Kenny Porpora was born on Long Island, but it wasn't always home. In his memoir, "The Autumn Balloon" (Grand Central, $26), he recounts a childhood in which he was wrenched between his troubled parents as they fought for custody of him and his brother. Before making his way to Hofstra University and the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, he lived in a series of cars, seedy motels and dilapidated housing units in a vast triangle from Long Island to Arizona and Florida.
While his alcoholic mother and befuddled, considerably older father conspired against one another and the family court system, young Kenny had to come to grips with being gay, while watching loved one after loved one succumb to various addictions. His story is fraught with depression, abuse and death, but Porpora is able, almost miraculously, to find love in the spaces between the pain. Porpora, 28, spoke to Newsday about writing the book.
How did you realize that you had a story you wanted to tell?
People had suggested it to me before -- therapists, professors. I was still struggling to find my voice as a writer, but I think because the story was so personal to me, I sat down one night and started to write and it all started coming out. I sent a chapter to a writer named Poe Ballantine ["Love and Death on the Howling Plains of Nowhere"], a really fantastic writer and essayist who became a writer through the hardest means possible, with the most cynical edge -- so I figured if there was anything here that he would be the person to tell me yes or no. I didn't know Poe, I just emailed him randomly, and he wrote me back and said, "I think there's something here."
Was it difficult to reveal so much about yourself and your family?
I was less concerned with myself and mostly concerned with my mother. She's very important to me, and she had been though a lot and survived a lot, and from my perspective this was as much her story as it was mine. Even though I was young and losing people, they were her sisters and brothers, and so I wanted to tell her story. But I knew that there was a probability that instead of seeing triumph, she would see it as a criticism of her mothering. And that was my biggest concern when I sat down to write.
You describe these scenes with a high level of detail and specificity. How did you transport yourself back into the proper frame of mind?
There was this really intense need for me to revert into my childhood self and relive all of those days and lose all of those people all over again and feel all of those feelings all over again -- and in doing so, I could remember. And there were other things -- records of certain house foreclosures that I had to pull, public records, police reports for certain fights, and in those reports were names of people I could contact. And my father actually recorded all of his phone conversations, which proved useful.
Despite the gut-wrenching nature of the book, there's a strong element of humor in it.
I would send in pages to my editor or agent, and sometimes they would come back and say, "I'm not so sure about this; it's pretty dark," and I would be surprised because I thought I was writing a comedy. So I'm always relieved to hear people say that the book is funny. To me, the humor in it makes it more palatable. My family has a great sense of humor -- it's one of the things that's helped us survive all of this.
How therapeutic was the writing of this book? Did it exorcise any demons, or just revive them?
I think it helped me find some peace with it all. I think this might sound -- well, I guess it doesn't matter how it sounds. It was fun for me to write. I don't get to see those people anymore. I don't get to see my uncles and my aunts and my dog and my father. And so every day while writing this book I got to sit at a coffee shop and I got to be with them, to talk with them again, and retell their stories. So it brought a certain amount of closure to a situation where there wasn't much.