Caitlin Horrocks: ‘Stories are alive and kicking and beautiful’

If you read modern short fiction, more than likely you’ve come across the wildly imaginative stories of Caitlin Horrocks in recent years. Horrocks has published stories all over the place, from The Paris Review to The Kenyon Review to The Southern Review, as well as being selected for The Pushcart Prize (2011) and Best American Short Stories 2011.

Caitlin Horrocks

Her first book, the collection This Is Not Your City, is being published this summer by Sarabande Books. Ron Carlson says of the collection: “How can a first book arrive with such advanced understanding of all the beautiful and sometimes shaded echelons of hope in which we live our lives? Caitlin Horrocks is a stunning writer and these stories mark a brilliant debut.”

Horrocks, an assistant professor of writing at Grand Valley State University, graciously agreed to answer these questions by e-mail.

You have a collection coming out this year, This Is Not Your City. Can you tell us a little about it?

The author questionnaire from my publisher asked me to do this in a single sentence, and I came up with “Darkly comic stories about people wrestling with their imperfect lives, in ways both everyday and outlandish.”

The stories are unlinked, and set in different states and countries; the title story is about a Russian mail order bride in Finland; another is set on a cruise ship held hostage by pirates, another is about girls in Michigan haunted by an imaginary ogre. I wrote them over several years, from when I was 24 to 28, and I tried to make them the kinds of stories I like to read—sometimes funny, sometimes sad, sometimes both at once. Sometimes quirky, but always rooted in people that felt real to me, and hopefully to the reader.

Imaginatively, where do your stories typically begin, and how do they grow?

Anywhere and everywhere, which sounds like a lame answer, but it’s true. Certain stories grow out of specific assignments I’ve given myself: “World Champion Cow of the Insane” was my attempt to write a straightforwardly happy ending, and in “Zolaria,” I knew I wanted to try a piece that moved backward and forward in time. I’ve written stories inspired by television shows or weird news items, and I’ve written ones that started with a single line or image. I think all writers are, or should be, magpies, picking up stuff as we go and figuring out how to use it all later.

I’ve read that you’re working on a novel. What are the differences for you between writing stories and writing a novel?

The main difference is that I have no clue what I’m doing on the novel. There was a point that I felt that way with stories, of course, but I’ve had years, practice, lots of good workshops and good readers, to help me figure things out. I haven’t decoded the form, but it’s a forest I’m used to hacking my way through.

My novel project feels like a jungle without any clear paths at all. I don’t know which plants are poisonous or which animals might eat me. There are weird noises in the distance. I don’t have the right kind of shoes. It’s always raining, and I’d like to cower under some leaves and just research forever, but I know I have to step out, start tromping, and get muddy.

I 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 just need to keep reminding myself that I can get around the whole rock that way, with more steps and more patience. And through the jungle? Picture the rock in the jungle. Then it all fits.

Your sentences often seem to include some movement – whether it’s a word choice or a rhythm – that provides a pleasing jolt of surprise. Is the element of surprise, on the level of the sentence, something you think of consciously as you’re writing and revising?

I think about it, but sometimes because I feel like I’m trying to squeeze out from under my natural lack of lyricism.  I know writers, often people who write both poetry and fiction, who seem to effortlessly spin out surprising, gorgeous sentences, including words I’ve never put on the page in my life. Those lines don’t come easily for me, and I think of myself as more of a storyteller than a stylist. But of course I don’t want to write hundreds of pages of “transparent” prose like, “He walked across the room. He sat down. He bored himself to sleep.”  So I suppose I’ve tried to carve out a middle ground.

What’s your view of collections as unified, thematic, linked books versus gatherings of disparate, unrelated stories? Does it matter to you, as a reader, if there are connections?

There are obviously extraordinary linked collections out there, but I tend to prefer fewer connections to more. I know unlinked stories are a marketing challenge, but I personally haven’t ever read a collection where I thought, “Hey, what are all these stories doing here together?” Even if they all feel like they stumbled into the same book by accident, that’s fun for me, as a reader. It’s like a good bar with a diverse crowd. You don’t want to walk in and see every single person wearing jeggings and drinking PBR.

What would be on a brainstorming list for an anthology of your favorite short stories?

My teacher-brain almost immediately overtakes my writer-brain or reader-brain on this one: the stories that come quickest to mind to include in an anthology are some of the ones I’ve found most teachable. “Lederhosen” by Haruki Murakami, from The Elephant Vanishes, would definitely be in. I have moments of victory every semester when the students start bemoaning the lack of (metaphorical) lederhosen in each other’s pieces.

Other immediate picks: “Lawns” by Mona Simpson, “Men Under Water” by Ralph Lombreglia, “Where We Must Be,” by Laura van den Berg, “To Reduce Your Likelihood of Murder” by Ander Monson, “L. DeBard and Aliette” by Lauren Groff, “Coddled” by Benjamin Drevlow, “The Way We Live Now” by Susan Sontag, “Brownies,” by Z.Z. Packer.

People are always gloomy about the vitality of the short story – or at least some people are. But then it seems that stories continue to thrive in certain ways, and there are plenty of places to read them, now including a growing number of online avenues, and you have published scads of stories all over the place. Where do you place yourself on the optimism/pessimism scale about the short story? Why do you think people are always diagnosing it with fatal disease?

I think there might be two different scales, one for the economic prospects of short stories, and one for the health of the actual stories. I think the form is thriving, with great work happening online, in print, in collections and anthologies. There’s so much out there that’s so good.

But at major publishing houses, story collections are charity cases. I think what’s happening to stories is what’s already happened to poetry—it’s been largely chased off the front tables of bookstores (or bookstores altogether) and off the lists at large publishers. But that doesn’t mean poetry isn’t being published. It just gets taken up by small publishers, independent and university presses, and marketed and sold in different ways. The energy and passion and quality in small press publishing is fantastic, and I think stories can thrive with that kind of home.

But the risk is that it becomes a closed system. Tiny books stay tiny because word of them only gets out to the people (fellow writers and esoteric readers) who already have their ears to the small press, independent bookstore ground. Assuming writers want to be read by as big an audience as possible (and maybe even pay their rent) this is a problem. But the stories themselves are alive and kicking and beautiful, and I think they get diagnosed with terminal illness so often because it’s an easy narrative. Anyone who’s ever written a short story knows it’s simpler to break up a marriage or kill off a grandma than to create a narrative that’s honest but hopeful. But it’s worth the effort. Let’s stop dumping stories, and grandmas, automatically in the ground.

You have a story, “The Sleep,” that is available for download on the Kindle, through The Atlantic. This seems like a cool frontier for the story – 3 bucks a pop, available in discrete units. How has that experiment worked out?

For sales figures, you’d have to ask The Atlantic—I have no idea. As a writer, I like being in different places: online, on the page, on someone’s Kindle. I love physical books, but electronic publishing can’t be the enemy. I think one of the challenges of eBooks (and eStories), is figuring out the pricing. iTunes has us all trained that a song is worth a dollar. But I don’t think anyone knows yet what text is “worth” when we’re buying it divorced from paper and covers. Hopefully the Atlantic Fiction for Kindle series can help figure that out. I was honored to work with them, and really pleased to find out that that story, “The Sleep,” has been selected for Best American Short Stories 2011. So I’m excited that it’s returning to dead-tree form, but also excited that the series editor was looking at this other medium, Kindle downloads, for prospective stories to include in the anthology.

Your story “On the Oregon Trail” is really funny and delightful and shaded with notes of sadness and regret – but I didn’t know until after I’d read it that it was actually based on a video game. What’s the relationship between the game and the story?

That’s one of the few stories I’ve written where I limited my audience in my own head—I didn’t think at all about the piece being accessible to a reader who didn’t know the game. The piece started when I was listening to Ander Monson talk at the AWP conference about video games and electronic environments. The list of video games that I’ve played more than once at someone else’s house is pretty much limited to Oregon Trail, Odell Lake, Tetris, and Angry Birds. But I loved Oregon Trail as a kid, and I started thinking about how miserable it would be actually to be a character inside the game, to be forced into stupid decisions, punished for no reason, to be moving at a “grueling pace,” eating “meager rations.” Maybe this is truest of the earlier generations of video games: you can’t wake up in Oregon Trail and decide to do something else for the day. The little wagon automatically chugs west across the scene. I was interested in how that could work as a short story, but didn’t see any way to “explain” the game in the piece, rather than take it as a given. For me, the story and the game were inextricable, so it’s such a pleasure (and surprise!) to hear that you enjoyed one without being familiar with the other.

Do you remember the first story you ever wrote? Was there anything in that story that remains a thread in your work today?

I don’t remember my first story ever, but I remember being in fifth or sixth grade and writing what was essentially fanfiction, although I didn’t know the term. I started a giant choose-your-own-adventure novel as a gift for my younger sister, populated with our favorite fantasy characters (I interviewed her to make lists of who to include). I never finished it, or even came close.  For a fifth grade language arts assignment, I wrote a terrible “bonus chapter” to Bridge to Terebithia about Leslie being reincarnated as a bug and telling Jess to chill out and not be so sad about her death. The only commonality I can come up with is that fiction has always been a way that I’ve processed and responded to things. I read Katherine Patterson’s book, liked it, and wanted to engage with it by making fiction of my own. And “fixing” the tear jerker ending. I illustrated my chapter with a picture of the Leslie-bug in a jar, air holes punched in the lid, Jess’ big face looming over her.

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Visit Caitlin’s web site here.

You can read past interviews here.

 

 

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