Interview: Caitlin Horrocks

Interviewed by Katie Cortese

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Caitlin Horrocks is author of the story collection This Is Not
Your City
, which was named a New York Times Book Review Editor’s Choice, a Barnes and Noble Discover Great New Writers selection, and one of the best books of 2011 by the San Francisco Chronicle. Her stories appear in The New Yorker, The Best American Short Stories, The PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories, The Pushcart Prize, The Paris Review, Tin House, One Story, Five Chapters, and elsewhere. She is the fiction editor of The Kenyon Review, and teaches at Grand Valley State University in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Q: Did you always plan to write and teach, or is part of you
surprised to have ended up here?

A: Part of me is surprised, but another part says that I probably
shouldn’t be. I loved books and writing as a kid, but I thought I would
eventually have to grow up and get a practical job, and set the writing aside. My first teaching experience was immediately after college, when I was trying to figure out just what that “practical job” might be. I remember going into the classroom sort of grimly skeptical about whether I would like it, and telling myself if it all went to hell, that crossing something off the list-of-life-possibilities was still progress, of a sort. I enjoyed teaching right away, so I’m not surprised to still be doing it. I am surprised at my insane good fortune to have ended up writing and teaching in a stable university job, rather than the adjunct teaching/freelance writing hustle that so many talented, accomplished, friends and colleagues of mine are still in the
thick of.

Q: One of your most recently published stories, “The Lion of Gripsholm Castle,” moves from Tunisia to Algeria to various locations in Sweden, and includes compelling details about textile dyes, galley slaves, taxidermy, and Swedish politics, among other subjects. Can you trace the origin of this story to a particular source, or did it come out of the blue?

A: The origin of this story is the world’s most wonderful
taxidermied lion, as mounted by someone who had never actually seen a lion
. I think I originally came across it when someone posted a funny picture to Facebook; if I remembered who, I’d give them credit. I thought that image was pretty much the best thing ever, and it stuck with me. I began researching the lion, and the story got better and better: at first, I was just picturing an old pelt arriving in Sweden from who-knows-where, but when I read that the Dey of Algiers sent live animals (and captive people) to the King of Sweden, the story kept expanding for me in interesting ways. The historical details suggested new narrative threads or characters. There’s plenty of invention in my version, but it’s based on historical fact.

Q: Do you have go-to sites or sources for writing  inspiration (websites, newspapers, almanacs, etc.)? What advice would you give someone searching for subjects or starting places for stories?

A: Since I just published a story based on a Facebook photo of an 18th century Swedish taxidermied lion, I’d say I’m clearly open to finding writing inspiration pretty much anywhere. I’ve written pieces inspired by odd news articles, by writing exercises, by other stories, by chance encounters travelling. I love giving myself assignments based on what techniques, or places, or types of characters I haven’t yet tried writing. As a teacher, I’ve based writing exercises off of specific websites like Found, or PostSecret, or Reuters Oddly Enough news, but I think a general openness is important, and a lot of patience. Finding writing inspiration doesn’t mean that you’ve found a fully-formed story idea. It usually means you’ve stumbled onto a single image or character detail or conceit that might give birth to a story. I advise writers to keep their eyes open, but also to be game to follow even ridiculous ideas and see where they lead.

Q: You’ve earned some of the highest accolades available for the writing of short stories, including appearances in Best American Short Stories 2011, The Pushcart Prize XXXV, and The New Yorker, but you’ve also published creative nonfiction in journals such as Creative Nonfiction and Brevity, among others. Is your process the same for writing nonfiction as for crafting stories? How do you decide which of your experiences to fold into story and which to present as truth?

A: The first essay I ever finished was about someone I’d tried and
failed to write about as fiction. In college, I was the accompanist for a voice student who was abducted from campus and murdered. We didn’t know each other well, but the event haunted me (as it did many at our tiny college). The story I tried to write was from the POV of an accompanist, reflecting on this missing singer she didn’t know very well. My readers helpfully pointed out that this made no sense as a story—we never got close to the singer and we didn’t even get close to the accompanist, because she wouldn’t let us in. Part of what was
important to me about the real life version was how the way we knew each other was so circumscribed and strange: we made music together, and for no good reason, I was able to grow up and keep making it, and she wasn’t.

Nonfiction allowed me to deal with the ideas and emotions related to
that much more directly. I could stop pretending that what I had to say was in the shape of a story, with beginning-middle-end, and let it find its own shape. I love the way nonfiction allows readers to see the author’s mind at work on the page, making connections and observations and imparting information that might be hopelessly clunky in a piece of fiction.

Q: Some of your fiction ventures into the realm of magical realism,
such as the town that decides to try hibernation as a way of moving through grief during an especially cold winter (“The Sleep,” Atlantic Fiction for Kindle), or the woman who claims in “Embodied” that during her “127 lives I’ve been pregnant something like 200, maybe 220 times.” Is there a different world-building process for those stories, or do other challenges crop up when you veer from a more familiar version of reality?

A: The writer Kevin Wilson has talked about his short stories (vs.
his novel), as being based on “conceits.” I love a good conceit, but I also want a story to end up with real characters, and real heart (which Wilson’s do). If I’m starting with a conceit or concept, I mostly just have to keep writing and writing and writing until the more human layers of the situation start to reveal themselves. In “Embodied,” I had to just keep letting the woman yak about her past lives for eighteen pages, until I finally arrived at a thing she’d done in this life, as a result of her past. Then I had to revise to get the action started sometime before page eighteen. Early drafts of “The Sleep” had a whole lot about canned goods and improvised heating systems. It took
awhile for the Rasmussen family to come into focus for me, and for some other members of the town to step out from the chorus of voices. There’s probably some easier way to write this type of story, but I haven’t discovered it. I just depend on patience and pigheadedness to make the world come (eventually)
alive.

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Q: In addition to your writing career, you’re also an assistant
professor at Grand Valley State University. In this current educational climate—one that by and large emphasizes college as a means to achieving a job—what would you say in defense of college-level fiction workshops to those who would seek to minimize or eliminate them as impractical or trivial?

A: I’d say first that it pains me that universities have seemed so
quick to collude in their own rebranding as vocational schools. I know that a liberal arts education is a mark of privilege, and that we all have to join the “real world” and pay rent eventually. And I can make the argument that creative writing workshops result in savvier, more employable people (and I will, in two sentences), but if the bar for what should be offered in college is “practicality,” there go many of the most defining, intellectually and artistically eye-opening moments of my own college career. Higher education is
not (just) about job skills; Louis Menand wrote that it was for becoming “a reflective and culturally literate human being,” and I like that phrasing. I like the one-two punch of literacy and cultural literacy that happens in creative writing classes. We read closely, taking apart stories to see how they work; we practice putting our own thoughts on  the page, empathizing both with our characters, and with the reader who has to read our words. What have we noticed about the world that we want to share with this person? What is the best way to communicate that? Has our message been received? Students read each other’s work, gaining editing skills, but also experience in that delicate art of giving and accepting criticism. We create a collective conversation about what writing is and does, about how well specific pieces accomplish that. We think on the page and we think out loud. We examine and evolve our own tastes. If you care about what you’re saying, you want to make sure that you’re saying it in the most effective way possible. In a workshop, it isn’t only the teacher’s
eyes or red pen that are the judge of that, but a room full of peers. There’s a real audience, and that demands real work. Assuming the workshop encourages revision, students learn revision skills, and begin to develop, or at least understand, the stubborn discipline that it takes to do a lot of things well, especially writing. They are better writers, better readers, better critical thinkers, with more experience in both self-disciplined solo work and collaborative discussion. An article in The New York Times recently argued that fiction makes us, essentially, more experienced, more empathic, more improved
human beings. I’m guessing that can only help in a job search.

Q: Have you ever published something you wish you could have back?

A: As far as I know, I haven’t ever published anything that offended
or hurt someone personally, and I don’t think there’s anything I flat out wish I’d burned or hidden under my bed. But I can say there are stories I’m not sorry don’t show up on the very first page of a Google search.

 Q: Do you ever read reviews or commentary about your work? Why or why not?

A: Of course! I am highly suspicious of people who say they don’t
read reviews of their work at all. My book came out in July 2011, so the last year has been both celebration and gauntlet. I’ve had a vast majority of wonderful reviews, including in places I hadn’t thought I had a chance at being reviewed at all. But I’ve also gotten my first disgruntled readers on Goodreads, and elsewhere.

I read reviews because I want to know what people are saying about
my work: that sounds so shallow as to be meaningless, but that’s the heart of it. I’m genuinely curious what other people make of my stories, and especially having published an unlinked short story collection, I’ve loved seeing it become a sort of Rorshach ink blot test: reviewers feel like they have to find an angle, some way to focus their review, so my book’s been “about” cruelty, or the bewilderment of the middle class, or the plight of today’s young unemployed.

In an ideal world, reviews are part of a critical conversation, one
the writer learns from and brings to the next book. But most online reviews are much closer to product write-ups. Someone visits Amazon to write that a certain shirt runs small, that their tennis balls shipped late, that a cosmetic cream didn’t reduce the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles, and that the pacing of a novel seemed pokey, the characters a little flat. The author is not the audience. The reviews are meant for readers (and can do them a real service. As a reader,
I like to be warned as much as anybody if a book may be pokey with flat characters. Or if a shirt runs small).

Q: What question do you wish someone would ask about your writing but never has?

A: “How are you so completely awesome?” Except that I wouldn’t know how to answer that except in some painfully awkward, deeply self-deprecating way. Someone in an interview once called my prose “lyrical” and I practically got into an argument about it, because I wish it were true but I’m not sure it is.

Q: What living writer(s) are you currently excited about?

A: There’s no way I can answer this in the singular, but I’ve read wonderful work recently by Ben Stroud, Claire Vaye Watkins, Roxane Gay, Amina Gautier, Glenn Shaheen, T Fleischmann, Elena Passarello. David Mitchell is a major writer crush of mine, and I’ve got my fingers crossed that the directors didn’t screw up the film of Cloud Atlas too badly.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: A novel, but I managed to complete an entire second collection of
stories while working on said novel, so that gives you some idea of my novel-writing speed.


About the Interviewer: Katie Cortese is the editor-in-chief of The Southeast Review.