, or thereabouts, all my life. And yet this was also the reason that for many years, I resisted writing stories set here. I thought that in order to make the stories “new” to me, they had to happen in a place that was less familiar to me. But over the years, I changed my mind. The political environment is both a given and incidental—it affects residents’ lives in varying, often subcutaneous, ways. My parents were not involved in national politics or government work, and neither was I. DC was my playground. Growing up, my friends and I played Frisbee on the National Mall. We climbed on the equestrian statues outside the FTC building.* In college, guys liked to take their dates to park in front of the Washington Monument and make out. I guess they can’t do that anymore because of post-9/11 security, which seems a little sad.
In the book, there’s a story set during the crack epidemic of the late 1980s, when there was an atmosphere of lawlessness that was at odds with the location—here we are at home base for the laws of the land, after all, and yet there were huge and well-known open-air drug markets and 500 murders in a year. That dichotomy interests me.
There’s something I call the never-ending story, where you close a book and you are still haunted by the characters and wondering what they are going to do next, if they will be okay, and I felt that finishing YOU MAY SEE A STRANGER. Do you also feel haunted by Miranda, and do you think she’ll manage through her later years?
I’m glad to hear you’re wondering about that! The answer is, I don’t know. Perhaps at some point I’ll be thinking about your question, and I’ll decide I want to explore what happens later, the way I came to write these stories in the first place, years after a group of students asked me what happens to the girl in “Driver’s Education.” Or maybe it’s better to leave Miranda at this moment in time. I did write another Miranda story that was published in McSweeney’s Quarterly. It takes place approximately ten years after the book ends, and it ends with Miranda in an ambiguous position. I think she’ll be okay, though. I became fond of her while working on these stories. I feel like I made all of these bad things happen to her, you know, made her into a fictional screw-up, and it’s time to cut her a break. So, yes, I’ve decided, she’s going to be okay.
What’s obsessing you now and why?
I’m fixated on the many sources of anxiety we have to deal with these days, and how different people adjust to these circumstances. I have kids, so I’m anxious about anything and everything that they might have to face someday, on top of the general anxieties about other things I have little control over, like climate change, terrorism, world events, mass extinctions, mosquitoes, Ebola, fracking—shall I continue? This is something that has always occupied me, and I think the way it comes out in my fiction has perhaps changed over time. Connected with this, I’m interested in the necessity for denial in order to live life, and the harm that denial does when misapplied, or over-applied. I’m also interesting in events that trigger changes and reversals for people—transition points. My next book, a novel, is also set in and around DC. It involves an act of violence and the effects on two families. And there’s humor, as always, to take the edge off.
What question didn’t I ask that I should have?
“What took you so long?” No, no--I’m really glad you didn’t ask me that! But I will answer it anyway. It would be an easy out for me to say, well, I have kids, and my kids are now teens, and I was overseeing most household stuff and most kid stuff, etc. That is absolutely true. Writing a book was a slow process in part because of the headspace required as a mother and a house “manager.” But the main reason I came to write this book later than I would have hoped is more interesting than that, I think. I spent many years avoiding writing a story collection. Many of the earlier stories I wrote were written while I was working on novels. I kept telling myself my first book HAD to be a novel. I wrote a novel for my MFA thesis. I wrote another draft novel after that (it’s in a drawer). But when I gave myself permission to write with a little more emotional honesty, to get a bit closer to the bone, I realized that at least in that moment, I wanted to write stories, and I needed to let myself do that. And what did I do? I wrote a linked story collection with a novelistic arc. So I suppose it was the right decision. I just wish I’d figured it out a little sooner!
Now, it’s as if I got it out of my system, and I’m working happily on a novel.
*Here’s a link with a photo—the statues are called “Man Controlling Trade.”
Excerpt from DROSOPHILA
Mr. Pierson, my twelfth-grade biology teacher, is unmarried and has blond hair growing on his knuckles. We used to say hair on the knuckles was a sign of mental retardation, but my mother made me stop saying that a long time ago, because of my sister. Donna has no hair on her knuckles, but that never stopped the other kids from telling me my sister’s a retard. My mother said to tell them it takes one to know one.
My sister is not a retard; she’s a fruit fly, Drosophila melanogaster. I watch the wingless one that’s shuffling around on the food supply inside the Mason jar, its toes dipped in a loam of rotting pear, lemon rind, souped banana. If I’m to be my sister’s keeper, best to keep her in a Mason jar. I can watch her if I want, and I can put her on a shelf and go away whenever I like.
When I was younger and my friends came to visit, my mother would say, “Include your sister,” but Donna didn’t wait for an invitation. She followed me from room to room, a ghost in white tennis socks with pink puff balls at the heels and a nightgown she wore all day if she didn’t go out. On the front of the gown was a picture of the yellow-haired specter of Cinderella, peeling off in flakes like lead paint. Now that Donna’s twenty-two, it’s hard to find a Cinderella nightgown that fits her, so our mother sends away in the mail for a decal and irons it on herself. Donna has a burn on her thigh from years ago when she tugged on the iron’s cord. I was too young to remember.
Heat-trapped pheromones mean the smell in the jar is equal parts fruit and spunk, with a hint of vanilla, or maybe that’s a scent reference to the memory of my mother’s rice pudding from last night’s dinner, blanaxed by the lingering taste of my boyfriend, Victor. I just spent a half hour of my free period with Victor, inside the shed where they keep outdoor gym equipment—tackle dummies and lacrosse sticks, sod and leather and damp athlete-armpit. It was unseasonably cold, and I’d forgotten my gloves, so he warmed my hands under his sweatshirt first. I’ve never actually put his dick in my mouth, but I was curious and licked my fingers after he came. He didn’t see me do it.
To prepare the female for copulation, the male D. melanogaster licks the female’s genitalia. I think about suggesting this to Victor, but right now, I’m only that bold in my mind. We’re both virgins, and we’re not in a hurry to change that.
D. melanogaster is the perfect creature for genetic analysis. It turns out that we’re half fruit fly—the nonflying half, the half that thinks about food and sex and sex and food. In my jar, eggs are constantly hatching. Each female lays up to one hundred eggs in a day, and the eggs hatch in twelve hours. The larvae eat and molt, eat and molt, and then they pupate for a few days before emerging as adults. One of my assignments is to produce grids called Punnett squares that predict the genetic make-up of offspring of selected flies in my jar.
The genes of the fruit fly were named whimsically, according to their functions, as if the scientists felt like playing a practical joke. There is, for instance, a gene that will result in a fruit fly that’s born without a heart. It’s called Tin Man. There are three genes whose proportionate presence determine a fly’s sex: One is called Sisterless; another is Sex-Lethal; the third is Deadpan. They sound like the names of punk bands: Deadpan, opening for the Sex Pistols. Sisterless, double-bill with Black Flag. I draw Punnett squares demonstrating how these three genes interact. As a female fruit fly, I would be Sisterless. And so would my sister, in case it’s not already confusing enough. When the Sex-Lethal gene is minimized, the fruit flies are male.
I should warn Victor that I’m Sex-Lethal, but when we’re together my mouth is busy with his, his early mustache abrades the skin above my lip, and my hands are caught up in his soft curly hair. Everything about him is going from soft to hard, not only his dick, but his arms, his thighs. Not his eyes, though. His eyes stay soft when he looks at me.
You May See a Stranger: Stories. Used with the permission of the publisher, Northwestern University Press. Copyright © 2016 by Paula Whyman.