Though she writes short stories, Paula Whyman avoided at least one O. Henry ending. Becoming a writer was almost a foregone conclusion. “Was there another option?” she asks. “Writing fiction is my way of trying to make sense of the world. I like trying to figure out what people are thinking and speculating about what might happen to them. I started making up stories as soon as I could read.”
Many years later, she can share those tales with a much broader audience. TriQuarterly Books recently published Whyman’s debut collection, You May See a Stranger: Stories. This is actually a “linked story collection,” all told by the same fictional character, Miranda Weber.
“I ended up following her for more than thirty years, from the teen years to middle age. When I was looking for models, I didn’t find another book in which all the stories were told by one woman; that made me even more determined to make it work,” she says in an email interview.
Whyman earned her MFA in literature, with a creative writing focus, from American University in 2000. She says the program helped prepare her to write this book.
“Here’s what I hoped would happen in the program at American: I’d have dedicated time to write; I’d be introduced to the work of talented peers; I’d learn how to be a better judge of my own work; and I’d analyze classic literature,” she says. “All of these things happened.”
The MFA program also helped her develop a network of writers and readers. As part of the Visiting Writers Series for 2016-2017, Whyman will return to AU on October 19 for an alumni reading.
For the occasion of summer reading, University Communications asked Whyman about five books that have inspired her as an author. Below are her lightly edited answers.
That Night, by Alice McDermott: The story is told retrospectively, through the eyes of a young girl who witnesses the riveting event that opens the book, which leads to her observations about romance and passion, familial bonds, and coming of age. The setting is a masterful portrayal of an early 1960s suburban working class neighborhood. I return to the opening chapters of this novel again and again, examining the retrospective point-of-view in particular, the way the reader can forget that the character is an adult now looking back, what the passage of time does to memory, and how to handle that when writing a retrospective narrative.
Moon Tiger, by Penelope Lively: This novel won the Booker Prize in 1987. I don’t know if it’s widely read anymore, but it should be. The protagonist, Claudia, is a historian who is dying. In the course of the book, she looks back at her own history and tries to explain it and understand it. I’m especially interested in the way the narrative jumps around in time, in and out of a scene. Although the stories in You May See a Stranger are placed in chronological order, Miranda’s thoughts are always reaching back into the past, and that past invades whatever is happening for her in the present story. As Claudia says, “There is no sequence; everything happens at once.”
Middlemarch, by George Eliot: Dorothea Brooke is an early favorite heroine of mine—strong, independent-minded, intelligent (like Lively’s Claudia). She makes one very bad decision, to marry the scholar Casaubon. She bounces back from this mistake eventually, and ends up doing quite well for herself. In my collection, Miranda uses her greater, more modern autonomy to make a lot of bad decisions (as a heroine, I think she more resembles another favorite, Isabel Archer from The Portrait of a Lady). Miranda has her own Casaubon, in a sense, but whether she’ll bounce back from that, I can’t say.
Birds of America, by Lorrie Moore: This is the first story collection I read by Lorrie Moore, and it was like a revelation—that wry humor could be used to tell serious stories about the lives of “ordinary” people. This book contains the famous story, “People Like That Are the Only People Here…” In one of my favorites, “Real Estate,” a woman who’s dying of cancer settles in a new house she doesn’t care for in order to please her husband, who she knows is a serial philanderer. Nearly every line has at least a double and often triple meaning, referring to the cancer, the home, the marriage. As her doctor tells her, “The only way to know absolutely everything in life is via an autopsy.”
Portnoy’s Complaint, by Philip Roth: It was difficult to choose one novel by Roth as an influence when there have been several that have inspired me at different times in my writing life. This was the first one that had a real impact on the way I thought about my work. The humor and irreverence, the explicit talk, the confessional narrative, the “unlikeable” protagonist—these were all aspects that I admired and hoped to emulate in my own fiction. I would love to write the “female” Portnoy’s Complaint. Has that been done?