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May 16, 2016

Book Notes - Paula Whyman "You May See a Stranger"

You May See a Stranger

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Previous contributors include Bret Easton Ellis, Kate Christensen, Lauren Groff, T.C. Boyle, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Jesmyn Ward, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

Paula Whyman's linked story collection You May See a Stranger masterfully follows the life of its protagonist, Miranda Weber.

Publishers Weekly wrote of the book:

"Whyman's debut is an honest and sharply observed linked story collection, spanning the life of Miranda Weber from her teens through her late 40s. ... Themes of love, sex, politics, and family run through the collection, and every detail has satisfying echoes later on. Together, these smart, artful stories capture a woman’s life and the moments that define her."

In her own words, here is Paula Whyman's Book Notes music playlist for her short story collection You May See a Stranger:

I rarely listen to music while I write, so I don't think I realized how important music was to my writing until I had to give it up completely, for what seemed like a long time. I was almost finished writing You May See a Stranger. I had maybe one story left to go, and then it would be time for revisions. One day, I was listening to music in my car as always, and, suddenly, the music just sounded wrong. The high notes were too loud and piercing, almost painful, and the low notes were muted or missing. I adjusted my stereo dial, but nothing changed. Within a few days, I developed a kind of tinnitus, an ocean sound, like when you put a shell over your ear. It turned out that I'd had a sudden hearing loss in one ear. Listening to music became a kind of torture. While that was going on, I was completely unable to write. Over a period of a few months, my hearing gradually returned to normal. As soon as music sounded "right" to me again, I drafted a new story. I was surprised to learn that music is so integral to my unconscious creative process that without it, I'm paralyzed.

Chopin Ballades, performed by Evgeny Kissin

As a rule, I can't write while listening to music, as I said, but for some reason the exception occurred during a residency a few years ago, when I wrote drafts of two stories that are included in YMSAS. While I wrote, I listened to Chopin's Ballades, performed by Evgeny Kissin.

I was supposed to attend Kissin's American premiere at Carnegie Hall back in the 1980s. My then-boyfriend had invited me, but our relationship ended before the concert took place. We lived in different cities, and we broke up over the phone. He was sautéing garlic, and when I told him I couldn't see him anymore, he told me he was so taken aback that he burned the garlic. (The fact that he considered this a compliment and an indication of his feelings for me might explain part of why we broke up.)

Every opportunity to see Kissin since then has been thwarted, somehow or other. Maybe I will never see Kissin in concert, and now that he's all grown up, perhaps it wouldn't be quite as exciting.

Why, exactly, this music and that memory led me to write a story about a doomed family vacation in Mexico, I can't fully explain, but therein lies the mystery of the creative process.

"Here Comes Your Man," The Pixies

This song was originally playing during a sex scene in the title story, but I changed it because it became an anachronism when I revised the story for inclusion in the book. The song was an ironic suggestion born of oddly timed inspiration. I was on my way to a suburban strip-mall parking lot where I would meet my son's day camp bus. A few days earlier, while waiting for the bus, I'd decided that two of my characters would have sex in a car in that parking lot. Doesn't everyone think of such things while waiting for the summer camp bus? Then, days later, I was driving there again, listening to the radio, when the Pixies song came on. I immediately associated the song with the sex scene I'd started writing earlier that week, and I knew it had to be part of that scene. Because that is my goofy sense of humor, for better or worse. Even though I replaced it with another song that works in a different, perhaps deeper way for the scene and for the book, that Pixies song and that scene are now forever linked in my mind.

"Transfigured Night"/Verklarte Nacht, Arnold Schoenberg

I've been going to National Symphony performances for more than 20 years, and I should know more about classical music than I do. While I sit and listen, I always read the program notes. I want to know the story behind the music. For a long time, I wanted to write a story collection revolving around the symphony, to include pieces about the musicians, the audience, the composers' works, etc. I didn't do that, but for this book, I wrote a story involving the Schoenberg piece, Transfigured Night. By chance, I was at the symphony listening to that piece and reading the notes when it occurred to me that it would be exactly right for the situation I was currently exploring in a story about Miranda in the early years of her marriage. Transfigured Night became the center of the story of the same title. And now, in a circular turn of events, that story is being made into a music theatre piece by composer Scott Wheeler. We're collaborating on the project, adapting the story for the stage, which is terrific fun so far.

"Ring of Fire," Social Distortion

One day my kids were arguing over who would ride shotgun in my car. In the midst of the tussle, the eject button was somehow pushed on my car's CD player, and one of the kids accidentally sat on and broke in half the CD that was sticking out of the player. This turned out to be Social Distortion, Live at the Roxy. You can imagine my distress. I spent many rush hour commutes listening to their live cover of Johnny Cash's "Ring of Fire." I was never able to remove the other half of the broken CD from the machine. I recently replaced the CD, so I now have one-and-a-half Live at the Roxy's. I'm glad to have it back.

"Back to Black," Amy Winehouse

This is the other CD I always keep in my car. The title track is brilliant. The whole album, really. Her voice kills me. What is there to say about Amy Winehouse that hasn't been said?

"Flashdance/What a Feeling," from the Flashdance film soundtrack

There are a lot of songs mentioned in my book, and not all of them are songs I actually like. Some were simply appropriate for whatever was going on at that moment in the story. This song appears in the second story in the book, "Drosophila," in which Miranda is a senior in high school, and she takes her sister to a dance. While I was writing that scene, I remembered immediately what I was doing when that song was popular, when the movie Flashdance came out, and girls were cutting ragged neck holes and lopping off the sleeves of their t-shirts, and wearing leg warmers. (If leg warmers ever come back in style, I cannot wear them again; I wore them the first time.) My memory of this song involves being an utterly bored teenager on a family beach vacation at an isolated condo by a lake, where there were no other teens for miles, it seemed. I sat on the beach with a cheap boombox, listening to the Flashdance soundtrack on cassette over and over and over. On the rare occasions when I hear the song now, I'm instantly brought back to that beach, burned by the sun, bored out of my skull. The only exciting thing that happened was flirting with the game room security guard, who was probably forty years older than me. The good news is, he taught me how to play pool.

"Dead Flowers," Rolling Stones

I like most Stones songs, but this is my favorite. It's not the best one, for sure, but I like the tongue-in-cheek country-style twang and the sense of humor. It's not hard to play, and I used to be able to strum it, which made me feel like I was competent on the guitar. Which I was not.

"Paranoid Android," by Radiohead

I was late to appreciate Radiohead. I was introduced to them by a German photographer at an artist colony back in 2008. I think I walked into his studio and said, What is that sound? As in, What is that horrifying sound?  What I heard was the ending to "Karma Police," with the high-pitched crickety sound effect that gets louder and louder until it's the only sound left. Anyway, I grew to like that song and many others, in fact, I occasionally do yoga to a Radiohead playlist I created. "Paranoid Android" is my favorite, because of the range of emotion and the variation in tone and style. I could listen to it over and over, and I do.

"Some Enchanted Evening," from the soundtrack of South Pacific

This song gives the book its title; I like its over-the-topness. It's now a cliché, but in the context of the original musical, it's incredibly romantic, sung with intense beauty and not a little eroticism by Ezio Pinza. You can feel his bass in your gut. Also, his name is a good trivia question: I've been at more than one party where, on hearing my book's title, someone immediately tries to recall the name of the singer and ends up googling it.

In the title story, I wanted the music playing in the country club where they're having dinner to be as moth-eaten as the rest of the setting. I intended this song with obvious irony—there is nothing enchanting about the characters or what's happening with them, unless by enchantment we're talking about a poisoned apple. In the course of the story, one of the characters misidentifies the singer. They're meant to be hearing a cover version sung by Perry Como, a pale rendering, compared with the original.

"Son of a Preacher Man," Aretha Franklin and Dusty Springfield
"I Fought the Law," The Clash and Bobby Fuller

Not long ago, I obsessively watched every film version of Jane Eyre I could find. I don't remember why I did that. But maybe it's similar to my interest in song covers. Besides the Social Distortion I mentioåçn above, I like the Bauhaus version of "Ziggy Stardust," and the Orgy cover of "Blue Monday." I have a playlist that includes all the covers of "Heard It Through the Grapevine." Next to "Ring of Fire," my favorite cover/original pair is probably a tie between "Son of a Preacher Man" and "I Fought the Law." Covers are, to me, a lesson in point-of-view. The lyrics may be the same, but I can't help feeling that the preacher's son described by Dusty Springfield is a very different person than the one described by Aretha Franklin, and I want to know both their stories.

Paula Whyman and You May See a Stranger links:

the author's website
excerpt from the book
excerpt from the book
excerpt from the book

Publishers Weekly review

Bloom interview with the author
Fiction Writers Review interview with the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

Largehearted Boy's 2016 Fundraiser

Book Notes (2015 - ) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2012 - 2014) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2005 - 2011) (authors create music playlists for their book)
my 11 favorite Book Notes playlist essays

100 Online Sources for Free and Legal Music Downloads
Antiheroines (interviews with up and coming female comics artists)
Atomic Books Comics Preview (weekly comics highlights)
guest book reviews
Librairie Drawn & Quarterly Books of the Week (recommended new books, magazines, and comics)
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Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film's soundtracks)
weekly music release lists
Word Bookstores Books of the Week (weekly new book highlights)