Street Talk

Caitlin Horrocks

Caitlin Horrocks is author of the story collection This Is Not Your City (Sarabande Books).  Her stories appear in The New Yorker, The Best American Short Stories 2011, The PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories 2009, The Pushcart Prize XXXV, and elsewhere.  She is the fiction editor of The Kenyon Review, and teaches at Grand Valley State University in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

"Making Sense of the World": An interview with Caitlin Horrocks, author of This is Not Your City


Braddock Avenue Books: Several of the stories in This is Not Your City have international settings and themes.  Some stories, like “The Lion’s Gate” feature Americans abroad, but in others, such as “Going to Estonia” and “This is Not Your City,” the protagonists are citizens of foreign countries.  This seems brave!  How is it you felt comfortable inhabiting the point of view of characters from so many different cultures?  

Caitlin Horrocks: The big cheat in both those stories is that the foreign protagonists are still outsiders, in some way. The main character in “Going to Estonia” is Finnish, but she’s an awkward northerner who’s moved to Helsinki. I believe strongly, in the abstract, that writers have the “right” to depict any character or setting that we think we can do justice to. But who am I to be sure I can pull that off? I didn’t feel particularly comfortable setting out to inhabit foreign POVs. Both stories are written in English, for example, but nothing in either story is actually happening in English; the characters don’t operate in my language. But I was drawn to write about them anyhow, and happy with the ultimate results.

BAB: In your story, “It Looks Like This,” a young woman who has dropped out of high school to take care of her ailing mother writes a kind of “extra credit” essay in the small hope that it will convince her teachers to let her graduate.  In it, you include maps, photos, and a diagram of the Pythagorean Theorem.  The narrative made me think of what might happen if W.G. Sebald had written from the point of view of a troubled American teenager.  How do you think images like these affect the reading of a story?

Horrocks: I would have loved to read W.G. Sebald writing from the POV of a troubled American teen. Naively, I really thought of the pictures from an authorial standpoint, rather than the reader’s. I thought it would be a fun challenge to take on, for what was at the time a choose-your-own-form assignment in a graduate workshop. I knew I wanted the images to be important to the text, not randomly tossed in, and I wanted them to be fully embedded in the story, not illustrations that float alongside. But once I felt I’d developed a strong enough rationale for the pictures to be there, (the girl’s using them to take up page-space in this extra credit essay about her life) I didn’t think as much about the reader’s experience. I thought a lot about the reader’s experience of the text—like how to make the narrator’s voice and the Amish character convincing—but not as much about my eventual reader encountering the pictures. I’m too much a textual creature, I guess, even when I’m playing with form.

BAB: For the most part, the stories in This is Not Your City follow a realist aesthetic.  Where then, does a story like “Embodied” come from, where the narrator has been reincarnated 127 times, spanning the history of human existence, experiencing multiple genders and personalities?

Horrocks: I know what you mean, but “Embodied” never felt that different to me from the other stories. Some readers have emailed me to ask whether the narrator is actually just mentally insane, an interpretation that makes the story just as realist as anything else in the book. I’m interested, as reader and writer, in stories that blend realism with strangeness. That isn’t terribly apparently in This is Not Your City, but it’s present in some of my other work.

BAB: In eight of the eleven stories, children factor importantly into the plot.  Sometimes they are the protagonists, such as in “Zolaria,” while at other times they have a significant impact on the behavior of the adults in their lives, such as in “In the Gulf of Aden, Past the Cape of Guardafui.”  Some writers think of children as “fictional furniture”—figures who are adjuncts to the “real” story, lacking in adult culpability.  This is clearly not the case with you.  How do you understand your interest in, indeed emphasis on, children?

Horrocks: A reviewer on Goodreads has suggested that someone tackle a “piece of psychoanalytic criticism on this book and its, um, treatment of children…” To which I can only say, please, let’s not. Because I’m very aware that children end up in plenty of the “ugly” moments you mention, as both agent and subject. I had a happy childhood, but I have a vivid elementary school-age memory in which I very seriously made myself promise myself that I wouldn’t become one of those adults who thinks that childhood is all sunshine and puppies. I knew that the scale of the problems and choices I faced as a kid might be small, but I reasoned that I was myself very small, and so they felt very, very large and stressful to me, and I told myself I shouldn’t ever forget that. I haven’t. As an adult, I’ve also been interested in how the burdens children place on their caregivers, however much the children are loved, are still complicated, messy burdens. I haven’t seen children in fiction described as “furniture” (a comparison that rings true), but I’ve heard other writers say that children are difficult to write because they’re all the same, and nothing is really at stake in stories about their lives. Which I think is crazy talk. The writer Elizabeth Weld does amazing child POVs: check out her story “Patience” on Blackbird.

BAB: We love fiction that tries to show readers the truth about what it means to be human.  And being human is sometimes ugly and unpleasant.  Several stories in this collection look unflinchingly at what’s ugly about our lives and decisions–even in some cases involving characters who normally elicit sympathy from readers, such as children.  What is it, do you think, that so regularly attracts you to these moments? 

Horrocks: I write, partly, as a way of making sense of the world to myself—I think via the page—so I’m drawn to the things I understand the least. I’m a pretty happy person. I’m living a pretty happy life right now. So I find myself, in my work, drawn to cruelty, drawn to people who are making bad decisions and hurting themselves or others through their choices, but are still people I, and hopefully the reader, empathize with.