Wednesday, July 31, 2019

Q&A with Caitlin Horrocks

Caitlin Horrocks, photo by Tyler Steimle
Caitlin Horrocks is the author of the new novel The Vexations, which focuses on the life of composer Erik Satie. She also has written the story collection This Is Not Your City, and her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including The New Yorker and The Best American Short Stories. She teaches at Grand Valley State University, and she lives in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Q: Why did you decide to write a novel based on the life of composer Erik Satie?

A: Years ago, as a piano student, I was assigned one of Satie’s most famous compositions, “GymnopĂ©die no. 3.” I can pretty much guarantee that anyone reading this has heard the piece, whether you think you have or not. I found it incredibly beautiful, and immediately went looking for more of Satie’s music; what I was really looking for was music exactly like the GymopĂ©dies. Instead I discovered a lot of very playful, experimental pieces, and at the time, I was annoyed.

But I ended up with the question of who the person had been who created this surprising, diverse body of work. I didn’t tackle that question for a long time, but once I started researching, the material was fascinating—not just what I learned about Satie, but about his friends and family, who ended up being equally compelling to me in their own, very different, ways. The novel ended up being less of a Great Artist Biopic and more about the relationships and the mingled admiration, love and resentments that tangled around Erik.

Q: What did you see as the right balance between the historical record and your own fictional creations?

A: As a reader, I’ve enjoyed fiction that stuck very close to the historical record, and fiction much more loosely inspired by its source material. I think a range of approaches are valid, both ethically and artistically, so the challenge was arriving at what felt right for these characters and this book. I went back and forth changing the real-life names to fictional ones, to give myself more freedom, and then changing them all back. 

I felt a great deal of loyalty to the facts, while knowing that my versions of these people were always going to be “my” versions, rather than acts of resurrection, and that they needed to work as characters on the page.

I ended up abiding more or less by a rule that if I knew something couldn’t have happened, I didn’t include it. Occasionally there are people who would have been present in real life that the book doesn’t discuss, largely for reasons of crowd control, but for the most part I chose to color inside the lines of what is known. Where the record stops is where I did my inventing.

Q: How did you research the novel, and did you learn anything that particularly surprised you?

A: The early-stage research included a trip to France, to explore Satie’s old stomping grounds. Then reading lots and lots of books and articles by biographers and music scholars. 

Then, realizing that while that wasn’t the “wrong” kind of research, it was insufficient; I needed much more information on daily life in the period, which I accessed via works of scholarship but also contemporaneous novels, memoirs, and travel narratives. 

As the book took shape I also had to dig for specific information I needed about, say, French custody and divorce law in the early 20th century.

One of my favorite discoveries, which appears nowhere in the book: many Parisians could have had running water in their homes much sooner than they did. 

The problem was that water hookups were available before city sewer hookups, and most buildings drained into individual cesspools which the landlords had to pay to have emptied. In the landlords’ minds, improved access to water would lead to more water usage, which would lead to increased expenses. Of course, it would also have contributed to better health, hygiene, and ease of living, but oh well.

I find this fascinating for what it says about human self-interest, about the piecemeal nature of “progress,” and about the power of governments and large public institutions to enact social change (both for better and for worse).

Q: How was the book's title selected, and what does it signify for you?

A: For a long time the book’s working title was La Belle Excentrique, which is the title of a piano piece by Satie. Then for a while it was rendered in English as The Beautiful Eccentric, but that title seemed to be both focused on Erik, and telling the reader how to feel about Erik.

We then used the title of another Satie piano piece, “Vexations,” which I hope better represents the chorus of people the book came to be about, and the varied ways they trouble or support each other. 

I also hope the book echoes the mix of playfulness and sadness I hear in that piece: the manuscript is only a few lines long, but Satie added a note about performing them 840 times in succession. To do this takes 12-20 hours, and I have a hard time imagining Satie ever having the patience to stage it himself. 

That blend of sincerity and provocation is something I found endlessly intriguing about Satie as a composer, historical person, and character.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I have a book of short stories coming out in 2021, also with Little, Brown, currently titled Life Among the Terranauts; most of the stories I wrote during the years I was “cheating” on the novel with side projects, but I’m also working on adding some new stories.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Since I started working on The Vexations, I’ve had conversations with people who are passionate about Erik Satie’s music, and with others who have never heard of him. I think there’s something in this book for both those camps, and for the readers in between. 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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