Caitlin Horrocks is author of the story collection This Is Not Your City (Sarabande Books, 2011).Her stories appear in The New Yorker, The Best American Short Stories 2011, The PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories 2009, The Pushcart Prize XXXV, The Paris Review, One Story and elsewhere. Her work has won awards including the Plimpton Prize and a Bread Loaf Writers' Conference Fellowship. She is a fiction editor at West Branch, and teaches at Grand Valley State University in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
This interview was conducted through email by Interview Coordinator Erin Caldwell. She says of the process, "I first read Caitlin Horrocks' work in a recent edition of the Pushcart Prize anthology. The short story 'Steal Small' is also included in her first collection This Is Not Your City. These stories introduce a variety of characters and their distinct emotional journeys to the reader. I was pleased to find out that she has spent time living in Arizona and working with ASU, among other areas around the world and country. Her interview here talks about her sense of place and characterization, the act of writing without a workshop, and more."
Superstition Review: The stories in This is Not Your City focus on eleven very different female protagonists. Each one is strong and seeking some sort of independence, yet almost all are fundamentally flawed. What do you hope your readers will gain through these depictions? How do these characteristics resonate with your own experiences as a woman writer?
Caitlin Horrocks: A colleague was looking over a draft of the jacket copy for the book, and really wanted me to ask Sarabande to remove the “eleven women” from the first line. He thought it was overly specific, and might limit the audience for the book. The line stayed, but I understood his point. I don't think of these primarily as stories-about-women, no more than I think of myself as a “woman writer.” I mean, I'm a woman and I write. But I never saw these stories as speaking only, or even primarily, to other women. The protagonists are flawed people trying to achieve some happiness, or to at least get by, and that seems true to me of everybody, myself included, and both genders included.
SR: All of your characters in are extremely well-developed, leaving me, as a reader, wanting to hear about their lives after the story. Where do you “find” your protagonists? Do you see a future for any of them in a longer storyline?
CH: I know a lot of writers' first novels come from stories that exploded into longer works, or that kept haunting them until the writers returned to those characters. I'm weird in that that just doesn't seem to happen to me.
When I teach short story writing, I talk about the importance of creating the feeling that the world of the story continues, or could continue—that the characters should feel real beyond the page. But in some ways I'm a total fraud, because I don't usually think about my own characters' lives beyond where the story ends. I think about my characters a lot while I'm working on a story, but then I step away, and I'm not usually drawn back. After my story “Sun City” appeared in The New Yorker, the magazine did a brief interview with me that asked what happened to one of the main characters after the story ended. This seems like an obvious question, and one an author should be able to answer, but I was clueless. I literally hadn't thought about it. Then a friend and fellow writer suggested that this character might start a blog about guinea pigs, and my answer to The New Yorker was the URL. (http://guineapigcity.tumblr.com/ I kept it up for a couple of months, until I felt like I should either make it do something, narratively, or else develop a sincere passion for guinea pig photos.
I'm flattered whenever a character feels like s/he has a life beyond the page, but I don't usually know any better than the reader what that life might look like.
SR: You deal with a variety of difficult themes throughout your collection, from sexual abuse to dying young to past-lives to ticking biological clocks. Many authors stay away from these danger zones. What apprehensions, if any, do you have about exploring such touchy subjects?
CH: Actually, I feel like a lot of authors write about dying young, or sexual abuse, or biological ticking clocks. I think my main worries with those particular subjects was how to handle them in ways that didn't feel cliched or forced or like cheap drama. Or, with the biological clock ticking down, how to make that really feel pressing to my readers. That's a concern that perhaps goes back to your first question—I think it's too easy, and common, to dismiss the clock as exclusively a woman's concern. But what does it mean to face, not just the possibility of not having the children that someone had always wanted or assumed she'd have, but any version of what we thought our lives would look like? What does it mean to either give up a long-held hope, or to try desperately to make it happen?
I suppose a common thread is that I don't think a writer can ever expect a trauma to carry its own weight. Even abuse or death are going to feel irrelevant on the page if the reader can't make it feel real and true and important to the characters.
Something like past-lives is probably a rarer subject, and that made it fun to me. The most worried I've ever been about a choice of subject was probably receiving an email from a mother whose child suffers from the same disability as the boy in “In the Gulf of Aden, Past the Cape of Guardafui.” I started reading her message with my stomach falling through the floor, because I was so worried that I might have gotten my facts wrong, or that she might feel I had appropriated an experience that I had no right to. But she was happy to have read something that she could see her own life reflected in. That email turned out to be one of the single best “reviews” I've ever gotten, and has probably helped me keep up my resolve not to be scared off the “danger zones.”
SR: Your stories are filled with themes of displacement and isolation. Describe the ways these emotions have informed your development as a writer.
CH: I started thinking about these things most deliberately when I was living in Finland. I was in a smallish town, but I was still surrounded by people who had studied English and spoke it at least a little. It wasn't exactly a hardship post. But I was still very conscious of how different I felt from the person I'd been when I could communicate easily, when I knew how to take the bus without looking like a fool. I was someone who'd always used language easily, and stumbling around in the world, speaking like a toddler, made me think about how we construct our own senses of self, about how those might shift when we're cut off from other people, or evolve in response to how other people see us.
SR: There is a heavy sense of place in each of your stories; many characters, in one way or another, find or seek an identity based on geography in a very specific area. How have similar attachments impacted your life and writing? Many of your stories take place in the American Midwest or in Eastern Europe. How are these two distinctly different areas important to you, personally? What other places would like to write about?
CH: I've actually always been jealous of writers who have a strong sense of place in their work, or who write lots of stories deeply rooted in a single community or landscape. I've been part of a few panel discussions of Michigan literature, and none of the definitions or characteristics we come up with ever fit my work. The archetypal Michigan landscapes are either northern wilderness or Rust Belt Detroit. But I grew up in Ann Arbor, a college town that doesn't fit the pattern, and I'm not sure I've written anything that could only take place there. My story “Zolaria,” for example, is totally steeped in places from my childhood, but I think those are places (a middle school, a forest park, a Dairy Queen, an abandoned gas station) that could show up almost anywhere. I think some of my non-U.S. settings are especially vivid because I was able to experience them as an outsider, and I was paying more active attention to them as places, or even deliberately as potential settings for fiction.
I fantasize about writing pieces set almost everywhere I've been: I've got pieces underway about Michigan's upper peninsula, where I spent some time last summer, and about France. I think France was the first place I've travelled to specifically to research a work-in-progress, so it was interesting to experience the place through that lens. I went to Peru a couple of years ago just for a vacation, but I'd love to set fiction there eventually.
SR: Themes of education, school-age children, and science (especially, women and girls interacting with science) recur in a few of your stories. Why? How has your time in classrooms (as student or teacher) informed your work?
CH: I have mixed feelings about classroom settings. As an editor, I've read a lot of stories about someone teaching composition or creative writing at a university, written by someone teaching composition or creative writing at a university. Those stories are almost never, ever successful (not saying they can't be, just that they usually aren't). But I had a lot of fun with the disastrous third grade classroom in “Zero Conditional.” And I consistently have a lot of fun incorporating scientific facts or asides into my work. I'm a total science dilettante; I don't have any real training or even ability to read scientific publications. I once had a subscription to Scientific American and then realized that Discovermagazine was more my speed. I'm not Scientific enough, I guess. The last page of Harper's—the “Findings” feature, of bizarre discoveries—is the kind of scientific information that catches my eye. Surprising, and wondrous, and usually stranger than fiction.
SR: When did you know you wanted to write? Was there a specific event that cemented this desire?
CH: 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.
SR: In your life and travels, where have you written the most? Where do you write today? Describe your creative space.
CH: I write anywhere and everywhere I can. At a desk, on my couch, on my bed, at my dining room table, at my coffee table, in coffee shops, in my office at work, in the margins of notes I'm supposed to be taking for a class or meeting. I used to get a lot of story ideas when I was listening to someone lecture about fiction. That's one of the many things I missed after I finished graduate school—all the new story ideas scribbled in my workshop notes.
I'm jealous of those writers who have set routines or places that they work. I'm sure that they're better, happier, more productive people than I am. But at least so far, no routine has stuck. My favorite thing about my desk at home, when I'm actually using it, is that our house is on a hill, so when I look out the back second-story window, I'm looking into the tops of the trees planted farther down the hill. It gives the room a treehouse feel.
SR: What literary works and authors inspire you most?
CH: Jane Eyre was one of the first books I really loved, that I felt was also teaching me something about being true to one's characters, even at the cost of making the reader angry. Louise Erdrich was huge—I read the first chapter of Love Medicine in high school, and a lightbulb went off for me about what contemporary fiction was, and what it could do. Italo Calvino has been really important to me as a writer, too, although that influence probably isn't very visible in my work. 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. Among new writers, I think Karen Russell is amazing.