Thursday, November 20, 2008

Porter Shreve

Porter Shreve's first novel, The Obituary Writer, was a 2000 New York Times Notable Book, a Book Sense pick, and a Borders Original Voices selection. His second novel, Drives Like a Dream, was a 2005 Chicago Tribune Book of the Year, a People "Great Reads" selection, and a Britannica Book of the Year. His third novel, When the White House Was Ours, was published by Mariner Houghton Mifflin in September.

Shreve currently directs the Creative Writing Program at Purdue University.

Last week I asked him what he was reading. His reply:
At the moment I'm teaching a graduate course in the Craft of Fiction here in the MFA Program at Purdue. We read a book a week from the perspective of writers, looking at how character, voice, point of view, tone, image, language, style, dialogue, plot and theme converge to make art. Because so many of my students are writing short stories but need to think about how to put the stories together into a first book we're reading a few themed collections – Birds of America by Lorrie Moore, Drown by Junot Díaz, and Hunger by Lan Samantha Chang, who also visited Purdue a couple weeks ago and gave a wonderful reading from a novella in progress. I'm amazed by the title novella in Hunger, told from the point of view of a mother looking back over the course of her whole life, from her mother's warnings about yuanfen, "that apportionment of love which is destined for you in this world," to her arrival in New York and mostly loveless marriage, to her raising of two very different daughters to her death and return at the end as a hungry ghost, still haunting the New York apartment where one of her daughters still lives. It's a moving, beautifully written story that uses the supernatural in surprising yet inevitable ways.

A particular interest of mine these days, which can also be useful to students looking to rework their stories into books is the novel in stories or story cycle, so I'm teaching three "regional" story cycles – Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson, The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven by Sherman Alexie, The Circus in Winter by Cathy Day – and three "urban" story cycles – Dubliners by James Joyce, I Sailed With Magellan by Stuart Dybek, and The Women of Brewster Place by Gloria Naylor. We're also reading novels, both close and wide in scope – Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson, The Ice Storm by Rick Moody, American Pastoral by Philip Roth – and the play Wit by Pulitzer Prize-winner Margaret Edson, who also recently visited Purdue. And just yesterday I taught one of my favorite books: Mrs. Bridge by Evan S. Connell. There's no greater challenge for a writer than combining satire and realism into the same novel, because readers expect one or the other, not both, even though life is a constant teetering between comedy and tragedy, blind hope and inescapable sorrow. Perhaps Connell disarms readers' expectations through his use of an innovative fragmented structure – Mrs. Bridge is a mosaic of a book, told in 117 short chapters, some only a paragraph long, that mirror the protagonist's fractured sense of self, her puzzlement. Somehow, through extraordinary skill and tonal control, Connell manages to display great affection for Mrs. Bridge while at the same time revealing her to be the very emblem of the insular, isolationist, ignorant, xenophobic, spiritless, lost suburbanite of mid-century Middle America. And perhaps what astounds me most each time I read this masterpiece of portraiture written nearly fifty years ago is how current the novel is, how true to our time, any time.
Learn more about Porter Shreve and his work at his website.

--Marshal Zeringue