That Extra Layer of Complexity: An Interview with Andrew Porter, Author of The Disappeared

Author Andrew Porter
Andrew Porter

In Freedy Johnson’s “Bad Reputation,” Johnson sings "seven years disappear below my feet," making it the perfect song to pair with Andrew Porter’s The Disappeared, a collection of stories that trace the threads of loss and displacement running through its characters’ lives. A past winner of the Flannery O’Connor Award, Porter writes with honesty and grace about men and women struggling to make sense of their shifting lives.

In this interview, Porter shares his thoughts about first-person narrators, the importance of setting and atmosphere, and why there’s reason to be hopeful about the current literary climate.

Q: The Disappeared is an apt title for your most recent collection. Characters disappear from each other’s lives, and other characters feel their sense of self disappearing or slipping away. What inspired you to write toward this theme?

Andrew Porter: I don’t know that I was consciously writing toward the theme of disappearance until I’d written about half of the stories in the collection. It was around that time that I wrote the title story, “The Disappeared,” and when I came up with that title something in my brain clicked. That title seemed to be bigger than just that story. It seemed like something that I could apply to basically every story I’d written in the past year. So, from that point on I began to make sure that all of the stories I was working on had a disappearance of some sort in them, and this became a kind of fruitful constraint for the remaining stories.

On a deeper level, though, I think the theme of disappearance was tapping into something I’d been experiencing personally in my forties and that many of the people around my age that I knew at that time seemed to be experiencing too. I think so much of one’s early adult life is about accumulating things, or adding things to one’s life, whereas one’s forties is often the time when you begin to notice certain things, both literal and figurative, disappearing. And it was that particular feeling of disappearance that I was most interested in exploring in the book.

Q: The stories in The Disappeared are first-person narratives. What attracts you to that point of view, and what are some of its challenges?

Andrew Porter: I like a lot of things about the first-person point of view, but especially the intimate feel of it, the way you can often make a deeper or more emotional connection with the reader when writing in first person. And I also love the unreliability of it, the fact that there’s always that extra layer of complexity in a first-person story, since of course every first-person narrator is unreliable to some degree. This is something I enjoy reflecting on whenever I’m reading a first-person story—how reliable is this lens?—and also something I enjoy playing around with when I’m writing one. As for the challenges of it, I think probably the biggest challenge is simply working within the constraints of it, having to tell a story through only one lens. I think the bigger the story gets—for example, as you approach novella or novel-length fiction—this challenge becomes greater and greater.

Q: One of my favorites in the book was “Vines,” about a married couple, an aspiring female artist, and an older male artist with an established reputation. It’s the story of complicated, shifting relationships and the role of artistic creation in each character’s life. Tell us about it. How did you come to write that story?

Andrew Porter: Like most of my stories, “Vines” grew out of the opening set-up. I didn’t really know what was going to happen when I started it, but I liked the idea of these three different artists at different stages in their careers—Lionel, Maya, and Caroline—all working and living in fairly close proximity to each other, with all of the action of the story taking place within the very self-contained space of Lionel’s property. I knew there was going to be a certain romantic and sexual tension in the story but also a deeper artistic one, too. The narrator, of course, is somewhat removed from some of this tension since he’s not an artist himself, just a supportive boyfriend to Maya, and ultimately an observer of the action. But in the end, despite his position on the periphery of all of this art making, it really becomes his story as well.

Q: Most of the stories are set in Texas, with frequent references to the heat and other environmental elements. What role does setting play in your work? How does the environment influence your characters’ lives?

Andrew Porter: One of the things I think about most when I’m writing is atmosphere, as I feel that atmosphere not only influences the tone of the story, but it often mirrors what’s going on with the characters on a deeper level. And, of course, a big part of a story’s atmosphere is the physical setting of it. Often when I remember a story that I read years before, it’s the atmosphere of it that I remember most vividly. More than the characters or the plot, more than the deeper themes within it. I simply remember the feeling of being inside the world of that story—that is to say, the emotional experience of being inside that world.

In the case of The Disappeared, I tried to put a lot of details into the stories that I associate with the atmosphere of San Antonio and Austin—specific foods, drinks, plants, trees, music, etc.—and certainly one of the details I emphasized most, as you noted, was the heat, particularly the intensity of the heat in the summers. In San Antonio, the heat can feel oppressive at times, but it also creates a very distinct type of atmosphere. The heat here is a dry heat, and it doesn’t burn off at night, and so there’s no escaping it really in the summer. It just lingers, and, if there’s no rain for a while, it can linger for a long time. Naturally, it forces a lot of people to stay indoors, and so the world outside begins to seem quieter, less populated, slower. People actually move slower, too. So that quiet, languid feel of hot summers in San Antonio was something I wanted to bring into the stories; it seemed connected to the quiet, meditative feel of these pieces and to the sense of listlessness that many of the characters feel.

The Disappeared: Stories by Andrew Porter

Q: When you were first learning to write short stories, what were some of the “a-ha moments” that helped you develop your craft? Were there specific stories or writers whose work served as a guide?

Andrew Porter: When I wrote the first story in my first collection—a very short story entitled “Hole”—I was 22 years old, and it was the first time I wrote something that I felt was distinctly my own and that reflected, or revealed to me, things that would become (and remain) aesthetic, stylistic, and thematic interests of mine. I knew that story was different than anything I’d written before, and I used it as a kind of touchstone for all of the stories that ended up being in my first book. Still, I don’t know that I would call it an “a-ha moment,” as I don’t know that I could have articulated why I had that feeling or how it related to craft.

I had a similar feeling, though, when I wrote “Austin,” the first story in The Disappeared. That story kind of opened up a portal, or gateway, out of which all of the other stories in the collection came. Again, I don’t know that I can articulate why precisely, but it had to do with the tone of it, the atmosphere of it, the world of it, the age of the characters in it, the themes that are introduced and explored. So, again, it wasn’t really an “a-ha moment” so much as a feeling, but that feeling was definitely a guide.

Q: Over the past few years many literary journals have stopped publishing and the Small Press Distribution (SPD) organization recently announced its closing. Artificial intelligence is viewed as a threat by many writers, and controversies like the recent one at Guernica, where several staffers resigned in protest and a previously published essay was removed, continue to arise. What are your thoughts about the current literary climate? Is it a healthy one?

Andrew Porter: I think all of the things you mention certainly present challenges, but I’m optimistic that these are things that we will adapt to and work through, just as writers have traditionally adjusted to challenges and threats to writing in the past. Maybe my optimism is naïve, but it’s informed partly by the fact that I have taught creative writing to college students for many years, and despite the increasing number of distractions out there, and despite the increasing challenges of being an artist, and living an artistic life, in the US—the students’ enthusiasm for writing and reading hasn’t wavered at all; nor has their desire to live a life in which they place language and writing and books at the center of it. I keep expecting this to happen, but it never does. Semester after semester, they just keep showing up, eager to learn how to write, how to tell stories better. So, when you see that happen over enough years it’s hard not to start to believe that the human desire to tell stories and shape language is extraordinarily strong, that it’s stronger than almost any challenge or threat that might present itself—even something like AI or the collapse of SPD—and that we will simply continue to adjust and adapt to these challenges and obstacles in the future, that we’ll figure out a way to work alongside them, or within them, or despite them, just as the many writers before us have done.

Q: Are there writers or books that you wish were better known? What have you been reading lately? Any recommendations for fans of your work?

Andrew Porter: I don’t know that I have a specific writer in mind, but I do wish people read more writers from outside the US. At the height of the pandemic, I did a number of interviews over Zoom with readers and writers in Argentina, and I remember being amazed by how familiar Argentinian readers were with contemporary American short story writers, how they knew (and had read) writers like Lorrie Moore, Stuart Dybek, Peter Orner, and so forth. And I remember wondering later how many contemporary Argentinian short story writers most American readers and writers could name. Mariana Enríquez perhaps. But how many others? And that’s a shame because there’s such an incredible literary scene happening in Argentina right now, so many great writers and great books being produced.

I realize we only have so many hours in the day, and there are too many books to read, but one thing I’ve been trying to do more of in recent years is read the work of writers outside of the United States. There are wonderful publishers like Archipelago publishing beautiful books in translation by contemporary authors from all over the world, and that’s just one place you can go to discover writers outside of the US. There are many, many other presses doing this as well.

As for recommendations for fans of my work, that’s always a tricky question. I can tell you some of the story writers who have most strongly influenced me as a writer, though. Stuart Dybek, Maile Meloy, Kirstin Valdez Quade, Sara Majka, Stephanie Vaughn, Charles D’Ambrosio, Laura van den Berg, Danielle Evans, and Manuel Muñoz, just to name a few. And, in the novel form, writers like Annie Ernaux, Rachel Cusk, Sigrid Nunez, Marilynne Robinson, and Elena Ferrante, among many others.

Q:  What are you working on currently? What’s next for Andrew Porter?

Andrew Porter: I’m entering the editorial phase for my forthcoming novel, The Imagined Life, which is scheduled to be out from Knopf in 2025. I’m also working on new stories for what I hope will be my third collection.

Q: Finally, there’s no shortage of ways to spend one’s time. Why do you choose to write fiction?

Andrew Porter: Well, the simple answer is that it’s the thing that makes me happiest. If I wake up and have a free morning to write, I’ll be in a great mood for the rest of the day. And conversely, if I don’t, I’ll probably feel subpar for the rest of the day. It’s really that simple. It just releases something in me to write a few pages of fiction or to play around with language in a draft, even if very little is accomplished on a particular day. And yes, there are obviously moments of great frustration and discouragement and many things about the writing life that are extremely difficult, but that time at your desk when you’re alone, that’s really the best part for me, the part that makes me happiest.

More About Andrew Porter

Andrew Porter is the author of the story collection The Theory of Light and Matter and the novel In Between Days. A graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, he has received a Pushcart Prize, a James Michener/Copernicus Fellowship, and the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction. His work has appeared in One StoryThe Threepenny ReviewPloughshares, Narrative, The Southern Review, and on Public Radio’s Selected Shorts. Currently, he teaches fiction writing and directs the creative writing program at Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas.

Visit andrewporterwriter.com.

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