Interview with SARAH PORTER
Sarah Porter is the author of LOST VOICES and the forthcoming WAKING STORMS, the first two volumes in a trilogy about mermaids. Her stories, poems, and essays have appeared in publications including Open City, The New Review of Literature, and Teachers & Writers magazine. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband Todd and two very soft cats.
What are you reading right now?
Jenny Erpenbeck’s novel VISITATION. It’s lovely, austere, and elegant, following all the people who live on a specific patch of land in Germany across the twentieth century. Before that I read all the George R. R. Martin books in A SONG OF ICE AND FIRE, which I absolutely adore, but after three months of being immersed in wars and dragons I was ready for something a bit more meditative.
What first sparked your interest in writing?
Well, my dad is a professor of French and comparative literature, which helps. He was sending me books by authors like Bulgakov and Tournier while I was still in my early teens; not that I understood everything in them, but that didn’t stop me from loving them. And I was a lonely, introverted kid, so books were my refuge and support. It was so strange and striking as a child to realize that I felt loved and understood by the voices of writers who were long dead. It seemed pretty natural to make the transition from living for books as a reader to wanting to contribute something of my own to the dialogue.
What do you love the most about writing? The least?
What I love most? I think the surprise I feel both at the words that come to me and also at what I discover about the story as I go. I often have moments where I suddenly think, say, “Oh, wait, she’s in love with him! That’s why she’s been acting so weird!” And then I notice that all the hints and foreshadowing turns of conversation are already in place, but I didn’t even realize what I was doing when I wrote them in. What I love most is the sense that each book already exists somehow before I even start writing, and it’s my job to uncover it.
What I like least, for sure, is getting stuck. When the surprises stop coming and I doubt I’ll ever find the right words or the story’s secrets again, that can be really dispiriting.
Tell us a little about your writing process.
Each new project gets its own special journal for notes, questions, puzzlings-through. Whenever I feel stuck or confused I’ll go to the journal and try to hash it out. After that I just jump in. I do so much rewriting as I go that there isn’t really a second draft. I usually start the day by rewriting for a couple of hours, then move on to actually advancing the story.
What are your passions?
At the risk of sounding pretentious, the human spirit. Other species, as wonderful as they are, don’t do things like devoting entire lifetimes to understanding the migratory patterns of penguins. In some ways we’re the archivists of the world, gathering and preserving knowledge about as much of it as we can. I love our interest in things beyond ourselves and our immediate needs, our will to understand and recognize and record. And I love the aspects of the human mind that there’s no room for in public discourse, at our jobs or in school or even in a lot of families: the dreams and subtexts, the private worlds. Art and literature function as a kind of preserve for those parts of us.
What inspires you?
I’m not sure I can answer this well. I have a constant sense that reality is layered, that there are alternate worlds just below the skin of this world. I feel like I catch tantalizing glimpses of something hidden and vital, and I want to go after it. I can’t really name any more specific source of inspiration than this, except for maybe my students sometimes, or conversations with friends.
Why young adult?
I used to—and still do—write odd adult literary fiction, but that hasn’t been published beyond a handful of short stories. I switched to young adult after I’d been teaching creative writing in the New York public schools for several years as what they call a “teaching artist.” Being around junior high school kids recalled my own emotions at their age to a degree that was sometimes painful, especially because teaching poetry is necessarily pretty intimate. There’s a lot of intensity finding its way to the page, and to teach you have to really engage with that. So I was simultaneously an adult with an adult’s perspective and also reliving adolescent emotions, which is the same place you have to inhabit to write YA: in that turmoil, but also safely beyond it.
And since LOST VOICES was published, nothing has meant nearly as much to me as the responses of some of my teenage readers. I’m not sure you can hope for that kind of sweetness and fervor and generosity from an adult readership.
Because I feel like fantasy captures aspects of reality that realism can’t quite reach. Maybe I write fantasy because I experience more truth in metaphors than in direct statements. I know I couldn’t write realism without it being forced and artificial. I don’t believe in writing what you know, but rather in writing what you see, and this is what I see in my mind’s eye.
In WAKING STORMS, Nausicaa tells Luce “I know this story.” She thinks because she has lived thousands of years, while Luce is young for a human let alone a mermaid, that she knows how Luce’s life will play out based on the choices she makes. Is this an intentional metaphor for when adults presume to know better than teenagers what’s “best for them”?
An intentional metaphor? No… I love Nausicaa too much to be deliberately critical of her! I do think Nausicaa is making a mistake that a lot of adults in that position make, though: she desperately wants Luce to learn from example and be spared the pain of learning from direct experience. And that’s an unreasonable wish; Luce has to go through it all for herself.
But at the same time, Nausicaa has a point: Luce is at risk, and Nausicaa does have a lot more knowledge to draw on. And ultimately what Nausicaa teaches Luce does help save her. So, while I think Nausicaa is making a mistake, I can’t really blame her for trying to protect her friend.
One of the most tragic elements of Luce and Dorian’s romance is that Luce can never be certain if Dorian truly loves her or if he’s enchanted by her. Do you have an opinion (or an answer!) on that matter?
Oh, I think he loves her! But he’s too angry at her, and at the power she has over him, to love her well. He’d have to work more on coming into his own strengths to be able to love her without resentment getting in the way.
The tragic element in their relationship is also Luce’s responsibility: not only because of her part in sinking his ship and killing his family, but also because of her insecurity and fear of abandonment. It would be hard for her to accept that anyone really loved her for herself.
Do you have any advice for aspiring authors?
Write for love, because love is the only thing that’ll keep you going through all the rejections. Read as much as you can, because the more ways of using language you’ve absorbed the more readily language will flow through you. Even read things that seem difficult and alienating, not just the books you find easiest to like. Give your truest self, because at the end of the day that’s all any of us can really offer.