What I Want To Understand: An Interview with Fiction Writer Paula Whyman

Everything about what Paula Whyman says here makes me happy from her views on literary citizenship to her perspective that she writes to understand.  I think you’ll appreciate her, too.  

1.Tell us about your book. 

The stories in You May See A Stranger span the life of Miranda Weber from her teens through her late 40s, as she gains insights into herself, her sexuality, and the class and racial tensions in Washington, D.C.

Working on this book, I was interested in transitions. I think we come of age at different times throughout our lives. I was curious to see what would happen if I traced those transitions through stories focused on one woman as she grows older. At the same time, I wanted to write a book set in DC that wasn’t about politics. Of course, there are politics operating in the background—these stories touch on everything from the Gulf War to the DC sniper attacks. I asked myself what part living in such close proximity to the federal government plays, how that affects the lives of people who are not directly involved in making policy—those of us who have to live with the policies made by others. I think that’s something a lot of us can relate to right now, especially. These characters are regular people living their lives. But when I was writing the stories, I wasn’t thinking about “ideas,” I was thinking about what might happen next in Miranda’s life, how she might handle the changes, the traumas, some of them her own fault. Where would her decisions, both good and bad, lead her? I didn’t want to know too much in advance; I figured it out as I went along.

2. What do you do when you’re not writing?

Writing is a solitary activity, so when I’m not writing, I like to be around people. One thing I do, I teach in writers-in-schools programs–that is my favorite non-writing type of work. Talking with high school and college students always makes me hopeful about the future. The kids I meet are usually facing a lot of adversity. Some of them live in homeless shelters, and they still manage to do their homework. They still manage to stay engaged in class, which is amazing and lovely to see. I just visited the high school classes of a teacher who is being laid off. One of the most dedicated, caring teachers. But the policy in that school system is last in, first out, and the shrinking student body in her school means she has to find another place. I feel bad for the students who will not get to be inspired by her.

I attend literary events in the DC area, because this is fun for me, and I’m interested in what my colleagues are doing. There’s more literary life in the DC area than most people probably realize. In particular, there’s a large and diverse network of women writers here.

As far as I’m concerned, showing up, being part of your literary community, is crucial. Because, let’s face it, these days, attention is  divided a thousand ways, and people—governments—don’t necessarily prioritize the arts. If we want a literary community –the arts in general–to survive and thrive, we need to support it. If those of us whose passions are focused on the arts don’t support each other, why should anyone else care? Okay, off my soapbox now…

3. What made you believe you could write a book? How did you dispel doubt as you wrote? 

In the 6th grade, we were given the assignment to write a book. I wrote a story collection, and the class voted it “best book.” I guess that was all the encouragement I needed. Still, it was quite some time before I wrote another one. Years later, I wrote a novel for my MFA thesis. I won a prize for that book, too, though it was never published. Writers receive far more rejections than acceptances, so we have to have a rather high level of denial in order to think we’re going to get anywhere with this kind of work. Every book I write, I approach with wild, unreasonable optimism, at least at the beginning. I think that’s a necessity.

4. Describe the first 2-3 steps of your process in writing your book.

I spend a lot of time just thinking, listening, free-associating. I get good ideas when I’m out in the world, going running, riding the Metro, or even sitting in traffic. When something comes to me, I wait to see if it hangs around and bugs me. I might make a few notes in my phone or in my notebook, so I don’t forget. But I try to wait until the story begins to take hold and there’s a critical mass forming—characters who feel like they could be real people, an intense situation–before I sit down and start writing. With a short story, that might not be long at all, but with a novel, it’s months.

5. How do you balance what will sell with what you want to say?

If I thought about what would sell, I wouldn’t have written a story collection. I spent many years thinking that I should not write a story collection, I should absolutely write a novel first. I may have been correct, but in the end I wrote the stories I needed to write, and in fact, the collection is novelistic; it follows the same protagonist for about 40 years through the ups and downs of her life. Now I’m writing a novel, and I feel free, because I’m doing exactly what I want to do. Of course I hope people will be interested in reading my fiction, but all I can do is write the book that I feel I need to write. Also, my fiction is not about what I want to “say,” but rather what I want to understand.

6. Which is more difficult – drafting or revising? Why?

The initial impetus for a draft is always exciting. I’m always full of energy for whatever story I’m working on. But then I often come to a place where I’m stuck, and I’ll flail around for a few days or a week before I get over that. And while I’m flailing, I’m absolutely sure I’ll never figure out what should come next. I’m in despair. But then, something intangible occurs, and I’m able to finish the work. It turns out that flailing is part of my process. Still, for me, I think revising is more difficult, because if you spend a long time working on a draft and revise somewhat as you go, which I do (I try not to, but I can’t help myself), then it feels perhaps too “set” by the time you reach the revising phase. I can’t remember what famous writer said that if you’re not careful after a while you begin to believe your words have the sound of “truth.” It helps if I don’t re-read too much. I don’t necessarily read what I wrote the day before. I don’t print out and read each day’s work.

7. What is your least favorite part about being a writer?

The worst part of being a writer is…not writing. When I can’t write for days or weeks because of other obligations, I get very cranky.

8. What are a few of your favorite books of all time?

There are so many. For right now, I’ll just mention a few of the classics: Middlemarch by George Eliot, The Waves and To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf, and Portrait of a Lady by Henry James.

9. How did you learn to write?

My parents, and my grandmother who lived with us when I was growing up, taught me a lot about storytelling. My dad would weave these long drawn-out anecdotes that always had a punchline. My mother would tell me stories about random strangers she met and struck up conversations with, like the nurse in the doctor’s office, or the cashier in the grocery store. My parents are both quite outgoing and interested in other people, and they still tell stories like that. My grandmother liked to talk about her childhood in a very sugar-coated way, but now and then she’d inject a tragedy into the story—like when a house burned down, or someone was run over by a bus. Then she really had my attention. I was drawn to the combination of darkness and humor. I think that shows in my work.

10. If you could inhabit the setting of one book, where would you live and why?

Looking over my bookshelves, I realize that in most of the books I like best, the setting is inseparable from the story, and bad things always happen in those stories, so I have to be careful where I choose to place myself, right? But with some caveats, I would be glad to stay in the Ramsays’ house by the sea in Woolf’s To the Lighthouse. The war is coming, but I wouldn’t know that, so I’d probably be able to enjoy myself before the changes that occur midway through the book. And I wouldn’t worry so much about actually going to the lighthouse. I’d sit outside and read and watch Lily paint until Mrs. Ramsay’s Boeuf en Daube is served. Sounds good to me.What I Want To Understand: An Interview with Fiction Writer Paula Whyman

Paula Whyman is the author of the linked story collection You May See a Stranger (TriQuarterly Books/Northwestern University Press, May 2016). Her fiction has appeared in many journals, including Ploughshares, VQR, and McSweeney’s Quarterly. She is a fellow of The MacDowell Colony and Yaddo. A music theater piece, “Transfigured Night,” based on one of those stories, is in development with composer Scott Wheeler. A native of Washington, DC, Paula now lives in Maryland. Find out more at paulawhyman.com. Follow her on Twitter @paulawhyman, and on Facebook.