by Misti Rainwater-Lites
For good or ill writers tend to be more in touch with our roots than other folks. I like to say that I’ll never be able to wipe the mud from the Brazos River off my boots. I only trace my roots as far back as Seymour, Texas, which is where my mother and father met and fell in love when they were teenagers. As the first person in my family to attend college and the only writer in my family I am dazzled to the point of being dumbstruck by the illustrious Iowa Writers’ Workshop, considering such alumni as Raymond Carver, Sandra Cisneros and Denis Johnson. When I discovered that San Antonio writer and Trinity University professor Andrew Porter is a graduate of the esteemed MFA program I decided to read his novel In Between Days and his short story collection The Theory of Light And Matter. I readily identified with Porter’s ambivalent characters and dense, ennui rich atmospheres. Porter’s roots in Lancaster, Pennsylvania seem to inform several of his short stories, which are set in small American towns. In an e-mail interview for Literary San Antonio Porter was gracious enough to answer my questions regarding his education and work.
Misti Rainwater-Lites: What was your experience like at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop? Had any of your pieces been published prior to your participation in the program?
Andrew Porter: My experience at Iowa was wonderful, and I think it seems even more wonderful as the years pass. I think I appreciate it more, at least—how much it changed me and how much it changed the way I thought about myself as a writer. I had some incredible teachers there—writers like Marilynne Robinson and Barry Hannah and Frank Conroy and James Alan McPherson—and I also made some amazing friends, lifelong friends, who I still keep in close contact with today, but I think what was probably most valuable about my time there was the day-to-day experience of living my life as a writer and thinking of myself as a writer and getting used to that way of living. I was only twenty-three when I entered the program—an age that seems very young to me now—and I’d not only never published a story, but I had never even sent a story out. In retrospect, I was fairly naïve about the way the writing world worked. By the time I left the program, however, two years later, I had a couple of published stories under my belt, a few accolades, a working relationship with a literary agent, and so on. And it wasn’t because something magical had happened in the program, or because the program itself had opened certain doors for me (a common myth about Iowa), but simply because I’d changed the way I thought of myself. I’d gone from being a guy who nourished dreams of being a writer to a guy who was actually doing it, and that had everything to with the program itself and with the atmosphere of Iowa City, being around so many other young people who were so serious about writing and who were working very hard to produce good work.
MRL: In your novel In Between Days Richard struggles with ambivalence over going to graduate school to obtain an MFA. Did you experience ambivalence about going to graduate school or were you certain that was what you wanted?
AP: I definitely had ambivalence about being a writer, especially when I was young, but I don’t think I ever had ambivalence about going to grad school. If anything, going to grad school seemed like a safer path to me than simply moving somewhere random and writing on my own. I mean, I knew how to be a student, how to participate in a workshop. The structure of the grad school environment was comforting to me and familiar. It was something that made sense and that I could explain to other people—my parents, my friends, etc.—without sounding totally crazy. So, for me, because I was so full of uncertainty at that age, I think I needed to have that type of structured environment in order to build up the type of confidence I’d need later on when I was out in the real world trying to do it on my own. I certainly don’t think that MFA programs are for everyone, but for me, it was a necessary step.
MRL: What are a few of your favorite novels and short story collections?
AP: Boy, there are so many, but a few of my favorite novels are The Hours, The Virgin Suicides, Revolutionary Road, Native Speaker and Crime and Punishment. As for short story collections, I would have to put The Collected Stories of John Cheever at the top of the list. After that, some of my favorites include The Coast of Chicago by Stuart Dybek, Drown by Junot Diaz, Jesus’s Son by Denis Johnson, How to Breathe Underwater by Julie Orringer and Both Ways Is The Only Way I Want It by Maile Meloy.
MRL: What do you tell your ambitious creative writing students, the ones who display the most talent and drive?
AP: When I work with a student who clearly has the talent to do it—to write fiction professionally, to publish short stories and novels—and who also has that internal drive and work ethic, which are probably even more important, I try my best to encourage them and guide them in the right direction, but I also try to paint a very realistic picture of what the writing life entails. I tell them what types of things I had to go through as a young writer, what types of things all writers have to go through—the rejection, the bouts of self-doubt, the financial sacrifice, and so on. It’s a difficult type of mentoring to do, partly because you want to be encouraging and optimistic, but at the same time you have a responsibility to be honest about what it’s really like. I try to emphasize the fact that it’s a lifestyle choice, that it’s about committing to a way of living in which writing is at the forefront of your life and that it’s not about the external things—the awards and publications and other forms of recognition—that it has to be about the daily work, and there has to be satisfaction in that work for it to be worth it.
MRL: What is the writing process like for you? Are you a creature of habit or is the experience different each time you write?
AP: Before I had kids, I had a regular routine that involved staying up very late at night and writing for long stretches of time in the perfect quiet of my back deck. Now that I have kids, however, I basically work where I can and when I can. Most days, if I’m lucky, I can get in a few hours of work in the morning while I’m at my office at school. Other days, I work in the evenings in coffee shops around town or at my dining room table after my kids have gone to bed. Sometimes I work in a notebook, sometimes on my computer. Sometimes I work inside, sometimes outside. I find the time where I can, and often this involves being very creative, but I do write every day, regardless of how busy I might be or how difficult it might be to carve out the time. I believe very much in the importance of a daily writing routine. It’s maybe more important than anything else.
MRL: My favorite story in The Theory of Light And Matter is “Coyotes.” I found it easy to identify with the narrator’s father from the first sentence. Do you remember what your life was like when you wrote that story? Do you think whatever a writer is going through influences how a story turns out?
AP: Yes, I have a very clear memory of what my life was like at the time I wrote that story. I had just moved to Baltimore, Maryland from Southern California, and I was trying to build up a body of work after what had been a fairly long drought in my writing life. Without going into too much detail, a couple of years earlier I had lost pretty much everything I’d ever written when my computer and back-up disks were stolen from an apartment I’d be living in in Houston, Texas. It had been a devastating blow to me—I basically lost my entire first book—and I’d spent the two years following this burglary trying to come to terms with what had happened and trying to figure out how to write fiction again. During this time, I considered other paths, such as law school, and I even considered giving up on writing altogether. But then, almost like someone had thrown me a life preserver, I was offered a one-year job as visiting writer at a university in Baltimore, and a few months later I was living in Baltimore and feeling a little more optimistic about writing again. I’d been offered the job in Baltimore based mainly on the few awards and publications I’d amassed during my two years at Iowa, and so I suppose I might have felt a little like the father character in “Coyotes”—a guy who’d never quite realized his creative potential, a guy who’d lost something he’d had when he was younger. It took me an entire year to write that story, and I took it through many, many drafts, but at the end of that year it was accepted for publication by one of my favorite literary journals, and this was a very big deal to me. It became the building block for what would later become my first collection, The Theory of Light and Matter.
MRL: If you ever struggle with writer’s block how do you resolve it?
AP: Well, as I mentioned above, I’m a daily writer—I put in my hours each day no matter what—so I guess the way I deal with those periods of time that are less fruitful, or those periods when I feel like I’m spinning my wheels a bit, is that I just try to write through them. I might go for a week or so and only write a few sentences each day, but I don’t beat myself up over it. I just put in my hours each day, and move on. I know that as long as I put in my hours eventually things will open up again and projects will get finished. When I studied with the writer Richard Bausch at the Sewanee Writer’s Conference, he used to say, “There’s really only one question for a writer: Did I write today? If the answer is yes, then there are no more questions.”
Andrew Porter grew up in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, the youngest of three children. 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 short story collection, The Theory of Light and Matter (Vintage/Random House), which won the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction, and the novel, In Between Days (Knopf), a Barnes & Noble “Discover Great New Writers” selection and an IndieBound “Indie Next” selection. Foreign editions and translations of Porter’s books have also been published in the UK, France, The Netherlands, Korea, Bulgaria and Australia. In addition to winning the Flannery O’Connor Award, his collection, The Theory of Light and Matter, also received Foreword Magazine’s 2008 “Book of the Year” Award for Short Fiction, was a finalist for The Steven Turner Award, The Paterson Prize and The 2009 WLT Book Award, was longlisted for The Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award, was shortlisted for the William Saroyan International Prize for Writing, and was selected by both The Kansas City Star and The San Antonio Express-News as one of the “Best Books of 2008.” Porter has also received numerous fellowships and awards for his work, including the 2004 W.K. Rose Fellowship in the Creative Arts from Vassar College, a James Michener-Paul Engle Fellowship from the James Michener/Copernicus Foundation, the Drake Emerging Writer Award from Drake University, an Iowa Teaching/Writing Fellowship from the University of Iowa, a Tennessee Williams Scholarship from the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, a Residency Fellowship from the Helene Wurlitzer Foundation, a Distinguished Faculty Award from Trinity University, an Artist Foundation of San Antonio Award, the Glenna Luschei Award and a Pushcart Prize. His fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in One Story, Ploughshares, The Threepenny Review, Narrative Magazine, Epoch, The Ontario Review, Prairie Schooner, The Antioch Review, The Southwest Review, Story and The Pushcart Prize XXXII, among others. He has also had his work read on NPR’s “Selected Shorts” and selected as one of the 100 Distinguished Stories of the Year by Best American Short Stories. Currently, Porter lives in San Antonio, where he is an Associate Professor of English and Director of the Creative Writing Program at Trinity University.