The Theory of Light and Matter: An Interview with Andrew Porter

A version of this interview also appears in the January 2010 issue of The Practicing Writer.

The Theory of Light and Matter: An Interview with Andrew Porter
by Erika Dreifus

Andrew Porter is the author of the short story collection, The Theory of Light and Matter, which won the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction and has just been republished in paperback by Vintage/Knopf. His fiction has appeared in One Story, Epoch, The Pushcart Prize Anthology and on NPR’s “Selected Shorts.” He currently teaches creative writing at Trinity University in San Antonio. Recently, Andrew responded to a series of questions about his work.

ERIKA DREIFUS (ED): Andrew, the Vintage Contemporaries (Knopf) release of The Theory of Light and Matter signals a reincarnation of sorts, given that the book was originally published by the University of Georgia Press as a winning manuscript within the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction series. Please tell us the story of how the collection has come to be republished and describe any changes that may have been made to the manuscript for the newer version.

ANDREW PORTER (AP): Well, the Vintage/Knopf deal happened fairly quickly, and I was very fortunate it happened at all. At the time, my collection had been out in hardcover for about four months, and because it had done well in terms of sales and reviews, the University of Georgia Press had offered to publish a paperback edition the following fall. Around the same time, I was approached by my current agent, Terra Chalberg, who expressed an interest in trying to sell the paperback rights to a larger house. The University of Georgia Press was open to this idea, but said that they could only give Terra about two weeks to do this, as they were currently making the final decisions for their fall catalogue. I knew that the odds were against us, but I also figured that there was nothing to lose, so I gave Terra the thumbs up and two weeks later she had managed to attract several offers, all of which included the publication of my novel-in-progress as well.

Anyway, I’ve been around the writing world long enough to know that this type of thing doesn’t happen very often, and I still feel extremely grateful to Terra for making it happen. As for changes, I only made a few small ones, and they’re probably so minor that I doubt anyone would even notice.

ED: All 10 stories in The Theory of Light and Matter are told by a first-person narrator. You’re probably asked about this a lot, but could you address your obvious affinity for the first-person point of view? What do you find so appealing and effective about it?

AP: I like a lot of things about the first person. I like the intimacy of it, for one, and also the idea of assuming a persona, but probably my favorite thing about the first person is the fact that it’s an inherently unreliable point of view. This might seem like a disadvantage to some, but I think that the unreliability of it- the fact that every narrator is telling his or her story through a somewhat biased lens-can actually be a great source of complexity and tension.

ED: What do you consider the biggest challenge of the first-person p.o.v., and how do you, as a writer, negotiate it?

AP: For me, the hardest part of working in the first person is dealing with the obvious limitations and constraints of telling a story through just one lens. When I’m working on a short story, this isn’t such a problem, but when I’m working on something longer, like a novel, it becomes increasingly difficult to deal with the constraints and limitations of a single perspective. For example, I’m working on a novel right now, and though I’d initially planned to write this novel in the first person, I soon realized that it was simply too large a story to tell through just one character’s perspective, and so I switched over to the third-person omniscient and this has really freed me up.

ED: Although I found all the stories distinctive–in U.S. regional setting, in variations between male and female narrators, etc.–there is one story that seems sharply different from the rest. I’m thinking of “Skin,” which, at less than two pages, is by far the shortest story in the collection. But it’s not simply this story’s length that seems atypical. The accompanying compression seems combined with a shift in tone that I can’t quite articulate. I’m curious not only about the inclusion of this short-short story, but also about its placement in the sequence as the penultimate piece.

AP: Well, the stories in this collection are largely about memory and the way we reconstruct memory, and so even though “Skin” is by far the shortest story in the collection, I think I liked the fact that it approached this theme of reconstructing memory in a slightly different way. Not only is it much shorter than the others, but it also uses a very different style of narration, beginning as it does in the present tense, then shifting to the future tense, then ending again in the present, all the while reminding the reader that the events of the story have taken place in the past. This isn’t something I really do in any other story in the collection, and so I think that’s one of the reasons I decided to include it. As for why I decided to make it the penultimate story, that’s a good question. I think I was pretty firmly committed to the order of the first eight stories, and since I knew that I didn’t want to end with it, well, there was really only one place left for me to put it.

ED: You’ve mentioned your novel-in-progress. Can you describe that project at all (and tell us when we can expect it to be available)?

AP: I tend to be pretty superstitious when it comes to talking about works-in-progress, but I can tell you that the novel is set in Houston and that it involves a family going through a crisis. I hope to finish the novel at some point in the next year, and so I guess it might be available as soon as 2012.

ED: Is there anything else you’d like to tell us?

AP: I’ll be doing a number of readings in New York, California, and Texas over the next few months. All of the details about these reading can be found at my website:

Thanks so much for taking the time to talk with me, Erika. This has been a lot of fun!

ED: Thanks so much, Andrew!

Friday Find: Nathan Bransford’s "Writing Advice Database"

Literary agent Nathan Bransford recently posted a “Writing Advice Database” on his excellent blog. Categories cover “Before You Start,” “The Writing Process,” “Revising,” “Genres and Classification,” and “Staying sane during the writing/publishing process.” Bransford calls it “an FAQ-style compendium of all the writing advice on the blog”–which is considerable. Check it out. And have a great weekend.

The Wednesday Web Browser: Poets & Writers Edition

A couple of days ago I pointed you to the classifieds in the May/June issue of Poets & Writers magazine. Today, I’m going to spotlight some articles the magazine has made available online.

–In a special section on literary journals, Sandra Beasley writes about the evolution of online journals.
–The super “Agents and Editors” series continues, this time with Jofie Ferrari-Adler speaking with agents Maria Massie, Jim Rutman, Anna Stein, and Peter Steinberg.
–Kevin Larimer updates us on small presses and lit mags.

There’s plenty of great content in the print issue, too, including Mary Gannon’s profile of Jay McInerney. Since I encountered resistance from some fiction workshop-mates when I wrote stories (in 2002) with connections to the attacks of September 11, 2001, I particularly appreciated this snippet: “And, as he did by using the second person in his debut, in The Good Life McInerney took a risk by writing about New York City in the immediate aftermath of September 11, despite advice from the late Norman Mailer to hold off ten years. ‘I was writing about the emotional texture of those three months afterwards,’ he says. ‘If I had waited, that would have faded for me.'”

Friday Find: Agent Blogs (The Best of the Best)

Over on the Guide to Literary Agents blog, Chuck Sambuchino has compiled a list of five top agent blogs. These are great places to learn about the agents who run them, and they’re also extremely useful for tips on query letters, synopses, and all that scary stuff! Check out Chuck’s winners here. And have a great weekend!