A Perfect Stranger
Martha met Kingsley at the station. She was standing on the platform and worrying about recognizing him as the train slid quietly alongside. She had only met Kingsley once, at a dinner in London a year ago, and now, when she tried to conjure up his face, she found nothing. A long nose, she thought. Tall, in his seventies, probably gray—haired. What else? Would there be more than one man like that on the train? Should she have told him she’d wear a red rose? Should she never have gotten herself into this in the first place—inviting a perfect stranger for the weekend? Jeffrey, who had opposed it from the start, would feel no sympathy for her now.
It was mid-afternoon, well before the commuter rush—Jeffrey would not be home for hours—and the train was not full. Martha saw Kingsley in the lighted car, before the train came to a halt. He was standing in the aisle, very erect, and tall, a head and a half above the man in front of him. His huge eagle’s beak was in profile. Of course, she thought, the nose. Kingsley was balding and graying, with a noble dome and regal posture. He was wearing a tan raincoat and frowning deeply, his great bristly brows knotted. When he stepped off the train Martha was before him.
Roxana Robinson is the author of three novels; Sweetwater, Summer Light, This is My Daughter, and the biography Georgia O’Keeffe: A Life, as well as two previous short story collections, A Glimpse of Scarlet and Asking for Love. Four of her works have been named Notable Books of the Year by The New York Times. She has received fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the MacDowell Colony. Robinson’s fiction has appeared in Best American Short Stories, The Atlantic, The New Yorker, Harper’s, Daedalus, and Vogue. She lives in New York City and Westchester County, New York. “A Perfect Stranger” is the title story of her new collection, which will be released by Random House this month.
Q&A by Hannah Tinti
- HT: Where did the idea for this story come from?
- RR: Part of it was something that actually took place, I did have an eminent English house guest who inadvertently locked us all out of our car. But I also wanted to write about being a guest and being a host, how that makes you reconsider who you are, and how you look at the world, and the great number of odd differences there are between male and English and female and American. Being a guest means that you’re both trying hard to bridge the gap formed by different cultures. And of course there are two marriages that are also part of the story. I wanted to braid all of this into a thick passage.
- HT: What was the most challenging aspect of writing this story?
- RR: I think the ending. Throughout much of the story it’s comic, but the ending of a comic story is much more difficult than the ending of a tragic one, or simply a serious one. It’s very hard to maintain a high manic altitude and have the story end gracefully—often funny stories don’t have endings, they just stop. So I rewrote this several times. But I wanted the final passage to be thoughtful, not funny, and to take place in Kingsley’s mind, I wanted the sense of his life going on, the sense of continuation and possibility.
- HT: Can you talk a little about the title of this story? “A Perfect Stranger” comes up throughout the piece. Also, why did you end up choosing it as the title of your collection?
- RR: Just that it seemed a useful phrase to suggest the distance that exists between all of us, husbands and wives, visitors and hosts, close and connected nations. I chose it as the title story partly because it’s the longest and partly because it stands alone better than most of the other titles. Now that I use a computer, I give all my stories brief, one-word working titles, which I often end up using for the official title. (This story was called by the actual name of our visitor, a name I will not, even now, divulge.) I think this is too bad, as I actually like long, rather complicated titles, but I no longer use them myself.
- HT: Did you choose two cultures (American vs. British) to magnify the differences and misunderstandings of the characters? (For example, when Kingsley calls Jeffrey ‘Geoffrey’)
- RR: I have a lot of English friends and I’ve spent a lot of time in England, and I’ve always been interested in the overlaps and the gaps between the two sensibilities. The language seems the same, so it may seem at first that we’re similar, but in fact there are huge and complicated differences between us. I had fun with some of these—and the Geoffrey—Jeffrey difference was one of them. But yes, the cultural difference heightens the feeling of strangeness we all feel when we’re staying in someone else’s house, when we suddenly feel isolated and awkward and unprotected. There are so many domestic signals we don’t understand, so many conventions we don’t know.
- HT: Why did you choose opera to bring these characters together?
- RR: Opera is a pretty big presence in my life, so it was an easy world for me to enter. And I wanted something—an event—that would be a cultural draw, a reason for the visiting Englishman Kingsley to have real stature in a status-conscious community. I wanted him to have snob appeal as well as intellectual heft. I also wanted him to be able to talk about beauty and emotion and passion, about tragedy and love, I wanted him to raise these issues in a group of people who don’t ordinarily discuss these things, and who try to avoid discussing them in their own lives.
- HT: The ‘strangers’ in this story start out as Martha and Kingsley, but then later seem to become their spouses, Jeffrey and Evvie. Did you set out to write a story about marriage?
- RR: Oh, all stories with married people in them are about marriage.
- HT: How long did it take you to complete this story?
- RR: I wrote it over quite a long period of time. It’s hard for me to say how long it takes, because often I’ll write a story, set it aside and work on other things, and then come back to it. But I think that from start to finish the story took probably five or six years. I made one final change, adding one sentence at the very end, six weeks ago.