Photo by Jon Madison
Josh Weston wants to tell a more complicated story about the founding of the GLCL and its inaugural fiction contest, but it turns out it may not be that hard to get good people to work together to publish excellent lit. Maybe all you have to do is ask.
Great Lakes Commonwealth of Letters (GLCL) is a nonprofit organization based in Grand Rapids, Michigan, started in early 2013. The GLCL hopes to satisfy a simple, but vital, mission: to encourage, promote, and celebrate the literary endeavors of writers within the Great Lakes region. To that end, last spring, we held our first fiction contest. Realizing that the promise of publication and the prospect of having one’s work read by a well-known and respected author are big incentives to contest submitters, we set out to a) partner with a regional literary magazine interested in publishing our winning story and to b) find a celebrity judge.
As it turned out, our luck was as good as our expectations were high. It isn’t even a good story. We asked, and Passages North and Caitlin Horrocks simply said yes. The action montage of the facilitating of the contest is just as bland. We put out a call for submissions and submissions came in, a big gaggle of which blew everyone’s hair back. From these, Ms. Horrocks chose Joe Sacksteder’s “Earshot—Grope—Cessation.” Happily, once you get to “Earshot” things pick up dramatically.
Furthering our streak of working with great writers and forces of Good, currently GLCL has partnered with The Michigan Poet for our 2014 Poetry Contest. The winner will be chosen by final judge Thomas Lynch. The winning poem, in addition to being celebrated at a special reading with Thomas Lynch in Grand Rapids on Saturday, April 12th during National Poetry Month, will be published on GLCL’s website and distributed as a special broadside by The Michigan Poet; the winning poet will also receive a cash award of $100.00.
I conducted the following interview with Caitlin Horrocks over email in the fall of 2013.
Josh Weston: What’s it like to edit for The Kenyon Review? To what extent does your experience as an editor inform your writing?
Caitlin Horrocks: My connection to The Kenyon Review began way back when I was an undergraduate at Kenyon College and applied to be a “student associate.” I spent one year stuffing SASEs with explanations of how the magazine was filled so far into future issues that we weren’t even reading new submissions. (The magazine had publicized this, but kept receiving submissions anyway). I spent the second year saying “no” to literally every single thing I read, largely because I was unreasonably terrified of wasting a more senior editor’s time if I said “yes” and s/he didn’t agree. I didn’t trust my own taste at all. It took more than a single vote from me for any piece to actually be rejected, but I certainly wasn’t a help to the authors whose work I was reading.
When I started sending out submissions myself, I could draw a couple of lessons from that: I knew the volume of submissions a magazine gets, and I had a very clear sense that competent writing was not going to be enough to catch anyone’s attention. Secondly, at all those magazines where your story fails to catch someone’s attention, the rejection is as likely to be related to the quality of your story as it is to the particular state of mind of the particular editor who picks up your work at a particular time on a particular day at a particular point in the coming-together of that particular issue. I truly believe that great work rises to the top: great stories find homes sooner or later, hopefully sooner. But editors are subjective, fallible people. I certainly was, and am, although in different ways now. That can be maddening or comforting to the submitter, or both at once.
I returned to KR as fiction editor last year, when former fiction editor Geeta Kothari moved over to nonfiction. It’s been an honor, a pleasure, and an education. There’s a main office in Gambier, Ohio, but members of the editorial staff live in several different states and cities. We do most of our work online via the Submittable system and email.
Josh: The big hand-wringing question people ask every year is, What is the state of American short fiction? I don’t even know what I mean by “state” here, but I guess what I’m really wondering is, from your position behind the desk at the Kenyon Review and judging for various contests, what do you see as some of the bigger challenges for the writer of short stories today?
Caitlin: The state of American short fiction? There is a lot of it. Our reading period at KR opened five days ago, and we’ve got literally 600 short stories in the submissions queue already. For a form that doesn’t usually earn much money, that some people write grudgingly for workshops when they’d rather be writing novels, there are a lot of stories out there.
A challenge is that some of those stories feel like they were written grudgingly for a workshop. I’ve got no time for claims about how MFA programs are sucking the life out of American letters; I think MFA programs are great places to surround yourself with people who care about writing and reading and doing stylistically diverse, interesting work. I loved my time in an MFA program. But I also recognize some truth in the Flannery O’Connor quote, “So many people can now write competent stories that the short story is in danger of dying of competence.”
Short stories have continued to lose traction in the larger “marketplace” at the same time that there’s been a profusion of print and online literary magazines. There are plenty of homes for short stories that are read almost exclusively by people looking for homes for their own short stories. I’m just reiterating the dilemma poets have had for ages. But I think this shows up sometimes in the stories themselves: these lovely 16 page objects saddled with all kinds of inherited wisdom about what short stories do well or poorly, or about how you don’t need plot when you have beautiful prose and an epiphany placed exactly two paragraphs from the end. (As Charles Baxter has written, “That old insight train just keeps chugging into the station, time after time.”) I love reading short stories in which the author seems to have thought deliberately about what kind of ride she’s sending the reader on, about how to push the form to a capacious, surprising place. If the story didn’t surprise the writer, it’s probably not going to surprise the reader.
And those stories, the surprising, pleasure-giving ones, are not rare. I read more of them for KR than we could ever hope to publish. I don’t want to scold short story writers nearly as much as I want us all to raise a glass together and keep doing what we’re doing.
Josh: What’s your favorite/least favorite thing about editing for publication?
Caitlin: My least favorite is saying “no” all the time. My favorite is when I get to say “yes.” Especially to a writer who hasn’t heard very many “yes”es yet.
Josh: One of the things I like most about This Is Not Your City is this palpable joie de vivre I get reading it. One example is Wil and Lucinda in “In the Gulf of Aden, Past the Cape of Guardafui.” They’re a couple with a complex grudge. They’re on a cruise, their first vacation since their son Aaron was born with very severe special needs. “He had learned to swallow, eventually, and to roll over unassisted. He was ten years old, and no one had any idea how long he might live.” The story begins on the cruise with Wil and Lucinda telling their fellow cruise-goers about fictional children with outrageous, wunderkind talents that they make up on the spot. Then the cruise ship is taken over by pirates, and they have to subsist alone in their cabin on little more than candy and crackers for four days. You see Will and Lucinda go from manically desperate and world-weary to quietly desperate and resigned, and yet this is a love story that kind of irradiates an earned, disillusioned hope. Short of asking, “How did you do this?” could you talk about the presence of joy in your work?
Caitlin: Thank you for saying my work has joie de vivre! That’s incredibly flattering. In that particular story, the joy started with the choice to write a pirates-hijack-a-cruise-ship story in the first place. I mean, what was I thinking? I’d seen a goofy news item about a real-life attempted cruise hijacking, and just decided to try and do it. It seemed like a story that shouldn’t work, or at least that I wouldn’t be the right person to write it, but I wanted to try. And then when I started thinking about the couple’s life before the cruise, I ended up with the disabled son. I don’t have a severely disabled child anymore than I’ve ever been on an actual cruise, but it felt right for the story, so I started researching. Doggedness is another quality that’s been important to me, which is funny, because that sounds like the opposite of joy. But I love taking a story that’s an adventurous mess and just trying and trying to make it work. If the author isn’t challenging herself, playing with something new, I think the reader is less likely to perceive that joie de vivre.
Josh: What have you read recently that’s blown your hair back?
Caitlin: Two really different recommendations:
Spectacle by Susan Steinberg might not be for every reader, but it’s so smart and ferocious and inventive. There’s an intelligence on the page thinking through serious ideas about gender roles and female identity (and plenty of other things), but doing it in a way that is formally adventurous and artistically alive. Also sharp and often funny. These stories are about something without the collection collapsing under its own aboutness.
You Are One of Them by Elliott Holt I can imagine being for just about every reader. It’s all there: a suspenseful plot; vivid atmosphere; rich, poignant sense of character; wonderful prose. It’s a rare book that does all of that so well.
Josh: I found this thing on the internet where Nadine Gordimer asked herself questions that she’d never been asked in an interview. I don’t think she meant that these were general questions every interviewer ought to be asking authors, but I can’t resist a couple of them. No one could ever ask these questions with a straight face, but I figure having a Nobel Laureate as an intermediary absolves me of tactlessness.
Gordimer Q1. What is the most important lack in your life?
Caitlin: Lack of time. I suppose this is true in terms of both the day-to-day, and eventual mortality.
Gordimer Q2. As a liberated woman, would you nevertheless prefer to have been born a man?
Josh: Do you have any thoughts on the popularity of Duck Dynasty?
Caitlin: Absolutely none. Now if only you’d asked me about Dance Moms or Supermarket Superstar.
Josh: Okay, what TV shows do you watch and what do you like about them?
Caitlin: Two longtime favorites are Project Runway and Top Chef. (I thought I was done after the last season of Project Runway, but this one lured me back.) I love them both as portrayals of the creative process. As a writer, I’m very aware that what I do is incredibly boring to actually watch. I sit around and type, and then at the end I’ve produced a pile of paper. On Top Chef and Project Runway, you get to watch people make notes or sketch, select fabric or food, run around like mad trying to execute their vision, receive criticism, and then edit their work accordingly (or ignore the criticism at their peril). The best laid plans go awry, the skirt made of sombreros is a hit, the sweet potato ice cream doesn’t freeze but goes over really well as sweet potato custard… Most of the people on both shows are genuinely good at what they do, and it’s fun to watch them handle bizarre challenges.
Josh: You mentioned in an email that you played classical piano for a bunch of years. What does your musical CV look like? How does music inform your writing?
Caitlin: My musical CV is not impressive: four years of really bad violin, eight years of choirs, ten years of piano lessons, and one solitary year of actually getting paid to play piano, as an accompanist for voice lessons. I’m extremely rusty now, but I try not to go too long without playing at all. Currently, music’s been informing my work in a really straightforward way, in that I’m working on a novel inspired by a turn-of-the-last-century composer. His real-life compositions unlock or suggest different aspects of the character I’m creating. For example, I’m short, with short fingers, which is a problem for a pianist. I was struggling to play these huge intervals in one of his pieces (which historically, he know he performed himself), and realizing I could feel the shape of his hands from the notes on the page; I was inhabiting his physicality (and failing, with my stubby hands), almost a century after he died.
Josh: In August you married the writer W. Todd Kaneko. When I imagine a two-writer household, I imagine a high energy newspaper-type atmosphere from circa 1976, where everyone smokes and yells and has ink stains on their clothes. Are the two of you always aware of what the other is working on? Is there a distinction between your workspaces? What’s the writing part of your relationship like?
Caitlin: Todd’s a productivity monster. Every April, he and a group of similarly masochistic poets celebrate National Poetry Month by writing a poem every day. These are not tossed-off haiku at 11:55pm: these are serious poems, and he somehow carves out time during days that in February or March already seemed impossibly full. That’s one of the things I love and resent about living with this particular writer: he shames me by example into getting my own work done.
Mostly, that work happens pretty quietly: no yelling, and few ink stains. We have separate dedicated work spaces, but we’re only occasionally actually in them. Some days we’ll both start off at the dining room table, then maybe Todd migrates to the living room, and I eventually migrate to a second-floor office. Then I’ll hear professional wrestling come on downstairs, and realize he was politely waiting for me to leave. He’s a good reader of my work, and I try to be a helpful reader of his, but it’s also a gift just to be with someone who doesn’t need convincing that a really great way to spend a Sunday afternoon is holed up with an open Word document.
Josh: To clarify, if wrestling comes on, that means you have to leave the whole house? Or just go upstairs?
Caitlin: He has the DVR programmed to pick up all his wrestling shows, and he usually only plays them when I’ve already left the room, or am out of the house. I don’t know if he’s being considerate or just self-conscious, but I don’t usually get chased out, even for pay-per-views. He’s been writing wrestling essays, and a book of dead wrestler elegies, so now it’s all “research.”