The Southern Cross: Skip Horack On His Award-Winning, Debut Collection
by Jessica Pitchford
Skip Horack was born and raised in Louisiana, attended Florida State University, and practiced law for five years in Baton Rouge. His work has appeared in Epoch, The Southern Review, Narrative Magazine, and other journals. Horack currently teaches at Stanford University, where he was also a Wallace Stegner Fellow.
Horack's debut collection, The Southern Cross (Mariner Books, August 2009), was winner of the 2008 Bakeless Fiction Prize.
Q: “Chores,” the second story in the collection, was a finalist in our annual World’s Best Short Short Story Contest. It was also your first publication ever. We love to publish emerging authors and see them go on to such success. Can you talk about those early publishing days and offer any advice to other young writers?
A: I was still working as a bottom-of-the-ladder attorney when I first started submitting stories. The trips to the post office, the compulsive email checking, even the rejection slips, helped make me feel like a real writer and take my work seriously. That first bit of recognition by The Southeast Review was critical, as it came at a time when I was perhaps (at least subconsciously) looking for any reason to tell myself I was a fool to be spending so much of what little free time I had writing fiction. I suppose I have a funny way of looking at things, and in my mind I figured, well, if I can write well enough to be a finalist in that contest, then if I keep working hard I can probably get a short story published one day—and if I can get a story published, maybe I’m not so crazy to think that down the road I might be able to write a book. For me, as soon as I achieve one goal, it’s always been helpful to immediately set another. If nothing else, that keeps me working and pushing forward. I don’t think I’ve ever been as excited as a writer as the day I achieved my first goal—having something accepted for publication—so thank you! That was a great day for me.
I suppose the main piece of advice I have for writers sending their work out is that they be professional. Submit your best writing and be sure that it is polished and properly formatted. Also, do your research and choose your targets carefully. To me, that means reading the journals and magazines you’re considering submitting to. Ask yourself whether your piece would really be a good fit. Other than that, I guess you just have to keep believing in yourself and be persistent. Edit, edit, edit, then edit some more. If you don’t learn to enjoy revising and improving your work, you’re going to have a very tough time of it.
Q: Like “Chores,” several other stories in the collection are concise. Are you especially drawn to the short-short form?
A: It’s funny, but I sort of discovered flash fiction by accident. I mean, I was aware that the form existed, of course—but I never really tried my hand at it until I submitted “Chores” to the 2005 World’s Best Short Short Story Contest. At the time I heard about that contest (which has a 500-word limit), I had this 15-page short story that was by no means working, so I pulled my favorite short section from that draft and tried to make it work as a standalone piece. That process really taught me a lot about writing (and revising) stories. In my opinion, a successful story (of any length) should usually contain conflict, development of that conflict, and—at the end of the piece—some change in the main character (even if just hinted at). Hemingway famously likened a short story to an iceberg, in which one-eighth of the whole remains hidden beneath the surface. So (to extend that metaphor) with a short-short story, I try to present what I feel is the very tip of that iceberg—that is, the most essential emotional moment of the narrative. That challenge excites me as a writer and so, yes, I really do enjoy and admire the form.
I’d also like to say that I believe writing flash fiction is a great exercise for beginning writers, as it typically forces them to write more in scene versus summary, and helps them come to view longer stories (and novels, for that matter) as collections of moments, rather than linear, essayistic endeavors.
Q: In her foreword to your book, Antonya Nelson notes that one of the most remarkable things about the winning collection is that you present us with such a compelling cast of characters, and though you could write more about all of them, you limit their stay to a story apiece. We do see one repeat performance—Luther “Redfish” Jackson, who gets a mention in “The Journeyman,” shows up again as leading man in “The Redfish” (along with his boss, Quinn, also in the previous story). You write wonderfully complex characters who stick with the reader. I’m wondering—do these characters stick with you? Any chance you’re still working with any of them, possibly in longer form?
A: That’s really great to hear. Yes, the characters in the collection certainly have stuck with me as well. Who knows? Perhaps they will return someday—I never say never—but, still, I feel like a short story usually works best when it provides a satisfying glimpse of a particular life, time, and setting, and in a way I feel like I would be betraying these characters and their struggles if I carried them beyond that glimpse. I think that’s especially true here, as my goal with this collection was to portray a certain year in a certain place, so as much as I love these folks, I feel like I should probably restrain myself, and let them go marching on into the future in private. But, again, don’t hold me to that!“Choosing a setting provides me with a predesigned stage, and my job as the writer is to cast the play. The better I know the place, the less challenging that job becomes.”
As for the repeat performances of Luther “Redfish” Jackson and Quinn, I came to see “The Journeyman” and “The Redfish” as linked in a way, as one story foretells Hurricane Katrina and the other announces its arrival. So I think that’s probably the reason it felt appropriate to me for certain characters I introduced in the former to reappear in the latter.
Q: I’m interested in the structure of the book, seasoned off and ordered like it is—the first half as stories from the spring and summer leading up to Katrina, and the second half as the fall and winter months following the hurricane. It really makes for a poignant vision of the Gulf Coast, pre- and post-disaster. Was this structure something you had in mind from the get-go, or did it naturally present itself as the collection came together?
A: The first four or five stories in this collection were written in the year prior to Katrina and Rita. I was living in Baton Rouge at the time, and after that hurricane season, it was impossible to accurately write about the region without acknowledging that these disasters had occurred. The storms would never be too far from any of my characters’ minds—and, obviously, in many instances the very landscape itself had been affected. Rather than ignore or resist the changes I saw around me, I got it in my head that it might be interesting to try and capture them on the page. As a writer, it would have been insincere and unrealistic for me to ignore what had happened.
Q: It’s been four years, this August, since Hurricane Katrina (followed in September ’05 by Hurricane Rita, also noted in the book) tore through the Gulf Coast. As a Louisiana native, do you feel a certain responsibility to write about the region?
A: I guess I’ve never really had to ask myself that question because I really enjoy writing about that part of the world. I suppose the only responsibility I feel (when I write any place, actually) is to depict it as accurately as I can, and avoid the cliché mistakes that an outsider might make. You know, every day isn’t Mardi Gras in New Orleans, and you can’t get to Bourbon Street in an airboat. That sort of thing.
Q: The stories in this collection admirably span the Gulf Coast—from Texas to Florida, and you capture the variety of characters, culture, and topography in between. Did that come easily for you, having spent so much time in the area?
A: Nothing about writing really comes easily for me—though, it’s true, if I do have any kind of comfort zone it is in writing about place. And I suppose of all the different landscapes I’ve moved through in my life, that stretch of Interstate 10 between, say, Houston and Jacksonville, is the one that I know best. It captures my imagination for some reason, and I find that if I think hard enough on a particular dot on that Gulf Coast map a story will eventually come to me. I guess if you know a place well enough, that’s bound to happen. It’s like when you look at the old movie theater in your hometown after having been away for a while. You don’t just see a movie theater. You think of your first date, or some epic fight you saw in the parking lot. Choosing a setting provides me with a predesigned stage, and my job as the writer is to cast the play. The better I know the place, the less challenging that job becomes.
Q: Only one story, “The Redfish,” actually takes place during the hurricane—and to pitch perfect effect. The main character of the story is a sympathetically portrayed ex-con, reminded of his crime as he battles the storm. It’s high tension at the halfway point of the book. Was it a purposeful move to include only one tale about riding out the storm?
A: As you mentioned, the collection is divided into four sections—Spring, Summer, Fall, and Winter of 2005-06—and, to keep the momentum of the book pushing forward, I wanted each story to occur after the previous ones on a timeline. In my mind, that structure fit best with my overarching goal of capturing a year in the life of this region. Also, for the arrival of Katrina in the book (via the “The Redfish”) to have the power that I hope it has, I sort of felt like I should only have one shot at it. I wanted Katrina to arrive, destroy, and dissipate, just as she did in reality.
Q: Nature and an impressive knowledge of the handling of fish, wildlife, and other animals play a role in several of the stories—from fox sets to sturgeon tagging, rabbitry to black bears, birding to sunken cypress excavation. Does that information come from personal experience, or was there some research involved? Do you think you’ll ever want to venture back to the Gulf Coast?
A: A little of both, I suppose. I like to hunt and fish, and grew up on a good-sized piece of land out in the country where we had cattle, sheep, chickens, and whatnot. So I imagine most of activities in the book I’ve done or seen done, but of course that still requires a lot of research in order to fill in the gaps and make sure I’m getting things right. I really enjoy the research side of writing. The internet can be distracting as hell, but it’s also true that I pull a lot of answers and ideas from it.
To your second question, right now I have a fantastic gig for a few years as a creative writing lecturer at Stanford, but yes, I’d love to find myself back in the South eventually.
Q: You attended Florida State for undergrad and law school then practiced law for five years in Baton Rouge. A few lawyers show up in the book, but in peripheral roles. I’m curious—what kind of law did you practice, and did it provide writing material? What made you decide to leave the profession?
A: Although I definitely put a lot of hours in, I had a really great job for a young writer. The firm I worked for specialized in healthcare law, and its primary clients were hospitals throughout Louisiana. So as a young associate, I spent a lot of time on the road, visiting small towns in every part of the state and speaking with all sorts of interesting people. Law, like fiction, is all about conflict, but I suppose what was even more helpful and inspiring was simply getting to meet so many folks and hear so many voices. None of the stories in my collection deal too directly with the law or lawyers, but I’m certain my time as an attorney was essential to every single one of them.
I’d probably still be practicing law today if I hadn’t been fortunate enough to receive a fellowship to study creative writing out at Stanford. My departure was a surprise to the partners at the firm (especially seeing as how they didn’t even know that I liked to write), but they soon recognized that this was my dream and were incredibly supportive and understanding. I have very fond memories of those years.
Q: What can we look forward to from you next?
A: Well, I’ve been writing amazingly incisive and witty things on Facebook lately. Outside of that, there are two novels I’ve been working on since completing The Southern Cross. We’ll see.
The following are standard, SER quick-response questions and can be answered in a word or a sentence or two.
Q: Name a writer whose work is currently making you jealous.
A: I just finished My Abandonment by Peter Rock. It’s an amazing novel.
Q: What kind of child were you?
A: I was a dreamer, and I liked to wander around in the woods a lot.
Q: What’s your relationship with rejection like?
A: I’ve always been a pretty good loser, and my skin seems to get a little thicker every year. The only trick I know is to always be working on something new. That’s usually the writing you’ll be the most excited about, and so that helps take a lot of the sting out of rejection.
Q: Do you have a writerly habit you’d like to break?
A: I think a lot of my long writing days could be short writing days were it not for the internet.