In Print Festival VII Interview: Caitlin Horrocks, Fiction Writer

The annual In Print Festival of First Books at Ball State University includes readings, discussions, and classroom visits with authors who have recently published their first books. The two-day event typically includes three emerging authors and an editor or publisher. This year, the authors are Caitlin Horrocks (fiction), Bonnie J. Rough (nonfiction), and Glenn Shaheen (poetry). Fulfilling this year’s editor/publisher portion is Christopher Newgent of Vouched Books based in Indianapolis.

In Print also marks the release of The Broken Plate. This year, the editors of The Broken Plate asked the visiting authors to contribute an interview to the issue. TBP’s editors would like to note that they are grateful to Caitlin Horrocks, Bonnie J. Rough, and Glenn Shaheen for the opportunity to share their ideas about writing with the readers of TBP. In the weeks leading up to In Print, we will be excerpting these author interviews here on the BSU English Department blog.

Caitlin Horrocks lives in Michigan with fellow writer W. Todd Kaneko, where she is an assistant professor of writing at Grand Valley State University and a fiction editor at West Branch. Her work has appeared 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, and One Story, among others. Her debut collection of stories, This Is Not Your City, was published by Sarabande Books in July 2011. She loves strange maps, has hugged a koala, and is terrible at baseball. She is not terrible, however, at Finnish baseball—as long as she remembers to run the bases backwards.

The following interview was conducted by Broken Plate 2012 student faculty member Catherine Roberts.

Catherine Roberts: All of the main characters in the stories of This is Not Your City are women overcoming or working through different types of obstacles, yet you still manage to give them all individual voices. How do your characters come to you? Do you ever have difficulty separating them?

Caitlin Horrocks: It’s great to hear that they all seem like individuals—the stories were all written separately, without any thought about how they might go together in the same book. I think that helped the characters to stay separated. A character can start with anything, but many of the ones in this book began with a situation or concept—“Embodied” came from my daydreaming about what reincarnation might actually be like, and “Steal Small” and “In the Gulf of Aden, Past the Cape of Guardafui” both started with news articles, for example. To go from a concept to a three-dimensional character, I start asking myself questions as I write. For “Steal Small,” I was asking, “Who is the person who would do this bad thing? (and not be a monster, because monsters aren’t really interesting to write or read about) Does she regret it? Does she do it anyway? Why? What else does she regret?” Hopefully in the writing a character comes alive. A lot of writers talk about their fiction emerging from “What if…?” questions. A lot of my stories emerge from “Who is the person who…(does thing X, or feels Y, or has had past experience Z)?”

In some of your pieces, such as “It Looks Like This,” you incorporate pictures in the stories. Why were these visuals necessary? At what point did you decide to include them?

That story started as the last assignment in a “Forms of Fiction” course in graduate school: Create Your Own Form. I immediately had the idea of doing something illustrated, but then I didn’t want it to feel halfhearted or lame. I wanted the pictures to feel necessary to the story, not just take up space. I think that idea, of taking up space, triggered the idea that for the narrator, the pictures are about taking up space, about helping her get through this difficult assignment to write about her life. I liked the way [the images] helped [the narrator] be playful in ways she normally wouldn’t, and they helped me be playful as a writer, in a story that otherwise contains a lot of unhappiness.

What other writers have influenced you?

Louise Erdrich was huge—I read the first chapter of Love Medicine in high school, and a light bulb went off for me about what contemporary fiction was, and what it could do. Flannery O’Connor taught me a ton about short stories, and about being vicious but still heartbreaking. George Saunders and Ron Carlson helped show me that short stories could also be funny.

Do you have any non-literary influences?

The artist Laura Ford creates sculptures that feel to me like what I try to do with words. Watching a great movie or television episode can make me want to write. Non-writing hobbies, like quilting or baking, have found their way into my stories. I’m also working on a novel inspired by the composer Erik Satie (and in a roundabout way by my own years of playing piano).

What are you reading right now?

I just finished reading 42 novel and story collection manuscripts, as a preliminary judge for a book contest. I found some amazing books that I’m sure will find publication soon, one way or another. But I also feel like I learned a lot about how novels go off the rails, or how story collections might fizzle. It was a great education in cautionary tales. I also recently finished Kevin Wilson’s The Family Fang, Karen Russell’s Swamplandia!, Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, and Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach. All excellent.

Why is “This is Not Your City” the title piece?

Partly for totally practical reasons: take a look at the table of contents and see if you can imagine an entire book called “Zolaria” or “World Champion Cow of the Insane.” On one hand, sure, but on the other, I don’t think that’s the book I wrote, and I don’t want readers getting angry (“This book sucks. Where is the Crazy Cow Competition!?”). So “This Is Not Your City” was chosen by elimination, but I also like how it reflects the placelessness that a lot of the characters are struggling with. They’re trying to figure out where they belong and what or who belongs to them. And happily, I think the title story was up to the task of being The Title Story— a heavy weight to put on its shoulders.

What advice would you give to writers aspiring for publication?

There’s no hurry and it isn’t a race. The goal isn’t just “to get published,” it’s to place work you feel proud of in venues you respect where, hopefully, readers will find it. There were a few years before I went to graduate school when I wondered if I was supposed to be sending work out for publication, and wondering if my work was good enough. It wasn’t at the time, and I’m glad I didn’t feel pressure from myself or anyone else to send it out. Those were important stories, the stories I learned from and that allowed me to go on and write better ones. I’m glad I wrote them; I’m also glad I didn’t try to publish them. All of us have apprenticeships as artists. That apprenticeship can be as short or long as you want or need. Keep writing, keep getting better, and when you feel ready to submit the magazines and agents and publishing houses will all still be there. Rejection is a fact of life for a writer, but great work really does float to the top. You can’t control the rejection, so slow down and make the work as good as you know how to make it.

Could you describe your writing process? Are there any set rhythms or rituals you use to make the words flow?

I’m envious of those writers who work every day, or at specific times, or even in specific rooms of their houses. I feel like they’ve cracked some code, and must be better, happier, more productive people. I write at my coffee table, or dining room table, or occasionally my desk. I write at night, except when I write in the morning or afternoon. The trouble isn’t making the words flow, it’s finding time. I fall into the trap of wanting set rhythms or big blocks of uninterrupted hours; I’m trying to get better at seizing whatever time I have and getting words down.

What are you working on right now? How will it differ from This is Not Your City?

I’ve usually got a story or two underway, but I’m trying to focus on a novel. It will be very different from TINYC. It’s inspired by the life of Erik Satie, a really eccentric early 20th century French composer. If it’s a fraction as funny and creative and lovely (but often lonely) as his music, I’ll be thrilled.

What first inspired you to start writing? Did you always want to be a writer?

I was a big bookworm as a kid, and I was always interested in writing. But I thought it was something I’d eventually have to set aside when I grew up and got a real job. I don’t know who I thought wrote all those books I loved, but I didn’t seriously think I could ever become that person. But I kept writing through school, through college. It still seemed self-indulgent, or temporary. Then I graduated and kept writing, even without deadlines or classes. I applied to MFA programs telling myself that I could always go to law school afterwards. But then I had enough success that I was finally able to get through my thick skull that writing was a legitimate thing to be doing—I just had to stop apologizing for it and own it as something I loved and wanted to be good at.

Caitlin Horrocks will be featured as this year’s fiction writer at the In Print Festival VII which will take place on March 20 and 21. See the official event on Facebook here or on the blog’s official calendar.

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