I was at one of our New York stores not long ago for an author event, and I’d swung by the customer service counter to say hi to whoever was working — something I always do in that particular location. And I was met immediately with a “DO YOU KNOW HOW MUCH I LOVE IN BETWEEN DAYS?” (Yes, she was that loud, smiling that hard, practically jumping over the counter. It was terrific. Nothing in the world like a bookseller in love…)
That New York booskeller isn’t the only one to have fallen for this astonishing and provocative debut novel — and the Harding family, falling apart in the face of colliding expectations, secrets, and betrayals.
Porter discusses starting points, the differences between writing short stories and novels, and how his characters informed the plot of his luminous debut novel, among other things, with Discover Great New Writers.
In Between Days begins with the Harding family at what feels like a deeply contemporary point: Elson and Cadence are recently divorced and their two grown children have returned home while figuring out the next steps in their lives. What was the starting point of this novel for you, what got you writing their story?
Like most of my fiction, this novel was almost purely a product of my imagination, and it started with the premise I describe in the opening pages: a divorced man learning from his ex-wife that their daughter has just been expelled from college. Initially, I didn’t know whether this was the beginning of a short story or something longer. All I knew was that the questions this opening raised were intriguing to me: Why was this couple divorced? Why had their daughter been expelled from college? And how were they going to work together to deal with it? I wasn’t thinking about length at all when I first started out, but the more I wrote, the more the story broadened for me and the more complicated the answers to these questions seemed to be. Pretty soon I had about sixty pages, and that’s probably around the time I realized I wasn’t writing a short story anymore.
This is your debut novel, following a collection of short stories, The Theory of Light & Matter, which won the Flannery O’Connor Award for short fiction. Were there any challenges or surprises that you encountered in the making of your first novel?
There were definitely a lot of challenges in transitioning from short stories to the novel form: working with a much larger cast of characters, telling a story from multiple perspectives, managing a much more intricate and complicated timeline. At the same time, it was also very exciting to work on a larger canvas and to let the story “breathe,” so to speak. Short stories have always been about compression and tightening to me—about reining the story in—whereas writing this novel felt like just the opposite. I had the opportunity to really let the story open up, to allow the characters to move in surprising and unexpected directions, to explore their conflicts in much greater depth. If writing a short story is about giving the reader a brief glimpse into a character’s life, then writing a novel is about exploring that life fully, and this was something that was both very new and very exciting to me.
The turning point for the book and for the Harding family is an emotionally, politically, and socially fraught episode which Chloe, the college-aged daughter, is involved in, gets kicked out of school for, and which the reader learns about slowly as the novel unwinds. Without giving too much away, what interested you in bringing this crisis into the novel and placing the family in contact with some very current real-world issues?
I tried to keep the question of why Chloe had been kicked out of college a mystery to myself for as long as I could. I knew that if I began to sense the answer to this question too early in the process, the reader would probably begin to sense it too. On top of that, I didn’t want to make a decision about the incident itself until I had a much better sense of her character. The more I wrote about her, though, the more I realized that she had some very strong political convictions and that these strong political convictions would in some way inform the events that precipitated her expulsion. All of which is to say that I didn’t set out to write a story that explored contemporary political issues; this aspect of the story simply grew out of the character.
There is no one main character in In Between Days – all members of the Harding family are at the forefront and we learn about each of their pasts, their struggles, relationships with one another, and watch their trajectories as the book unfolds. Did you always know you wouldn’t have a single protagonist and was it a challenge (or fun?) to inhabit four distinct points of view throughout?
Yes, it was definitely a lot of fun to inhabit these four very different perspectives. In fact, this was probably one of the most enjoyable aspects of writing the book. As for when I realized that this was going to be the way I told the story, I think I realized it pretty early on. As soon as I’d finished the opening section of the book (which is told from the father’s perspective), I wanted to go inside the head of his son; and as soon as I’d explored the son’s perspective, I became interested in the daughter. So, in this way, I suppose the mode of storytelling evolved fairly organically. That said, because I’d worked almost exclusively in the first person in the past, it was definitely a challenge for me to take on a more omniscient point of view. As I moved further and further into the story, I just kept telling myself not to think about it too much and to trust my instincts, and before long it began to feel just as natural as writing in the first person had been with my short stories.
Why was In Between Days the right title for this book?
I think the main reason I chose this title was that it seemed to fit the book both tonally and thematically. I wanted to emphasize the fact that all four of these characters—all four of the family members—are in a period of transition in their lives, an “in between” stage. In the wake of the parents’ divorce, they’re all struggling to forge a new path for themselves and to discover a new sense of family and home. At the same time, they also have their own individual conflicts and desires, all of which inform their decisions and ideas about where this sense of home might be found.
Who have you discovered lately?
Well, I’m not sure if these count as “discoveries,” but some of the books I’ve read recently that I’ve truly loved are Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams, Abraham Verghese’s Cutting for Stone, Amber Dermont’s The Starboard Sea and Maile Meloy’s Both Ways Is the Only Way I Want It.
Miwa Messer is the Director of the Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers program, which was established in 1990 to highlight works of exceptional literary quality that might otherwise be overlooked in a crowded book marketplace. Titles chosen for the program are handpicked by a select group of our booksellers four times a year. Click here for submission guidelines.