Texas author Andrew Porter set his just-published debut novel, In Between Days, in a land so rarely seen in literary fiction it's practically exotic: The streets and neighbors of inner-Loop Houston.
The Flannery O'Connor Award-winning writer now lives and teaches in San Antonio, but Porter lived in Houston for several years in the late '90s after earning his graduate degree at the prestigious University of Iowa Writers' Workshop. Those few years in the city seem to have made a mark on his consciousness and seeped into his fiction.
"I find myself setting a lot of my work in Houston," he explained to CultureMap, in anticipation of a reading at Brazos Bookstore on Wednesday.
"Compared to other places that I've lived for much longer periods of time — I’m not quite sure why, but for whatever reason — I keep returning to Houston in my imagination."
"Compared to other places that I've lived for much longer periods of time — I’m not quite sure why, but for whatever reason — I keep returning to Houston in my imagination. About three or four of the stories in my first book were set in Houston . . . I think my next novel project might be set there. There's just something about the city itself that I’ve always responded to."
And why does the city work well as a literary landscape?
"Houston's a city that attracts a lot of people from different places, so you have a lot of transplants living there and just a really interesting mix of different types of people and that's always great for fiction," Porter said.
In Between Days depicts an upper middle class Houston family as it disintegrates. All four members of the Harding family are adrift, moving lethargically through life and away from each other as their ties to one another loosen and fray.
Elson and Cadence Harding are recently divorced and both have already replaced the other with a younger lover. Elson, once a prominent architect, cannot comprehend why his career and design vision have faded. Cadence, who in her youth left college to marry Elson and have children, now seems lost as to what to do with her life. Their gay son Richard, though a talented poet and Rice University graduate, spends his days and evenings working in a coffee house in Montrose and his nights wandering through drug-filled parties.
All three attempt to support and understand Chloe, the daughter who arrives home at the outset of the novel after being forced to leave college. Chloe is facing possible criminal charges for an on-campus altercation between her boyfriend, Raja, and another student. What exactly happened is a mystery that the reader — and to Chloe herself — will not fully solve until the very end of the novel.
The title reflects the state the Hardings are living within as the novel begin and progresses, Porter explained.
All four members of the Harding family are adrift, moving lethargically through life and away from each other as their ties to one another loosen and fray.
"They are all caught in this transitional stage. The family has recently broken apart and they've all been cast in different directions. They're all searching for a new sense of family, a new sense of home, a new sense of something to belong to," he said.
"That sense that they're sleepwalking or floating through their lives was something I was going for. I wanted them to feel in a way disconnected or rudderless."
Subtleties of storytelling
The novel, which alternates between the perspectives of the four family members, is told in present tense, yet in many sections the characters spend the present moment sifting through their memories of the past, trying to figure out how they arrived at that moment. "How did I get here?" seems to be the question each can't quite answer.
Porter acknowledged that he was playing with issues of memory and time in the novel. "Memory was a big theme in my first book [The Theory of Light and Matter] and it's something that's always interested me. I've used that approach a lot of times," he explained, also writing his characters in the present looking back as a technique to engage the reader and build tension.
"If you jump ahead in the story, rather than going to the next chronological moment, to what's happened already and indicate that something has already happened, then the reader is going to want to keep reading to catch up to that moment and find out how we got there," he said.
When it came to unraveling the biggest mystery of the novel — how Chloe reaches the place of desperation she is in, and what exactly happened in that dorm room that left one boy in a coma and another on the run — Porter himself jumped ahead and then looked back.
Even the author did not know what happened until late in the novel's creation. "I deliberately decided that I didn't want to know. I figured the longer I could keep myself in the dark, the longer the reader would be in the dark and the more mystery and tension there would be," he said, describing his writing process.
"I knew it was going to involve her boyfriend, and I sensed that there was going to be a political element to it. But I really didn’t know the specifics. So I waited until I actually had to decide to decide."
Porter also leaves some mystery as to what is to come for the Hardings after the novel ends, giving them "open destinies," but there is also the hint of a better life for characters who were so lost in the beginning.
"It's really hard to write a happy ending, especially when the characters have been through what these characters have been through," Porter said. "But I wanted to end on what I hope was an optimistic note."
There is also the possibility of finding a new home and perhaps a new family, some outside of Houston and Texas. But in the end, Porter said, "For each of them, in varying degrees, I wanted to show they were moving on."