In a new edition of our Debut Author Spotlight series, Caitlin Horrocks discusses her path to publication, and how she approached her seeming inability to come up with a “novel-sized idea.” Horrocks’s debut novel The Vexations is due out next week from Little, Brown and Company.
As a graduate student, I watched writer after writer in my MFA program turn in the-short-story-that-needed-to-be-a-novel. The class would begin our workshop discussion praising the story’s strengths, slowly circling around and then landing on the fact that the piece didn’t, shouldn’t would likely never work as a short story: the writer could narrow her focus, or she could let the piece grow into a novella or novel. The writer in question sometimes nodded eagerly, sometimes ruefully, sometimes with exasperation or despair.
My story drafts were all clearly stories. During graduate school and for years afterward, my ideas were eight or fifteen or 22 page ideas. For one entire, weird year, they were all exactly eighteen-page ideas. I got antsy: How was I ever going to write a novel if my brain couldn’t even cough up a single promising novel-sized idea, let alone deliver on the concept? And did I even really want to write a novel? If so, why? Only the pressures of the market? “Are you working on a novel?” literary agents and editors inevitably ask short story writers, and I always felt that the “correct” answers ranged from “Yes, and it’s done, let me send it to you!” to “Of course, and when I finish soon it will be wildly marketable.” I didn’t want to declare myself exclusively a short story writer without having at least tried and failed to write a novel.
I wish I had better resisted that stew of externally and internally generated pressures, but the one smart thing I managed was to resist forcing a novel-sized treatment onto a story-sized idea. I didn’t wait patiently, exactly, but for the most part I waited. For a while I researched and even started writing what I thought might be a novel inspired by a historical reference I was fascinated by, but had no idea what to do with: I could recognize its scale, but struggled to find the story.
Then one summer I headed off to a week-long writing workshop. There hadn’t been any communication from the organizers about bringing or preparing anything in particular, so I hopped on the plane assuming the class would be generative. The first email I saw after we landed was from the program coordinator, requesting that participants show up with copies of an unpublished story, ready to be workshopped. I did not have an unpublished, ready-to-be-workshopped story. My stomach dropped through the floor and landed somewhere in the baggage hold. I started counting hours: I’d arrived one day early to visit my sister, who lived nearby. I calculated that, if I rudely ignored my sister and didn’t sleep, I had exactly one day to write a story.
The first idea floating at the top of my panicked brain wasn’t the topic of my abortive-maybe-novel, but an old interest in Erik Satie, a French composer (1866-1925). I’d been assigned his “Gymnopédie no. 3” as a piano student, and loved its elegant melancholy, but had quickly learned that most of his music veered towards experimentation, humor, and eccentricity. I had a longstanding curiosity about the person who had created that divergent range of music.
The resulting short story did not solve that mystery. It solved zero mysteries, including why I thought alternating scenes set in 1925 with a modern-day tale of a frustrated music student attempting to research Erik Satie would be a good idea. Subtle, the story was not. Nor was it a short story. The concept was novel-sized in time scale, in ambition, in the ways I was trying to speak both about a life and about a body of work, as well as the intersections of that life and work with major historical events. By writing a really bad, rushed, short story, I’d finally written my short-story-that-needed-to-be-a-novel.
I was glad I’d waited for it, although once it showed up I knew with mingled joy and terror that I now had to figure out how to write the damn thing. That would take me another several years of trial and error, and if I could go back, I’d have some advice for myself on the process of actually researching and writing a historical novel. I might also tell myself to have some unpublished story drafts ready to go, or to at least ask questions about upcoming literary events before getting on the plane. But it turns out I work pretty well under deadline-stricken panic. So I might instead just tell myself that I did the right thing by waiting for the novel-sized idea, and keeping the faith that one would, eventually, show up.
“Are you working on a novel?” the chorus of literary agents and editors asked, and if I’d had more self-assurance I could have answered “Not yet.” I could have occupied that “yet” not with artistic or career worries, but with patience, and with openness to the unexpected directions even last-minute, half-baked ideas can move in.