Finalist for the 2002 Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award, Fiction
Winner of the 2002 L.L. Winship/PEN New England Award
Synopses & Reviews
The publication of “Notes to My Biographer,” in Zoetrope: All-Story
magazine introduced readers to the remarkable voice of Adam Haslett. Nominated as part of a National Magazine Award, broadcast on National Public Radio, performed at venues across the country, the story brought the author widespread recognition.
Now, in his first book, Adam Haslett gives us nine richly varied stories, each suffused with intense emotion and written in a lyric prose alternatively lush and spare. You Are Not a Stranger Here carries its readers into the hearts and minds of people facing life’s most profound dilemmas. We meet an aging inventor still burning with ideas as he makes a final visit to his gay son. A psychiatrist’s encounter with a reluctant patient reveals a young doctor’s own needs and fears. An orphaned boy finds solace in a classmate’s violence. The return of an old lover disturbs the peace between a brother and sister who have lived together for decades.
In settings that range from New England to Great Britain, from Los Angeles to the American West, the stories in this book treat what Faulkner called the old verities and truths of the heart: love and honor, pity and pride, compassion and sacrifice. They do so with heartbreaking precision and an often generous humor, drawing us past the surface of characters’ lives into the moments of decision and recognition that shape them irrevocably. Together these stories constitute a significant achievement by a powerful new writer.
"[A] very impressive debut. Haslett is an expert storyteller, who draws the reader in with his compassion, then methodically unravels unexpected truths....Haslett's perceptive stories are far-flung in setting...but his themes are grounded in one place: the troubled human mind." Robert Weibezahl, BookPage
"[An] affecting debut collection....Though the thematic similarity of many of the stories dulls their startling initial impact, this is a strikingly assured first effort." Publishers Weekly
"There are some spectacular moments, and also several inexplicable miscalculations in this extremely uneven yet unquestionably promising debut collection....Not by any means the book it might perhaps should have been." Kirkus Reviews
"Adam Haslett's debut stories are almost frighteningly tender....Haslett is a young writer and may himself have a long journey ahead. But in the best of these stories, he reveals a piece of wisdom greater than his years: that mercy extends not just to the ill, but to their sentinels who are, in their finest hour, blessed with the task of love." Gail Caldwell, The Boston Globe
"All this can be a little gloomy, but Haslett is an eloquent, precise miniaturist, and his characters' struggles with their own assumptions collectively provide a fascinating snapshot of life during the era of Prozac, when new ways of thinking about emotion have forced us to adjust our notion of identity and even, perhaps, of grace." The New Yorker
"Not every reader will care or dare to enter Haslett's sometimes melodramatically painful world, but the book welcomes the courageous and the estranged." Tom LeClair, Book Magazine
"Haslett possesses a rich assortment of literary gifts: an instinctive empathy for his characters and an ability to map their inner lives in startling detail; a knack for graceful, evocative prose; and a determination to trace the hidden arithmetic of relationships." The New York Times
"Elegant....Invigorating....[Haslett has an] assured, almost democratic empathy for his admirably varied characters....These are graceful, mature, witty stories." The San Francisco Chronicle
"Adam Haslett is a wonderful rarity: an old-fashioned young storyteller with something urgent and fresh and fiercely intelligent to say. Haslett's great gifts as a writer his fearlessness in particular are a great gift to the reader. You're likely not only to love his stories but to feel stronger for having read them." Jonathan Franzen, author of The Corrections
"Adam Haslett possesses the rare ability to combine powerful narrative with sensitive and perceptive observation of people and places. You Are Not A Stranger Here is a brilliant beginning to a literary career." Barry Unsworth, author of The Songs of the Kings
"From the brilliantly manic gallop of the first story to the deep, careful, breath-held balance of the last (a truly beautiful duet of age and youth), You Are Not A Stranger Here is a book to savor." John Casey, author of The Half-Life of Happiness
In his bestselling and lavishly praised first book of stories, Adam Haslett explores lives that appear shuttered by loss and discovers entire worlds hidden inside them. The impact is at once harrowing and thrilling.
An elderly inventor, burning with manic creativity, tries to reconcile with his estranged gay son. A bereaved boy draws a thuggish classmate into a relationship of escalating guilt and violence. A genteel middle-aged woman, a long-time resident of a psychiatric hospital, becomes the confidante of a lovelorn teenaged volunteer. Told with Chekhovian restraint and compassion, and conveying both the sorrow of life and the courage with which people rise to meet it, You Are Not a Stranger Here is a triumph of storytelling.
About the Author
Adam Haslett is the author of You Are Not A Stranger Here, a short story collection, which was a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Award, and won the PEN/Winship Award. His work has appeared in The New Yorker, The Nation, Zoetrope, and Best American Short Stories as well as National Public Radios Selected Shorts. He is a graduate of the Iowa Writers' Workshop and the Yale Law school and has received fellowships from the Provincetown Fine Arts Work Center and the Michener/Copernicus Society of America. He lives in New York City, where he works part-time as a legal consultant.
Reading Group Guide
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 readers 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 persons 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 Franks?
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 ones 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 brothers 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. Ill 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: “Youre 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 whats real and what isnt…. I dont know what it is youre dreaming, or what you dreamt about that teacher, but thats all it is—dreams. Your lifes 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 whats real and what isnt? 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 Fathers Business,” the narrators 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 narrators own fate? How does this statement relate to the narrators 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 “Wars End” if she often invites strangers into her home, she replies: “Youre 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 Christs 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?
Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award Finalist
“Spectacular. . . . You should buy this book, you should read it, and you should admire it. . . . It is the herald of a phenomenal career.” —The New York Times Book Review
The introduction, discussion questions, suggested reading list, and author biography that follow are designed to enhance your groups discussion of Adam Hasletts remarkable debut collection of stories, You Are Not a Stranger Here.
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.