Excerpted from You Are Not a Stranger Here by Adam Haslett. Copyright © 2002 by Adam Haslett. Excerpted by permission of Anchor, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
A Conversation with Adam Haslett, author of YOU ARE NOT A STRANGER HERE
Q: The title for this collection doesn’t come from one of the story titles; where does it come from?
A: The title is taken from a line in the book, in the story “War’s End,” about a man who visits an old woman’s house in St. Andrews, Scotland. He’s feeling very low and the old women picks up on this. When he asks if she often has strangers like him to her house, she replies, “You’re not a stranger here.” I liked it as a title because it’s an invitation to the reader, a welcoming. My hope is that readers, even if they haven’t experienced some of the things in my book, will still see parts of themselves in the stories, perhaps parts they don’t see reflected in a lot of other places.
Q: Did you write these stories as a collection, or did you write them and discover you had a collection?
A: Most of them were written one at a time with no clear plan to make them into a book. A few others, though, were written after I had a publisher, so at that point I knew that they would all end up together. But even then my focus was on each piece as a separate work. I didn’t make conscious decisions about themes or ideas running through all the stories. I tried to think of them each as their own world.
Q: Your stories take the reader to several locales. Are these all places you know well?
A: Most of the settings are places I’ve been, but not all. I’m half English so I’ve spent a lot of time in England and Scotland. The British settings are taken from memories of places I’ve visited. The American settings are a mix of imagined towns and locations I’ve been to but have altered slightly for my purposes. I like knowing enough about a place to set something there but not so much that I can’t invent a little as well.
Q: A number of these stories focus on people who have been diagnosed as mentally ill. Do you have personal experience with mental illness? Are any of these stories autobiographical?
A: There’s been manic-depression in my family, so I’ve experienced that at close range, and certainly it’s influenced how I see the world. Mostly I think it gave me empathy for those who suffer real emotional pain and left me wanting to understand both the amazing highs and terrible lows of human experience. Sometimes that involves mental illness, sometimes it doesn’t. I think we learn things about ourselves in extreme moments, and a lot of the stories deal with people facing serious dilemmas. But in the end the book is fiction. None of the plots are based on actual events in my life. I guess you could say there’s no literal autobiography, just emotional autobiography.
Q: Though many of your characters are in desperate states, these stories are very funny. Can you talk about the role of humor in your writing?
A: I love writing comic scenes. You spend a lot of time on your own when you write, and occasionally you need some laughter to get you through. Comedy has a great energy and it tends to move the story forward quickly. It’s also more fun to read comic work aloud at readings because you can tell if your audience is with you. If they start laughing, you know it’s working.
Q: While you were writing the stories in this collection, you were also attending law school. How did you find time to do both?
A: I tried to concentrate on one pursuit at a time. Many of the stories for this book were written before I entered law school, and then I took some time off to finish the book. I found moving back and forth helped the writing because it gave my mind a break from the material and when I returned I had my energy back.
Q: What kind of law do you plan to practice?
A: I’m interested in criminal law and writing appeals. I’m not sure yet exactly how I’ll balance law and writing, though I’d like to keep them both going.
Q: There is a great precedent for lawyers writing fiction about the law. Have you ever considered that?
A: I’ve definitely thought about having characters who are lawyers, but I haven’t considered basing a book on a legal story. When I write, I usually start by trying to find the right rhythm in the language, which gives me a sense of the characters, and the plot tends to develop from there. People’s interior life, how they see the world, is what interests me most. It would fun to write about the law from that internal perspective at some point in the future.
Q: Are you writing more stories or are you working on a novel?
A: I’m beginning a novel. The last fours years of writing has all been devoted to short stories, and I’m ready to work on a larger scale. Short stories are often confined to one character’s perspective and I’m looking forward to having multiple characters and being able to explore their lives at greater length.
1. In what ways are the nine stories in You Are Not a Stranger Here unified? What kinds of characters, situations, and thematic concerns recur throughout the book?
2. Why does Adam Haslett begin the collection with a story told from the point of view of someone suffering from mental illness? How does this story affect the reader’s perceptions of the stories that follow it? What does “Notes to My Biographer” reveal about being in a manic state?
3. In “The Good Doctor,” Frank experiences “a familiar comfort being in the presence of another person’s unknowable pain. More than any landscape, this place felt like home” [p. 41]. Why would Frank feel this way? Does such a feeling make him a more empathetic therapist, or does it indicate a kind of narcissistic relationship to his patients? In what ways are readers of You Are Not a Stranger Here in a position similar to Frank’s?
4. At the end of “The Beginnings of Grief,” why does the narrator cry, “for the first time in a long while,” when his shop teacher, Mr. Raffello, delivers the “dark amber chest” [p. 64], he has made? Why would seeing this particular object make him weep? What might his crying signify?
5. In “Devotion,” Owen observes that reading Othello in school did not help him to deal with his own jealousy. “What paltry aid literature turned out to be when the feelings were yours and not others’” [p. 78]. Should literature be an aid to understanding and controlling one’s own feelings? In what ways might You Are Not a Stranger Here make readers more fully aware of their own and others’ emotional states?
6. Why does Hillary, at the end of “Devotion,” feel herself “there again in the woods, covering her brother’s eyes as she gazed up into the giant oak” [p. 88]? In what ways does the story reenact this earlier moment of protection?
7. In “Reunion,” as James enters the final stages of AIDS, he writes a series of letters to his dead father. “I find you now and again here on the common, bits and pieces of you scattered in the woods, but as the days go by, so the need lessens. I’ll be coming home soon”[p. 131]. In what sense does he “find” his father on the common?
8. In “Divination,” after Samuel voices his premonitions, his father tells him: “You’re twelve years old and you have a lot of ideas in your head, but nothing will wreck you quicker than if you let yourself confuse what’s real and what isn’t…. I don’t know what it is you’re dreaming, or what you dreamt about that teacher, but that’s all it is—dreams. Your life’s got nothing to do with those shadows, nothing at all” [p. 157]. In what ways does “Divination,” and indeed the entire book, question the distinction between what’s real and what isn’t? In what ways do the “dreams” and “shadows” referred to above have everything to do with the characters’ lives in You Are Not a Stranger Here?
9. In “My Father’s Business,” the narrator’s father wants to inoculate himself against the present: “So much easier if you can see people as though they were characters from a book. You can still spend time with them. But you have nothing to do with their fate” [p. 185]. How might such an attitude have affected the narrator’s own fate? How does this statement relate to the narrator’s desire to “figure out the relationship between the desire for theoretical knowledge and certain kinds of despair” [p. 177]?
10. When Paul asks Mrs. McLaggen in “War’s End” if she often invites strangers into her home, she replies: “You’re not a stranger here” [p. 106]. Why might Adam Haslett have chosen this line as the title for the collection?
11. In “Volunteer,” Ted at first resists the idea of visiting the Plymouth Brewster Structured Living Facility: “Enough already with the fucking mentally ill, for Christ’s sakes, enough, but something made him come” [p. 213]. What is it that draws him there? What role does his own family life play in his decision to volunteer there? What kind of relationship does he establish with Elizabeth? What do he and Elizabeth give each other?
12. What do the stories of You Are Not a Stranger Here, taken as a whole, say about mental illness, about madness and love, and about the relationships between parents and children? In what ways do these stories give us a new look at the age-old subject of family life?