by Andrew Porter, September 14, 2012 10:00 AM
Earlier this week I talked about Texas, where I currently live, but today I want to talk more specifically about the city of Houston, which is where my recently released novel, In Between Days
, is set.
I moved to Houston in my early 20s and in many ways still associate the city with my early years as a writer — those years when I was just starting out and figuring out what I wanted to do, those years when everything in my life seemed to revolve around coffee shops and used bookstores and bars. Perhaps I've romanticized that period of time a little too much, but I know that when people ask me when it was I realized I was a writer, I always think about Houston — about those long nights alone in my apartment typing away on my antiquated computer, about the people I knew then and the great conversations we used to have about writing.
Back then, Houston was still a relatively cheap place to live, and the Montrose area in particular was a wonderful place to live as a writer. There was a large and thriving art scene, an active and vibrant literary culture, and a ton of inexpensive bars and restaurants that seemed to cater to those of us who were having difficulty making our rent. On top of that, there was also this sense that you were part of a major international city — a city that attracted world-class talent to its theaters and concert halls; that housed several impressive art galleries, not to mention three professional sports teams; and that seemed as diverse as any city I'd ever lived, including New York.
Recently, I've been thinking a lot about Houston, not only because it's the setting of my novel but also because it's a place that I find myself returning to again and again in my work. I've lived in other parts of the country for much longer periods of time, and yet for some reason, my unconscious mind — or at least, the part of my mind that creates fiction — keeps returning to Houston.
From a craft perspective, setting has always interested me, but even more interesting than the technical and thematic elements of setting is the larger question of why certain writers feel drawn to certain settings. Why, for example, did Faulkner set so much of his work in rural Mississippi? Why did Cheever choose the suburbs? In my case, I think the answer to this question — at least as it pertains to Houston — has always sort of eluded me. I can tell you that there are a lot of things about the city itself that make it an excellent backdrop for fiction — the fact that it's so large and diverse; the fact that there are so many different population groups from so many different parts of the world living there; and the fact that the history of the city seems distinctly American, in particular, its rise and fall during the oil boom and subsequent crash of the late '70s and early '80s. Still, these are all practical, or perhaps thematic, reasons.
The real reason, I suspect, is probably a lot vaguer. It may have something to do with the fact that, during my second year there, I lost a good portion of my writing when my apartment was robbed, an incident that took me several years to shake. Or it may simply be the fact that I still associate Houston with my early years as a writer, years that served to shape me a lot as both a person and a writer.
What I can tell you for certain is this: whenever I return to Houston, whether it be in reality or in fiction, I feel a sense of connection. Maybe I write about Houston simply because it's one of the few places in the country I feel connected to, and maybe I set my stories there simply because those stories, like Houston, are a part of
by Andrew Porter, September 13, 2012 10:00 AM
In the coming months, I'm sure I'll be asked a lot of questions about the issue of family in my work, not only because it's such a prevalent theme in my recently released novel, In Between Days
, but also because it was one of the central themes of my short-story collection, The Theory of Light and Matter
. Of course, whenever people ask me to elaborate on my interest in families — and, specifically, dysfunctional families — I can't help but feel that they're secretly expecting me to divulge some interesting detail about my own or to admit that, yes, the families in my fiction are in many ways a direct reflection of my own family. But the truth is, the family I grew up in bears little resemblance to the families in my fiction, and moreover, the characters I describe couldn't be more different from my own parents and siblings.
And yet still, the question remains: Why this preoccupation with dysfunctional families?
I guess the best way I can answer this question is by explaining that my interest in writing fiction grew out of my interest in people and the ways that people interact with each other. And I've always been especially interested in group dynamics, whether it be the dynamics of a workplace, a social situation, or a family. I think there's something very revealing about the way people interact in groups versus the way they behave on their own, and inherent in this disparity is usually some type of conflict: the public self versus the private self. The person you appear to be versus the person you really are. And I suppose that families in particular are rife with this type of conflict. After all, in a family, we all play a role, and usually that role has been ingrained in us from an early age. We're expected to do certain things, act a certain way, and accept certain responsibilities based on the expectations of those around us. And yet, at the same time, every member of a family has his or her own private life, a life filled with separate hopes, fears, desires, and insecurities, things that may have nothing at all to do with the family itself.
In writing both my short-story collection and my novel, I think I was probably most interested in exploring this type of disparity and in showing how a certain emotional distance often grows out of it. With my novel, In Between Days, for example, I made a conscious effort never to show the four members of the Harding family in the same place at the same time. I wanted to underscore the fact that even though they were all part of a unit, that unit was never entirely complete. And with my first book, I took a similar approach, consciously avoiding depictions of large group scenes, trying instead to depict the various families I wrote about as groups of separate individuals. As I was doing this, however, I wasn't thinking about any family in particular, and I certainly wasn't attempting to depict my own; I was simply looking for a way to explore the type of emotional distance that seems to exist in all families, no matter how close they may be.
Still, in the coming months, as people begin to read In Between Days, I know that a certain number of readers are going to assume that the Harding family is my own or that the conflicts that the Hardings face are conflicts that my own family has faced, when in fact neither of these things is true. In the past, these types of misconceptions, or assumptions, used to bother me a little, but recently a friend pointed out another way of looking at it: If people who read your fiction assume it's nonfiction, she said, that's actually kind of a compliment. It means you've done your
by Andrew Porter, September 12, 2012 10:00 AM
I have lived in San Antonio for the past eight years, and earlier in my life I lived in Houston on two separate occasions, both times for a year. All in all, I've spent a quarter of my life (roughly 10 years) living in the state of Texas. Still, when I'm introduced at readings or referred to in articles as "Texas writer Andrew Porter," it always sounds a little strange to me.
The truth is, when I think of the term "Texas writer," I think of someone like Larry McMurtry, a writer who grew up in the state of Texas and who knows its history like he knows the history of his own family, who feels connected to it in the same way Joyce did to Dublin. When I think about my own life by comparison, my connection to Texas seems tangential at best. After all, I spent the first eighteen years of my life living in Pennsylvania, went to college in New York, and spent a good portion of my 20s and early 30s moving around the country — from New York to Berkeley, from Los Angeles to Baltimore. If I find myself associating with any part of the country at all, it would probably be the East Coast, where I grew up, and then maybe California, where my family lives. My Texas connection, on the other hand, seems more like a funny kind of footnote or perhaps, more accurately, a distinction I haven't really earned.
And what's interesting is that most native Texans would agree. When I recently asked a group of my students whether my 10 years in the state of Texas had earned me the right to refer to myself as a Texan, they emphatically said, "No." To be considered a true Texan, they insisted, one had to have been born here, almost as if Texas citizenship were somehow more sacred and difficult to obtain than U.S. citizenship. I countered by asking whether there was anything I could do to make myself more of a Texan, and they suggested hanging a Texas flag on my porch.
"So if I hung a Texas flag on my porch, that would make me a Texan?"
"No," they said, "but it would be a start."
It's been interesting to live in a state where there's such fierce and passionate loyalty for the state itself, where it's not uncommon to encounter individuals who still talk about seceding from the union as if it might be a good idea. Still, as a writer who lives in Texas, and as someone who may in fact live here for the rest of his life, it creates an interesting dilemma for me, especially when I find myself setting more and more of my work here. In my first book, The Theory of Light and Matter, only three of the 10 stories were set in Texas, but almost all of the stories I've written since then have been set here. My recently released novel, In Between Days, is set here, and my most recent novel project, which I've only just begun, is also set here. I don't know that there's anything distinctly Texan about any of these stories. If anything, the fictional world I create has (I hope) a kind of universal quality. The neighborhoods I describe could be neighborhoods anywhere in the country; the characters I describe could be characters living in Portland or San Francisco or Maine. Their dilemmas and conflicts are not specific to the region. They are, I suppose, a little like me: unlikely transplants, displaced persons, characters who feel more of a connection to the people around them than the place where they live.
And yet, when I travel around the country in the coming months to give readings, I'm sure that someone somewhere is going to refer to me as "a Texas writer" and ask me to talk about the state as if I were some type of authority. And maybe this time I'll have to tell them what I sometimes feel to be the truth, that though I'm not a true Texan (at least, according to my students), and though I don't walk around in my day-to-day life thinking of myself as a Texan, I have lived in the state for a quarter of my life and have come to think of it as home. This is the place where I bought my first house, where I was married, and where my daughter was born. And, of course, this is the place where I've set a good deal of my work. I don't know if any of these things make me a "Texas Writer." I only know that they make me a writer who considers Texas his home, and maybe, in the end, this is distinction enough.
by Andrew Porter, September 11, 2012 10:00 AM
Hello again! This is turning out to be a busy week. With the release of my debut novel, In Between Days
, last week, I'm now embarking on my first set of readings. Last night I read at BookPeople Bookstore in Austin, tomorrow I'll be reading at Brazos Bookstore in Houston, and Thursday I'll be reading at Trinity University in San Antonio.
I've always enjoyed doing readings, and even though it's a little nerve racking to read from a new work for the first time, it's also very exciting. In some ways, I think that the reading tour is like the reward at the end of the journey, the gift for all the hard work you've done.
Of course, I know that a lot of writers don't feel this way, that many consider the reading tour an onerous duty that they have to endure. But for me it's never felt this way. There's an inherent thrill in reading your work out loud, in sharing the words you've written in a public setting, in talking with people afterward about your intentions, your struggles, your goals. In most cases, the people you encounter at readings are strangers — people who may be only vaguely familiar with your work — and oftentimes the things they want to talk about are surprising and unexpected. They may see something in your work that you've never considered before, or they may want to talk to you about some aspect of your work — say, a small detail or a minor character — that you hadn't given a lot of thought to previously. In some ways, I think that these public (or sometimes private) conversations are the vehicle that allows you, the writer, to understand what it is you've made.
With my first book, The Theory of Light and Matter, for example, I gave close to 60 readings over the course of about three years, and by the time I got to the end of that final reading, I felt like I could talk about almost any aspect of that book at great length. By that point, I had met with college students, middle-school students, book groups; I had sat on panels, given lectures, read at bookstores and universities. In short, I had been forced to talk again and again about each and every story in the book and also about the book as a whole. I had been forced to explain my artistic decisions, to elaborate on certain thematic elements, to reflect on my own method of writing, to contemplate my own literary tastes and inclinations. To use an academic metaphor, it was kind of like going through a three-year thesis defense, only the questions being asked weren't contentious. They came from people who were genuinely interested in me and in learning more about my work. More importantly, through the process of answering them I was able to finally understand what this book meant to me and, ultimately, who I was as a writer.
Sadly, I won't be doing nearly as many readings this time around. I have an 11-month-old daughter now, and traveling with my wife to various parts of the country to give readings is suddenly a lot more daunting. On top of that, reading tours in general are kind of on the decline. With the rise of social media, fewer and fewer writers are hitting the road to promote their books. It's a lot easier and cheaper these days to use vehicles like Twitter and Facebook, as well as literary websites and blogs, to spread the word about your work. It's a simple issue of cost and reward, I suppose, and one that I've come to accept. Still, I'm very much looking forward to the readings I will be giving and to the conversations I'll be having afterward. It's through these conversations that I hope to finally understand, as I did with my first book, what it is I've
by Andrew Porter, September 10, 2012 10:00 AM
Today I wanted to talk about a question that people have been asking me ever since they learned that my novel, In Between Days
, would be coming out this fall. Invariably, after learning of the novel's existence, someone will ask, "Was it difficult?"
"Was what difficult?" I'll say.
"Writing a novel," they'll say. "You know, compared to your first book?"
It's a natural question, I suppose, and also an understandable one given the fact that I've spent the majority of my writing life focusing on short stories and am largely known as a short-story writer. Still, it's a question that always seems to catch me off guard and one that I'm not always sure how to answer.
What I can tell you is this: the circumstances surrounding the writing of these two books were very, very different. With my short-story collection, The Theory of Light and Matter, there was no deadline, no promise of eventual publication, and during certain periods of time, no interest or hope. I wrote the stories in that book with the blind faith that someday someone would want to publish them. Every once in a while there would be a small hint that this might actually happen, but just as often there would be a reminder of how difficult — some might even say impossible — it was to publish a short-story collection these days. I wrote those stories slowly and carefully over the course of about 10 years, struggling along financially and facing a lot of emotional setbacks, so that when the book did eventually come out, when I finally held it in my hands, it felt a little like I was holding my first child, a physical reminder of all those years of struggling.
With my novel, however, the circumstances were very different. I was no longer an outsider hoping to get a book contract; I was now a published author with one book under his belt and another on the way. I also had a support system of people around me who had already committed to the publication of this book. I had an editor who I could turn to for advice and guidance, an agent who was already thinking ahead to the book's publication, and even some foreign publishers who had purchased the rights to this book before I'd finished it. All of which is to say that the frequent bouts of self-doubt and fear that had burdened me in my early 20s were no longer as frequent. I wasn't questioning the path that I had chosen or wondering whether or not I would ever publish a book; I was simply focusing on the novel itself and on trying to make it the best book I could. Perhaps more importantly, I'd also reached a level of stability in my own life. Gone were the days of living in dilapidated apartment complexes, moving to different parts of the country every six months, begging my parents for money so that I could pay rent, and hustling part-time teaching work wherever I could find it. By the time I had started my second book, I had been living in San Antonio for almost seven years; I had a tenured teaching position at Trinity University (where I still teach), a wife, a house, a dog, and a daughter on the way. I had become, in many ways, the type of responsible adult that I never could have imagined myself becoming when I was first starting out.
So, was writing my novel harder than writing my collection of short stories? Implicit in this question is the assumption that writing a novel is probably always a little harder for a short-story writer than it is for someone who has grown up with the form, and perhaps this is true. There were certainly a lot of technical challenges I had never faced before — working with such a large cast of characters, telling a story through multiple perspectives, managing a limited omniscient point of view, sustaining narrative tension for over 300 pages, and of course, the most obvious challenge of moving forward blindly with the faith that this enormous story was actually going somewhere. All of these things were very new to me and at times very daunting. But, at the same time, when I consider the word "difficult," at least as it pertains to my own life, I don't think about the last three or four years of my life. I think about all of the years that came before, the decade or so when I was living day to day, wondering how I was going to make my next month's rent payment.
I guess what I'm saying is that this time around I had some advantages I had never had before: stability and confidence and the support of many interested parties around me. I was able to wake up each day and write with the knowledge that the words I was writing would very likely make their way into print. I don't know that the day-to-day challenges of writing fiction were any easier; I only know that the process itself was much more pleasant. I was able to have a routine. I was able to write in the same place every day at the same time. And I was able to go to bed each night with the knowledge that I had been productive that day.
Of course, I realize that this might make the process of writing a novel sound a little ordinary, maybe even mundane. But I can tell you this: as someone who has done more than his fair share of struggling, it's far, far better when the struggles in your life are taking place on the page, when the conflict and heartbreak and discouragement are your characters' and not your