A native of Washington D.C. and now the director of the Creative Writing Program at Purdue University, Porter Shreve is the author of three novels. His first book, The Obituary Writer (2000), was named a Notable Book of the Year by the New York Times, was a Book Sense pick, and was chosen for Borders “Original Voices” series. His second novel, Drives Like a Dream (2005), earned similar honors — Chicago Tribune Book of the Year, a People “Great Reads” selection, and a Britannica Book of the Year — and his third novel, When the White House Was Ours, was recently published to high critical acclaim. In addition to his novels, Shreve has also helped produce a series of anthologies and textbooks, some co-edited with his wife, memoirist Bich Mihn Nguyen, and others with his mother, novelist Susan Richards Shreve.
When the White House Was Ours, Shreve’s latest novel, offers the coming-of-age tale of Daniel Truitt, whose family comes to D.C. in 1976 to start an alternative school, ultimately named “Our House” after the Crosby, Still, Nash, & Young song. This idealistic venture plays out not only against the backdrop of the nation’s bicentennial but also against the hopeful start of the Carter Administration — “the point when ’60s idealism begins to collide with the harsh realities of global economics and federal corruption,” wrote critic Mark Athitakis in his review in D.C.’s City Paper in September. A recent review in the Washington Post echoed this sentiment: “The ’60s idealism to reform every American institution from the White House to the school house still had traction,” wrote critic Caroline Preston. “For a few months, Our House flourishes on high principles and high energy, just like the Carter administration…. It can’t last, of course. After 100 days, both the Carter administration and Our House start to unravel.”
Preston ended her review with this recommendation: “As we recover from our own sugar high of the 2008 election, When the White House Was Ours offers a perfect antidote.”
Shreve recently took time to chat about his latest book, last month’s historic election, and the craft of writing in general.
Art Taylor: The Bicentennial and the Carter administration provides the political backdrop to much of the novel, and the book’s coda takes place amidst the election controversy between Bush and Gore in 2000. I don’t think you could call your new book a “novel of politics” (in the way you might label All the King’s Men or others that way), but would you define it as a “political novel”?
Porter Shreve: The novel’s a bit of a hybrid. It’s not really a political novel because none of the characters hold elected office, though I did read Ward Just’s Echo House and Mark Costello’s Big If, for example, just to see how other fiction writers give that inside glimpse of the power game. And I wasn’t looking for the scope of a full-on social novel, either, though I did re-read Philip Roth’s American Pastoral and I found John Updike’s novels of the ’70s, particularly Memories of the Ford Administration, helpful for milieu. But I wanted my white house to be small case “w,” small case “h” and the drama to play out on a domestic stage. The politics that I smuggle into the book come mostly from the distance-remembering narrator, Daniel, who, because he’s a historian can’t help putting the story of his family in a broader context. I tried not to be heavy-handed about this, but early in the novel I set a key idea in motion with the line, “Like Jimmy Carter’s presidency, our years in Washington began with hope then slid into crisis.” After that I just let the trouble rain down.
The novel and its characters (at least some of them) start out with a sense of great idealism. Something is lost along the way, of course. Your book was published before the recent election, but flashing forward a little further than your coda about Bush and Gore, what do you think your characters would make of Obama’s victory?
My characters would be thrilled with Obama’s victory. Ecstatic. Over the moon. In my novel they stand along Constitution Avenue to watch the Carter family walk from the Capitol to the White House. If it were January 2009, my characters would be camping out in tents on the mall to get a good plot of ground to watch Obama’s historic speech. It’s funny — I’ve received very warm reviews for this book, but the few detractors have given me a hard time less for the story itself than for the fact that the novel is set in the ’70s and covers a presidency that was ultimately disappointing. Why should we care about Carter when now we’ve got Obama? The truth is: novels are about loss and disappointment and coming to terms with undelivered or undeliverable promises. I have enormous hope for the Obama administration. I’ve never been more excited about a politician in my life (a politician and a terrific writer, too!), but no president can make good on every campaign promise. And while I’m certain that the trajectory over the next four or eight years will ultimately rise there’s going to plenty of difficult sledding ahead. My novel — all novels, I think — zero in on the difficult times. Not the promise so much as the crisis that inevitably follows.
It’s a little bit of a cliche that first-time novelists often draw on their own lives for their debut books. You had two novels under your belt before you turned to a story that’s more explicitly based on your own childhood. What prompted, with this third novel, a move toward the semi-autobiographical? And what were the particular challenges to writing a novel that drew from real-life, personal experience?
Though the jacket copy of my novel does say “loosely based on [my] childhood,” When the White House Was Ours is, in many ways, my least autobiographical book. It’s true that my family did start an alternative school in Philadelphia in 1972 and I used that idea plus a few anecdotes as a springboard. But I was only seven when we made a go of that school so my memories of the place are hazy at best. I’ll admit that Daniel does resemble my geeky Leif Garrett-wannabe 13 year old self. But the secondary characters — the parents, the hippies, the students, the treacherous landlord and his beguiling daughter — are almost entirely made up. I knew that if I wrote too close to my own story I wouldn’t leave room for my imagination to go wandering; I wouldn’t allow myself the continual surprise (that the reader, in turn, experiences) of discovering who these characters are. So I avoided the challenges of writing a novel that drew too much from personal experience by only taking certain key bits from real life then asking What if? after What if?until the story took on a life of its own.
Your mother, Susan Richards Shreve, has published thirteen novels, as well as many works for teens and younger readers, and recently tried her hand at memoir with her last book, Warm Springs: Traces of a Childhood at FDR’s Polio Haven. Your wife, Bich Minh Nguyen, wrote an award-winning memoir, Stealing Buddha’s Dinner. How has living in a “writing family” influenced your work?
The greatest benefit I had growing up the son of a writer was that my mother could never say, “Don’t be a writer,” without sounding like a complete hypocrite. She had no choice but to support me, and since she’s generous by nature she did so happily and without conditions. I was also lucky to meet a lot of writers when I was a kid, and I found them entertaining, badly behaved, great company. They were the kind of truth tellers that made the Holden Caulfield in me feel like maybe the world wasn’t as full of phonies as I’d thought. My wife, Bich, and I have a great situation — we’re each other’s first readers, so I never have to venture farther than two steps down the hall to talk shop or get a gimlet-eyed opinion about a scene, a chapter, a novel.
You’ve also collaborated closely with both your mom and your wife on anthologies and textbooks. How have your more academic and critical endeavors or your teaching impacted your creative writing?
I enjoyed editing those three textbooks and three anthologies, but I’m getting out of the racket for now. The downside was that putting together the apparatus, selecting the stories and getting permissions took a great deal of time, which meant time away from my writing. The upside was that I got to read a staggering amount of wonderful fiction and to really see the landscape of contemporary prose, its dazzling array of voices and forms. All that reading made me a better writer, I’m sure, and it certainly made me a better teacher. I continue to write book reviews and I’m always signing up to teach literature or craft seminars so I can peel back the covers of books and delight in how they’re made.
— Interviewed by Art Taylor