Monday, June 27, 2011

Caitlin Horrocks' "Very Edifying Form of Procrastination"

In the fifth in a series of posts on 2011 short story collections entered for The Story Prize, Caitlin Horrocks, author of This Is Not Your City (Sarabande Books), talks about the challenges of writing a story with a very unconventional structure and other aspects of her work.

What's the longest narrative time period you've ever contained in a short story? 
Which story in your collection required the most drafts or posed the most technical problems?
The answer to both of these is the story “Zolaria,” and its long time period was one of the reasons for the many, many drafts.

The “present moment” of the story is the summer the narrator is ten years old, the last summer she spends with her childhood best friend. Other points in time—middle school, her marriage, her own motherhood, happen in the future tense. There are a few moments of past tense. The story covers over 20 years, told out of chronological order. I was committed to that structure early on, and I felt confident that the story could work that way, but I also knew that I was asking a lot of the reader, to hang on and keep up with the leaps in time. I’m not afraid to challenge a reader, but I try to be very conscious of being a good guide; if I’m asking extra work of someone, it should come with equal rewards. In earlier drafts, there were even more time jumps than in the published version, and there was an entire character, the narrator’s grandmother, who didn’t make the final cut. Some of those cuts were literal: At one point I was crawling around on the floor with scissors, tape, and a sheaf of disembodied paragraphs, trying to figure out what the progression of the story should be. Writing something that wasn’t chronological was a great excuse to think about other ways to order a story, about where else its rhythm or movement might come from.

What kind of research, if any, do you do? 
I’m constantly researching. I’m one of those people who will use any excuse to toggle away from a manuscript to search for a certain type of flower, or the recipe for a specific mixed drink. I’ve contacted people for translation help. I’ve done archival research and read biographies and history books, although for projects other than This Is Not Your City. Much of the research in TINYC was of the Googling variety, which is admittedly shallow but sometimes just what I needed. It’s easy (for me, anyway) to become paralyzed by too much information. Or just paralyzed by how interesting I can find almost anything. I like research too much. It becomes a very edifying form of procrastination, and hours later I’ve learned a lot about Ludger Sylbaris and written zero words.

Have you ever written a short story in one sitting and not revised it later? 
I wish. I’ve heard other writers refer to certain stories as “gifts,” and others as slogs. I understand that—some stories have certainly come more easily for me than others—but nothing has ever come so easily that I felt satisfied with it on the first pass through. Or perhaps that says more about a lack of self-assurance than the work itself. I’ve certainly tinkered with a piece and then reverted to an earlier version. But revision is always a part of my writing process, even if just by confirming that I had something right the first time.

If you dabble in any other non-literary forms of expression, what do you do and how does it inform your work? 
I’ve dabbled in music (piano and choirs) and crafts (quilting), but I think I’ve done them as acts of interpretation rather than self-expression. That’s probably a false distinction, but I never composed music, I just played the notes in front of me. When I make a quilt, I follow a pattern that someone else created. I love those other forms of expression partly for the ways in which they are, for me, unlike writing stories, where I have to invent new worlds and people every 20 pages. Writing is probably the one mode of expression that I actually use to express something wholly my own, that makes other modes a little more restful.