For the record, Bull City Press is on Team Edward! Er… at least when it comes to this next installment of our interview series. Jordan Wingate, Bull City Citizen and fiction reader for Inch, gives Edward Porter a chance to flex his literary muscles for the viewers (er… readers) at home.
Since his debut in Inch (“Phil and Emily,” Inch #6), Edward Porter has been published in Colorado Review, Booth, and the anthology Best New American Voices 2010. He holds an MFA from Warren Wilson College, was a fiction Fellow at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 2007-2008, and is currently working on a Ph.D. in Literature and Creative Writing at the University of Houston, as well as a collection of short stories.
Jordan Wingate: First of all, I have to ask if you are actually related to Philip Sheridan – a Union general during the Civil War – or is American History only a subject of interest?
Edward Porter: My grandmother’s maiden name was Sheridan, and the family lore is that we’re related to General Phil. I have no idea if it’s true or not, and I prefer it that way. He’s a fascinating case, a real Shiva figure, a kind of fire-hose of violence that got unleashed in both of America’s great tragedies. He was one of the officers who finally got the Union’s act together in the Civil War, so arguably he was instrumental in ending slavery. His next gig was fighting the Great Plains Indians: he couldn’t defeat them in battle, but he made them surrender by hunting down their women and children and killing off the buffalo. “The only good Indian is a dead Indian,” is usually attributed to him. The nation saw him as a major hero in both wars, but of course today he comes off like a big-budget Charles Manson. When I was a kid, it was like being related to James Bond – now it’s like being related to Goldfinger. He was a little guy with a remarkable talent for killing people and burning their homes. Maybe he was just trying to work out his karma as best he could. Naturally, I jumped on all this as an opportunity for comedy. I chalk that up to my total inability to wrap my head around what may or may not be the family legacy. His other great quote, by the way, was, “If I owned Texas and Hell, I would rent Texas and live in Hell.” Halfway through my second summer in Houston, I see his point. But his widow had the best line. She never remarried, saying, “I’d rather be the widow of Phil Sheridan than the wife of any man living.” There’s no question the guy inspired love, and I think Emily would have found him exciting. Did I mention that he had an Indian girlfriend and founded Yellowstone Park? It just goes on and on. But what he really wanted out of life was to get published, so he’s got that soul-connection with most Inch readers.
JW: Presumably, the “one poem” Dickinson gets from her fling with Sheridan is Poem 1129? “Tell all the Truth but Tell It Slant.” You end “Phil and Emily” with the words “True Story.” Would you say you are taking Dickinson’s advice, or poking fun at it?
EP: “Phil and Emily” started as an epigraph to another, longer story. In that story, I wanted to use events from my life in a literal way, but I also needed to hide my tracks: partly to make the story readable, and partly to keep my humiliation to an endurable level. I hit on a fiendish device, and walked around for a couple of days giggling to myself, “Yeah, tell the truth but tell it slant.” I take Ms. Dickinson’s advice as gospel: it’s her legend I’m poking fun at. I’ve always wanted to see her portrayed as a sex-fiend. Maybe I don’t trust anyone who isn’t manifestly a sex-fiend, and I’m trying to bring her down to my level.
JW: Where do you believe short fiction – and poetry – obtains its power? Is it a form you find easy to work with or is it, as author Reynolds Price said, “as tough as mining coal?”
EP: I’ll go Reynolds Price one better and say that writing fiction is like a fish trying to mine coal with a bicycle, alone in the forest with no one to hear. But then there’s that one day every year or two when all you have to do is open your mouth and sing. That’s a good day, when you get it.
JW: Given your background as an actor, do you ever feel compelled to write screenplays instead of fiction? Or do you incorporate something from the dramatic stage in to your writing?
EP: One of the things that drove me to fiction was how dependent you are in the theater on other people – you can’t practice your art until sixteen other grandiose narcissists from the East Village are on board. Film is worse: you’ve got to get a major corporation and some banks on board as well. Fiction only requires the one grandiose narcissist. In theory, I’d love to write for the theater or film, but I’ve seen a lot of agony and wasted years as people struggled to get their dreams made flesh.
Actually, the main fall-out from my being an actor for so long is that I tend to be impatient with fiction that doesn’t undertake drama, or undertakes it only as a pretense on which to mount essentially lyrical or intellectual concerns. Of course, that’s a description of “Phil and Emily.”
JW: Authors have claimed both to have begun writing a story blindly as well as to have known the very last words of their story before they began. Do you have a certain process in producing your stories? In the context of your experience as a carpenter, do you begin with raw planks of wood, or do you already have the finished table in mind?
EP: Sometimes I start with the finished table in mind and end up with raw planks of wood. Woodworking and fiction are both deeply involved with structure, but text on a laptop is a more reversible proposition than mahogany on a router table. There’s an element of improvisation in woodworking, but it usually involves making mistakes look intentional. Most stories have givens in their conception – you might know that at the end the triceratops is going to tell the waitress he’s always been in love with her – but you have to write it to find out how he gets there and what it means. All the writers I know fight a daily battle of trying to listen to their own work. The subconscious is probably going to throw something worthwhile out there, but you’ve got to be open to it when it happens – you can’t be hell-bent on your plan. That goes double for acting, by the way.