The Way We Reconstruct Memory: Andrew Porter
Andrew Porter has received a variety of fellowships including a James Michener-Paul Engle Fellowship from the James Michener/Copernicus Foundation, a Tennessee Williams Scholarship from the Sewanee’ Writers’ Conference, a Residency Fellowship from the Helene Wurlitzer Foundation, and the Glenna Luschei Award. His fiction has appeared in One Story, Prairie Schooner, The Antioch Review, Story, and The Pushcart Prize Anthology, among others. He has also had his work read on NPR’s “Selected Shorts” and selected as one of the 100 Distinguished Stories of 2007 by Best American Short Stories. Andrew Porter is an assistant professor of English and creative writing at Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas. THE THEORY OF LIGHT AND MATTER is his first book.
Michael Kimball: One of your cover blurbs is from Marilynn Robinson and she describes your voice as “universal … with transparency as its adornment.” I didn’t read that blurb until I had read the collection and I kept thinking of your sentences as incredibly clean, so what I’m wondering about is this: What are your considerations as you write each sentence?
Andrew Porter: To be honest, I don’t allow myself to think too much about individual sentences until I’m pretty far along in the revision process. This is partly because I tend to be a little obsessive when it comes to getting the prose to “sound” right, and if I started tinkering around with that stuff too early in the process, I’d probably lose sight of the actual story. That said, when I do get to that last stage of the process, I tend to take it pretty seriously and probably end up rewriting almost every single sentence in the story by the time I’m finished. As I said, I’m thinking a lot about sound at this point, but also about clarity. I’m looking for anything that might confuse the reader or disrupt the overall flow of the story, and many times this might involve rewriting an individual paragraph or an individual sentence five or six times.
Kimball: So let’s take the opening to “Departure” (which was the first thing I read, after opening the book at random, and I knew then that I was going to like the collection) and talk about that in terms of sound and clarity, especially any changes that you made in those terms (if you can recall them):
“That spring we were sixteen Tanner and I started dating the Amish girls out on the rural highway—sometimes two or three at the same time, because it wasn’t really dating. There was no way of getting serious.”
Porter: I wrote those sentences so long ago that it’s hard to remember what specific changes I might have made to them. What I do remember is that those two sentences weren’t the original first sentences of the story. They actually appeared in a longer paragraph later in the story, but at some point in the revision process, I remember reading over them and realizing that this is where the story should start. For one, there’s a certain urgency in the tone, but also a sense of nostalgia and a tinge of self-irony. In other words, I felt like those two sentences established the precise tone I was looking for in the revision process, and after I put them at the top of the first page, I was able to revise the rest of the story accordingly. In addition to the tone of the language, though, there’s also a certain rhythm in the writing itself, and I think that rhythm is ultimately what creates that sense of urgency. If you took out one of those clauses, or if you substituted a two-syllable word for one of the one-syllable words, you might change the entire feel of the paragraph. Finally, to address the issue of clarity, I think that clarity is especially important in an opening paragraph, and it’s something I think about a lot. In this paragraph, I think I wanted to raise certain questions, but I also wanted to firmly ground the reader in the setting of the story, the narrative time, and the context. Without those details, I think those two sentences would probably feel a little vague.
Kimball: That sense of nostalgia in the tone runs through “Departure”—and a bunch of other stories—in a beautiful and unsentimental way, and you set it up in a natural way, often using years or ages. That brings me to my next question. There’s a thing you did at the end of a few stories—“Departure,” “Connecticut,” maybe “River Dog”—where you give the age of the narrator, creating a kind of distance. Could you talk about that, what you are after with that device?
Porter: Well, I think a lot of the stories in the book are about memory and the way we reconstruct memory, and perhaps more specifically, the way our memories affect the way we present certain events in a story. So, when I do that type of thing—when I mention the narrator’s age now or when I draw attention to how many years have passed since the events of the story took place—it’s my way of reinforcing the fact that the story itself is simply an “attempt” on the part of the narrator to try to understand these events at a particular time in his or her life. In other words, if the narrator was telling this story, say, several months after the events of the story took place, the story itself might have a completely different feel than the same story being told twenty years later. I guess it’s a way of reminding the reader that the passage of time might be influencing the way the narrator is remembering these events and might even be influencing the accuracy of the story itself. And, of course, on a more basic level, it also reinforces the fact that these events have been weighing heavily on the narrator’s mind for some time.
Kimball: The reconstruction of memory and story is one of the most compelling things in these pieces. Even after finishing many of the stories, the reader is often left with a kind of mystery and that somehow makes the story all the more winning. We don’t know, for instance, exactly what happened to Carrie Huber in “River Dog.” We don’t know Colin’s thoughts about Heather’s relationship with Robert in “The Theory of Light and Matter.” And we don’t know what happens to the Amish girls in “Departure.” Of course, part of this mystery is created by the constraints of first-person narration, but could you talk a little more about using mystery to create tension in these narratives and how you decided to leave out what you left out?
Porter: I guess it kind of relates to what I was talking about in my previous answer. As a writer, I’m always trying to create certain questions in the reader’s mind about what actually happened or about how reliable the narrator’s perspective might be. The inherent limitations and unreliability of the first person point of view certainly help me to do this, but I’m also making conscious decisions, as the author, about what I want the narrator to actually know. Sometimes it’s the passage of time that limits the narrator’s ability to recall a certain event accurately, or sometimes, as in the case of my story “River Dog,” it’s a physical limitation. The narrator wasn’t physically present, and therefore will never be able know the truth about what happened. I do this partly to create tension, as you mentioned—our natural inclination to want to know the truth is what compels us to read on—but also to create multiple ways of interpreting the events of the story. As for what I choose to leave in or take out, it really depends on the narrator’s conflict and whether or not I feel that certain information, or the lack of certain information, will help to emphasize or reveal this conflict.
Kimball: I’m still curious about the specifics of what gets cut or left out. I’d love to see an example of something you cut from a story, maybe some backstory or some bit of information about what happened that was withheld for, say, narrative tension. Do you save any of that material?
Porter: Here’s an example of a paragraph I cut from my story “Merkin”:
“The night Lauren told me she was leaving I almost didn’t believe her. We were sitting on the couch, watching TV, and she had just finished packing for a trip she was taking to Arizona to see her parents. We had been fighting pretty badly at that time and she had said she needed a break, some time to clear her head and reassess things, and I had offered to cover her classes while she was gone. I was trying to be understanding about it, though I didn’t understand how going to Arizona would change anything.”
This is the first paragraph of a much longer section that goes into great detail about why the narrator’s girlfriend left him. In the revision, I decided that this section was not only too long, but that it also explained too much about the nature of their break-up. So, in my next draft, I decided to limit the details about the break-up to just a few paraphrased lines from a letter that she sent him after she left. This not only makes the reasons for their break-up seem much more mysterious to the reader, but also to the narrator.
Kimball: My curiosity is satisfied. Now let’s end by talking about the endings to your stories, which I found satisfying in a way that I find the ending to a good novel satisfying, that sense of a thoughtful closure. Could you talk about your thinking behind the end of a story?
Porter: Well, I think the main thing I’m thinking about when I get to the end of a story is how to end with a line or a piece of dialogue that will resonate emotionally with the reader. I was actually just talking about this the other day with my students, and I think that what it really comes down to is timing: delivering the right line at the right moment. And so, when I’m working on my endings, I’m thinking a lot about the reader and what the reader might be thinking or feeling at that particular moment in the story. I sometimes even start at the very beginning and read the story the whole way through, just so that I can get a sense of the overall pacing of the narrative and the emotional build-up to that final line or that final piece of dialogue. I don’t know if I’m always successful in doing this, but that’s what I’m thinking about at least.
Michael Kimball’s third novel, DEAR EVERYBODY, is now out in the US, UK, and Canada. The Believer calls it “a curatorial masterpiece.” Time Out New York calls the writing “stunning.” And the Los Angeles Times says the book is “funny and warm and sad and heartbreaking.” His first two novels are THE WAY THE FAMILY GOT AWAY (2000) and HOW MUCH OF US THERE WAS (2005), both of which have been translated (or are being translated) into many languages. He is also responsible for the ongoing art project—Michael Kimball Writes Your Life Story (on a postcard)—and the documentary films, I WILL SMASH YOU (2009) and 60 WRITERS/60 PLACES (2010).
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