Books In Conversation
Caitlin Horrocks with Joseph Scapellato
Life Among the Terranauts
(Little, Brown, 2021)
I’ve never met Caitlin Horrocks in person—more than once, we’ve almost met. Even so, I know her well enough to understand that in addition to being a celebrated top-notch writer of fiction, she’s also a deeply beloved member of the writing community—a dedicated teacher, advocate, and literary citizen. I was delighted, then, when I learned about her latest story collection: Life Among the Terranauts. In a starred review, Publishers Weekly had this to say about the book:
Vigorous and supremely crafted, Horrocks’s second collection … explores human frailties, desires, and mechanisms for survival … Horrocks’s linguistic finesse and narrative range is impressive, and she brings incisive humor, pathos, and wit to her characters and their predicaments. The result is an immersive and engaging work that astutely captures the complexities of the human condition.
In other words, Life Among the Terranauts hits the spot. I read it cover to cover in a week, limiting myself to just a few stories a day in order to savor the experience. This was back in December, when the grief and the gloom of the pandemic was peaking here in the United States. Every story in Life Among the Terranauts is an ingeniously written opportunity for immersion, for the exploration of unexpected corners of experience—existentially, emotionally, geographically. Horrocks seems to have anticipated a deep readerly need that I had not been able to admit to myself. The book left me with not only an expansive feeling of satisfaction, but of gratitude, as well.
Caitlin Horrocks and I corresponded over email. We discussed her approaches to character, the effect of the community on the individual, and fate.
Joseph Scapellato (Rail): Can you talk about the process of writing Life Among the Terranauts? When/how did you start working on the stories that appear in it, and when/how did you begin to think about these stories as belonging together in a collection?
Caitlin Horrocks: I forget where I was or who said it (a promising start to an anecdote!) but I remember listening to someone lay out a distinction between story collections that were cohesive collections, and collections that were merely “here are the 12 best stories I’ve written.” The speaker was not being complimentary towards the latter type of book. When first assembling Life Among the Terranauts, I worried that it was a “12 best” type of book—I wasn’t sure these stories did belong together, and I struggled to see thematic linkages. But the collection ended up shelved for a few years while I finished and then published my novel The Vexations, and when I got back to it last year, all my obsessions and preoccupations were on full display. I even had to rearrange a few of the stories lest they echo each other too obviously.
Really, I think you can put nearly anyone’s “12-best-stories” in front of a reader, and the reader will pick up on all kinds of commonalities. Partly because the reader perceives finding linkages as part of the work of reading a collection (though it hopefully doesn’t feel like “work”), and partly because, at least speaking for myself, I’m apparently a lot of more psychologically transparent than I might like to think. Also, as a reader, I have no particular problem with a “12-best-stories” approach. I mean, if your book has 12 good stories in it, well done! That’s a lot of good stories! I’ll lean into chaos over monotony any day.
Rail: I remember hearing the writer Kevin McIlvoy offer the idea that story collections exist on a spectrum, with the “Greatest Hits” collection on one end, and the “concept album” collection on the other. Where would you place Life Among the Terranauts on such a spectrum?
Horrocks: Definitely on the “Greatest Hits” end of the spectrum, although I feel self-conscious about both the “hits” (Are they? Do I get to say so?) and the “greatest” (I’m not dead yet) halves of that term. But I agree with the idea of a spectrum, and both my collections came about through mixing and matching stories I’d already written. For both books I toyed with writing new things specifically to fit into a pattern I saw emerging, or to be in conversation with existing stories in a particular way. But I didn’t end up able to work that way, fitting stories to the book. For me, the book had to emerge out of separate (and sometimes seemingly disparate) stories.
Rail: One of the many things that I admire about this collection is its extraordinary richness of character. You guide the reader into the complex textures of completely different characters, from hibernation enthusiasts to isolated nurses to dementia-stricken teachers to systems engineers, all trapped in different circumstances, from Michigan to Arizona to the Czech Republic to Peru. Each of these characters is an entire world! I’d love to know: what are your approaches to writing character, philosophically and/or practically? Where do you begin? And what guides you?
Horrocks: I read with relief and recognition a passage in Robert Boswell’s essay “The Half Known World” where he pokes some fun at those questionnaires where we’re supposed to be able to list our character’s birthday, what they had for breakfast, their hopes and fears, etc. I acknowledge here that I have literally asked students what their character ate for breakfast. But I only ever do it after we’re at least one draft in. I’ve asked writers to think about what their character wants and what is in their way, but only as a possible point of departure. Desire + obstacle = plot is an old chestnut, but it still tastes pretty good.
But to both Boswell and myself, the idea that we can thoroughly understand our characters in advance is odd and self-defeating. “What if?” is a famous question in fiction writing (and the title of a popular book of writing exercises) but I’m often more interested in the question, “who is the person who…does X, or feels Y, or betrays Z”? I start with all kinds of unpromising fragments, and then just follow that character around for awhile, for as long it takes for them to do something interesting, or reveal something to me that I didn’t already know. We leap from rock to rock and eventually cross the river. In that way, if my characters are successful, it’s because they’re the product of a lot of detours and wet feet.
Rail: What you’re saying about following your characters around until they do something interesting, surprising, or new makes me think of that absolutely electric moment in “Teacher” when Trisha picks up a rock. (I won’t say any more—I don’t want to spoil it for readers!) Was that a moment that came out of “writing in the dark,” to use Boswell’s vocabulary?
Horrocks: Absolutely. That story initially came out of an anecdote I heard that I knew I wanted to write about, somehow, but I thought it was going to be a much larger project. Not a novel, but a pretty heavy, lengthy story. Once I finally sat to write, I was done in two days and had written five pages. That almost never happens to me, but once she’d picked up that rock, and acknowledged how she felt about what she did (or in this case didn’t do) with the rock, I realized I was done. Usually those “writing in the dark” moments are lucky discoveries whenever they propel a story forward; this one felt doubly lucky, because it both opened up and closed down the story.
Rail: A number of the stories in Life Among the Terranauts explore uneasy relationships to communities, whether those relationships are in a character’s past or present—economically and existentially crushed small towns, cult-like architectural and religious organizations, and in the titular story, a sealed-off-from-the-rest-of-society dome. What is it that draws you to write about communities? What set of community-related mysteries, complexities, or questions intrigue you?
Horrocks: A lot of the stories in my first collection were about very isolated individuals, and I realized that I wasn’t challenging myself to write about larger group dynamics. I thought of a scene of dialogue, and how rarely we read anything other than two characters ping-ponging off of each other, even though in real life we get sucked into multi-layered, multi-participant conversations all the time. I wanted to try and get more of the tangle onto the page.
I also had a short-lived obsession with the television shows Wife Swap and Trading Spouses, and kept thinking about how effectively a family makes its own reality. Not just for the kids, who, terrifyingly, may not have access to outside perspectives, but the adults, too—we all get sucked into patterns of living, and those become what’s normal and good and natural to us. What other intrusions, apart from a reality tv show, can lead us to reckon with those patterns, or see them anew?
At one point I thought I was working on a book of stories about “failed utopias,” but two things happened: first, I read a compelling collection of stories that was already about utopias (Allegra Hyde’s Of This New World,). Second, I had the “duh” moment of recognizing that a successful utopia, even if humans could achieve and maintain one (outlook doubtful), offers little purchase for fiction (though something like Looking Backward: 2000–1887 by Edward Bellamy certainly tries). I was interested in communities, but I was especially interested in how the patterns and expectations they create for the people inside them shift or fall apart or transform.
The pandemic, and the 2016 and 2020 elections, have me thinking a lot about community, but I haven’t come to any conclusions wiser than anything others have already said. But I think often of a book that is sort of stealthily about community, Eula Biss’s On Immunity (2014), which covers vaccinations and vaccine hesitancy from a multitude of angles. The book is about science, about what we perceive as “natural,” about how parents conceive of our responsibilities to our children; but it’s also about community and what we owe to each other, and feels more important than ever right now. Being human means living in a community: nothing in my life has reinforced that for me as sharply as trying to keep my four-year-old safe and happy while cut off from any larger village.
Rail: On the subject of reckoning with community-determined patterns, I love the way that characters in this collection are suddenly made to see the wreckage of where they’re from. This happens in “The Sleep,” when the residents of Bounty at first think that news channel film crews have featured only the shabbiest parts of their town, but then “realized that … they’d filmed nearly all of our town and it all looked equally shabby.” And in “Norwegian for Troll,” Annika, who is hosting visiting Norwegian cousins who she’s never met, notices that her cottage “didn’t feel livelier with the cousins, it felt threatening, full of ways to embarrass her, to make her life look like something other than the one she thought she’d been living.” These moments of home-community critique are so profound, and at the same time, so relatable!
Horrocks: I remember vividly a family trip where we visited the graveyard of the small Kansas town my grandmother had been born in, and later left. It is not a town that has any obvious reason to exist: it is not currently a place of clear beauty or prosperity or possibility. But generations of my family were buried there, including the original arrivals who had traveled thousands of miles only to stop there, for reasons I didn’t understand. I looked around that graveyard thinking about what the town might have looked like to them, what it might have represented, and how that was different than what I saw; I later started thinking about how this family trajectory fits into larger national myths and stories about immigration and settlement. I suppose I’m still thinking about that, wholly without answers.
Rail: Another recurring thread in this collection is the contemplation of fate. Some characters look back at a “forking path” moment in their lives, as in “Teacher” and “And I Looked Down One As Far As I Could,” while others feel as if they are not quite in control of their fates, as in “Better Not Tell You Now” (tragically so!) and “On the Oregon Trail” (humorously and tragically so!). How do you see these themes of fate intersecting with the themes of community that we were just discussing—with the way we get sucked into patterns and expectations of living, with the way those patterns do/don’t break apart?
Horrocks: I became aware that I was thinking about those patterns while working on The Vexations. It’s based on the life of the French composer Erik Satie (1866–1925), who didn’t work a regular day job for a single day of his life. He didn’t come from a Bohemian background, but a life in music was his Plan A, and he wouldn’t or couldn’t move on to a Plan B when success did not come easily. As listeners, we’re lucky he didn’t, and I admire that single-mindedness. But other characters were either forced to adapt and compromise to survive, or chose to switch to an easier path. I got interested in how people do or don’t move on to Life Plan B, or C, or Z; what are the moments of reckoning that prompt it, and what are the ruts we get into that allow or prevent us from taking or even seeing alternatives? Specific to my own life, some of those stories were written during a period when I looked around and realized I’d been on a lucky streak, and then started worrying over when the other shoe would drop. I don’t actually think the world balances itself out in that way (it would be a fairer place if it did) but probably part of my fictional musings about fate were also musings over what, exactly, it might have in store for me.
Rail: I confess: one of my favorite stories in the collection is “Murder Games,” which elegantly shifts between a richly dramatized episode from Ella’s childhood (involving her quest to find Blanket, her blanket) to the present action, in which she’s a high school sophomore. It’s the only story in the collection that employs such a structure, toggling between two distinct timelines. Where did this story come from, for you? And can you talk a little about how you discovered/developed its structure?
Horrocks: I’m so happy you like this one! I feel disproportionately self-conscious about it, because it draws unusually heavily from my life. My fiction is very rarely autobiographical, but in this case, my younger sister and I grew up without actual pets and leaned heavily on our stuffed animals. They had personalities. They had their own radio variety program which we recorded onto cassette tapes, doing voices. Once I absentmindedly hung up a teddy bear by a ribbon that was tied around its neck and my sister accused me of killing it by strangulation. It was a house full of inanimate objects that were deeply animated. I wanted to write about that in a way that honored the intensity of childhood emotions. The initial experiment was to try and do that within the confines of the child’s experience. So the second timeline is actually a product of failure: I’d written a LOT of wandering around with stuffed animals without the story really going anywhere (a time when “writing in the dark” just kept yielding more darkness!). I eventually decided the story needed to jump to a different timeline. But then I was wary of inserting an adult storyline that would demote the childhood material to an explanation for, or backdrop to, the adult’s “real” story. So for the second storyline I wanted to keep Ella young, and the events ordinary-ish. Which created a kind of a risky game: how inconsequential can I make the events of this story and still create consequences the reader might care about?
Rail: This is your third book (!). What do you wish you knew about writing this book—or about writing The Third Book, or about writing in general—beforehand? In other words, if you could hop back in time and have a quick chat with the Caitlin Horrocks who first got cracking on this collection, what would you say to her?
Horrocks: I think I might jump back even further, to the Caitlin who entered an MFA program and kept trying to figure out where the finish line was. I naively thought there must be some point at which the remaining career dominoes all fell into place. I was always dismayed when I learned that, for example, getting an agent means the book still might not be acquired; having the book acquired doesn’t mean that editor will stay with that publisher; having a book published doesn’t mean it will sell; publishing one book doesn’t mean anyone will want to buy your next one, and on and on ad infinitum. I learned all these lessons individually, from the people around me and my own experiences, but I still spent too long looking for what I thought lay on the other side. Well, three books in, there’s no other side. It’s uncertainty, all the way through. And concurrent with all the publishing uncertainties is that great big uncertainty that every time we sit to write, we don’t know if what we’re working on will be “good.” Maybe I would have handed my earlier self the W.S. Merwin poem “Berryman”: “if you have to be sure don’t write.”
Rail: What have you been reading lately that’s been knocking your socks off?
Horrocks: I volunteered to wash the dishes last night because I wanted to finish listening to the audiobook of Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss, and I hate washing dishes, so this is high praise. I read Winter by Sarah Vap early in the pandemic, and have since been recommending it to anyone who (like me) is struggling with maintaining a creative life amidst both personal and global chaos and stress. And three new short story collections that are coming out that I really enjoyed: Love Like That by Emma Duffy-Comparone (wickedly funny), People Want to Live by Farah Ali (really powerful characters) and Earth, Thy Great Exchequer Ready Lies by Jo Lloyd (jaw-dropping range).
Rail: What are you working on now, writing-wise?
Horrocks: Absolutely nothing, unless you count emails and comments on student work. My husband and I are working from home while juggling six-month-old twins and, many days, a very high energy preschooler. I’ve got an idea that I think might be my next novel, but I don’t currently have the time or space (mental, physical) to figure out where it’s going or what it might turn into.