Most Americans these days have contemplated the relative beauty, horror, and challenge of not going outside. Littleton writer Stephanie Harper has something to say about exactly that in her new novel Wesley Yorstead Goes Outside. Or her main character does, anyway. He’s a thirty-something graphic novelist who doesn’t leave his Denver apartment…until he meets someone who makes him want to venture out into the world again.
This is a local novel from a local author — and, really, since none of us are doing much these days, we can all be happily agoraphobic, too, staying home and reading local literary works.
Westword caught up with Harper to talk about her new book, her writing, and how Colorado figures into both.
Westword: Your new novel focuses on a main character who suffers from agoraphobia. Where did that idea come from, and how did it grow from your initial conception of the project? In this era of the pandemic and stay-at-home orders, it’s remarkably timely.
Stephanie Harper: It really started with a curiosity, simply wanting to imagine what it would feel like to be completely unable to leave your home. More thematically, I knew that I really wanted to explore fear and anxiety and how those feelings affect us and often limit us, as well as how we overcome them. Wesley as a character formed almost instantly when I started thinking about this concept. I felt that by creating a character who wrestled with those complex emotions to an extreme degree, I'd be able to explore the spectrum of fear and anxiety, the universality of it, and how it relates to being human in general. In that way, it just felt right and natural that he would be agoraphobic, would have suffered some trauma, and would be dealing with a large array of symptoms and setbacks at the onset of the novel. It also just seemed natural that he would be an artist of some kind. That sensibility allowed me to create a unique and lyrical perspective through his interior monologue. That was really where I started from, and the book grew out of that.
What was your favorite part of setting this book in Denver?
I love Denver. I’m a Colorado native, and I’ve spent so much time in the city, having grown up in Littleton, and I just have a deep love for downtown. I always feel energized by the sights and sounds, the aesthetic, the backdrop of the mountains. I just love it all. I also knew that writing about Denver from the perspective of someone who’s going out into the city for the first time in several years, I could really get into those intimate details about the city I love so much.
So what locations get a shout-out?
The Colorado Capitol Building plays an important role, specifically the mile-high marker. As does the Millennium Bridge, Union Station and Commons Park. The Wash Park neighborhood also makes an appearance. I reference a coffee shop which is actually the late Paris on the Platte, where I spent quite a bit of time in high school and then again in my early twenties. I’d often take the light rail down to Union Station and then walk through the park to go to Paris or to My Brother’s Bar, so writing about that area of town was very natural. I also think because Wesley is an artist, I was able to focus on architecture and particular physical details of certain landmarks, and that was really fun, both in researching and in writing. I would have loved to be able to add more details of the city and gotten farther uptown, but Wesley’s scope was pretty limited.
This latest book is fiction, but your previous collection, Sermon Series, was poetry. Do you consider yourself a poet who sometimes writes fiction, or a fiction writer who began in poetry, or some other flavor of writer entirely?
I just consider myself as just a writer, full stop. I tend to write whatever feels right. Fiction has always been my great love. When I was a kid on the playground making up epic backstories for our games of house or “The ground is lava,” the storyteller was born. I’ve also always loved poetry because brevity is a necessary exercise for me, and it has really allowed me to hone my command of language. My current project is actually a sort of memoir in essays, something I never thought I would write — never imagined my life would be interesting enough to write about. But then I became chronically ill, and the story sort of opened itself up. Because writing has always, first and foremost, been the way that I learn and grow as a person and gain a better understanding of the world around me, the medium tends to be whatever it needs to be in the moment.
Your poetry had a decidedly spiritual bent; how does the spiritual play into your work? Is it purposeful or just part of your view of the world?
Yes, the poetry collection is what I would call contemplative poetry, so very prayerful and meditative and maybe even seeking in its theme. Because poetry is a part of my larger spiritual practice, it is steeped in my individual expression of faith. I do publish essays about spirituality, also. It’s an important part of my life. Beyond that, I would say that my spirituality is really just a part of who I am and how I see the world. I wouldn’t say that my fiction, or even my creative nonfiction, is decidedly spiritual in nature, but my views certainly inform how I see the ways in which we are all connected to one another and to the rest of creation. I think all of my work has a hopeful optimism that definitely comes out of my spiritual beliefs. Someone told me once that I’ll never win any awards writing stories with “happy endings.” That’s okay.
You've also done work for magazines like Huffington Post and Mayim Bialik's Grok Nation. Is writing across a broad spectrum of outlets just part of how a writer pays the rent these days, or is that more indicative of your interests as a writer?
I think it’s both/and. As a working writer who is mostly freelance, the broader your areas of expertise and interest, the better. But I’ve also gotten out of the place where I pitch anything and everything just to get something published. There was a time, sure, and my portfolio would definitely reflect that, but I’m less hungry than I was at the start of my career. I’ve been fortunate to find a few niches that are areas that I enjoy writing about and have a lot to say. Because the root of all my writing is exploring what it means to be human, I’m never short on topics.
So if you had to pick one type of writer to be, what would you choose?
I’m pretty comfortable with the type of writer I am now, which is the type of writer with a short attention span. I don’t think I could ever limit myself to one genre or medium. I’d get bored. Maybe the type of writer who publishes a book a year. My pipe dream is prolificacy.
Wesley Yorstead Goes Outside is published by Propertius Press; how did you land with that small press in the Blue Mountains of Virginia? What do you think is the role of small presses in this day and age of publishing?
The simplest answer is because they wanted me. My agent and I had been pitching Wesley Yorstead since 2013 and had all but given up on the possibility of this being my first novel to break through when I came across this small press and submitted on a whim. It’s been a wonderful experience, the great love and care Propertius Press has put into my book. Small presses are vital to championing a diverse cadre of writers that don’t always fit the needs of the larger publishing houses. I think small presses also push the homogeneity of the industry in challenging and exciting ways. We all benefit from that.
You live in Littleton and got your bachelor's from CU. What does Colorado mean to your writing?
I am and will forever be a Colorado girl at heart. It’s a formative part of my being. My deep connection to the natural world, to the resources of this state, definitely play a major part in my writing, especially poetry. There are also just a lot of small flourishes that come out of growing up in Colorado. People in my stories are always really into craft beer. Not to feed those Colorado stereotypes, but there is an energy about living here, maybe because of all the sunshine, that seems to align with my brand of hopeful optimism.
For more about the book, go to Stephanie Harper's website.
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