A Q&A with Catherine Flora Con, One of Porter Square Books’ First Writers in Residence

Porter Square BooksCatherine Flora Con. Photo by Peter Morse.

Porter Square Books is always coming up with new ways to engage with its community, and this year it announced a Writers in Residency Program that will give two writers the chance to write in the office on evenings and weekends, give an in-store reading, get a staff discount, and more.

Catherine Flora Con was selected as the 2019 Writer in Residence for adults, and Kathryn Amato was chosen as the writer for young readers.

We spoke with Con about her style, her work-in-progress, and what she hopes to get out of the residency.

Tell us a bit about yourself.

I was born in New Orleans, moved to South Carolina I was seven. My parents are both Chinese, my mom grew up in Taiwan, my dad grew up in Costa Rica. So we grew up pretty multicultural.

I’ve been writing most of my life, just for fun. I got more serious about it in my early 20s. I did my MFA in fiction writing at BU, and I work at BU now full-time for the creative writing program as the program coordinator. And then I also teach a class about once a year—undergrad creative writing, or fiction writing.

How would you describe your writing style?

I’ve been told that for nonfiction, I have sort of a David Sedaris type of voice, and I really like him. For fiction writing, I would say it’s a pretty quiet voice, it’s observant. For better or for worse, the narrator is usually really introspective, and kind of shy. They’re really different from me, I’m pretty outgoing, I like talking a lot, and usually the narrator always hangs back and observes people. I try to make jokes when I can in the writing, that’s really hard though.

Why do you think you tend to write about characters that are different from you?

It’s more interesting to hang back and watch the other characters. I’m also really interested in other people, so it gives me a chance to explore other people’s personalities. I also think having a quieter protagonist allows that character to hear secrets from other characters and gain a lot of trust. It makes for an easier point of entry for a novel or short story.

So I understand that you have a work in progress that you’re going to be developing as part of the residency. What’re you working on?

It’s a novel called “Notes.” It takes place at a boarding school in South Carolina. It’s told from the point of view of Claire, who is a piano player. She’s 15, and she is really fascinated by this glamorous new piano teacher from New York City, Dr. Li. Dr. Li is Taiwanese, she’s really mysterious, and all the students look up to her a lot. A lot of the book concerns the students and their friendships and love interests, and trying to find out different things about Dr. Li.

Also, these mysterious, handwritten notes have been appearing all around campus, so Claire is trying to figure out who wrote them. There’s kind of a tragedy toward the end, but it’s mostly a light-hearted, fun book.

The book is not exactly autobiographical, but it is very loosely based on time that I spent in high school at the Governor’s School for the Arts in South Carolina. It was a public boarding school for the arts, so there were musicians, dancers, creative writers, actors, and visual artists there. I went for piano, and we had a really amazing piano teacher that I was really taken by. The book sort of stems from that—[but] the book is way more fun and more magical, I hope.

So even though it’s featuring a teenager, it’s meant for an adult audience?

I’ve kind of gone back and forth on whether it’s for adults or young readers. Claire is looking back on her life and thinking about this time in boarding school from several years down the road. And I think they also discover a lot of things about Dr. Li that are more mature. There’s definitely a lot of high school-type shenanigans going on, but the style of it and the content of it are more adult.

What drew you to this residency, and how are you hoping it’ll help you in your writing?

I was drawn to it because it’s a really unique residency. Most writers’ residencies, you just go off in the woods and write stuff by yourself, or they give you some little room somewhere. At Porter Square Books, I really like that they want you to be a part of the community. I really like how I’ll get to write staff picks, I’ll get to write for the blog, I’ll get to do a reading, and it just feels like something where I’ll get to interact with other people a lot as well as be writing in the store. I think it’ll help me a lot just to have the support of the booksellers there.

And the store itself—in my essay that I wrote, I called it a “beacon for the literary community,” because it’s more than just a store. People come there to meet up, they go to author events, they have a cafe, and the books that they choose to display are usually really thoughtfully chosen, trying to promote writers on the margins, like writers of color and queer writers, and that was important to me.

I know this is going to be a tough one, but if you had to pick your favorite book, or maybe two, what would it be?

“A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” by Betty Smith and “The Chosen” by Chaim Potok. Those are two of my favorite novels.

Editor’s note: This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and conciseness.