Interview with Caitlin Horrocks

by Elizabeth DeMeo


Reading “Teacher” (which appears in our sixth issue), I thought back to your story “Zero Conditional.” Though the teachers in these stories are at very different stages in their careers, they’re each frustrated by particular students. The students frustrating them, however, are quite different, both in attitude and behavior; each one helps create a different—and entirely unique—set of stakes within his respective story. Do you see these two stories in conversation with one another? Did having written “Zero Conditional” help you, in some way, to write “Teacher”?

I honestly hadn’t thought of the connection between the two stories until your question! “Teacher” grew out of an airport car service driver telling me about a freeway rock-throwing incident off I-80 in Pennsylvania. The driver’s wife had worked in a school one of the rock-throwers attended, which he mentioned only in passing, but it stuck fast in my mind. What if a person worried or suspected she knew exactly how a kid would turn out, and it was not good? What would she do then, or wish she’d done later? I thought it was going to need to be a longer story, whenever I sat down to write it, but then I drafted “Teacher” and felt like I’d pretty much said what I had to say about the question. I wasn’t thinking about “Zero Conditional” at all, but I suppose both stories are pushing against what we tend to think teacher-student relationships are supposed to look like, or the endless well of patience or objectivity that we want K-12 teachers to have (despite not necessarily offering resources or support or remuneration for the people actually in those jobs). Both women reach a point of frustration where they aren’t acting in the “correct” way, although Eril, in “Zero Conditional,” reaches that point in response to a student who poses no threat: she’s in over her head, in a job she doesn’t know how to do.

I was working from a sometimes dark set of facts, just hoping I was also bringing in enough light.

I’m so looking forward to your novel The Vexations, which is based on the life of French composer Erik Satie. You spoke in a recent Indiana Review interview about the challenges of the research process (and the ways you broke bad research habits!), but also noted how much you enjoy falling into the research rabbit hole. I’m curious whether you could speak more to the joys of researching this novel, in particular—were there any especially great discoveries?

A favorite fact: Paris landlords were none too quick to install running water, even after it was available, because most buildings still drained into individual cesspools, which the landlord would have to pay to empty. Providing the tenants with water would, in the landlords’ thinking, just raise the frequency and cost of emptying the cesspool. Apparently the vast benefit to public health and quality of life was just not that compelling. So, briefly: humans are terrible and selfish, and public utilities are a great and glorious thing.

That messy transitional period, where running water was perfectly possible but not widely available, is emblematic of a lot of the research I did for this particular book, which covers 1872 to 1944. Every time I thought I had a straightforward question, the answer turned out to depend on a multitude of factors, like region and social class and income and age and personal preference. It was a period of profound technological and social change, and the piecemeal way that things shifted was both fascinating and maddening to try and pin down.

One of the things that strikes me about your work is the way sadness and darkness are counterbalanced by forces like humor, kindness, even imagination and wonder. I’m speaking here not only about the balance within a single story, but across an entire collection; I so love, for instance, the juxtaposition of the rather hopeful “World Champion Cow of the Insane” with the emotionally devastating “Steal Small” in This Is Not Your City. Is this balance something you think about when writing a story, or constructing a collection? Did you approach it differently in the context of writing a novel?

The existence of a narrative is a fundamental argument about the importance of that narrative.

Thank you for saying this, because that balance of light and dark is something that I really value as a reader, and that is important to me as a writer. I do think about balance, although it tends to happen organically: most lives are naturally full of sadness and darkness and humor and kindness simultaneously, so if I’m doing justice to my characters, those things all show up. I didn’t approach this differently in the novel so much as keep doing what I was doing with my fingers crossed. The book spans several decades so, well, a lot of the characters die, or otherwise come to misfortune. The book is historical fiction, and I was working from a sometimes dark set of facts, just hoping I was also bringing in enough light.

Recently, I heard Sarah Gerard asked what it was like to shift from working with Two Dollar Radio on her first book to Harper Perennial on her second. I’d like to pose the same question to you with regard to your own work: how has publishing The Vexations with Little, Brown and Company differed from publishing your first book with an independent press like Sarabande? I’d imagine there are unique and particular joys to each.

I’ll probably be able to answer this question more thoroughly once the book is actually out. So far, there’s been less difference that I’d thought there might be! I’d heard horror stories about writers with bigger publishers not having much or any say in things like cover design or jacket copy (which I was heavily involved in with Sarabande). But the process at Little, Brown has so far been really collaborative, which I appreciate.

I got paid more for this book, so I’m now carrying around worry over whether the book will sell, which I felt much less acutely with Sarabande: my first book just seemed like an adventure, and if anyone read it at all, I’d have been happy. But this is an entirely self-imposed anxiety; certainly no one at L,B has tried to scare me into doing anything differently. I wrote the book I wanted to write, in both cases.  

In a 2014 piece for The Brooklyn Quarterly, you wrote that “We must write and read with the awareness that argument in fiction is entangled and entangling, whether we wish it to be or not.” As a teacher of fiction writing both at the undergraduate and MFA level, I’d like to know how you champion this statement in the classroom, perhaps through the readings you assign or the ways you workshop stories. I’m also keen to know how this awareness played into the decisions you made as former Fiction Editor for Kenyon Review—are there stories you’ve published that stand out in their ability to recognize the inherent entanglement of argument and fiction?

Revisiting that quote, I’m rolling my eyes at myself a bit over my use of “entangled and entangling,” because it feels like a word I used because I wasn’t quite sure what I really had to say. Like, sure, argument is “entangled”: but now what? And what do we do about it? Which is exactly the question you’ve asked, and I must admit I still don’t have a great answer!

I’m teaching both advanced fiction and advanced creative nonfiction workshops at my university this semester, and I’ve been thinking a lot about how the fear shows up, in different ways, that we’re individually boring. Boring lives, with boring insights. The fear shows up more nakedly in nonfiction courses than fiction, but it’s also present in how few stories students write set in places that are anything like the places we actually live. The existence of a narrative is a fundamental argument about the importance of that narrative, and I want them to know and believe that their own experiences and communities matter, and their stories matter, that their insights and obsessions matter. Putting anything down on the page is an argument for the importance of that thing, and I think for undergrads especially, it can be a scary argument to make.

As an editor, publishing anything is of course an argument for the importance of that thing, and at KR I know we became more mindful over time about trying to actively foster diversity in our pages and our programs. Our slush pile is such a massive treasure trove, with more good work than we could ever publish, that it’s easy to be complacent about just selecting from what shows up—we were always paying attention to the range of work we accepted from the slush, but we didn’t necessarily reach beyond authors who could already imagine their work having a home in our pages. KR, both while I was there and after I left, has been trying to do more and do better.

Editorially, something that was interesting and a little heartbreaking was how our packed production schedule didn’t make even overtly political or argumentative pieces less timely. We were routinely accepting pieces that we wouldn’t be able to publish until a year after acceptance, by which point the world would obviously be far beyond whatever moment in the news cycle the author had been inspired by. If a piece felt particularly of-the-moment we would get it online more quickly, but there were some stories for print or KRO that I secretly hoped might date (from a citizen’s perspective, less an editor’s). They never did, most recently Wendy Rawlings’s “Coffins for Kids!” about grieving a child murdered in a school shooting, which is still as painfully relevant as whenever she first wrote it.

A comment you made in a Superstition Review interview—“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”—makes me curious: which contemporary writers do you admire in this regard? Though I know you’ve previously discussed your own choices in terms of various settings for your stories, I’m wondering whether there any stories or novels you’ve read lately that stand out to you in their use of place.

That authors that first leap to mind are the ones that come to a lot of people’s, like Elizabeth Strout, Bonnie Jo Campbell, Josh Weil, or Eleanor Henderson, who all do place very and consistently well. More specifically, in terms of my recent reading, I think Daniel Abbott’s debut novel The Concrete makes powerful use of its Grand Rapids, Michigan setting (a much grittier side of the city than what the city itself advertises). I admire the Wyoming of Nina McConigley’s stories in Cowboys and East Indians. Antonio di Benedetto’s Zama, set in 1700s Paraguay, isn’t like any place I’ve actually been (or that Benedetto himself had ever been) but it’s indelible. Jeff Vandermeer’s Southern Reach trilogy. And Alain-Fournier’s The Lost Estate, which is a gloriously beautiful, weird French refraction of The Great Gatsby; or rather, since Alain-Fournier’s book was published 12 years earlier, Fitzgerald’s novel reads like an American version of Le Grand Meaulnes.

CAITLIN HORROCKS is author of the novel The Vexations and the story collection This Is Not Your City. 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, and elsewhere. She teaches at Grand Valley State University in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

ELIZABETH DEMEO is an Assistant Editor with Tin House Books. The former managing editor of the Arkansas International, she is also the former director of the Arkansas Writers in the Schools program. Her essay “The Making of Marble House Girls'“ appears in the winter 2018 edition of the Indiana Review.