Caitlin Horrocks on Life in Michigan, the Love of Sleep, and Novels vs. Short Stories
The Author of Life Among the Terranauts Talks to Jane Ciabattari
Caitlin Horrocks’ second story collection, Life Among the Terranauts, arrives during the darkest period of the pandemic, as winter settles in to our locked-down world, bringing freezing temperatures, grey skies, blizzards and seemingly endless angst-prone nights. It’s a perfect time to read Horrocks, a masterful writer whose prize-winning stories, published in a bucket list of magazines—The New Yorker, The Paris Review, Tin House, One Story, and selected for Pushcart and PEN/O.Henry anthologies—transport us to strange places. This Is Not Your City, her 2011 first collection, gave us stories set in Finland, Greece, and the Gulf of Aden, about women faced with complicated circumstances (one has been kidnapped by Somali pirates, but that’s not the point of the story).
Many stories in Horrocks’ new collection are set closer to home, in once bustling Michigan copper mining towns where descendants of Norwegian immigrants still encounter trolls and tomtes, or in sleepy passed-over towns like Bounty, where Finns with Sisu (persistence, endurance) trade long cold winter days for months of hibernation. Our conversation took place over email in late December.
Jane Ciabattari: How has your work been affected by the cascade of events in 2020?
Caitlin Horrocks: I got pregnant in January, when it was easy to have certain assumptions—that the virus might stay on the other side of the world; that I was pregnant with only one baby; that my mother would live long enough to meet it. She died six weeks before I delivered twins in a hospital where visitors were forbidden and everyone wore face masks. Someday when I’m getting some sleep again, I may have something to say about precarity.
But for the moment, my work has been most immediately affected by the impossibility of doing any. I’ve been trying to type an answer to this question since 10 am and it’s now 11:16 pm. I have three-month-old twins and a four-year-old whose preschool is closed. My husband and I are fortunate to have jobs, and doubly-fortunate that we can do them from home. But there is not a lot of writing happening around here.
Now it’s 11:48. One of the twins woke himself up farting and I sang “London Bridge is Falling Down” for twelve straight minutes with a hand on his chest trying to get him asleep. There are actually multiple verses, where you try to rebuild the bridge with various materials that all get washed away, broken, or stolen. It’s a good song for 2020: futility and foiled expectations.
JC: For the title story in your new collection, you drew from the real-life wacky but highly expensive adventure of Biosphere 2, in the early 1990s, in which eight people were sealed into a dome in Arizona for two years. (T.C. Boyle was similarly inspired.) Just this past summer astronauts preparing for Mars completed a simulation in Hawaii. What made you choose to use the terranaut model? What was going on that led you to turn the terranauts onto the path toward cannibalism?
CH: I remember learning about Biosphere II in school in the early 1990s; I imagined the place as a kind of scientific dollhouse, with charming working miniature biomes. That kind of utopian terrarium image froze itself in place, and I didn’t look up what actually happened to the people who lived there until I was living in Arizona and was in a position to visit the site. I was surprised to learn how messy the reality had gotten, but also how unclear the purpose of the experiment now seemed to me. Both the what and the why of the whole enterprise seemed ripe for reimagining as fiction. As I reimagined, things got messier and messier.
Also, I’d been thinking around that time that my first book of short stories contained a lot of really isolated main characters, and I wanted to try writing more stories that explored group and community dynamics. One sure-fire, high-stakes way to do that is to seal your characters inside a dome!
JC: Many stories in your new collection are set in Michigan, and deal with descendants of Norwegian and Finnish immigrants involved in copper mining. They felt familiar to me. My husband was raised in the copper mining town of Butte, Montana. We spent a year living a few miles outside Butte in a one-room homestead cabin not far from the Continental Divide, where his Finn ancestors settled early in the twentieth century. Winters lasted forever, reaching thirty-seven degrees below zero with ice fog. At night we burned a bit of coal in the wood stove, or we’d have frozen to death. No heat, no indoor plumbing. I haven’t taken them for granted ever since.
My question for you is, How did you come to know so much about Michigan? (And Finland? And Norway?) Were you raised there? Does it come from living in Grand Rapids?
CH: The cabin outside Butte sounds like it took serious sisu! One of my most memorable students in creative nonfiction classes wrote about growing up in an honest-to-god tarpaper shack in the upper peninsula. I was in awe.
I grew up in Michigan, and returned here after some years away, including a year spent in Finland, and a brief trip to Norway. For a long time I was more interested in writing stories set farther afield, as if it would be a failure of imagination to write too often about Michigan. I finally came around. I’ve always lived in more urban parts of the state, rather than the smaller, more hardscrabble towns that show up in Life Among the Terranauts, but I hope to keep telling a range of stories set in this part of the world.
JC: What made you think of humans hibernating? (It’s tempting, certainly, during this winter!) Your description in “The Sleep” is convincing, and the consequences even moreso. What if….?!!
CH: I’ve always had a deep and appreciative love of sleep, and that was even before I had kids and sleep became a precious commodity. I think anyone who lives in a northern climate has experienced dark, cold mornings where all you want to do is burrow further under the blankets. When I read an article several years ago about historical sleep patterns, including alleged winter hibernation, I was intrigued, and frankly a bit jealous. “The Sleep” was a pretty direct attempt to imagine what hibernation might be like in a modern northern town; it looked tempting enough that I thought it had to spread. But then once more and more of the population was participating, the sleep felt thornier.
JC: You’ve noted that once you told a former writing instructor you were writing about “People held hostage by the circumstances of their lives.” Are you still inspired by that perspective?
CH: I suppose I am, but the more I’ve thought about the line, the more meaningless it is. I mean, who isn’t held hostage by the circumstances of their lives? Even when those circumstances are favorable, we’re so shaped by them that they affect our sense of what is and isn’t possible or desirable in life. Even when someone’s material circumstances would allow them to safely pursue a different kind of life, their circumstances might keep them from recognizing that or wanting to.
As a parent, I’m terrifyingly aware of how responsible I am for shaping my child’s sense of what is normal, or desirable, or achievable. Maybe one difference between the stories I was writing when I first said that, and more recent stories, is that those earlier protagonists were struggling to survive, to jump to the next rock in the river and not drown. Currently I’m interested in how people decide what direction to leap in, what blend of imagination or desperation prompts someone to either try to cross the river, or to stay put. Do we stay or go, and how do we imagine what might come next?
JC: How do you find the process of writing a novel (like your The Vexations, which focuses on French composer Erik Satie) differs from writing a short story collection? Why do you think short story collections don’t seem to get as much “credibility” as novels? (There was only one collection on the 2020 New York Times best of fiction list.)
CH: I found writing a novel incredibly challenging, both formally and psychologically. When I first realized I had an idea with novel-length legs, I felt mingled dread and excitement—finally, a novel! But also, oh geez, this novel? The Vexations takes place between 1872 and 1944, largely in France, and the main characters are all based on real people I had to research extensively. I enjoyed finding my way through the material, but I struggled with feeling like I had so many eggs in one basket, creatively. If a story is tanking you can set those five or fifteen or twenty pages aside and come back to them later, or strip them for parts. The possibility of scrapping hundreds of pages of a novel terrified me, though certainly I know writers who have done it and ended up with better work because of it. I kept trying to think my way around problems rather than just buckle down and write my way through them. Life Among the Terranauts is largely composed of stories I wrote while I was “supposed” to be working on the novel.
As for why novels tend to take home more awards (and gain more readers) I don’t pretend to have the complete answer, but I know that as readers, we fall in love with novels long before most of us even encounter a contemporary short story. I love the story form, but I also recognize how delicious it feels to immerse yourself in the world of a novel, and have time to settle in and stretch your legs. Then when we’re taught stories they’re presented in a sort of pedagogical way, as bite-sized chunks convenient for either literary analysis or workshopping. When even many fiction writers see them as training ground for longer projects, it can be hard to recognize the stories as major accomplishments in and of themselves. I think this is true across multiple art forms—longer works (think symphony vs. short piano piece) almost always come (unfairly) with the greater whiff of gravitas.
JC: What was the first award you won for a short story? Was it the Plimpton Prize, for “At the Zoo?” The PEN/O. Henry or Pushcart? What was your reaction? Did it change your approach to your work? Do the prize winning stories and stories editors selected for anthologies synch with your own favorites? How do you deal with the “judgments” about your work made by outside gatekeepers?
CH: The PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories was my first major anthology appearance. I was probably still pinching myself when the Plimpton Prize happened about 18 months later. That was the purest kind of pleasure, because I hadn’t known the prize existed until I won it. One day I just opened an email inviting me to New York to pick up a check. I wish every writer could receive an email like that at least once in their lives. I got the success without worry or anticipation, without calculating odds or measuring myself or my work against anyone else’s.
It would be nice to say I’m motivated by Pure Art and don’t require any kudos. But in practice I think everyone hungers for some degree of external validation and encouragement. But if you’re heartened by the good news, as you should be, then you risk getting squashed by the bad. You have to try not to let a negative judgment, whether a bad review or a story rejection, become the verdict on the work itself. My most-rejected story ended up in the Pushcart Prize anthology. Your story is more than the last thing someone said about it. A negative judgment means that story didn’t work for that reader on that day under whatever particular circumstances the reader encountered your work. You can’t control any of that. Your story is held hostage by the circumstances of its reading (har har), in ways you can’t predict. All you can do is keep trying to write the story you want to read.
Life Among the Terranauts by Caitlin Horrocks is available now via Little Brown and Company.