Tonight I’m driving our exchange student, Azul, to his lover’s house on the other side of town. Azul has been seeing this boy Ramon for the past three months, and though I am not entirely thrilled about the idea, each Friday night I drive him across town to see him. Azul never talks to me during these trips, never even acknowledges my presence, but when we pull up close to Ramon’s apartment he begins to check his face in the mirror, begins to comb his hair and straighten his shirt. He smiles at me briefly before turning his head toward the window and looking out at the long row of palm trees that line the street. He has told me on more than one occasion that he and Ramon are just friends, but I know from my wife Karen that this is just a front, that he and Ramon have been seeing each other romantically for almost a month.

I don’t press the issue with Azul. I know that technically he has not come out to the other kids at his high school, and I know that even if he did want to tell me, he wouldn’t feel comfortable bringing it up. He is much closer with Karen, who he has begun to call mama and who he now takes a photography course with once a week in the evenings. They stay up late at night, talking in the kitchen, sharing jokes and laughing. Sometimes I get the sense that Karen has become closer with Azul than she is with me.

Andrew Porter

Andrew Porter received his B.A. in English from Vassar College and an M.F.A. in Fiction Writing from the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop. He is the author of the short story collection, The Theory of Light and Matter, which won the 2007 Flannery O’Connor Award in Short Fiction and will be published in Fall 2008. He is also the recipient of numerous fellowships and awards, including the 2004 W.K. Rose Fellowship in the Creative Arts from Vassar College, a James Michener-Paul Engle Fellowship from the James Michener/Copernicus Foundation, an Iowa Teaching/Writing Fellowship from the University of Iowa, a Tennesee Williams Scholarship from the Sewanee’ Writers’ Conference, a Residency Fellowship from the Helene Wurlitzer Foundation, the Glenna Luschei Award and a Pushcart Prize. His fiction has appeared in Epoch, The Ontario Review, Prairie Schooner, The Antioch Review, StoryQuarterly, The Threepenny Review, Others Voices, Story and The Pushcart Prize Anthology, among others. He has also had his work read on NPR’s “Selected Shorts” and selected as one of the 100 Distinguished Stories of 2007 by Best American Short Stories. Currently, Andrew lives in San Antonio, where he is an Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at Trinity University. For more information, visit www.andrewporterwriter.com.

Q&A by Hannah Tinti

HT: Where did the idea for this story come from?
AP: To be honest, I’m not really sure where the idea for this story came from. I have a habit of writing beginnings to stories that I never end up finishing. I have a huge folder in my file cabinet filled with these beginnings, and occasionally, when I’m looking for something new to write, I’ll go through this folder and see if anything catches my eye. A few years ago, I came across the beginning of “Azul” and it struck me as an interesting situation with a lot of dramatic potential. I decided to keep going with it and was able to crank out a full draft in a couple of days. Over the years I kept tinkering with it in between other projects. I’d work on it for a few days, put it away for a few months, work on it again. Finally, last spring, I pulled it out and realized it was getting pretty close and decided to finish it.
HT: What was the most challenging aspect of writing this story?
AP: Being patient. Generally, I’m able to write a polished draft of a story in a few weeks, but this one, as I said, took me several years. For whatever reason it just wasn’t coming together as quickly as I would have liked. It was hard for me to keep putting it away, but I’ve learned over the years that some stories just take longer than others to reveal themselves. In the end, I’m glad I waited.
HT: Do you have any experience with hosting international students? Have you done this yourself, or know people who have?
AP: When I was young, my parents hosted a lot of exchange students, sometimes two or three a year, though they never stayed with us for very long. Sometimes these students were very nice and well-behaved, and sometimes they weren’t. When they weren’t, it always put my parents in a difficult position. After all, how do you discipline a child that’s not your own? This was one of the questions I kept asking myself as I wrote this story.
HT: Why did you choose to make Azul gay?
AP: That’s a good question. I suppose I wanted to emphasize the distance between Paul and Azul. It was important to me that Paul was very much on the outside, always observing Azul’s relationship with Karen but never being included in it. The fact that Azul admits to Karen that he’s gay, but not to Paul, only adds to this distance.
HT: What role does Graydon Lear play in this story? Is he a foil for Karen and Paul?
AP: I wanted Graydon Lear to be someone who Karen couldn’t possibly compete with. He is not only more successful than her, but also younger and hipper. As soon as he arrives in her department she’s forced to face her own inadequacies and her own lack of discipline over the years. So yes, in a way, he’s a foil.
HT: Why did Paul and Karen fail at being Azul’s parents? Do you think they would have made better parents if they were taking care of their own child?
AP: Well, I think their motives for hosting an exchange student were questionable from the start. They seemed to think that Azul would fill some type of hole in their lives. But as soon as he arrives, they get sucked into his teenage world and end up acting like kids themselves. Though it’s hard to defend their behavior, it’s easy to see how this might happen to a young couple who has never raised a child.
HT: What is the best bit of advice about writing you have ever received?
AP: At Iowa, Barry Hannah used to talk a lot about the strong first draft, about trying to get the majority of a story down on paper in a single sitting or over the course of a few days. I don’t always succeed in doing this, but it’s something I strive for each time I sit down to write.
HT: What are you working on now?
AP: I recently completed a collection of stories and am now working on a novel.