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SunLit interview: How Stephanie Harper’s story of agoraphobia unexpectedly found an audience

She finished her novel in 2013, but "Wesley Yorstead Goes Outside" didn't find its way to print until seven years later, when the isolation that followed the coronavirus made it a "pandemic read"

Stephanie Harper is the author of ”Wesley Yorstead Goes Outside” (Propertius Press, 2020), as well as a poetry collection entitled ”Sermon Series” (Finishing Line Press, 2017). She received her MFA in Creative Writing from Fairfield University. She’s written personal essays and articles for many publications online and in print. She currently lives in Littleton.

Tell us this book’s backstory. What inspired you to write it? Where did the story/theme originate?

Wesley Yorstead Goes Outside began as my MFA thesis. Initially, I had the desire to explore what it would be like to never leave your home. The character of Wesley became the vehicle through which I was able to start thinking through this experience. As I started writing, I realized that the fear and anxiety that put a character like Wesley “inside” was all too relatable and the book really became an exploration of the things that scare us, that hold us back, and how we overcome them. Through the relationship of Wesley and Happy, I was also able to delve into how our relationships can transform us and how we tend to grow together when in community with one another.  

Place this excerpt in context. How does it fit into the book as a whole? Why did you select it?

This is the opening chapter. There is a brief sort of atmospheric prologue that precedes it, but this is the first time we see Wesley in his apartment, his whole world at this point in his life. This is also where we first meet Happy, who is an immediate disruption to Wesley’s world. My hope is that this provides a little taste of what’s to come as these two very different characters connect.  

Tell us about creating this book. What influences and/or experiences informed the project before you actually sat down to write the book? 

I was fairly unversed in terms of agoraphobia when I started. I had a very stereotypical understanding of agoraphobia, mostly through the way that agoraphobia has been portrayed in Hollywood, the Howard Hughes type characters. When I began researching, I found a much wider spectrum and nuance in the way that agoraphobia manifests in people and how it is connected to both anxiety and panic disorder. 

As I started to write, my own anxiety was sort of put into the spotlight. Anxiety had always been a part of my family system, but I had never named and claimed it in myself. When I started writing these episodes of anxiety and even panic attacks, it forced me to interrogate some of my own anxiety and the role it plays in my life. It was surprisingly cathartic.  

UNDERWRITTEN BY

Each week, The Colorado Sun and Colorado Humanities & Center For The Book feature an excerpt from a Colorado book and an interview with the author. Explore the SunLit archives at coloradosun.com/sunlit.

Once you began writing, did the story take you in any unexpected directions? If so, how would you describe dealing with a narrative that seems to have a mind of its own?

When I started the book, I knew I had these characters I wanted to interact with one another and I had an idea of where Wesley would end up (the title kind of gives it away!) but I had no real plans for how we would arrive at Wesley’s moment of “outside.” Eventually pulling in elements of sex work, human trafficking, and domestic violence, were never something I imagined at the outset of my first draft, but as the characters fleshed out more and I learned more about how human trafficking is a terrible issue right here in Colorado, it felt necessary to give some space to these issues as well. 

What were the biggest challenges you faced, or surprises you encountered in completing this book? 

The biggest surprise actually came closer to publication. I had originally finished the book in 2013, but my agent and I didn’t find a publisher until closer to 2020. This meant that I ended up publishing my book during the pandemic. I couldn’t have imagined that this book would have been a “pandemic read” when I began writing it, but it turns out that the isolation and anxiety of Wesley’s agoraphobia really struck a chord with readers struggling through quarantine and isolation amidst the pandemic. 

Has the book raised questions or provoked strong opinions among your readers? How did you address them?

Truly the most consistent feedback I have received has been about how the book has been received by readers in the midst of the pandemic. I find readers have found something very relatable and even helpful in Wesley’s agoraphobia as we all struggle through the current reality. It’s been great for the book, but I do wonder sometimes about how people would have seen Wesley if we weren’t all living through this experience collectively right now. 

TODAY’S UNDERWRITER

Walk us through your writing process: Where and how do you write? 

I am not an incredibly disciplined writer. I like to write in large chunks, where I set aside several hours for intentional writing time instead of chipping away in smaller bits daily. I’m also very energized by writing in coffee shops or other public spaces when I am able. 

Tell us about your next project.

I’ve been writing a lot of nonfiction lately, mostly essays about my experiences living with a complex chronic illness. My next major project is a fiction novel about a boy who is the sole survivor of a terrible accident that claims the life of his mother, and his aunt and uncle who take him in. It’s about unconventional families, estrangement and reconciliation, and how the trajectory of your life can change so very quickly. 

Read an excerpt from the book.


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