The Rumpus Interview with Skip Horack
The Other Joseph, Skip Horack’s incredible new novel, tells the story of a lonely felon and offshore oil rig worker, Roy Joseph, who—years after the death of his parents and the disappearance of his beloved brother in the first Gulf War—embarks on a journey in search of a potential relative who has unexpectedly contacted him. It’s a gorgeous book, brilliant and heartbreaking and funny, with characters so well drawn they were impossible to get out of my mind. I can’t remember the last time I read a contemporary novel that had such an instant feel of a classic.
Skip Horack is the author of two previous books, The Eden Hunter, which was a New York Times Editors’ Choice; and the story collection The Southern Cross, winner of the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference Bakeless Fiction Prize. His work has appeared in such publications as Oxford American, Epoch, The Southern Review, and Narrative Magazine. He is a former Jones Lecturer at Stanford University, where he was also a Wallace Stegner Fellow. A native of Louisiana, Horack is an assistant professor at Florida State University.
He chatted with me over email from his home in Tallahassee.
The Rumpus: Roy Joseph is one of the most compelling narrators I’ve read in years. A convicted sex felon maimed in an oil rig accident, he strikes me as a loner who yearns for connection, a man who’s deeply misunderstood by almost everyone he encounters. What was it like to have that voice—confessional, wounded, hyper-aware—swimming around in your head for so long?
Skip Horack: This question reminds me of something I’m sure you and I have laughed about before—that curse of the fiction writer: the struggle to be the most present version of yourself in the real world while simultaneously holding a complicated imaginary world in your head. But, at least for me, that probably has more to do with creating and tracking an ever-evolving and developing plot than harboring a narrative voice—because, in actuality, channeling Roy’s voice was such a nice and helpful means by which to shift gears and begin writing or ruminating on the book, to move from the real world to that make-believe one and disappear into my imagination, his imagination. Also, I like the guy, and I enjoy how he thinks and talks. For all his scars and sorrows, Roy’s voice—his particular manner of seeing and describing, his typically deadpan reactions to the strange things he encounters along the way, his individual brand of quirkiness—was a source of tremendous insight, and even much humor, for me.
Rumpus: Your last book, The Eden Hunter—about an African pygmy tribesman who’s brought to America by slave traders in the early nineteenth century—required a ton of research that led you to Africa and beyond. The Other Joseph is set in contemporary times and, for the most part, takes place in two of the parts of the country I imagine you know quite well: San Francisco, where you lived for six years, and your native Louisiana, the place I’m guessing you know best. Nevertheless, did you still find yourself going down the research rabbit hole as you learned about oil rigs, Louisiana sex offense laws, Russian mail-order brides, Navy SEALs? And how do you know when it’s time to stop researching and start inventing?
Horack: Yes, having Louisiana and San Francisco to work with definitely brought me great comfort, but I believe I did at least as much research for this novel as with The Eden Hunter. And yet, as with that book, I mostly let my writing or inventing guide my research, diving into outside sources and investigations as problems and potential plot points presented themselves on the page, avoiding that creativity-killing “rabbit hole” concern as best I could by always trying to frame my inquiries around the developing narrative—and keeping careful notes about that which I still needed to learn or confirm.
Now, that said, with any novel I have to conduct a substantial amount of rabbit hunting just to get started, but once that first chapter or whatnot is in pretty good shape I try to roll forward, letting my writing inform my research, and my research inform my writing. Indeed, so many of my plot ideas stem from information I discover while running down facts. It’s a very symbiotic relationship when that back-and-forth is clicking, as generating a gripping fictional narrative usually comes down to finding surprising yet believable ways to write myself out of whatever corner I’ve written myself into—and research is as crucial to me as my imagination is in that regard.
I should also mention that, once I have a fairly well-revised novel draft completed, I like to enroll a few subject-matter experts to read the manuscript, folks I’ve already leaned on in more informal conversations up to that point. Posing additional questions to them, but also begging them to identify what I’ve gotten wrong and to suggest things I might layer in. For example, the knowledge, scrutiny, and feedback of a Navy SEAL cousin and an oil industry worker best friend were essential to the final version of The Other Joseph. My scariest and most humbling readers, in a way—but before I get the pages into those hands I feel strongly that it is important to have created a highly researched, and clearly written, hypothesis I can then adjust as needed. Otherwise, I don’t feel as if I’ve earned the right to ask them to devote so much of their time and wisdom.
Do you know of a better method, Molly? I feel as if you must—every single one of your stories in The UnAmericans seems built upon a mountain of research, yet they all wear that research so beautifully.
Rumpus: I read somewhere that you often begin a writing project with an image you can’t shake. What was the image that sparked The Other Joseph?
Horack: True! I scrawled that on the men’s room wall of the Hockey Haven on Balboa Street before leaving San Francisco. What were you doing in there?
At any rate, if I had to link the origins of this book to one particular image I’d go with Sutro Tower. A big metal insect, perched on high, looming over of San Francisco. In Herb Caen’s words: “I keep waiting for it to stalk down the hill and attack the Golden Gate Bridge”—and I feel the same way. I’d moved from Louisiana to San Francisco, a displaced Southerner myself, and all those days wandering my new home, trying to think of a novel to write, that somehow foreboding tower almost always visible or waiting to appear at the turn of a corner. Well, practically at first sight I was contemplating how much that TV tower resembled a Gulf of Mexico oil rig—a fish-out-of-water guy using the familiar to process the unfamiliar. That no doubt worked on my subconscious, leading to the eventual creation of Roy and his narrative. A jumping-off point. And while there’s only one mention of Sutro Tower in the novel, Roy musing:
To the east-southeast, over the tops of the houses across the way and the trees of Golden Gate Park, were the lights of the antenna tower I could spot from all over the city. Sutro Tower, I would come to learn—a gigantic red-and-white fork that sat atop a high hill maybe four miles away, ruling the skyline. Sutro Tower looked a lot like the derrick of a drilling rig, and those lights seemed to be for me. A San Francisco oil rig saying, Go back where you belong.
I suppose that short passage sort of cuts to the heart of my inspiration for the book.
Rumpus: Something I’ve noticed in all three of your books is your incredible sense of place. In this novel, I was really interested in how you depicted San Francisco. It seems like such a hard city to approach in an innovative way because it’s so iconic; it feels almost impossible not to fall into the trap of writing about the fog and the skyline and the bridge. And yet much of your novel explores the Outer Richmond and other pockets of the city I’ve rarely encountered in fiction. You made the whole city feel fresh to me. Did you set out to write about these parts that feel largely unexplored in novels, or did that just emerge naturally? And did you set the same challenges for yourself when depicting the South?
Horack: I appreciate that more than I can say. Truly makes my day, because setting has always been extremely important to me as a writer. Typically stories without a strong sense of place are impossible for me to visualize. They read flat, as if they’re taking place in a vacuum. Now, for sure—San Francisco, New Orleans, the South—very difficult locales to write about without slipping into the cliché and familiar. And, after all, San Francisco does have fog, cable cars, that bridge… just as New Orleans has her Mardi Gras and her Bourbon Street; the South, its Spanish moss, cicadas, et cetera. So how to write of such places—or any place, really—and not simply cover old ground? A constant struggle, but over the years the only trick I’ve stumbled upon is to lean on my characters. To rely on them to—and to let them—interact with and describe their environs in authentic and revealing ways—Sutro Tower as oil rig, for example—exploring and exposing the less obvious characteristics of a place, while at the same time providing me with fresh, compelling voices and personalities with which to convey the well-worn, the iconic. To be pretentious, I can’t imagine any novel about San Francisco failing to mention the fog there, but I’d love for that same novel to be peeling the fog back as well. And I hope I’ve managed to do that to good end in The Other Joseph—for every one of the book’s various settings.
Rumpus: One of the things that kept me quickly turning the pages of your novel was that I never knew what was going to happen next. I found the ending so shocking and resonant. And I was consistently surprised throughout Roy’s journey, most often by the people he encounters, namely Lionel Purcell, on his road trip, and Viktor Fedorov and Marina Katanova, once he arrives in San Francisco. How much did you know was going to happen as you drafted the book, and how much of it came as a surprise to you?
Horack: I didn’t begin this novel with a roadmap of any sort—just a situation, a premise. And that seems to be my process with all of my fiction. As mentioned, I tend to write myself into some corner, then try to find an unexpected-but-plausible way, through a combination of research, disciplined imagination, and creative problem-solving, to write myself out of it. Though I want to make clear that’s just my process. And when it comes to process, sometimes I feel as if writers can be divided into two camps, those who start with an outline and those who don’t. Initially, at least, I’m a no-outline writer myself, but I have enough writer friends to understand that there are countless outline devotees who pen beautiful books. It just happens to have been my own experience that fiction that doesn’t surprise me in the writing of it has almost always failed to surprise my readers in the reading of it. And I’m sure even the outline crowd leaves plenty of room for digression, exploration, and adjustment as they go—just as I am forever looking for moments and scenes to write toward—as getting from my current point A to that future point B will generate plot without me having to impose one on my writing beforehand. Call it a poor man’s outline. I really need those oases to crawl toward, and when I didn’t have them on this particular journey I concentrated on the business of fleshing out Roy, as well as the other characters in the book. Roy, Lionel, Viktor, Marina, et cetera—the more I hit them against one other and the more real they came to feel, the more I could depend on them to generate sparks and ignite plot.
Rumpus: What was the most challenging aspect of writing this book? Did any parts come easily?
Horack: They say each book teaches you how to write it, and I tend to write gradually but steadily, a couple of pages a day until I have a draft—and then revision, the real work, begins. So nothing ever seems to come easily in the “I roared through three thousand words this morning” way. And if the writing does feel less difficult on occasion that’s often a bad sign for me, an indication that, though I maybe be moving the plot along, I’m not taking the lingering time needed to think of, and layer in, the rich detail and descriptions, those telling images and even gestures, necessary to bring a fictional world and its inhabitants to life and sell the lie. And then there’s the matter of language, of choosing words that sing and are true to the voice and personality of my narrator—here, a practical yet surprisingly sentimental oil rig worker, a man who has suffered a great deal and yet has somehow retained a remarkable capacity to hope.
Now, as with my ramblings about outlines, I should acknowledge that I know a lot of novelists who counsel that, at the outset, the supremely important thing is to get the draft down, however rough. Indeed, that’s perhaps the single most common piece of advice I’ve received about novel writing. But personally I’ve found that if I don’t pay enough attention to language and good old-fashioned “showing” during my first bite at the apple, then the lifeless, skeletal first draft that inevitably results is very tough for me to get excited about returning to. And so I try not to be in too much of a pages-per-day rush, telling myself that any easy writing I allow myself to do on the front end is just going to make more work for me down the line. My first drafts always have an abundance of problems to sort out, by my goal is for them to at least read well, by and large.
Rumpus: Before The Other Joseph, you wrote a story collection and a novel. Is there a particular form that you feel suits you best as a writer, or does the “idea” itself dictate the structure? Did Roy’s narrative seem, from the very beginning, that it needed to be played out over a novelistic landscape—or did that decision come once the writing was already underway?
Horack: I don’t think I’ve ever had a short story turn into a novel, or a novel turn into a short story, possibly because the form I’m intending at the start in large part determines where I jump into the narrative, then the shape of the plot. Alice Munro, for example—I’m awed by how so often her short stories have this remarkable novelistic quality (without ever seeming rushed)—but my own short stories, with some exceptions, tend to begin close to the end of things, thus keeping the narrative present timeline relatively brief… and they don’t dwell too much in backstory, unless that is the crux of the story. My novels, on the other hand, have both been longer walks over longer periods of time that also incorporate deeper explorations of past events. And knowing what I’m working on going in helps guide the writing, pacing, and configuration of the narrative. Honestly, I really enjoy working in either form, and they are so different to me in feel and execution that I benefit from the balance they create in my writing life.
Rumpus: What were the books and writers you turned to when working on this novel—both for research and inspiration?
Horack: Questions like this make we wish I would have kept better track of all the books I’ve read and treasured in my life, as well as all the writers I’ve admired and been influenced by. And yet, at the same time, it’s difficult to cite sources of inspiration without making it sound as if I’m trying to slide my own title onto the shelf with them. But yes, as always, there were numerous works and writers who were invaluable to the creation of this particular book—and I’ll no doubt be cursing myself later for the ones I forget to mention here.
But, to name a few, I was raised in Covington, Louisiana, which is the same small town Walker Percy called home, so The Moviegoer has been on my radar for most of my days. And then I found myself writing this book—first person, voice driven, a troubled soul who is simultaneously adrift and seeking. Well, thank you Mr. Percy. And similar guidance and encouragement came from jumping forward from The Moviegoer to novels such as Marguerite Duras’s The Lover, Richard Ford’s The Sportswriter, Peter Taylor’s A Summons to Memphis, Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day, and Dennis McFarland’s The Music Room—then backwards to revisit certain older classics such as John Fante’s Ask the Dust and Dostoyevsky’s Notes from Underground. Hell, The Catcher in the Rye, Huck Finn, et cetera. To some degree each of those books is an existential novel, by my logic—though I know I’m using the term in a way that might make a literature professor wince. All I’m really suggesting is that I see these works as largely concerned with an individual’s search for meaning, and I view The Other Joseph as being engaged with that too.
So that’s one nexus of inspiration, but of course there are innumerable others. I love the attention titans such as Jim Harrison, Tom McGuane, Annie Proulx, and Barry Lopez pay to the natural world and our relationship with it, whereas no one can write a road trip, or make me laugh, quite like Charles Portis. And the expert plotting of Patricia Highsmith has never received its just literary due, in my opinion. Also, since The Other Joseph is sort of a found memoir masquerading as a novel, much time was spent trying to reverse engineer the metafictional magic tricks pulled off so deftly in books such as Ian McEwan’s novel Atonement and Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. Then there’s that Southern literary tradition, and though my novel spends many more pages outside the South than in it, my narrator is definitely from that world. Other than that, anyone who writes sentences with both clarity and beauty makes me smile. Tobias Wolff and Paula Fox come to mind there.
Finally, as for my “research reading,” there were some here and there nonfiction books, especially on military and oil industry topics—but for this novel nothing so much as the Internet, man, the Internet. My sin, my soul. I can’t imagine trying to write any novel or story without that resource to turn to, while I can also think of no greater distraction. A lot of my writing days get hijacked by my acute fascination with various unsolved mysteries of the world, but so it goes, because a fair share of the quirky and curious finds its way into my work.
Rumpus: What were the first books that were important to you, even before you started writing?
Horack: I have no clue if printed encyclopedias even exist anymore, but at some point in my boyhood I recall my mom ordering a set for us. A new volume would come every month or so, and I’d pour through them, investigating and exploring, the factual world setting fire to my imagination. And though I remember Robinson Crusoe being my favorite “good” book early on, as a child almost anything that promised escape and adventure—however shoddy, really—would sweep me up. (Those intrepid Hardy Boys!) Oddly enough, the value of an active imagination seems be taken for granted or flat out ignored when people talk about what is required of a fiction writer, but those initial books were the ones that helped me nurture that. Becoming acquainted with all those engrossing places, people, and subjects, both real and fictional, learning and experiencing all those new things, eventually made me want to be a storyteller myself, assuming my plans to be a pirate or a cowboy or an explorer fell through. A love for language and the poetry of words soon followed, but in the beginning I was just a kid who liked to be transported by plot and “the interesting.” And in many ways I still am, I suppose.
Rumpus: Finally, the dreaded question I always hate answering but am too curious not to ask: what are you working on now?
Horack: The word you’re looking for is hypocrite, but thanks for asking! And again, thank you as well for taking the time to make me think a bit. As for my next fight, I’ll be vague because nothing kills an idea for me quite like too much talk at the outset. E.L. Doctorow said, “A book begins as a private excitement of the mind”—and I reckon I’m still mostly on the private side of the fence—but the one for now is a nonfiction project about certain recent events in a region of the Democratic Republic of the Congo I visited while researching my first novel. And there are some story ideas and even a few novelistic notions already, so after a solid few years of revising The Other Joseph I’m eager to get back to inventing and creating. Again, much appreciated, Molly! I know you’re in the same boat, and I can’t wait to read what you come up with next.