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 thatwhen 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 me.
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Andrew Porter is the author of the story collection The Theory of Light and Matter, which won the Flannery O'Connor Award, and the novel In Between Days. A graduate of the Iowa Writers' Workshop, he has received a Pushcart Prize and a Michener-Copernicus Fellowship.
Books mentioned in this post
Andrew Porter is the author of In Between Days