Hot Metal Bridge

Current Issue : Number Twenty-Five

Interview with Caitlin Horrocks

BY JENNIFER HOWARD

Caitlin Horrocks’s debut short story collection, This Is Not Your City, will be published by Sarabande Books in July 2011. Her stories and essays appear in The PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories 2009, The Pushcart Prize XXXV, The Paris Review, Tin House, One Story and elsewhere. Her work has been short-listed in Best American Short Stories and has won awards including the Plimpton Prize, and scholarships from the Bread Loaf and Sewanee Writers’ Conferences and the Norman Mailer Writers Colony. She is an assistant professor of writing at Grand Valley State University and a fiction editor at West Branch. She lives in Grand Rapids, Michigan, with the writer W. Todd Kaneko.

 

Hot Metal Bridge: You have your first collection of short stories This is Not Your City coming out this summer from Sarabande books. With the process fairly current, do you have any advice for other young writers about the process of putting together and publishing a book?

 

Caitlin Horrocks: In some ways my publication process was nothing but pitfalls followed by happy accidents. When I finished my MFA, I had a book-length manuscript of stories, but no novel and no agent, and I assumed that my options were limited to contests. I won one (and didn’t win plenty of others), with a press that was then shut down in budget cuts. They would still have done the book, but it would have gone out of print almost as soon as it was released. I wanted better for the stories, and my agent and various friends brainstormed places that might take a look at the collection. Some editors who liked the stories passed because, well, they were stories (and thus not marketable), and I still didn’t have a novel. But I was lucky enough to end up with Sarabande, and they’ve been fantastic to work with.

It’s hard to know what lessons to draw from that sort of scattershot experience— I will say, especially to short story writers: believe in the work, believe in the book. Which sounds like something inside a greeting card, but before I sent my collection out I’d absorbed this self-defeating idea that no one reads or buys story collections. But there are readers and publishers supporting the form and doing their best for these books. If you’ve written a story collection, and you think they’re good stories, don’t feel like you have to hide in a basement somewhere until you’ve written a novel, and don’t feel grateful to anyone who might want to photocopy and staple your book and leave it in piles on street corners for random people to find. The lack of monetary value in stories does not devalue the work, and it doesn’t mean that it isn’t deserving of a readership.

 

HMB: One of the great aspects of your fiction is the way you create complex characters. The father/grandfather in “At The Zoo” is a perfect example of this. When you sit down to write, do you have a process in depicting characterization? Do you have thoughts on how to create believable and multi-tonal characters in fiction?

 

CH: Most of my characters start with something small, or tenuous, or as disembodied voices, and those voices end up telling me everything I need to know.

The grandfather character in “At the Zoo” started as a middle-aged woman I was watching at the Phoenix Zoo, who was impressively drunk and spouting misinformation about one of the exhibits. She was tapping on the glass and disturbing the animals and doing all those things zoo visitors aren’t supposed to do, and my own annoyance triggered the mother character. Then, I needed her to feel that way for a reason, to feel protective of someone who might be taken in by the lies (as opposed to my free-floating indignation), so the boy entered the story. After that, it was a matter of just letting the characters speak, letting them walk around and notice things and react to each other.

As to specific techniques, I think characters are often more real in the writer’s head. I read lots of students’ stories where I suspect the characters are round to the author but not yet round to the reader, just because of a lack of detail. The problem isn’t a failure to fully imagine someone, but uncertainty about how much detail to include, or what kinds of details a reader needs.

I’ve assigned an exercise that asks students to take an eHarmony quiz in the persona of one of their characters to get at some of this information. There are predictable questions (introvert vs. extrovert), but they also have to decide their characters’ opinions of board games and auto repair. This doesn’t mean they’d include a scene of their character playing Bananagrams. But they could. And a love for Bananagrams might indicate something different than a love for Hungry Hungry Hippos. I like them both, but I won’t pretend to know what that says about me.

HMB: As a writing professor, do you see workshops as valuable assets in writing programs? Has teaching influenced the way you write?

CH: As a writing student, workshops were invaluable to me. Embarrassingly, I really needed roomfuls of people to point out things like the main action of a story not really starting until page 17. Then I could see exactly what they were saying, and go back and fix it. But workshops were key in helping me get distance from my work, to understand how certain choices affected readers.

As a professor, I hope the workshops are helpful to students. A workshop isn’t just tinkering with specific stories; instead we’re collectively thinking aloud about what makes a story satisfying, what fiction does well and how to take advantage of that. I also consider it part of my job to be a global reader, to respect and enjoy as many different types of stories as possible. I really believe that anything can work, you just have to figure out how to make it work, and teaching has helped me do that.

HMB: Do you have any writing rules that you particularly like to break?

CH: I’m always after my students to trust the process, trust the draft; they panic when they don’t have an ending, and I toss them the E.L. Doctorow quote about how writing is like driving at night—your headlights illuminate only the next few yards, but you can drive the whole way home like that. I start every story that way, fumbling ahead, but almost invariably about a third of the way through I can suddenly see where I’m going (Streetlights? Daybreak? Full moon? Solar flares? The metaphor is not easily extend-able). That doesn’t mean I’ll get there smoothly, but I’m not driving blindly quite as often as I ask my students to.

HMB: Your fiction is adept at spanning the realistic (“At the Zoo”) and a certain quiet fabulism (“Life Among the Terranauts”). Is this a conscious choice? Do you strive for that certain beautiful oddness in what you create? Is this indicative of a certain way that you see the world?

CH: I do, and it is, although the phrase “beautiful oddness” is so gorgeous I feel narcissistic owning it. But it is a conscious goal. I think it has to do with the way I see the world, but also with the way that I see short stories. There are gorgeous stories that are unbendingly realistic, but there are also so many dull ones. I’m frankly not as good at writing stories that are bonily realistic, but still rise above the hordes of similar stories. I find that if I can bend the rules a bit, either formally or with the natural world, I’m better able to make something that feels new for me, and then hopefully also for a reader. Even in my most realistic stories, I’m usually conscious of going for a bit of oddity. The world is weird in amazingly endless ways, and as writers, all we can do is try and write the kinds of stories we’d hope to read.

HMB: Your stories have a rich sense of setting and space. Often what I remember most from your work is the affect created by your descriptions of places (the artificial sea descriptions in “Life Among the Terranauts” for example). Is this something that you find integral to your writing and if so, what part do your numerous travels play in crafting setting?

CH: Many of my stories emerge from travel, so sense of place is part of them from the beginning. Then in drafts, I do too much or too little. I’ve written several stories set in Finland, and the early drafts of each one included pages of details that weren’t ultimately necessary to the story, but were part of me writing my way into it, processing my own experiences of the place. But there are only so many words for snow. “Life Among the Terranauts” grew out of a tour of the real life Biosphere 2, in Arizona, and was also overwritten at first—there were plenty of unnecessary passages about oxygen levels and types of savanna grasses. They were integral to my writing process, of imagining and creating a place that felt fictionally mine, but not integral to the final story.

 

HMB: There has been talk in the media lately about gender disparity in publishing, both that there are fewer female authors in publications like Harper’s and the New Yorker, and also fewer female authors submitting work to publications. Being that you have had several stories and essays published, do you find this portrayal accurate?

 

CH: Before VIDA published its latest numbers, I was overly dismissive of “the count.” I didn’t feel like my work had ever been rejected or overlooked on the basis of my gender, and in my daily writing life, the majority of the students, fellow writers, readers, and editors that I work with or encounter are women.

But the latest numbers, and editors’ responses to them, really caught my attention. The dearth of work by women in certain magazines is depressing, but the gap in reviewed books was shocking to me. I absolutely don’t think we’re in an era where rooms of men sit around dismissing women’s writing; a lot of publications seem sort of embarrassed and baffled by the discrepancy. I’ve been grateful to the editors, like Ruth Franklin and Jonathon Chait, both of the New Republic, who have responded to VIDA’s numbers in sincere, thoughtful ways. But I think our culture, including too many of its literary gatekeepers, continues to define “serious” or “thoughtful” or “provocative” writing in a way that overlooks or excludes too much writing by women.

HMB: Much of the response to the VIDA numbers has suggested that the gender discrepancy may be because women submit less to journals and publishers. Do you agree?

CH: I don’t know if women are submitting less. I’ve been insecure about my writing in plenty of ways, but I never hesitated to send out. I suppose as a young writer, I envisioned a day when someone would tap me on the shoulder and say, “You’re ready.” But that kind of tap usually has to come from the writer herself. So if a female writer feels her work is as good as what she’s reading in literary magazines and anthologies, but isn’t sending out, this is her tap. No one cares if we write. We do it because we love it, and presumably because we think we have something to say that other people might want to read. So put yourself out there.

HMB: What are some favorite authors or books that have particularly influenced your writing?

CH: I love the story collections What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us by Laura van den Berg, Things That Pass for Love by Allison Amend, and Throw Like a Girl by Jean Thompson. George Saunders and Kevin Wilson, for humor; Jo Ann Beard, for beauty. Flannery O’Connor, for everything. Most recently, I just spent a week with Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell, five years after the rest of the world read it, and I never wanted to emerge.