The 2017 Fiction Prize is open September 1 through October 31! In this interview, prize judge Caitlin Horrocks discusses “Sleep,” bad habits, momentum, the pitfalls of research, and what she looks for in submissions.
Caitlin Horrocks is the author of the story collection This Is Not Your City, a New York Times Book Review Editor’s Choice and a Barnes and Noble Discover Great New Writers selection. Her stories and essays appear in The New Yorker, The Best American Short Stories, The PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories, The Pushcart Prize, The Paris Review, The Atlantic, Tin House, One Story, and other journals and anthologies. Her awards include the Plimpton Prize and fellowships to the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference and the MacDowell Colony. She is the fiction editor of The Kenyon Review and teaches at Grand Valley State University, and occasionally in the MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College. She is at work on a novel and a second story collection, both forthcoming from Little, Brown. She lives in Grand Rapids, Michigan, with the writer W. Todd Kaneko.
1) What strikes me about your work is its range, not just of subject but of style. “The Sleep” is distinct from “Sun City” is distinct from “The City on the Other Coast,” and This is Not Your City contains multitudes. Is there something in your outlook or process that pushes you to reinvent your voice with each story?
Part of what I love about the short story form is the opportunity it offers for play: each one is a chance to try a new place, new voice, new character, new conundrum. Stories invite the writer to challenge herself in different ways, and if an experiment turns ugly, you can walk away within 20 pages, as opposed to 200. (Then come back to those pages later and see what you learned or what you can still strip from the bones: I’m a big believer that no page is ever wasted.)
Of course I’ve read wonderful tightly linked story collections, but for me personally, as both writer and reader, the story form itself invites and thrives on reinvention.
2) Your story “The City on the Other Coast” is excerpted from a historical novel you’ve been working on. Can you open up about your experience not just writing a novel, but balancing the deep dive of research with the writing process?
I’m glad you asked very generally about my “experience,” rather than for advice, because I’ve probably made every possible mistake a writer can make with research. My first problem is doing too much. I have a weakness for using research as a form of procrastination from the actual writing. I tell myself I have to read X or master Y or finish Z before I plow ahead with the story. No doubt X, Y, and Z are all fascinating and useful, but at some point they are also delaying the inevitable: the only way my book will get written is to sit down and write it.
Two bad habits I eventually broke, but later than I should have: firstly, because many of the characters in my book are based on real historical people, I did a lot of biographical research. Because the main character is a composer, I also read a lot of academic analyses of his music. I don’t regret it, but this reading did little when it came time to place the character in a convincingly textured world. I needed to know more about everyday life in the era, and I got that primarily via contemporaneous fiction, travel narratives, and certain history texts. I should have mixed those in with the biographies much, much earlier. Secondly, I once worked for several weeks at a writer’s colony where I didn’t have internet in my studio. Instead of stopping and googling every time I wasn’t sure, say, what kind of fabric someone’s jacket would be made of, I was forced to just plow ahead. I highlighted those moments in the text so I could go back and fix them later, as needed. I also got comfortable with writing around some of those moments. Avoid too many details, and the world will feel threadbare. But quite often the reader doesn’t need or want to know anything about weaving techniques. Research is fun, and essential, but it can also be a momentum killer.
3) You wrote in your essay “The Glory of the Bad Idea” that: “Much of a writer’s training is learning to tiptoe around such pits of compositional quicksand. However, I admire stories where the writer seems to have identified the quicksand, waded straight in, and somehow come out the other side. I take pleasure in wading in myself. As a writer, I love proving someone wrong, whether that’s an external someone or just my own self-doubt.” Naturally, I wanted to hear more about that. Can you give us an example from your own work—a bad idea you pursued to that exultation on the other side?
The first example that comes to mind is “The Sleep,” which is narrated in a “we” voice by the residents of a small town, and covers the years after they decide to sleep through the winter. Two obvious problems there are having no distinct starring characters, and then putting the characters that do exist to sleep (not usually the most compelling activity to watch). I got very tied up with selling the reader on the believability of the hibernation. The early drafts contained an exhausting amount of material about heating systems and canned goods. But then in revision I felt I had the material I needed to help the reader care about the situation. I’m an over-writer, generally, and a dogged reviser (sometimes when it would be smarter to walk away). I’ll invoke Marianne Moore: “If you will tell me why the fen/appears impassable, I then/will tell you why I think that I/can get across it if I try.”
4) I never bore of hearing about the reading and writing habits of authors—can you tell us a little bit about yours? Bonus points for idiosyncrasies.
Writing habits as in, pen or pencil? Always laptop: I’ve been through three this summer. The first was six years old and died, the space bar on the second stopped working and the geniuses at the genius bar said it wouldn’t be worth it to fix it, and the third one saves documents inconsistently. So maybe I should really switch to pencil or pen.
Otherwise, I get a lot of writing done at coffee shops. I tried to make this the summer of working within my bad habits, rather than trying to break them by force of will. When I work at home, I’m always popping up out of my chair to put in a load of laundry, eat a snack, etc. I used to try to train myself out of distractability, but I recently gave up and now just spend too much money on coffee, because being in public shames me into better focus…
I’ve also become an evangelist for writing dates: set a place and time, meet a friend who also needs to get work done, chat for a while about your projects or anything but your projects, and then sit in antisocial silence typing furiously for as long as either of you can stand it. It’s great.
5) As the Fiction Editor at Kenyon Review, reading submissions is not new to you. Can you share some of the editorial insights you’ve had reading fiction over the years?
I read for other literary journals before coming to KR, and a major difference for me personally was that at the other journals, I was always reading the slush. At KR, I do read slush, but at any given moment the majority of the stories in my queue are ones that have been assigned to me for a reason: people I’ve asked to see more work from, or previous contributors, or stories that have already been read and recommended by another editor or intern. The overall level of quality is very high, which is both rewarding and exhausting. I don’t accept work for KR/KROnline on my own: I recommend stories and advocate for them to head editor David Lynn (or occasionally throw cold water on a story someone else liked), but the final call is always David’s. In choosing to what to pass on to him, I try to separate out the stories that impressed me in the moment, but will ultimately fade in my mind, to those that will linger. This is obviously a deeply inexact science! But I think it often comes down to voice. Any editor reads a lot of stories that are similar in their subject matter, but a familiar story told with a distinct, precise, confident voice, whether it’s a beautiful or hilarious or chilling or sneaky voice, stands out.
Unusual conceits or scenarios or settings also stand out, but they make me want to be very careful that I’m not remembering “the one with the guinea pigs on Saturn” solely because it’s the story with guinea pigs on Saturn (not a real submission, for the record). I’m always looking for what else the story is doing. I want a story to be a deep well that I can keep drawing from as I re-read, and be fed in different ways.
I should also add that I’m sure I routinely say no to stories that do all that, and more, for some other reader. Even to stories that might have done all that for me, but that we won’t quite have room for. Many of the stories any journal turns down haven’t done anything “wrong”: they just weren’t quite the right story in the right person’s hands at the right moment for the right issue of the right journal. I know the phrase “this will find a good home elsewhere” can sound like hollow boilerplate, but when I say it, I always mean it.
The deadline for the Fiction Prize is October 31. Don’t miss it!