The Open Destiny /
An Interview with Andrew Porter
Andrew Porter grew up in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. He received his B.A. in English from Vassar College and an M.F.A. in Fiction Writing from the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop. He is the author of the recently published short story collection, The Theory of Light and Matter, which won the 2007 Flannery O’Connor Award in Short Fiction. He is also the recipient of numerous fellowships and awards and his fiction has appeared in One Story, Epoch, The Ontario Review, Prairie Schooner, The Antioch Review, StoryQuarterly, The Threepenny Review, Others Voices, Story, and The Pushcart Prize Anthology, among other places. He currently lives in San Antonio, where he is an Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at Trinity University. Barry Hannh says of The Theory of Light and Matter, "I've known of Andrew Porter's genius for ten years. He's a born storyteller. Every page of The Theory of Light and Matter will change something in your life."
Luna Park: All of the stories in your Flannery O’Connor Award winning first story collection, The Theory of Light and Matter, are finely-constructed dramatic musings on American life. Marilynne Robinson seems to accurately describe the pieces as “highly controlled,” as fiction with “transparency as its adornment.” This is high praise for a first collection, and well-deserved praise, as it is difficult to imagine the stories being any more clearly told—and so equally difficult to imagine them any more heartbreaking in the end. The worlds of the characters in these stories are depicted with such clarity, as are their fates. Though some pieces end hopefully, much of the collection is tinged with melancholy, and the characters are so typically burdened by emotional stress they seem barely able to discern in the fog of the present. Do you think melancholic would be an accurate description of the collection as a whole? Or is that inaccurate? What word or words might you use to describe the collection?
Andrew Porter: Thanks for the kind words. As for your question, I think that all of these stories are about some form of longing, and when you write about longing there’s bound to be a lingering sense of absence that pervades the work and maybe that’s what you’re picking up on. That said, I also try to infuse enough light into these stories, enough hope, that even when the characters are left in a tough spot at the end—as they often are—there’s still the possibility for change. They still have what Marilynne Robinson used to refer to as “the open destiny of life.” I think about that a lot—about the balance of light and dark and about allowing my characters to have an open destiny. I think that’s one of the most important aspects of story writing.
LP: What initially brought you to writing? And, specifically, what draws you to the short form? For example, I feel my youthful obsession with comic books has a lot to do with my attraction to literary magazines. What early influences did you have? From your fiction and interviews you’ve given, I would guess suburban life and the stories of John Cheever.
AP: I always knew that I wanted to do something artistic, and much of my childhood and teenage years were devoted to visual arts (especially drawing), writing music, and eventually filmmaking, which was what I initially planned to pursue in college. I didn’t really become interested in writing until the summer after my freshman year when I stumbled upon a book of Raymond Carver’s short stories on my parents’ bookshelf. I remember reading that book with amazement, and then rereading it and rereading it. I think what I was responding to in Carver’s work was not the subject matter so much as the spare beauty of the writing itself, the precision of it. This was probably the first time that I can remember responding to a piece of fiction on a purely technical level, the first time that reading a story made me actually want to write a story. The next fall I enrolled in a fiction writing class, and with the encouragement of some professors, I eventually decided to apply to graduate programs in creative writing. It was only later that other writers, like Cheever, began to influence me as well, but if we’re talking about early influences, it would definitely be Raymond Carver.
LP: The first paragraphs of each story in your collection seem to contain the DNA of the entire piece. For example, the already well-know first paragraph of “Hole”: “The hole was at the end of Tal Walker’s driveway. It’s paved over now. But twelve summers ago Tal climbed into it and never came up again.” That “paved over now” sentence particularly resonates by the end of the piece. Supposedly Gabriel Garcia Marquez spends a lot of time perfecting the first paragraphs in all of his works before finally moving on. Do you do something similar? And is this somehow intentional, that these first paragraphs seem to both give birth to the story, while at the same time embodying it?
AP: Well, I don’t usually start with the first paragraph, but at some point in the writing process I usually discover a sentence or a series of sentences that seem like the natural opening for the story. After that, I spend a lot of time working on the paragraph that grows out of that sentence or those series of sentences. I think the first paragraph of a story is probably the most important paragraph and also the hardest to write, at least for me. I mean, this is where you’re making all of the difficult decisions about tone, setting, character, conflict, and so on. So yes, I think on some level, the story—or what the story will become—needs to be there in that opening paragraph, and, if I look back on most of the stories in my collection, I think the central conflict of the story is always there—the DNA of it, as you said—the roadmap to what the story will become.
LP: All of the stories seem intensely personal, perhaps because they are all told in the first person. Was that intentional? And, what do you think of recent criticisms that first-person narrators are over-used by young writers?
AP: Well, I wanted the collection to have a very personal feel, which is why I ended up cutting out some of the third person stories that I had initially included in earlier versions of the manuscript. I wanted the stories, as a whole, to have a very intimate, almost confessional quality to them, and though I liked some of the third person stories that I cut, they ultimately didn’t have that same feeling or tone. As for the criticism about the abundance of first person stories, I don’t really have an answer for that, though it is something I have noticed among my students’ work and have even talked to them about in class. A lot of my students believe it’s a generational thing; others attribute it to the popularity of blogs and the fact that their generation feels very comfortable expressing themselves publicly in the first person. I don’t really know, though. Personally, I’ve always felt that the story you want to tell determines the point of view. For example, I’m working on a novel right now that’s told from an omniscient third person point of view. I choose that point of view because that’s the point of view I need to use to tell this particular story. It wouldn’t work in the first person, or at least it wouldn’t work as well, and so it’s not something I ever really questioned.
LP: You have a lot of experience in the literary magazine world, having published with, to name a few: One Story, Epoch, The Threepenny Review, The Antioch Review, and many more. Are there any particular magazines you follow as a reader? Any you are reading at the moment?
AP: Sadly, I don’t have the time to read as many literary magazines as I used to, but I try to read as many as I can. At the moment, my two favorites are probably Zoetrope and One Story. I just think that Zoetrope publishes consistently strong stories that are not only original, but also beautifully crafted. I rarely come across a story in Zoetrope that I don’t at least admire on a technical level. And I feel similarly about One Story. The basic concept of One Story—one story per issue—is just brilliant to begin with, but I also love the fact that they don’t seem to be locked into one particular aesthetic, or style, or type of subject matter. One issue might be high realism, while the next might be closer to magical realism, and they’re not afraid to cross genres. They just have a very broad, all-encompassing idea of what a story can or might be.
LP: Have working with literary magazines assisted you as a writer? And, what then, if anything, was different working on your book with UGA Press?
AP: In a few cases, I went through a fairly rigorous copyediting process with the editors of literary magazines, but for the most part, the changes that were made to my stories were pretty minor. With The UGA Press, however, the copyediting process was much more involved. I remember receiving the copyedited version of my collection in the mail and being overwhelmed by the amount of queries and suggested changes. Initially, they told me I had two weeks to get back to them with my own notes, and I realized right away that this was going to be impossible. I ended up spending about a month going through the manuscript page by page, line by line, considering every single query and suggestion, then deciding whether or not I was willing to accept that change or address that query. It was a stressful process, partly because I wanted to be reasonable and open-minded about the suggestions, but at the same time I wanted to feel good about the final product. I didn’t want to have any regrets. I had an excellent copy editor, though, and in the end I think that the process really improved the collection as a whole. Even when I didn’t accept a change, I liked the fact that I was forced to explain my reasoning and defend my position.
LP: I notice that you published a piece with Story, possibly the greatest literary magazine influence on the short story form in recent history. Were you a reader of the magazine? What was your experience working with its editors?
AP: That was actually my very first publication, and it happened because I won their annual short-short story contest. And yes, I was absolutely a huge fan of the magazine long before they ever published that story. To be honest, I don’t think I ever really believed I had a chance of publishing a story with Story, so the fact that it happened when I was so young and with the very first story I ever sent out was pretty exciting. Lois Rosenthal was the genius behind Story magazine and an absolute pleasure to work with. I remember that she didn’t change anything significant about the story, but her small line-edits—taking out a word or substituting a period for a semi-colon—were brilliant. It still makes me sad to think about that magazine. I remember I was living in Berkeley when I found out that Lois had decided to close shop, and I remember how much it affected me. It seemed like an enormous blow to the short story form.
LP: Finally, the question we ask all the writers interviewed on Luna Park. It seems there are two sorts of readers: those who enter a bookstore and go straight to the magazine stand, and those that first go for the bookshelves. Which one are you?
AP: Well, if I’m in a bookstore that has a good literary magazine section, I go straight to that section. I’m not a big fan of glossy magazines, but I love to page through literary journals and look for new writers. I think this started back when I was living in Iowa City. They have an amazing bookstore there called Prairie Lights—probably my favorite bookstore in the country—and a whole section of the second floor of Prairie Lights is devoted exclusively to literary journals. They literally have everything, all those magazines you hear about but never actually see. Anyway, I remember standing there for hours, just paging through those journals, looking for good stories or reading through authors’ bios. It was a wonderful way to spend a Sunday afternoon.