One of the absolute best short story collections published in the last decade, This Is Not Your City, was released in 2011 not by one of the big five publishing houses, but by the Louisville-based indie darling, Sarabande Books. The collection’s deftly precise stories had been featured in journals like Tin House, The Paris Review, Third Coast, and The Gettysburg Review, among others, and the title story itself was recognized with a PEN/O’Henry prize. Upon its release, This Is Not Your City was named one of the best books of 2011 by the San Francisco Chronicle and an selected as an editor’s choice in The New York Times Book Review. The collection’s wide success made the literary community wonder at length just what its author would release next. With her debut novel, The Vexations, Caitlin Horrocks has answered that question powerfully and resoundingly.
A historical novel that centers around the life of Erik Satie, The Vexations (Little, Brown) is less interested in building up the mythos around the famed composer than it is exploring the lives of the people who buoyed him throughout his eccentricities. It is a brilliant work that expands on the boundaries of the lens on Satie’s life, out into the edges and environments that allowed him to flourish in the first place. This attention to the edges is something Memorious has always loved about Horrocks’ work, like in her flash piece, “Prayer for the Moth, but Also for the Spider,” featured back in issue #21.
Close to the release of The Vexations, Horrocks was wonderful enough to answer our questions about her work and her love of difficult art.
I love how The Vexations works in these wonderful spaces around the periphery of Satie’s biography. Chapters detail the life of his younger brother, Conrad, or his sister, Louise, in both France and Argentina; others highlight his friendship and collaboration with Philippe (the poet who would call himself ‘Patrice Contamine de Latour’); still other sections focus on Satie’s lover, Suzanne Valadon. Satie himself doesn’t get his own hand directly on the wheel until Chapter 7. Why did you decide to build the novel out of several characters’ voices instead of just Satie’s himself?
I think of chapter 2 as Erik’s—or Eric, as it was spelled at the time—so I didn’t intend to sideline him for quite that long. But Erik was a difficult person, and as I found myself asking questions about Erik’s latest provocation or self-sabotage, I realized I must be asking the same questions that the people who lived with or alongside him asked, too. I was curious about their answers, and then curious about them as individuals. I’d known going into the project that I didn’t want to create a traditional Great Man biopic, with predictable swoops of solo success or failure, but I initially struggled to escape my own biographical impulse. Letting the book become about a web of people, with their own ambitions and resentments and affections, ultimately felt like the most rewarding way forward.
Less grandly, I also found myself turning with relief towards characters about whom less is known: with Erik, I was constantly checking invented moments against the available dates and evidence. Less-documented characters offered me some welcome freedom during the drafting stages.
How did you decide on which tenses to use for each section? The book starts off in present-tense in both 1925, the year of Satie’s death, and then trills deftly back to 1872, the year that Erik and his siblings lose their mother and an infant sister. Later sections switch between past and present tense, as well, but they function seamlessly. How did you decide on which tense to employ throughout the timeline?
They, uh, all just came out that way! But because I know that isn’t a very wise or writerly answer, I’ll add that I’d then play with them, and try to move them in and out of past or present to see what worked best. But they wouldn’t budge. Once I wrote that early sentence, “Today the boy is ordinary,” Erik was permanently in present tense. Philippe and Suzanne were always in past, and Louise alternated between (mostly) present-tense Argentina and her memories of France. I questioned all of this plenty, because I know some readers are annoyed by present tense, and I suppose it’s a bit unusual to have known events from a century ago unfolding in present, but the alternatives just never felt right.
You’ve mentioned in other interviews how early exposure to Satie’s Gymnopédies helped drive you toward the writing of this book. What was it about the composer’s works that stood out to you at the time as a student?
What struck me most strongly was the elegance and beauty of the Gymnopédies juxtaposed with pieces that not only didn’t sound as beautiful, but didn’t seem to be trying to be beautiful; they seemed to be aiming at something else altogether, and that something else often contained more humor than I’d ever encountered playing classical music. At the time, I didn’t know what to make of it, and wished he’d just kept writing Gymnopédies forever. But I was curious about what this person had been trying to accomplish, and who he might have been.
Years later, now that you’ve studied him and written about him, how has that view changed?
In some ways, it hasn’t! As a pianist, I’m still a sucker for the lovely stuff, and still struck by the relentlessness of his desire to experiment and play. As a listener, I have a much greater appreciation for some of the music whose intention baffled me as a student. My admiration for his whole career deepened over the course of writing and researching the book, even though there are still Satie pieces I enjoy listening to or playing more than others.
You mention in the book’s acknowledgements that the novel was borne out of a short story you presented at the Norman Mailer Writer’s Colony in 2010. Could you give a quick memory of the story and what made it seem like it would work better as a novel-length work?
I wrote the story in 24 hours, after learning as I arrived that I was supposed to bring an unpublished story to be workshopped. The idea floating at the top of my panicked brain was Satie, and that early story actually has a lot in common with the current first chapter of the novel. But there was also a modern day storyline about an unhappy music student researching Satie, plus an insane flashforward at the end that tried to summarize decades of history. Everything about it yelled “novel” inasmuch as it yelled anything.
During your research in preparation for writing The Vexations, what stood out to you as the most pleasing thing you learned about Satie’s life? Similarly, what was the strangest bit of information you learned?
An interesting aspect of researching and writing work set during this period (Satie lived 1866-1925) is how transitional the era was: if a character is buying a shirt, for example, is he buying it off the rack from a department store? From a used clothing dealer? Is he buying fabric, and having someone else make it? A tailor? A seamstress? A wife?
Before or after the timespan of the novel, there’d likely be a clearer answer. But during the latter part of the 19th century and early 20th, there were a huge range of possible answers, depending on the person’s income or location or class or fashion sense. At first, this liminal quality was maddening, but I learned to value how the different ways characters could exist in the same city or the same years could illuminate different personalities and social positions.
Satie is a bottomless well of hijinks, but one of my favorites was his invention of his own church, pretty much solely so he could write and publish open letters excommunicating his enemies.
Whose influence as an author has been most meaningful to you? Whose works did you need to read in order to produce your first novel?
I don’t think I can pick a single influential author, especially because my reading habits tend to change a lot depending on whatever project I’m working on. For this project, I read a lot of historical fiction with characters based on real people, which was not something I’d either thought of as a genre, or read that much of, earlier. Some authors who do it well, in no particular order: E.L. Doctorow, Colum McCann, Megan Mayhew Bergman, Peter Ho Davies, Zachary Lazar, Jasmin Darznik, Edward Carey, Christopher Castellani, Hilary Mantel.
Lastly, because I’m always curious about this: What’s the writing project in the future that makes you feel most intimidated or worried about?
Any novel where I don’t inherit fixed plot points. Certainly I thought about plotting in The Vexations, but I was wrangling a lot of preexisting material, and in some ways there was more curation than invention. I’m a bit nervous about returning to inventing plots and people out of whole cloth.
Interviewer Barrett Bowlin’s stories and essays appear in journals like Ninth Letter, Hobart, storySouth, Michigan Quarterly Review, The Rumpus, Salt Hill, and Bayou. He teaches Composition and Literature at Suffolk University.