The Rumpus Interview with Kenny Porpora
When an advance copy of Kenny Porpora’s memoir The Autumn Balloon landed on my desk last summer I glanced reluctantly at the accompanying letter from his Grand Central editor. It said the same thing these letters always say—stunning debut, beautifully written, family dysfunction, et cetera—and then I let the galley become buried under a pile of bills that I didn’t have the wherewithal to deal with. At the time, I was deep in the throes of completing my second book, and everything from my overdue student loan notices to my correspondence with close friends had fallen by the wayside.
Kenny’s editor persisted though, checking in with me every few weeks, until finally one day when I had reached an impasse in my own writing, I skimmed my desk desperately searching for some form of worthy procrastination. Spying Porpora’s galley, I flipped to the opening chapter of The Autumn Balloon and began reading. For the next twenty-four hours I did nothing else.
That’s a lie. On two different occasions, before completing Porpora’s book, I stopped to Google him, wondering where the hell he had come from, and how someone so unknown had written such a subtly gorgeous book. Kenny’s style is sparse and clean. He is a master at simple dialogue, and he has crafted a story that slowly, and then quickly, unfurled in my hands as though I had been waiting years for it. Upon finishing The Autumn Balloon, I wrote to his editor and thanked her for harassing me, and providing me with an utterly worthy form of distraction from my own book. And then I wrote to Stephen Elliott and asked him if I could interview Kenny for The Rumpus.
After having read dozens of memoirs, and written two of my own, I’ve realized that the ones I appreciate the most are those that sneak up on you; the ones that make you forget you’re reading about a real person’s life at all because you’re so engrossed in the beauty of the story, whether it’s dramatic or not. Kenny’s memoir is exactly one of those. There is drama, of course—there always is—but more importantly there is magic in the simplicity of the lives he describes. Even though I’m no longer procrastinating on anything in particular, I relished the chance to sit down and ask Kenny Porpora a few questions about his new memoir.
The Rumpus: The big themes in this book—family dysfunction, alcoholism, and grief—are ones that are not unfamiliar to most of us. Yet for me, your writing breathed fresh air into these motifs and made me curious about your journey to understand them yourself. Was there a specific turning point when you realized that perhaps your childhood was atypical, and were there any particular books or films that resonated with you in the way your book might resonate with others?
Kenny Porpora: I think it starts with forgiveness. I’m not sure you can write honestly about a situation you’re still stuck in. And so it’s up to you to make peace with your circumstances, or change them altogether, and then you can look back with clarity and tell a more honest story. I used to think my life was atypical, especially when I’d meet people three or four times my age who’d never lost a single loved one. But I don’t feel that way anymore. The scope of loss in my story might be greater than some, but pain is pain, loss is loss, no matter how great and no matter what age you experience it, and you never know how it’s going to change you.
As for books, there were many. I used to carry certain books around with me: Gilead by Marilynne Robinson, a magical, spiritual book that I can’t manage to summarize in a neat paragraph. It’s about the wondrousness of being alive and the inevitability of death. A Good Scent From A Strange Mountain by Robert Olen Butler is a book of stories about the displaced Vietnamese in New Orleans after the war. I don’t have a particular interest in that era or that war, but Butler’s characters are angry and they can’t let go of the past and they miss home so much. I could understand that. And Stephen Dunn’s poems, pretty much any collection, taught me how to be an honest man. He would admit things in his poems I doubt he’d ever told anybody. That’s what they’re there for.
Rumpus: As a memoir writer myself I am constantly wondering why some of us feel so compelled to share our stories with the world. It’s one thing to process our narratives through writing, and it’s another to publish them. Can you speak a bit on what it was that propelled you to put your story out there, and what you hope readers will take away from it?
Porpora: Writing is a sort of salvation. I think a lot of writers feel that way. I often say writing is the only thing I have, and in a way, that’s not true. I have what little of my family is still alive, I have good friends, I have a significant other, and I have a career. But if all of that went away one day, I would still have my writing. And before I had my writing, I had other people’s writing. I had poems and essays and stories from men and women who had lost their fathers long before I did, and who had fallen in love, and then, out of it. I had the words of people who had suffered and struggled, who felt small and invisible, who felt ugly, who admitted strange and taboo things in book pages and stood bravely behind their humanness and managed to keep going. I remember reading those words on city buses and in empty libraries, and I guess the hope is that I could add to it, pay it forward in some way and make some other kid on some city bus feel a little less alone. If the book is about anything, it’s about the power of the individual. People are quick to tell you what your odds are, and the odds are usually against you. The book is about accepting those odds and throwing your hat in the ring anyway.
Rumpus: Andre Dubus III claims that this is “one of the strongest literary debuts” he’s seen in years, and I was also blown away by your book. I haven’t loved a memoir this much in years. Did you have any sense that you’d written something that would garner such a strong reaction from readers?
Porpora: I have been incredibly touched by the response so far. There’s always the hope that people will connect with your story, but I can’t say I expected it. I admit that whenever somebody is kind enough to pay me a compliment, I immediately think of my friends and family in the book who are no longer with us. I’m afraid they lived their lives not believing they mattered, but some of the positive responses are evidence to the contrary. It makes me smile to think their lives and words, their triumphs and fuck-ups, touched someone else. The poet Stephen Dunn says, “Our parents died at least twice, the second time when we forgot their stories.” I’m glad I’ve had the chance to remember their stories and pass them on to others who’ve connected with them.
Rumpus: You wrote this book as if your life depended on it. Did it somehow?
Porpora: There was definitely an urgency in my life at the time, but more than that, there was this need to relive the story, to retrace the steps of my much younger self and feel all those feelings and lose all those people all over again. I came to think of my younger self almost as a separate person entirely, and I would close my eyes and imagine him wandering through his little world, so unsure of what tomorrow might be, or if it might be at all. And I think by doing so, it forced me to write the book as if his life depended on it, because I think that’s more the case.
Rumpus: Going back to the theme of addiction, which plays out richly in your book, it so often seems to be something that runs through families generation after generation. Do you feel you’ve escaped that path? If so, what was it that has kept you from it?
Porpora: It’s a complicated question. It was pretty clear to me from an early age that substance abuse wasn’t an issue for me. It’s just not a part of my life. But I have found myself addicted to certain kinds of love that have been as destructive as the most toxic drugs. And I’ve seen it change me for the worse, and later, when I was able to sober up from it, for the better. Addiction is a sophisticated affliction, and it morphs and reappears in ways you may have never expected. I don’t think it’s something you escape. I think it’s something you learn to live with. And in my more positive moments, I think it’s made me a more patient man, and a more forgiving one.
Rumpus: Talk to me about your writing style—present tense, sparse, unflinching. Was this something that came naturally to you or something you worked to achieve?
Porpora: I can say it came naturally but not quickly and not without years of doubt and self-loathing and falling asleep in the booth of a Burger King with the blank page of my laptop glowing on my face. For most of my teenage years and early twenties, I tried writing like anybody but myself. I tried writing like my heroes and failed. I tried writing in a way that I thought might trick people into thinking I was intelligent or wiser than I am. I felt trapped and frustrated, like I had been locked in a cage, shaking the bars and screaming to be let out. That’s the only way I can describe it. And then, on the night I started writing this book, I decided to stop with all the bullshit and just let myself be. I stopped writing for other people. I stopped worrying what they might think or whether it was good enough. I just didn’t care anymore. I started to write the first chapter and the words exploded out, totally free of fear. I was typing in a silent room but I swear to God I was screaming. At least that’s how it felt.
Rumpus: I wrote at length about both of my parents in my first book, but since they were both already dead I never had to worry about what it might be like to have them read my portrayals of them. I’m curious how your living family is reacting to your book. Your mother is a central character in this book and you make no obvious attempt to soften her failures and struggles. What has been her reaction to the book and what advice do you have for others who are writing about living people in their lives?
Porpora: Writers don’t write about people they don’t love. Be it fiction or memoir, even the most flawed, sometimes despicable characters are realized out of love and fascination and empathy and understanding. I thought about my mother every day I sat down to write. And I knew when she read it she would be furious and hurt and heartbroken, and she was. And I hoped she would eventually see the love and understanding behind the words, and I think she did. Sometimes I think the book is fair, and sometimes I think it’s brutal, and I guess the truth is somewhere in the middle. If I had any advice at all it would be to write something honest, something you can live with, and understand that others may not interpret it the same way. If you write something and everybody nods their head and agrees, you probably haven’t written anything at all. Some may read this book and come away thinking of my mother as a raging, irresponsible drunk. To me, she’s the hero of the story.
Rumpus: What’s next for you? Are you working on another book?
Porpora: I am writing a novel, though I tend to keep those types of things to myself.