By Sara Chuirazzi '16
Caitlin Horrocks is author of 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, The Atlantic, Tin House, One Story, and many other journals and anthologies.
Sara Chuirazzi: One of your short stories, "The Lion Gate," was published in Bucknell's national literary magazine West Branch (#66, Spring/Summer 2010) and then you were a fiction editor for West Branch from 2010-2012. What would you say are the differences between being the author trying to get published and being the person evaluating work for publication? What are the most important take-aways from each role?
Caitlin Horrocks: I think there's another important difference, between "the author trying to get published" and "the author writing a story." The difference between a person trying to get published and a person evaluating work for publication is everything: the editor has all the power. If you identify primarily as "the author trying to get published," you are signing yourself up for a lot of misery. Sometimes misery is unavoidable, but as much as possible, the author should try to think of herself as the author who writes—the person doing the best work she can, producing stories that she believes in, and that sooner or later will end up in the hands of an editor who believes in them just as much. We'd all prefer sooner, but good work will find a home eventually. Something I've learned as an author is patience (at least, I'm working on it).
As an editor, I've learned a lot about what makes stories work, and about my own aesthetic. Reading thousands of stories, and figuring out which ones are "nos," or "almosts," or "good, but not quite right for us," or "yes yes yes, we need to publish this," and thinking about why, has been an invaluable education.
SC: "Write what you know," is a common phrase in the writing world. Your collection focuses on eleven women who lead incredibly different lives. How much would you say you draw from your own experiences? How do you relate to these characters personally?
CH: The autobiographical material in my fiction is almost always some hacked up potato pieces in a much larger stew. There's a blend of personal and researched experience throughout my stories, and hopefully I've made them both seem real. The writer Ron Carlson, in response to a question about whether a story was based on personal experience, answered something like "All my stories are based on personal experiences. Even the ones I haven't had. I send myself on the journey." I think that's so critical for a fiction writer, the ability to send ourselves on the journey, and relate to characters who may be very like or very unlike us. I can relate to and empathize with all my characters, even when they're seemingly very unlike me, or behaving very badly.
SC: In an interview with T.J. Hamilton of The Grand Rapids Press you said, "I never let myself believe that writing was something you did for real. It was a hobby, a self-indulgence. I thought it was something people have to grow out of. But I never did." I think that a lot of young writers feel this way, especially with the job market being as it is. What advice would you give to aspiring writers on pursuing and being successful in the field?
CH: If writing is something you care about, let yourself care. As a young writer, I imagined that someone would someday tap me on the shoulder and say, You're ready. If I wasn't "good enough," I didn't want to risk failure. I didn't want to embarrass myself by caring too much about something that came with no guarantees, that made me vulnerable. I convinced myself I didn't care that much about writing, because I knew caring might not be enough to succeed. But if you don't own your own desire, nothing else will be nearly enough. If writing is something you feel driven to do, that makes you happy (or makes you less unhappy than not writing) give yourself permission to care, and try as hard as you can to be as good at it as you can. Don't worry that you might fail or that someone might see you. We all write failed drafts, or failed stories, or whole failed books. Those are pages that teach us something, and help us write the next story. Failure is a necessary part of the process.
Re the job market, and being "successful in the field," try to define "success" for yourself in a way that isn't going to crush you. Don't promise yourself fame and fortune, or even that you'll be able to quit your day job, especially not right away: think about how writing and publication can exist alongside other parts of your life, and give yourself goals to work towards that are in closer reach than, say, a zillion dollar book deal. For example: research magazines you really admire and come up with a list of places you'd like your stories to someday appear; then, when you have stories you think might fit in those magazines, send them out. Landing a story in a magazine you love feels great, and you can make it happen without the lottery-winner-sized-luck involved in the zillion dollar book deal.
SC: Most of your pieces are grounded in realistic settings while also invoking imaginary spaces and supernatural elements. For example, the young girls in "Zolaria" escape to their own imaginary world. In "Embodied," the main character lives 127 lives and meets the same people over and over in different bodies. Where would you say you draw your inspiration for these multifaceted worlds?
CH: From trying to be non-boring. Not that completely realist stories can't be gripping. (And I've written plenty. Well, plenty of realist stories. Someone else would have to decide whether or not they were gripping!) But as a reader, I often enjoy stories where the writer has been willing to follow her ideas to some pretty strange or challenging or unlikely places. "Embodied" grew as I kept mulling over the concept of reincarnation, and it started to seem like a more and more unpleasant experience.
SC: The writing, editing, and publishing process is likely very different for a story collection and a novel. Was it difficult to get each piece to fit into your vision for the final collection? What was your goal for collection as a whole?
CH: It got a lot easier once I discarded the idea of having a grand vision for the collection. I was so worried about having an unlinked collection, that for awhile I lost sight of the fact that what I love about short stories is the chance to try on so many different hats: varying people, places, situations, styles and approaches. I didn't want to deliberately write stories that had more "sameness" to them, and I'm sure my reluctance would have shown in the stories. So I piled together my best stories, and hoped that someone else could tell me what they all had in common. My agent suggested removing the stories that didn't have a female lead, and to arrange the stories by age of the protagonist. I did that, and then kept my fingers crossed. As it turned out, I needn't have worried. Reviewers and readers are generally only too happy to ferret out your preoccupations, and guess at your vision or goals. It's been a lot of fun to see what my book looks like through other people's eyes, and not a single person so far has asked, "what are all these stories doing in the same book?"