Last month, I had the pleasure of meeting author Paula Whyman for coffee. For an hour, we talked about the writing life, her writing process, and her debut collection of short stories, You May See A Stranger. Paula Whyman will be reading from You May See A Stranger as part of American University’s Visiting Writer’s Series on Wednesday, October 19 in the Battelle-Tomkins Atrium at 8 PM.
Emily Moses: Let’s jump in. Can you tell me about your experience as an MFA student at AU?
Paula Whyman: It was a great experience. I had been working as an editor for about eight years before I went back to school. I knew all along I wanted to write and I had been doing it, but I felt going back to school would really give me time to devote to writing. I took a lot of master seminars in literature—that was the bulk of the classes I took. One of the classes I took was Woolf and Faulkner with Roberta Rubenstein.
EM: I took that my first semester. Such a good class!
PW: It is terrific. It was the first time I studied Virginia Woolf even though I was a literature major in college. So I felt like I was filling in a lot of holes, things that we didn’t study in college. It taught me to be a better writer by analyzing these classic works by great writers with the guidance of the great professors I had. And reading other students’ work in workshop helped me start to identify problems in my own work, and develop judgment. All of this was very effective over the long term in teaching me how to analyze my own work.
EM: I agree. I’ve found that being in workshop has provided me a language where you can finally articulate oh this is what’s wrong and being able to pinpoint in someone else’s work it’s been really beneficial for me as a writer. Do you continue to take workshops or are you still active in that sort of environment?
PW: Occasionally. More often I like to go to residencies where I have nothing to do but write. But there are certain workshops I’ve gotten a lot out of since my MFA. I think the first one I took—it was quite some time ago now—I went to the Tin House Summer Writers workshop and took a novel workshop with Karen Shepard. Back then a novel workshop was unusual. I was writing a novel, and Shepard critiqued the first chapters of everyone’s work. She’d examine a chapter like it was already literature. I found it really helpful. I also went to Sewanee—I was a scholar there in 2014. It was a fantastic experience. I’ve also attended the Key West Literary Seminar a few times. And I took Daniel Menaker’s humor workshop. That was how I met him.
EM: Humor workshop?
PW: Yeah. I had been writing humor but I’d never taken a humor workshop. So that’s how I met him, then he became my agent.
EM: Oh, okay. Well that worked out!
PW: Yeah! That was a terrific experience. Most of the time when I go away, because I do have kids, I try to use the time to write intensively. So I go to artist colonies, if I can.
EM: So, what I’m hearing is that for you the most productive space for working on your writing is whenever you have large chunks of time and space.
PW: I try to write every day, but I don’t necessarily succeed. Since my book came out there’s been a lot of great stuff that I’m thrilled to be doing related to the book—like this—and I haven’t yet been able to get back to working on the novel I’ve started. I hope to get back to that intensively in the next month or so. I’ll start having more time.
EM: Do you consider yourself a member of the writing community, or maybe a member of a specific writing community? Do you feel like you’ve accessed available writing communities?
PW: I think I’m a part of a few, now. For a while when I had little kids it was hard. But now my kids are teenagers. There’s a huge, vibrant writing community in DC that I didn’t know about even when I started grad school. Maybe it was more diffuse then. But there are a few key people who bring everybody together. Richard Peabody is one; Susan Shreve is another. And through those people I met lots of other writers. Several years ago, at a colony, I met a person who was involved with the DC Women Writers group, and I was invited to dinners and things, and I met a lot of people that way. My writing group is made up of people who went to AU for their MFA, like me, two of them I know from when I was in the program.
EM: At school they talk to us all the time about how this is where we’re building our writing community, like maybe not the whole community as it will exist forever, but this is where we’ll meet our people, our readers. It’s so encouraging to hear that you’re still in contact with people you met at AU. So, tell me a little bit about your writing process. Do you write outlines for your stories and novels?
PW: No, I don’t write outlines.
EM: Okay, so how do you build or construct your fiction? Does it come from an idea, or an image?
PW: Could be either of those. Sometimes it comes from something I saw, a glimpse of something, something I overheard. Once I was on an airplane, and there was a young woman holding an infant in her lap. I noticed she wasn’t wearing a wedding ring, but she had the baby’s pacifier on her ring finger. I thought that was interesting. Things like that will make their way into a story. I’ll wonder, who is this person? Why is she on this airplane? Where is she going? What’s that all about? I’ll start asking questions like that. Less frequently, stories come a kernel of something I’ve experienced. By the time I’m done, there’s usually enough fiction around it that I won’t recognize the original source.
PW: I tried, actually, when I was in school, writing an outline for a novel, but it killed it for me. I felt like I knew what was going to happen.
EM: So, you don’t want to know?
PW: No, no. I might see some big event down the road, but I don’t know how I’m going to get there, and by the time I get there it’s usually different because it’s changed in the process of writing.
EM: Right. I am so impressed. I think if I tried to write fiction I would definitely need to know what was going to happen, and I would definitely need an outline.
EM: So I want to talk about You May See A Stranger. First of all, I so enjoyed the book. I famously tell anybody who will listen that I do not read fiction. And a lot of it has to do with the fact that I am working on an MFA in nonfiction, and in the last three years especially I’ve felt this extreme pressure to read all the nonfiction that is relevant, or important, or has ever been published, really.
PW: And there’s a lot.
EM: Exactly. It helps that I deeply enjoy reading nonfiction, of course, but it’s still work. Right? So when people recommend novels or collections of short stories to me, I usually respond with “Sure, I’ll read it after I finish grad school.” But I picked up You May See A Stranger and read it in one day, then read it again immediately.
PW: Wow, I’m flattered.
EM: I think what I was drawn to, especially after my initial read, was the way in which you’ve deeply characterized Miranda Weber through these linked short stories. Like, without the novel format, but with the benefits of experiencing multiple parts of this characters life over time. So I’m interested in knowing more about how you built the character of Miranda Weber.
PW: Well, it came as I wrote the stories. I didn’t write the stories in order. The first story in the book, “Driver’s Education,” is the oldest story. That came out in 2005, and I didn’t have any plans to write any more stories about her. And I didn’t for probably another six years. And then I wrote the title story, about the country club dinner.
EM: About Pogo and his brother, Cheever?
PW: Yeah. And still, I didn’t think about it as the same character. I wrote that as a stand-alone story that appeared in the Gettysburg Review in 2012. And then I wrote one more where I kind of went, you know, these things might actually be related. This might be the same character at different points in her life. I still didn’t really know what would happen to her, but I started to form an idea of a collection that I thought would be told in multiple points of view. Her mother, her husband, her children, different people, not just her. Then I went to Yaddo and I wrote drafts of two of the stories that happen later when she is middle aged and that is where I first tried to intentionally write stories for a linked collection. But even after that, the concept evolved. I wrote the story set on the bad Mexican vacation, and I realized I didn’t know anything about this husband that she’s with. So then I had to go back and write the part where she meets her husband and their early marriage.
EM: The story where they hit the deer?
PW: Yeah. So I went back and, as I wrote those things, I fleshed out Miranda’s character.
EM: So how did you know when it was time to stop writing stories about Miranda?
PW: I actually wrote another story that takes place about ten years after the last story, “Just Sex.” It was going to be part of the book. It wasn’t until after we sold the book that the publisher suggested that other story didn’t fit. My agent wanted it to stay in. At the time, I felt it could go either way, so I consulted a couple of other trusted readers, then I decided to take it out. But it’s published in McSweeney’s Quarterly. It’s called “Saint E’s.” Without that story, I think the book has an ending that’s more hopeful. I think it was the right decision.
Emily Moses is editor in chief of Café Américain and a third-year candidate in American University’s Creative Writing MFA program.