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The Vexations

by Caitlin Horrocks

About the Book

Genius is often a lonely road to madness, and Erik Satie was no exception. Caitlin Horrocks re-imagines Satie’s life in a debut novel that has both the New York Times Book Review and the Wall Street Journal raving. We follow different perspectives surrounding Erik Satie’s life and experience glimpses into his past in a unique take of La Belle Époque Paris. Soon after the loss of both their parents, the Satie siblings are thrown apart. As they continue to grow, Erik’s siblings struggle to maintain some semblance of family, while competing with Erik’s growing ego and his obsession with  his art. Things come to a tipping point in their relationship however, when Erik’s sister Louise suffers a devastating loss while traveling the world. An interesting play on the expectations of women at the time plays an integral role in the lack of voice given to Louise throughout the title.

About the Author

Caitlin Horrocks is author of the novel The Vexations, named one of the Ten Best Books of 2019 by the Wall Street Journal. Her story collection “This Is Not Your City was a New York Times Book Review Editor’s Choice and a Barnes and Noble Discover Great New Writers selection. Another story collection, “Life Among the Terranauts”, is forthcoming from Little Brown in 2021. Her stories and essays appear in The New Yorker, The Best American Short Stories, The PEN/O, Henry Prize Stories, The 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. She is on the advisory board of the Kenyon Review, where she recently served as fiction editor. She teaches at Grand Valley State University and in the MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College. She lives in Grand Rapids, Michigan, with her family.

Related Events

Writing Workshop with Caitlin Horrocks

Thursday, August 13, 2020, 7:00 pm
Virtual Event | GRPL’s Facebook Page and YouTube Channel

Join GVSU writing professor and author  Caitlin Horrocks for an online writing workshop. Designed to challenge and inspire writers of all levels, this online workshop includes writing exercises that can be completed at your own pace.

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Q&A with Caitlin Horrocks

What are some books or resources that were helpful for you in writing your books?

There are books about writing I’ve learned a lot from, like Jerome Stern’s Making Shapely Fiction, or Charles Baxter’s Burning Down the House, or the essay anthology A Kite in the Wind, edited by Peter Turchi and Andrea Barrett. But I’ve learned the most from other works of fiction. If I fall in love with a book, I often spend time chewing on it, trying to figure out exactly what the magic ingredient is. I usually can’t, and there’s never only one magic ingredient. But I’ll do things like map how a story moves backwards and forwards in time, or look at how each chapter or scene moves a plot forward, or what and when we learn about different characters, and through whose eyes we learn it. Any book I enjoy has the potential to teach me something, and I try to take advantage. I especially admire works I think of as “magic tricks”: pieces where the author is doing something I know is incredibly hard to pull off, and somehow sticks the landing. I might not be able to do the same, but it gives me hope that someone has. Basically, pay attention to what knocks your socks off, and keep those books close to you.

On a last, very practical note, if you’re writing historical fiction, read in the period, not just about the period. It took me a stupidly long time during my work on The Vexations to shift from reading Satie biographies and music scholarship to reading work that captured daily life in late 19th/early 20th century Paris.

What is the best book you’ve read during 2020?

I hate declaring any “bests,” but I want to praise a book that helped me get back into reading this past spring, when I was spending all my time either trying to balance work and childcare, or doomscrolling pandemic news. Sarah Vap’s genre-bending Winter: Effulgences and Devotions documents her years-long effort to extract herself each morning from “the family-animal” and write a single poem. But the family-animal always awakes, pulling her away to wipe butts, feed chickens, teach classes, and monitor fevers that rise without regard for whether the family has health insurance that month. Vap evokes the exhaustion, wonder, fear, and humor of parenthood, but what spoke most directly to me is her portrayal of fragmentation and interruption. What is it like to read and write with our attention frayed by both mundanities and terrors? Vap shows one way of persisting and creating in this state of distraction, morning after morning.

What a neat and very niche person to choose! What inspired you to write about Erik?

I first encountered Erik Satie’s work as a kid taking piano lessons. I loved “Gymnopédie No. 3” so much that I was initially frustrated to discover that his body of work wasn’t an endless supply of melancholy, elegant, easy-to-play piano pieces. It was diverse and playful and sometimes challenging and sometimes weird. My kid-musician-brain felt annoyed, but my storyteller-brain filed away some questions: “Who is the person who created all these different pieces? What was he trying to achieve? Which ones did he like best? What was he like in his personal life?”

There’s a popular (and useful) book of fiction writing exercises titled What If?; a lot of fiction gets written by thinking through what the world might be like if X, Y or Z happened. I have plenty of “what if?” questions, but even more often I’m thinking about the question, “Who is the person who…?” (ex. performed action X, or committed betrayal Y, or fell in love with Z…). I’m interested in why people do the things they do.

I didn’t do anything with my questions about Erik Satie for a long time, but one day, facing down a looming story deadline, he floated back into my brain and I started researching. His life and habits were every bit as surprising as his music, and I quickly realized that there was easily a book’s worth of material here. I didn’t yet know what kind of book, or how I was going to write it, but I was excited by the challenge.

Is it the mental journey and struggle that intrigued you? Or the way this impacts the family that speaks to you/ interests you the most?

Is it cheating to say both? For a long time, I assumed I was writing a totally Erik-centric book, exploring his personal and professional struggles and following him cradle-to-grave. But as is evident from the novel (or other sources) he was a difficult, prickly guy, and thus sometimes a difficult character to write about. I always felt a lot of empathy for him, but I also found myself frustrated with him, or asking questions that I realized the people around him must also have asked, once upon a time. When I started researching those secondary characters, I found that they’d lead lives that were fascinating in their own right, and the book started expanding outward, to include these other characters, and to be more about the web of relationships around Erik than tightly focused on him or his perspective.

Do you have any readgrets (definition as a noun-that empty feeling you get when you read a book way too fast and wish you would have read it much slower; as a verb-to feel sad or sorry it took you so long to read a book you should have read a long time ago)?

Readgrets! This is a totally new word for me, and I love it. I don’t know that I’ve ever wished I’d read a whole book more slowly, but I always regret it when I skip ahead to read the ending early.

For the second definition, I can think of times that I finally read a book and regretted having let other people’s perceptions of the work or author influence mine too much, for better or worse. I read backlash against Ernest Hemingway or David Foster Wallace, for example, before I ever read actual Hemingway or DFW, and I started reading them both in a combative mood. But they both wrote books that I’ve learned from and enjoyed.

Life is short, there are a lot of books out there, and not everything will speak to everyone. I’ve stuck with some books longer than I probably should have (another form of readgrets?). But I try to always approach the first pages of anything with generosity and open-mindedness.

What changes do you think will stick around after the pandemic? ie, no more shaking hands, more people working from home, no more birthday candles, etc.

I hadn’t even thought about birthday candles! But I can definitely get on board with the idea of not exhaling over shared desserts, especially since I’m sick right now with something my four-year-old gave me by sneezing directly into my eyeballs. I’d also be in favor of retiring the handshake, which has always felt like an invitation to judgement (of weak grip, sweaty palms, etc.) as much as a greeting. 

Another change I’ll hope for: I’ve mostly held jobs in workplace cultures where the expectation is that you drag yourself to work every day you possibly can, half-dead if necessary. I get why it happens (lots of jobs are hard to arrange coverage for, or you feel like you’re screwing over other people by calling in sick, or like you’re just screwing over your own future-self by making more work for later, among other reasons). But I hope the pandemic leads to a shift where it’s encouraged, or at least acceptable, to stay home and take care of ourselves when we’re feeling unwell–thus taking care of others by keeping our distance.

What is your writing routine? Is there anything that helps you find your flow when writing?

Between the pandemic and family changes (I have newborn twins) whatever effective routines I might once have had are pretty tattered. And to be truthful, I’ve never had rock-solid writing routines. I admire and envy the people who get up at a certain time every morning, and write a certain number of words before breakfast or email, but I’ve never been one of those people. The thing that has perhaps helped me the most is to stop beating myself up for not being that person. If I’m not getting anything done at my desk, I try to avoid scolding myself and simply move to the kitchen table. If all I’m doing at the kitchen table is sending email or reading the news, I get up and go to a coffee shop. If I’m not making any headway on a new piece, I might try revising something older. The coffeeshop thing worked a lot better pre-COVID. But I hope my main point stands, which is to be kind to yourself. Work within, not against, your habits and preferences, as you figure out what works for you.

Do you have any habits or creativity hacks that help you deal with writers block?

I think that true writer’s block is relatively rare. I think what more of us are more often afflicted with is having too-high standards. I don’t usually have writing sessions where I just can’t get anything down on the page; I have plenty of writing sessions where it feels like everything I get down on the page just isn’t very good. The best “solution” for me personally is to just plow forward, knowing that when I come back to the material that felt awful, that I’ll either find a) it’s better than I thought it was, b) it’s not great but I can see how to rescue it in revision, or c) it’s indeed pretty terrible, but I can now see where I need to go instead. There will always be days (for me, anyway) when writing feels like pulling teeth; I don’t consider that writer’s block so much as part of the process, and I try to remind myself that no words are ever wasted. Even the clunky ones are the words you needed to write to be able to move forward and find better ones.