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Stephanie Harper's Patience Pays Off: An Interview With the Debut Novelist
Harper's the author of 'Wesley Yorstead Goes Outside'
Stephanie Harper is patient. After all, she’s been on our interview docket since October, when her first published novel, Wesley Yorstead Goes Outside (paid link) came out. And Harper first started working on the book in 2010.
But now you can read Harper’s interview below, and you can get your copy of Wesley Yorstead Goes Outside (paid link).
Wesley Yorstead is a 33-year-old graphic novelist suffering from agoraphobia, an anxiety that’s kept him from leaving his house for five years. As the book’s blurb reads, “When he meets Happy Lafferty for the first time, delivering groceries on behalf of her father’s neighborhood market, Wesley can’t shake the inherent magnetism between them and seeks to get to know this young woman who invades his space—both physical and mental. As their relationship grows more intimate, the restrictions of his situation become an even greater obstacle. When Happy’s past comes back to haunt her, Wesley must decide if he can finally leave his apartment to help.”
Jacquelyn Mitchard, the author of The Deep End of the Ocean, called Wesley Yorstead Goes Outside “a true original.” You can see more reviews of the novel on Stephanie Harper’s website.
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And be sure to get your copy of Wesley Yarstead Goes Outside, either on Bookshop.org (paid link) or on Stephanie’s website. Buying books by writers interviewed on Bidwell Hollow not only supports the interviewed authors, but it also helps us secure more interviews with up-and-coming and established authors and poets. Thank you!
Interview with Stephanie Harper
Conducted by Emily Quiles
What inspired you to write a story about Wesley, a 33-year-old agoraphobic and germophobic graphic novelist?
It really started as a sort of character study, with a desire to answer the question, “what would it be like to never leave your apartment?” As I begin to write the first chapter, Wesley became more fleshed out in my mind and I realized I had an opportunity to not only tell the story of a unique character but also explore more universal themes of fear and anxiety and how we overcome them, alone and together through our relationships with others.
How do you play with Wesley’s perspective as a comic book artist in the novel?
Wesley being an artist, and having an understanding and appreciation of art, became really central to the story in a number of ways. Having an artistic sensibility gave me a lens through which Wesley sees the world and allowed me to create a unique way to describe his experiences and surroundings.
What was your goal of wiring a book in first person and in present tense?
I wanted the reader to experience what Wesley was thinking and feeling with a sense of immediacy. It also really allowed me to get into the complexities of Wesley’s mental and emotional state throughout. I feel like the reader is really walking this journey right alongside him, for better or worse.
For about a quarter of the novel, I thought Wesley was a woman, (I didn’t pick this up until others entered his apartment and someone referred to Wesley as ‘he’.) Was this an intentional play on gender?
That is interesting! Definitely not intentional, though I do suppose Wesley is not the most stereotypically masculine of specimens. I do think it speaks a lot to our perceptions of mental illness. I think we tend to associate anxiety more with women (a sort of throwback to the days of “hysteria” as a female condition). Agoraphobia also does affect women to a greater degree than it does men, though severe cases seem to be common in men.
Wesley is an internally complex character. I felt like I was reading my own anxious internal thoughts. What research process did you go through to develop Wesley's state of mental health?
I did a lot of reading up on the clinical definition of agoraphobia, as well as anxiety, panic disorder, and PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder). Every person is different and I think there are a lot of unique elements that create the whole of Wesley’s trauma and mental illness, but I wanted it to feel authentic in a clinical sense. I also read about the experiences of others with agoraphobia and panic attacks to create a vocabulary for describing those experiences that felt realistic.
As the creator and writer, what was Happy’s role for Wesley? Was her name intentional, being that at first glance she always seems happy?
Happy does serve as a bit of foil to Wesley. And, there is a lot of irony in her name because she does seem like a generally positive and upbeat person, though we see glimpses of her own struggles and traumas as we get to know her through Wesley’s eyes. The biggest challenge of this book was fleshing her character out when everything came through the lens of Wesley’s perspective.
My goal was always that Happy and Wesley would help rescue each other through their developing relationship. I think the very best relationships are those where two broken people come together, put all their “stuff” out there on the table, and then make each other better through doing life together. That was what I wanted for the two of them.
I read that you started writing this novel back in 2010. Fast forward, ten years later into the pandemic, Wesley’s reality, isolated in his apartment, is actually the sinking reality many of us are facing. First, I want to ask, how do you think Wesley would have reacted to the pandemic?
Great question! I think the Wesley at the beginning of the novel would have really been in his element. Yes, his anxiety would have increased greatly and he probably would have cut off all in-person visitations, but I don’t think his day to day life would have changed all that much. Wesley by the end of the novel is a different story. I hope he’d have the support system in place to not let the pandemic send him backwards in his progress, but it’s difficult to say.
Second, in hindsight and with this new pandemic-lens, what lessons do you hope readers can get from your novel? Has the lesson changed?
I don’t know that the lesson has changed, in that it’s still a story about how anxiety and fear affect our lives and how we might overcome. I do think readers are relating to Wesley on a level they might not have before the pandemic. His experiences don’t seem so “other” now that we are all experiencing quarantine.
How would you describe your writing process?
Undisciplined, in a word. I write when I feel like it and when my own chronic health challenges allow (which isn’t every day) and I try to take advantage of the time when I am able to sit down and really work to churn out a lot. It’s a little chaotic and certainly not ideal, but I’ve found a structure that works for me. I think that’s the most important thing. Figure out what works, and give yourself a lot of grace when it just isn’t working.
What do you need to get into the right headspace to start writing?
Coffee. Music. Energy.
Can you share the story on how you got under contract for publication with Propertius Press? Any advice for aspiring writers on how to get published?
My journey to publication was long (seven years since we started pitching!) and included a combination of my agent pitching larger houses and more traditional markets and me working in conjunction with my agent to pitch smaller houses that might have reading fees etc. I pitched Propertius Press myself and then my agent took over when they offered publication. Having an agent has been wonderful and tremendously helpful but there are so many wonderful independent presses out there that do not require representation. Stay determined and keep pitching away!