Interview with Caitlin Horrocks
Interview by Marc Dickinson
There is a lot of breadth in your work. Some stories in This is Not Your City are realistic, some are fabulist. Your narrators are teenagers as well as grandfathers. You write from first person to third person omniscient. Some are more traditional narratives and some incorporate multi-media. How would you define your voice? What is a standard “Horrocks trait” that you’d say unites your work?
I sort of hope there isn’t a standard Horrocks trait or voice, but I’m sure I’ve got my crutches and my quirks like anybody else. When I was putting the book together, I was so worried about having an unlinked collection, that I lost sight of the fact that part of what I love about short stories is the chance to try out so many different things—to experiment, to play, to do it all over again with the next 20 pages. So I just piled together my best stories, and hoped that someone else could tell me what they all had in common. As it turned out, I needn’t have worried. Reviewers and readers are generally only too happy to ferret out your preoccupations, and guess at your vision or goals. It’s been a lot of fun to see what my book looks like through other people’s eyes, and not a single person so far has asked, “what are all these stories doing in the same book?” The only thing I’m consciously doing every time is trying to write stories that I would want to read.
Your stories also range from the Midwest to Estonia, from the zoo to the classroom to a bio-dome. And most of the characters in these settings feel displaced somehow. So how does place inform your writing? And how do you go about inhabiting all these diverse worlds so authentically?
Google street view. Kidding! But only partially. Many of my stories are based on travel experiences (including the bio-dome), but I’ve also gotten away with a lot more internet research than I should probably admit to. I remember a Michael Chabon Q+A where he said, approximately, “You need only enough facts to make the lies sound true.” Those have been words to live by, as a fiction writer.
Place is very important to some of my stories, frankly less important to others. For me as a writer, place is one possible jumping off point among many. It may be part of the original conceit, or I may be several drafts deep before I remind myself that these people are living somewhere on planet Earth, and since it’s relevant where, I should try to pin down a place and think through the implications.
Thank you for saying the worlds seem authentically inhabited. Fiction writers have a responsibility to imagine, but then we have a responsibility to the places and people in our work, imagined or real. I once had a moment of self-consciousness so acute, over whether I’d gotten a story “right,” whether I’d had the right to write it, that I ended up losing a favorite pair of shoes (Explanation here). Not every writer is that neurotic, but “authenticity” is an intimidating bar to clear. You just do your best to research, to empathize, to write your way as deeply into the story as you can, as deeply as it requires.
Recently, Kyle Minor visited my class, and when he was asked by students about what does or doesn’t work in fiction (as a way, I suspect, of challenging things they were being formally taught), Minor said “There are not rules. You can do anything you want.” I notice this in your work as well—bending the elements of craft. As a writer and a teacher, what are “rules” of fiction you’re suspicious of and why? And what’s the most effective way to break them? And what “rules” do you stand behind and why?
There is no rule I stand behind absolutely, and that includes the ones I teach. They’re rules of thumb, not rules of aesthetic or literary law. The reason writing never gets easier is that we must figure out how each project needs to be written. What does this particular story demand? Maybe it demands a wildly roving POV, or a muddying of tense or ownership or “stakes.” Maybe it demands any number of things that most creative writing teachers or craft books would advise against. That doesn’t make the craft books wrong.
If you understand why, say, having ten named characters on the first page is not generally a good idea, then you will have a better sense of why you occasionally might want to, and how to overcome the reader’s inevitable alarm. Pity the readers, as Vonnegut says. If we’re asking the reader to do something unusual or difficult, is the difficulty warranted? Are the rewards to the reader commensurate with her effort? It’s not pandering to think about that. Jump as many fences as you want, but know why you’re doing it, and think about how you’re going to get the reader over them alongside you.
What is the toughest story you’ve written, either because of writers block and getting stuck, or because the material was emotional hard to work through, or maybe you didn’t experience the situation yourself so you struggled to get into a character accurately? And how did you get through it—what helped you save or “figure out” the story to make it work?
They’re all tough in different ways. I suppose the toughest might have been a story that could only be saved by becoming an essay. This was a piece I wrote back in grad school and sent out to a few places, ultimately collecting some merciful rejections and deciding to pull the story from circulation. I knew I hadn’t gotten it right. I kept trying to “fix” it and finally realized that I was too close to the material. I needed to either fully re-imagine the piece to set it free as fiction, or I needed to be more honest about why I was drawn to the material in the first place, and what I was trying to say. One of the great joys of writing fiction is making things up, but here, I was making things up just to hide behind them. My stories are generally not autobiographical, which might be why it took me so long to diagnose the problem. Even when I did, I was scared of writing nonfiction—I felt exposed and like I had no clue what I was doing, both of which were totally true. But that was the project that nudged me out of writing exclusively fiction, and now I really like being able to go back and forth. The essay version of that piece was eventually published, but I’m very happy that the story version wasn’t.
What authors are you not just inspired by but informed by? In other words, what is a work that you keep going back to in understanding your own writing? And when looking at influence, how do you still maintain your own vision or avoid imitation?
Like a lot of people, I long to crack the Alice Munro code. If I could manipulate time in a story the way she does, I would be elated. Another answer that would come to exactly nobody’s mind after reading my work is Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities. But I love it because, according to so many of the rules of craft and execution and what fiction “ought” to do, the book shouldn’t work. But it’s one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever read. Lightning in a bottle. I don’t re-read it because I think I’ll figure out the secret, but because I’m glad someone did, I’m glad that book exists.
I don’t want to totally pooh-pooh the anxiety of influence, but I can’t think of any way that contemplating the risk wouldn’t make it worse. Hopefully, your vision is inherent in what’s pulling you to write, what’s making it onto the page. If it isn’t, hopefully it becomes more clear with time and effort and pages written. Nobody wants to repeat himself, much less repeat someone else. But I think worrying too much about this at the beginning of a project is likely to be counterproductive. By all means, start with imitation, and see where it leads. You might get stuck in someone else’s footsteps, you might not. A quote from visual artist William Powhida: “Your art is only what cannot be done by someone else.”
You’re currently writing a novel, historical fiction, I believe. How do you navigate the thing that really happened and the re-inventing it through imagination? And what are the challenges of writing a novel vs. writing a short story?
My penetrating insight on the subject of novel vs. short story is that novels are much longer. I mean, they just keep going! You write ten pages, and then you write ten more, and then 300 pages later you’re still on your first draft, with only a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel. Why do people do this to themselves!? wails the short story writer, looking longingly back at her other, shorter projects. I once heard the writer Peter Ho Davies refer to a story as a rock that you could cup in your hand: hold it up to the light, feel the whole shape of it at once. The novel was a giant boulder you could only walk around, seeing small slices of it at a time. I like this image a lot. I try to keep reminding myself that I can get around the whole rock that way, with more steps and more patience.
As for the challenges of historical fiction, the early pages I wrote were slavishly devoted to historical fact. After listening to me babble for a while about the book, another writer asked me, “Why don’t you just write a biography?”
I knew I didn’t want to write a biography, but why not? The answer to that question needs to be present in the book, and it ought to be something other than “I couldn’t be bothered with historical accuracy.” Author David Mitchell has written, “Perhaps this is the paradox that beats inside historical fiction’s rib cage: the “historical” half demands fidelity to the past, while the “fiction” half requires infidelity – people must be dreamt up, their acts fabricated and the lies of art must be told.” Like in creative nonfiction, this is a quandary that historical fiction writers must answer for themselves: what balance of fidelity to imagination? I started off erring on the side of fidelity, and have moved over to imagination.
You’ve worked as several prestigious literary journals, and are now the fiction editor of Kenyon Review. What is your vision for the fiction in the journal—what do you personally look for in a story? As well as what are common dangers or pitfalls you often see in stories you reject?
My best answer to this question is probably the one I wrote when I was invited to submit to The Kenyon Review Credos series. My credo about short stories, “The Glory of the Bad Idea,” is here. Something I want to add to that is that KR, like most journals, receives more good stories than we could ever, ever hope to publish. I routinely read stories that haven’t fallen victim to any particular dangers or pitfalls, but when you’ve got room for less than 1% of your submissions, the question really isn’t what makes someone say “no,” as what makes someone occasionally, miraculously, say “yes.” I have to say “no” all the time, and I say it to stories that I respected and enjoyed reading, and know are going to get published somewhere. The phrase “this will find a good home elsewhere” can sound like boilerplate rejection verbiage, but I always mean it. Plus, I’m not the only one making decisions about the fiction in KR: my picks go to head editor David Lynn, who’s also reading from his own submissions inbox. When I’ve narrowed things down to a group of uniformly strong stories, and I’m trying to decide what I’d be heartbroken not to see in the magazine, that’s a decision far more about personal taste than about any particular failing of those stories.
A last little lightening round questionnaire (when I asked other writers what they wished they’d been asked in an interview but never have, here’s what they said):
Who do you wish you could interview, and what would you ask them?
My cowardly, but true, answer is Nobody, because anyone I admired so much I was desperate to interview, would also be someone I’d be paralyzed with fear about looking like an idiot in front of. Safer to let someone else ask the questions!
What is your guilty pleasure movie or TV show and why?
I love Top Chef so much I recently delivered an entire lecture about what writers can learn about revision via the feedback the “chef-testants” on the show receive about their food. So it’s not even a guilty pleasure anymore: it’s officially educational/professional development. I watch quite a few TV shows, but I usually watch them without guilt. I think my guilty TV watching is confined to hotel rooms where I stumble on things like Naked and Afraid, which I watched nearly an entire episode of before believing that it was a real show and not a joke.
Lastly, what is a bad writing habit you warn others against, but you indulge in yourself—one that you wish you could break?
Procrastination. My bad habit is not so much waiting around for the muse to show up—I’ve always got plenty of ideas—but waiting to start writing until I’ve run out of every possible excuse. I tell myself I’ll sit to write when the house is clean, when the letters of recommendation are all submitted, when whatever book I’m reading is finished. It’s productive procrastination (usually) but it’s procrastination. Everything else feels easier than the blank page. I’m always trying to get better at stopping the excuses and diving in.
Caitlin Horrocks lives in Michigan by way of Ohio, Arizona, England, Finland, and the Czech Republic. She is the author of the story collection, This Is Not Your City. Her stories and essays appear in The New Yorker, The Best American Short Stories 2011, The PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories 2009, The Pushcart Prize XXXV, The Paris Review, Tin House, One Story and elsewhere. Her work has won awards including the Plimpton Prize, and fellowships to the Bread Loaf and Sewanee Writers’ Conferences. She was formerly the 2006-2007 Theresa A. Wilhoit Fellow at Arizona State University. Currently, she is an associate professor of writing at Grand Valley State University and the fiction editor of The Kenyon Review. She lives in Grand Rapids, Michigan, with the writer W. Todd Kaneko.