Book Club

The Vexations: a Q+A with Caitlin Horrocks

I had the pleasure of interviewing the author Caitlin Horrocks about her novel, The Vexations. Like all of her previous work, this novel was beautifully crafted with care. She left no stone unturned in terms of research. Horrocks ensured the characters were real in the ways they loved. Every act of love looked different from each perspective, as everyone in the relationship worked for the good of the other as best they could. I applaud her hard work and perseverance throughout this project. The story left me in tears, because there is so much about people that we do not know and so much beauty in others that is sometimes hidden from plain sight. Without her efforts, Satie’s story and relationships may not have been acknowledged if not for this form of work. Horrock’s writing will invite you into another time and place. Step in and listen closely. As you read, you just might hear Satie’s music.

How did you get into writing?

I was always a kid who loved books and I was interested in writing my own stories. If a teacher gave a creative option for a project, I would always took it. Probably (in) elementary school or middle school I was writing fan fiction basically, (although) I didn’t have that name for it at the time. I loved telling stories and writing. I just didn’t think that was something I could do with my life. I grew up assuming that was something that I would stop at some point or have to set aside. Then I just didn’t stop. I kept writing stories in high school, in college, graduated and really hit a point where I wasn’t in school anymore. Nobody cared if I ever wrote again. There weren’t going to be deadlines, there weren’t going to be classes. I realized, no, I still want to do this. That was finally the moment where (I thought) alright sounds like this is something kind of serious for you. Maybe you should take yourself more seriously and pursue it.

I didn’t send anything out for publication until maybe my second year of grad school. In undergrad, I was submitting to the literary magazine and campus contests. But I wasn’t trying to publish my work beyond that. I still wasn’t thinking of publication, I was just trying to figure out starting new projects or finding a writing group. Just thinking of ways to keep myself involved or thinking about how to find a writing community outside of a college campus. Then (I) ended up in graduate school. I had a roommate and friends who were sending their work out for publication and it looked like a game that they were in on. (I thought) oh they’re all doing this thing and even though they get rejected all the time I want to be doing this thing and trying my chances. It was nice to be around a lot of people doing it because it made it feel fun, rather than discouraging which it can also be. That was when I started sending things out.

What was the writing process like for The Vexations? How did you get the idea for writing about Erik Satie?

The process was slow. I didn’t know I was actually going to write about it. I was just a kid taking piano lessons and was assigned one of his pieces, the Gymnopedie #3. I loved it immediately. I thought it was very beautiful, I liked the melancholy mood, (and) it’s really technically easy. You can sound sort of moody and elegant without a lot of technical skill which I liked because I was not a great pianist. I just wanted to learn more of his music, so I got another book of more Satie pieces. At the time (I) felt annoyed and disappointed, because there was maybe half a dozen pieces and tons of other stuff that was religious music for this mystical cult, tiny fragments (that were) not even full pieces, and things where he was experimenting with performance indications. Where another piece would say ‘play this allegro or quickly, slowly’ he would say ‘play this like a nightingale with a toothache.’ He has wonderful ones like that. There were ones with poems about weird sea creatures. At the time (I thought), who was this guy? This is his body of work? This is crazy! That was a question that had stuck with me without (me even) realizing it had stuck with me. It was there in the back of my brain for a really long time. Then I had an unexpected story deadline. I didn’t know I was supposed to turn in this piece for a workshop. I got an email that said bring 12 copies of a story with you 24 hours from now at this summer workshop with a very famous writer. I sat down in a panic. The first idea that was floating around in my brain that I grabbed was about Eric Satie. It was a terrible story. I wrote it in like 12 hours and it was not good. But among the ways in which it was bad was that it clearly needed to be a novel. If it was going to be anything it would need to be a novel. The size of the story was way too big for the short story. I (thought) alright, I have a novel project!

Do you think a lot about characters in your writing?

Yes. I think one of the things I dislike most as a reader is the feeling that the writer doesn’t care, that the writer is manipulating them like pieces on a chessboard or creating somebody just to mock them or to make an easy point. For me, if you’re going to write fiction, part of the purpose of fiction for me as a reader and a writer is that sense of creating people that feel real and complicated in the ways that real people are. I think it’s something that’s always been important to me as a reader and is really important to me as a writer. I do spend a lot of time thinking about them like real people. You just try to think through how they would react in certain situations or what situations I can put them in that are going to elicit or show pieces of their personality.

What is the biggest difference or challenge between writing short stories and novels? 

The thing that sounds crushingly obvious but is also true is that novels are really long. It’s a marathon and going into this as a writer, I was a middle distance runner. I had never taken on something that was going to last this long. I found it really psychologically difficult to think (that) I’m still working on this one thing. I found it very stressful thinking, what if I can’t make this work? What if it doesn’t? If a story’s really not going well, you can bail and come back. You’re only ten pages in, or fifteen pages in, or you strip it for parts, take scenes, and use it for something else. I was used to that being part of the process. The idea that I would spend hours and months and years on this one set of characters in this one particular fictional world and maybe not be able to produce a book out of it, or feel like I couldn’t make the book I wanted or couldn’t make a book that was good, I found that really hard. I really psyched myself out at various points with that part of it. I think for me one of the things that is hardest about the novel (is) it’s not a technical thing, it’s not a craft thing, it’s just settling in for the long haul and trusting that it will work out. Once I was in it, I really enjoyed being immersed in a world and spending longer with characters than I had with stories. It’s just different. There are things I like about both, there are things that are challenging about both.

It was hard because it was long and I didn’t know if it was going to work out. It was very different working around a series of fixed points. Pretty much every character is based on a real person. I think historical fiction can be handled in different ways. I’ve certainly read and enjoyed authors who play pretty fast and loose with the facts. They’re pretty open that this story and character is only loosely inspired by the historical record. I thought about that. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. I thought about doing it (and) I went back and forth all the time on how faithful I wanted to be or how faithful I should be to the record. In the end, (I) just kept coming back to the fact that it was sort of the challenge for me, that was what was fun about it. It was the puzzle of taking these things that are known and things that aren’t and making them all fit together. Imagining the things that aren’t known and the things that are because we know certain things happen but we don’t necessarily know how or what people said, or what it felt like to be there. I decided I didn’t want to contradict anything that was known. I didn’t want to have anybody doing anything that I didn’t believe they really might plausibly have done. I made the choice to be very faithful to what was known. It was a lot of picking and choosing what moments we were gonna see people in, what scenes were the most important. I could also have chosen to focus on a particular new season of someone’s life or a particular set of years. At some point (I had) some dread of oh man I’m really doing this cradle to grave thing aren’t I? You’re really going to cover 60 years in this book? I said yeah, I think that’s what’s most interesting to me, I think that’s what I want to do here. I was gonna basically take a character from childhood all the way to adulthood. Then I got interested in the people around him and they started clamoring for ever bigger pieces of the book for themselves. At that point I’m covering multiple characters from childhood well into adulthood. (I had to) be ruthless about if we see this person at only a handful of points, what are the handful of points that are going to be most interesting for the reader and then (the) most revealing about who they are and the tensions they are dealing with are. What are the tensions in this larger world that they are dealing with and what kind of scenes are going to display that? A lot of it was taking (these) huge (pieces) of information, cherry picking this scene happening between these people, then jump ahead and see (something else). Just trying to be really strategic about what we were seeing.

You’ve published a novel and earned top 10 books for Oprah Magazine in July and the Wall Street Journal. What is it like to receive so much success for this book?

Writing is really solitary and when we work on something, we don’t entirely know whether it’s even going to be published or not. Then when it gets published, we don’t know if anyone’s going to pay attention to it or not. A lot of books come out and there’s ever shrinking attention for them or space in the media. There’s fewer and fewer newspapers period and then fewer newspapers doing book coverage or doing reviews. You just never know what size slice of the pie is going to end up with your book. I think like most writers, in order to avoid disappointment, you convince yourself whatever happens is fine, maybe no one reads it but I’m proud of publishing it. You try and tell yourself that. But there’s still a part of you that’s like yes I’m proud of it, I’m glad its just an object in the world but gosh I really hope people do read it and enjoy it. It was a relief to have the book come out and garner some attention and some good reviews. (It was) nice validation. You work on it a long time, you hope you’ve created something that other people will find value in. And then it feels good when it happens. I will also say the flip side to that is in the roll out, the months before the book comes out, (I learned) different publishers handle this differently. At Little Brown there was a publicist assigned to the book who was really good at keeping in really steady contact. There would be a lot of emails that cced me, my agent, my editor, and I think a couple other people at the house. It was this front row seat to this might be happening and this might be happening. This person’s reading it. And then some of those things would happen but a lot of them wouldn’t. The book absolutely got attention in ways that were wonderful but I can also tell you there were things that didn’t happen either. Whatever a book’s success, there’s other stuff behind the scenes that isn’t happening or that somebody hoped for and didn’t pan out.

If you had to give a piece of advice to someone trying to publish a book, what would it be?

Your goal is not to just get published. It’s to publish work that you are generally proud of in a venue or with a publisher that you feel proud to work with, and that you think can do something for your work that you can’t do for yourself. I think (we’re) in a moment now where there’s lots of self publishing tools, where there’s presses of all sizes from big and established ones to very small upstart ones. There’s presses that (have) really different resources, levels of expertise, and abilities to get behind a book and reviews for it or get attention for it. Value your own work enough to be patient and make sure it’s what you want it to be and where you want it to be before it goes out in the world. Then seek a partnership with the press that you feel like you can trust to really do right by your work. Lots of writers end up in publishing relationships where the press just doesn’t advocate for the book in the way they hoped or the press doesn’t seem to have the expertise or ability to advocate for the book. Or things go well for a while and then problems arise. Have the patience and the distance from your own work to wait and (have it) be where you want it to be. Hold out for a publishing relationship that’s really going to be an asset to the book.

Love,

Rachel

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