Life Among the Terranauts

by Caitlin Horrock

(Little Brown, 2021)

Interview by Columnist Ellen Birkett Morris

Caitlin Horrock’s short story collection Life Among the Terranauts shines a light on people in communities under pressure. In “The Sleep” a town is divided over whether or not to spend the brutal winters in hibernation. In “Life Among the Terranauts” participants in an experimental biodome struggle to survive as the project disintegrates. While the themes are heavy, Horrocks draws us in and keeps us reading. Here she talks about the development of Life Among the Terranauts and offers strong advice to writers who are looking to stay in the game.

AUTHORLINK: Your last book was a novel. What drew you to short stories this time? Does your work as a novelist feed your short story work?

“I’d say my work as a story writer fed my work as a novelist more than the other way around.”

HORROCKS: My first book was a story collection, and I wrote most of the stories in Life Among the Terranauts while I was supposed to be working on my novel The Vexations. Stories were and are my comfort zone… although given how often the writing of any individual story can and will make me want to pull my hair out, “comfort” is probably not quite the right word. But I love writing stories, and story ideas come to me with much more regularity than novel-sized ideas. Even my novel unfolds in suspiciously story-like chunks. I’d say my work as a story writer fed my work as a novelist more than the other way around.

AUTHORLINK: James Dickey said the idea for Deliverance came to him as a vision of a man standing alone on top of a mountain. His job was to get the man off the mountain. Where do stories come from for you—image, first line, character?

HORROCKS: All of the above. I’ve got stories that started with visual images, and ones that were triggered by someone’s funny tossed-off remark, or with a strange news story, or a memorable place. I’ve got stories that started with workshop prompts or assignments I gave to myself. I’ll swing at nearly any pitch. Sometimes I strike out, but more often I make it on base and then keep writing until I see a way to bring the story home.

AUTHORLINK: How did you know you had a collection? Did you write these with building a collection in mind or did you find you had a set of stories that belonged together?

HORROCKS: “I didn’t” is the answer to all three questions. The book came together over a long period of time, composed of stories that were never necessarily intended to go together. I just kept writing stories as individual projects, and then once I’d accumulated a big pile of them, took a step back to hold them up against each other and see which ones might fit together. Part of what I love about writing short stories is the chance to take on different challenges each time out, which leads to a pretty diverse group of stories and some stressful moments when it’s time to see if there’s an actual book there. As a reader, I don’t mind at all when collections contain a mix of styles or subjects or locations. But every time I stepped away from the manuscript that became Life Among the Terranauts, I’d cross my fingers and hope that it still felt like a book when I came back to it.

AUTHORLINK: What themes emerged in stories as you wrote? Were you surprised by what came up?

HORROCKS: I didn’t realize how much the collection circled the idea of staying or going until I was re-reading the manuscript after some time away. I knew I was writing (or trying to write) about people in communities (after writing a lot about isolation in both my first collection and the novel) but I hadn’t realized how often that led the characters to similar moments of reckoning: hopefully not so similar that they feel repetitious, but similar enough to be in conversation with each other across the book.

AUTHORLINK: The mood of these stories with their sense of foreboding and resignation fits our times perfectly. When were they written and how were they influenced by the political/social climate at time?

“I write slowly enough that I have to hope my stories feel relevant because they were written by a human…”

HORROCKS: It’s nice to hear that the stories fit the times because they were written over a long period, certainly all before the pandemic. I spent most of the Trump administration writing and revising a novel set largely among composers and artists in late 19th and early 20th century France. Political and social forces showed up more often than one might expect (the life of a major character is absolutely shaped by the cultural and legal constraints on women at the time) but I wasn’t exactly capturing the zeitgeist. I write slowly enough that I have to hope my stories feel relevant because they were written by a human trying to be human in the world, and not because I was chasing Relevance-with-a-capital-R. Which other writers may be able to pull off just fine, but the world does not need my lukewarm hot takes.

AUTHORLINK: The stories that bookend the collection “The Sleep” and “Life among the Terranauts” are both pretty dark. Is it hard for you to write these kinds of stories? If not, why not? If so, how do you do it?

HORROCKS: It’s probably telling that I don’t actually think of “The Sleep” as being that dark! My sense of dark can go pretty moonless. So, no, dark stories aren’t harder for me to write than any other kind. Fiction is made of mistakes—a character who always does the wise, well-adjusted thing would make for a very short story indeed. One reason I write is to make sense of the world; in fiction, I write to arrive at an understanding of people I don’t already understand and sympathize with. I find that journey rewarding, even when it winds through dark territory.

AUTHORLINK: My favorite was “Paradise Lodge.” You mentioned that was a tough one to write. What were the challenges when writing it and how did you overcome them?

HORROCKS: It’s the longest story in the book, and the longest one I’ve ever written. It rotates points of view between four characters, with appearances from several more. The characters were all different from me, and different from each other, and challenging to get right individually. Then challenging to play off of each other and get in balance. Their interactions are shaped not only by their personalities, but by forces of geography and race and language and power and money (which is true of everyone all the time, but this story engaged with those forces more overtly than most of my work). I kept wrestling with it, trying to scale it back to manageable size; it at one point threatened to spiral into a novella with at least one additional major character. Editorial feedback helped me get it across the finish line, both from American Short Fiction after acceptance, and from an editor who said a wise “no” to a previous version I sent out prematurely.

AUTHORLINK: Talk to me about your revision process when working with your editor. What sort of changes did you make? Any tips on revision for apprentice writers?

HORROCKS: The stories had nearly all come out in journals already and been the lucky recipients of feedback from those editors, so revising the collection was an easier, smoother process than it had been on the novel, which I handed over in much rougher shape. A couple of the oldest and newest stories felt like they were missing a few layers, so I worked to deepen those until I felt they could stand alongside the stories I was more confident in. The deepening didn’t always mean the story got longer.

“I try to ask instead what is necessary to the story: is something already present or echoed elsewhere?”

It’s easy to talk about revision in terms of cutting what’s “bad” and keeping what’s “good,” but what’s good in any particular situation is whatever serves that particular story; revision can mean merciless cutting, but it can also mean leaning into digressions or lush language. I try to ask instead what is necessary to the story: is something already present or echoed elsewhere? Cut the repetition. Is there a scene taking place offstage, or not currently taking place at all, that would add to the reader’s understanding? Get that in somehow.

AUTHORLINK: What advice do you offer to apprentice writers on craft? On staying encouraged?  

HORROCKS: Something that surprised me once I entered an MFA program was that the “finish line” was never where I thought it would be (and in fact was a total mirage). There’s no success, either of craft or career, that guarantees the next success. Something can always go awry, or just not pan out the way you might hope it would. I’d say few things will pan out exactly how you might hope. And occasionally things will go much better!

“…celebrate successes wherever you find them. Don’t wait for a book deal to feel like a “real” writer…”

That always sounds gloomy, so here’s the corollary: celebrate successes wherever you find them. Don’t wait for a book deal to feel like a “real” writer, and try not to spend your book launch worrying about how the book will sell (I’ve been guilty of both). Celebrate the good writing day, or the good paragraph, or the journal publication, or the weird little flash fiction that isn’t like your usual stuff, and you’re not sure where it came from, but you dig it. Tell people who care about you so they can help celebrate. Have people in your life who will celebrate with you. I don’t think they have to “get” what you do, but they should be cheering you on.

AUTHORLINK: Discuss what you are working on now.

HORROCKS: Beyond emails and teaching tasks, nothing. I once asked the writer and all-around force of nature Ander Monson how he accomplished so much while raising a kid. His one-word answer was “daycare.” The last year, in which my husband (fellow writer/teacher, W. Todd Kaneko) and I have been trying to work from home while caring for new twins has really reinforced the accuracy of that. Maybe fall, when our older child is in kindergarten and the twins have daycare spots, will yield the opportunity to have more than two consecutive uninterrupted thoughts.

 About the Author

Caitlin Horrocks is author of the story collections Life Among the Terranauts and This Is Not Your City, both New York Times Book Review Editor’s Choice selections. Her novel The Vexations was named one of the Ten Best Books of 2019 by the Wall Street Journal. Her stories and essays appear in The New YorkerThe Best American Short Stories, The PEN/O. Henry Prize StoriesThe Pushcart Prize, The Paris Review, Tin House, and One Story, as well as other journals and anthologies. Her awards include the Plimpton Prize and fellowships to the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, the Sewanee Writers’ Conference and the MacDowell Colony.