The Rumpus Interview with Caitlin Horrocks

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“I like to show my class a Top Chef episode where the contestants are supposed to make something interesting out of potatoes, like sweet potato ice cream. I try to talk about vampires that way: there’s nothing wrong with comfort reading, but if they really want to write about vampires, at least make vampire ice cream.”

Caitline Horrocks’ good to her word: She ends her new prize-winning collection This Is Not Your City with a bona fide pirate story.

These stories (even those without pirates) are dangerous stories, in which real people face down real threats. They are lyric when they need to be—Horrocks is one of the few writers I know to break my heart with a prepositional phrase (page 114 for those following along)—but she’s adamant that old-fashioned storytelling still wins the day. Perhaps it’s unsurprising that Horrocks compares fiction writing to carpentry, for indeed, these stories are workmanlike, content to get us the good, honest way: laying open a stranger’s heart on the day it learns its own breaking point.

Short stories do this so well because they mimic real life: Unlike novels, we don’t really know most people long enough to find out how it turns out for them. Instead, we work, eat, travel beside someone just long enough to glimpse what she’s up against, and it’s this unfinished empathy for the person right next to us—in bed, on the bus—that haunts us and haunts these stories.

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The Rumpus: I’m interested (and a little baffled) by the idea of a story collection, how stories come together and fit and operate as a whole. What are all these women doing in the same room? Which stories came first? Did the stories shift and change to make room for each other?

Caitlin Horrocks: Oh, I’m still baffled. I’m coming to suspect that most collections are put together more haphazardly than I’d thought. There have been many different versions of this manuscript, and I struggled with how tightly the stories should fit together. Things I agonized over, like whether the smattering of international settings along with the Midwestern settings was too weird, hasn’t—as far as I know—been too weird for anybody. Partly, these women all just wandered into the same room, I didn’t make them leave, and that’s worked out fine.

“Embodied” and “It Looks Like This” are the oldest stories in the book, and very different, although each has a pretty distinctive voice driving the action. The newer stories tend to be less voice-driven, but nothing about those sorts of changes was intentional—I was just doing whatever seemed interesting to me at the time. Hopefully the party ended up with a good guest list.

Rumpus: I keep coming back to danger in short fiction. In some of these stories, the danger is pushed under the bed, or at least kicked down the road. In others, it’s right there in the room with us. How do you as the writer know where the danger belongs?

Horrocks: In Making Shapely Fiction, Jerome Stern describes a story type he calls “Bear at the Door,” in which there’s some danger at hand, coming closer and closer, while the characters try to figure out what to do. I love the bluntness of the name, love picturing a clawed paw and a roar outside the cabin door, even if, in literary fiction, our bears are rarely actual bears. In my story “Embodied,” the narrator’s own past is knocking hard at that cabin door, and she does something terrible to try to keep it at bay. Other characters might realize that someone let the bear into the room long ago, it’s settled onto the couch, and we have to figure out how to coexist with it.

As for what danger’s place should be, I spend a lot of time thinking about what short stories do well. Being stalked by an international crime boss would constitute a bear, but I’m not convinced that a story does that better than a film might, or a novel. Some bears seem to work better in stories than others, and they’re often internal, rather than external: a character’s own doubts or insecurities can be bears. But always dealing with entirely internal danger can doom literary short fiction into the hole so many people think it occupies, of little worlds where nothing really happens and nothing has any reality outside the protagonist’s head. I hope the bears are inside and outside—even when there’s no drooling bear on the porch, the characters can still pose a danger to themselves or each other.

Rumpus: But that little world where nothing really happens has been confirmed – it’s Facebook!

Horrocks: And I like it there. I’m not a Facebook apologist. I get links to interesting articles, I play Scrabble, I see updates about what’s going on in the lives of people I do actually care about. I know it isn’t “real life” but it’s a perfectly nice addition to it. A time-sucking, privacy-sucking one, where we try to find unusually witty ways to describe our daily lives, but I still enjoy it.

Rumpus: There seems to be a lot of willful not-hearing in these stories. Is hearing a threat for these characters, an epiphany?

Horrocks: I think they usually perceive it as a threat. If they could calm themselves and listen, they might find the capacity for epiphany. Even when hearing is a threat, the characters eventually have to take their hands off their ears. Those bears are always at the cabin door, but they can’t create any conflict if the characters really, truly, don’t hear them, and just keep making s’mores inside. That might be kind of hilarious for about two pages, and then it would be maddening. Without hearing there is no story.

Rumpus: “I know myself plenty,” the main character in “Zolaria” says to her mother. “I think I know all I want to.” And in fact she and the other protagonists display an acute, almost elbowy self-awareness—they know a great deal about themselves, maybe too much to be happy. Have you worked with characters who don’t understand themselves?

Horrocks: They’re elbowy! I love this. They are elbowy. Self-awareness is usually thought of as an unmitigated good thing—how can someone be happy or stable or fit company without it? But the main character in “Zolaria” is so convinced of her own cowardice she’d be willing to die to make amends, to save her own children. Her idea of herself doesn’t bring her any comfort. But now I’m just agreeing with what you already said.

I don’t think the narrator in “It Looks Like This” knows herself terribly well, but I think that’s her youth, and how constrained her life has been. Eril in “Zero Conditional” ends up bungling a job she’s not suited to in pretty spectacular fashion, but I think her uncertainties—not knowing what she’s good at, or what would make her happy—also come out of being young, and are familiar to most people in their 20s. I don’t know if I’ve written many older characters with the same…unfinishedness about themselves. Now that you have me thinking about it, I should try.

Rumpus: You received your MFA from Arizona State, and teach now at Grand Valley State. So you’ve been on both sides of the workshop. But as I read these stories, there’s that funny thing, mystery—of the line, of an ending that alights and delivers us. How did your teachers talk about these things, and as a teacher, how do you think about craft and its relationship to mystery?

Horrocks: I teach fiction writing, but I don’t know how to teach mystery. I hope no one at Grand Valley State asks for their money back now, but it’s true. I can teach craft. But I don’t really have exercises or prompts that are go-to mystery generators.

As a student, I feel like I learned the most from teachers who talked to me about how a story was built. My time at ASU taught me so much about the carpentry of fiction, and I don’t mean that in a reductive way—I needed to have much better control of my tools before I found the mystery for myself, or could evoke it in my reader.

The mystery comes from the work, and the work is often slow and hard. The longer two characters stay in a room and talk to each other, the more chances you give the mystery between them, and the more comfortable you are with dialogue, with what you’ve seen other writers do, the more able you are to stick it out in that room.

Rumpus: Do you see this book or your work more largely in conversation with other books or writers?

Horrocks: Absolutely yes, but also no. I have trouble thinking of my work as monolithic enough to hold a single place in a larger literary conversation, but I have individual pieces that have taken other stories as jumping-off points: my time machine in “At the Zoo” was inspired by Stuart Dybek’s “Paper Lantern,” for example. And there are always correlations a reader will see that the author might not have thought of. I get asked if “Zero Conditional” was inspired by Donald Barthelme’s “The School.” (Not purposefully, but I’d be proud of any connection.)

Conversation can also imply refutation, but I never saw this book as fighting words. I do try to avoid those literary short stories in which nothing actually happens, or formal experiments that come at the total cost of characters or emotional engagement. I still have a lot of faith in old-school storytelling.

I don’t agree at all with people who think MFA programs are turning American short stories into uniform little cubes, all lyrical polish and no substance. But as an editor at West Branch I do read a lot of stories in which the author doesn’t seem to believe in his own ability to truly entertain, or surprise, or wound. The story and the surprise and the mystery and the heart punch: there’s no reason they can’t all be there. They should break the door down alongside those bears.

Rumpus: I like that, the heart punch. But these little lyric cubes of nothing-happens you get in the mail (or on Submishmash)—are they coming from MFAers? Be honest. Because there are a lot of us out there.

Horrocks: They come from everywhere, graduate degree or not. But yeah, okay, there are a lot of stories by MFA-ers that are polished and lure me all the way to the last page without ever really grabbing me by the shoulders and shaking me. That’s subjective, of course—my yawn is someone else’s heart punch.

I once had a really aggravating conversation at a writer’s conference with someone who complained that publishing was all about connections and networking. I said that I genuinely believed that great work got recognized. He said sure, great work would, but it was unfair that merely good stories got published based on who the author knew. I thought, who wants to sit around writing good-but-not-great stories, and then try to network their way to publication? What a soul-killing way to spend time, and betrayal of whatever drives us to write in the first place.

Rumpus: Have you been to the Warren G. Harding childhood home that appears in “World Champion Cow of the Insane”? How about the International Nun Museum?

Horrocks: No, but I’ve passed the highway exit for the Warren G. Harding Home many times, and always regretted not stopping. I’m slightly scarred by a childhood tour of the President Benjamin Harrison home that involved an exhaustive description of all the silverware. My parents first met when they were working at the Dwight D. Eisenhower Library, and my sister and I were taken on a lot of visits to presidential sites, some more interesting than others. I have been to the Henry Ford Museum that appears in the story. It is legitimately fun—way more fun than the Benjamin Harrison coloring book I used to have.

Rumpus: What are you reading now?

Horrocks: American Masculine, by Shann Ray; The Summer Book, by Tove Jansson; Once Upon a River, by Bonnie Jo Campbell; For Sale By Owner, by Kelcey Parker. I literally have bookmarks in all these books at once. It’s a problem.

Rumpus: I do that, too. When I was a kid I’d read one book at a time. I think it’s because I needed to return them to the library. What haven’t you read, but always meant to?

Horrocks: Tristram Shandy, although that was my answer to this same question in an interview almost exactly two years ago, and it probably says something that I still haven’t read it. I suppose if I really, really meant to, I’d just do it. I did watch the movie Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story, which, as I’d tell my students, doesn’t count at all.


Kate Petersen's fiction and non-fiction has appeared in New England Review, The Iowa Review, The Los Angeles Review, The Paris Review Daily, The Collagist, and elsewhere. She lives in Minneapolis, and is at work on a novel and story collection. More from this author →