Occupying the Quiet and the Many Heads: An Interview with Andrew Porter
andrew porter is the author of the story collection The Theory of Light and Matter, which won the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction, and the novel In Between Days, which was a Barnes & Noble “Discover Great New Writers” selection. A graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, he has received a Pushcart Prize, a James Michener/Copernicus Fellowship, and the W.K. Rose Fellowship in the Creative Arts. His work has appeared in One Story, The Threepenny Review, and on public radio’s Selected Shorts. Currently, he teaches fiction writing and directs the creative writing program at Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas.
Front Porch: I heard you originally wanted to be a filmmaker. What drew you to that medium? What caused you to turn to writing?
Andrew Porter: When I was in high school, my older brother was in film school at USC, and through him I was exposed to a lot of great directors—people like Godard, Truffaut, Bergman—and I remember those films having a very profound impact on me. I don’t think I’d ever thought about film as an art form before, so when I entered college that became my focus: to figure out how to make these types of films myself. Then, during the fall semester of my sophomore year, I took a fiction writing course, and all of that changed. I don’t think that I thought of myself as giving up on film at that point; I think I just realized that I liked writing better. Plus, it became apparent to me that writing short stories was going to be a whole lot cheaper than making films.
FP: In your collection The Theory of Light and Matter, all the stories are quiet and understated. Along those lines, you’ve been viewed as a short story writer’s short story writer. Do you see yourself as such?
AP: That’s a good question. To be honest, I don’t know that I’ve ever given that issue much thought. When I was writing those stories, I wasn’t really thinking about who might be reading them one day because I honestly wasn’t sure if anyone (aside from my friends) ever would. That said, I can tell you that once The Theory of Light and Matter began to attract a more general readership, it meant a lot to me that people who didn’t typically read short stories were responding to it.
FP: You’ve been compared to Cheever and Updike, and I see similarities to Richard Ford as well. Do you draw from any specific writers (other than those mentioned here)?
AP: Early on, Raymond Carver and John Cheever were probably my two biggest influences. Later on, Junot Díaz, Stephanie Vaughn, Denis Johnson, and Stuart Dybek were all very important to me. And, more recently, the stories of writers like Julie Orringer, Charles D’Ambrosio, and Maile Meloy have definitely been a big influence. Of course, there are dozens of others, but those are just a few of the important ones.
FP: Every story in Light and Matter is in first person. Is that your default setting?
AP: Ha! It would appear so, huh? The truth is, the original manuscript of that book was about twice as long, and many of the stories I included in it were third person stories. As I was trying to condense it, though, I kept taking out the stories that didn’t seem to fit tonally, and it just so happened that a lot of the stories that didn’t fit tonally were third person stories. In the end, I think I wanted the book to have a kind of confessional, reflective feel to it, and so that’s probably why most of those stories got cut.
FP: So many of the stories in Light and Matter explore fractured relationships among people who are supposed to be close. There’s a moment when the son in “Connecticut” comes close to reaching out to his mother and telling her he understands her grief and why she’s having an affair with a neighbor, but he doesn’t. It’s interesting because it defies that old fiction adage that if you give a character a door, they have to go through it. Why push your characters toward a moment and then rein things back?
AP: In moments like the one you describe from “Connecticut,” I don’t know that I’m thinking so much about what the character should do in that moment as what the character would do. I just try to be true to my sense of the character, even if that means avoiding a moment, or an action, that might be more dramatically satisfying. On top of that, I think that sometimes a character’s decision not to act is just as interesting as a character’s decision to act. As in life, just because a door is open doesn’t mean that we (or our characters) always walk through it.
FP: You probe tragic subjects in Light and Matter—death, broken families, hollow love—but none of your work reads as melodramatic (not even teenage love). How do you manage this?
AP: I learned a lot about avoiding melodrama from reading Junot Díaz’s collection Drown. The stories in that book have always felt so emotionally honest to me, and after a certain point I think I began to realize that this was partly because Díaz always chose to focus on the quiet moments before and after more dramatic moments rather than actually putting the more dramatic moments in scene. In other words, the dramatic moments were often referenced, or implied, but rarely dramatized, and that’s something I tried to do a lot in my own book. It’s a way of avoiding melodrama, yes, but also sometimes a way of making those moments even more powerful.
FP: It’s clear that you’re also fascinated with memory. In “Hole,” the boy’s flawed memories of the day his friend disappeared are as much the subject of the story as that single event, and the non-linear form fits the content perfectly. How did that story come about? Did you start with the content or with the craft decision to write non-linearly?
AP: I wrote that story very quickly, in a single night, and the structure of it evolved fairly naturally. In the second sentence of the story I announce to the reader that this character (Tal) has died, so I kind of set myself up with a difficult task from the start, namely where does the story go from here? I wasn’t really sure where the story was going to go, but I did know that I wouldn’t be able to tell it linearly, so I just kind of trusted my instincts and kept approaching it from different angles. And, in the end, those attempts ended up defining the structure of the story and ultimately becoming what the story was about.
FP: Does content typically dictate form for you, or vice versa?
AP: Generally speaking, I think content tends to dictate form for me, though of course the two are inextricably linked and often discovered simultaneously. Regardless, I try not to think too much about form until I’ve written a certain amount. I’ve definitely never started a story (or novel) with any idea of what the form would be.
FP: One of my favorite stories, “Departure,” features flashes where the narrator breaks the trance of past action and reflects from the present time. The story even ends on such a reflection. I’m always interested in hearing why writers break the plane of the story in that way, and when they choose to use it.
AP: I suppose it depends on the story. In the case of “Departure,” I think I decided to end the story that way because it seemed like it would be more emotionally satisfying to do so. Also, there’s a sense throughout the story that the narrator is recalling these events from a future moment in his life, though it’s never clear (until the end) how far in the future, so it satisfies that question, too. In other stories, I do that type of thing to create suspense or tension, to disrupt the action, or sometimes just to remind the reader that this is simply an attempt by one narrator to recall a series of events that may or may not be accurate.
FP: The stories of Light and Matter are set in very specific landscapes across the country. Do you have experience with these places? Do you need to have experience with a place to write about it?
AP: Every writer is different, but I personally need to feel a connection to a place in order to write about it. And yes, all of the settings in my collection and novel are places where I have either lived or spent a lot of time.
FP: Many of your subjects are young. Do youthful characters make for good stories?
AP: I’ve always felt that youthful characters are just as compelling as adult ones. I think there’s a kind of myth that any story about a young character is automatically going to be a coming of age/loss of innocence story, but I don’t think that’s always the case. The way that younger people perceive the world is very unique, and I think it’s a good idea, in general, to try to stay in touch with that way of looking at things. As you get older, it becomes harder and harder to remember how you felt at, say, fifteen, and one of the wonderful things about writing fiction is that it gives you an opportunity to go back and revisit those feelings.
FP: Your first novel, In Between Days, was released recently. Was it difficult making the transition from short stories to a novel?
AP: Yes and no. On the one hand, there were a lot of technical challenges that came along with switching to the novel form—for example, managing a large cast of characters and using multiple points of view—but on the other hand I was working under a deadline, so I didn’t have a whole lot of time to dwell on these challenges or fret about them, which was probably a good thing.
FP: What about point of view? Your collection was entirely in first person and your novel is written in multiple third person. What was the reason behind that?
AP: When I wrote the opening chapter of In Between Days, I wasn’t sure if this was going to be the opening chapter of a novel or the first section of a short story. All I knew was that my instinct was to shift perspectives at that point, to leave the father’s perspective and go inside the head of his son. Then, when I’d finished writing a section from the son’s perspective, I found that I wanted to go inside the head of the daughter, and then, after that, the wife. I still wasn’t sure what I was writing, but after I’d written about fifty pages or so, I began to realize that this wasn’t going to be a short story, or even a novella. It was definitely going to be a novel.
FP: One of the characters in your novel is a writer. Did you have reservations on writing about a writer?
AP: Absolutely. That’s why I made the character a poet rather than a fiction writer. If I had made him (Richard) a fiction writer, it would have felt a little too close to home. I know that writing teachers always say you should never make the protagonist of a story or novel a writer, but since my novel doesn’t really have a protagonist, it didn’t seem like too much of a risk. Also, I knew that I wanted Richard to share an artistic sensibility with his father, who’s an architect, and making him a poet just seemed like a natural way to do this.
FP: You started the creative writing program at Trinity University, if I understand correctly. Have you been able to balance an academic life with your writing life?
AP: Well, I used to think that balancing teaching and writing was difficult until my wife and I had a baby, and then I realized that balancing teaching and writing actually wasn’t that hard. Balancing teaching, writing and raising a child—now that was hard! To answer your question more seriously, though, I think that when a person feels a desire, or compulsion, to write, he or she always figures out a way to get the hours in, whether it be staying up late, waking up early or, as in the case of Raymond Carver, writing in the front seat of your car between jobs.
FP: Your collection received the Flannery O’Connor award. What did that recognition mean to you? Did the notoriety affect your writing at all?
AP: The best thing about the award was that it attracted a lot of readers to the book initially. Short story collections tend to enter the world somewhat quietly, and so it helps if you have something like an award attached to your book when it’s first released. As for whether it changed my writing, I don’t think it did. It’s always a great honor to receive any type of award, but, like most writers who have been doing this for a while, I’ve come to accept that anything good that happens to me is at least half luck.
Read an excerpt from Porter's In Between Days here.