Tim Horvath teaches creative writing at the New Hampshire Institute of Art and Boston’s Grub Street writing center and works part-time as a counselor in a psychiatric hospital, primarily with autistic children and adolescents. Understories, his first book, is out now from Bellevue Literary Press.
His story "The Conversations" appears in Issue Thirty-Four of The Collagist.
Here, Tim Horvath speaks with interviewer Joseph Scapellato about carrying on a dialogue with one's forebearers, the role of conversation in relationships, and "verbal cheese, beer, sauerkraut."
1. Where did “The Conversations” begin for you?
It is the only story I’ve ever written that came out of playing with my daughter. Since she was very young we’ve collaborated on handmade books together, combining words and drawn pictures and collage. Our first effort was Bees, Bears, Alaska and the Stars, which involved a trip to Alaska and then on to Jupiter, with a riveting climactic scene in the Great Red Spot, I might add. More recently, we were working on a story and she asked me to come up with villain. Well, I thought, we can’t have the classic mustachioed bringer-of-malice. I decided I wanted an infiltrator, someone surreptitious and as close to impossible to detect, and so I conceived of the idea of having “the Conversations” as the villain, where the “bad guys” would disguise themselves as ordinary conversations. She liked the idea on its face, though I’m not sure if either of us really knew what I was talking about, but it went onto the list of items that were going to go into the book—usually we go for broke and just fill the pages, but on this occasion we were actually planning, I guess. Around that time, I was sunk deep into a couple of stories that never made it into Understories, serious, intense stories that were getting bogged down all over, and I started writing “The Conversations” as a distraction, a little side-action, a story-fling while my serious-story-relationship was going south. It came easily because it didn’t matter. And at some point I had to approach her and say, “Remember our villain, the Conversations? How would you feel if Daddy used that in a grown-up story? Daddy could really use that in a grown-up story.” Thankfully she was amenable and didn’t call in a team of intellectual property lawyers or anything. So that was the conception. Before that, though, I’d been reading a lot of Joshua Cohen for the past few years, and he’d become one of my favorite writers, and via an interview I’d done with him on the release of his first novel, a friend. His book A Heaven of Others, which involves a Jewish boy who is blown up while shoe-shopping and winds up in the Muslim afterlife, and so I also had explosions somewhere in my brain as an actual possibility. Josh’s writing is rich with jokes (one of the meanings of Witz, his magnum opus, is in fact “to joke”), and the first line of this story, “The first of the Conversations had taken at once in Rome, in Vegas, and in Hoboken,” sounds like a lead-in to a joke, no offense to Hoboken. One thing I like about this is that we never find out what happened in this third segment—what happened in Hoboken stays in Hoboken. And at first this seemed like cheating, but on reflection, it seemed somehow fitting to have that nod to Hoboken without actually going into gory detail. As in, everyone can go off and write his or her own Hoboken episode.
2. Forgive me if I’m influenced too much by the title, but as I read this piece I felt as if I were engaging in a conversation with the narrator—as if we were moving somewhere together, and I was participating in this movement. For me, this feeling was confirmed in the story’s stunning final paragraph, when the narrator speaks for “us”: “We started to talk again.” I wonder: to what degree is your writing process “conversational”? And in what crucial ways is it “non-conversational”?
That’s very cool, Joseph, and to be truthful that particular resonance of the title hadn’t even occurred to me. Crazy, huh? That’s very insightful, though. My writing process is conversational in maybe some of the obvious ways, in that I am carrying on a dialogue with my forbearers. I am always talking with Norman Rush and Primo Levi and Borges and Marilyn Bowering and Annie Proulx and William T. Vollmann. I am constantly arguing with Raymond Carver. And with whatever I am reading at the moment. Recently I’ve been chewing the fat with Hari Kunzru and Franzen and Jennifer Spiegel. I’m a very auditory person—I love listening to audiobooks when they are decently-rendered, and there are moments in most of my stories where it turns out that I’ve been speaking to a listener if you read carefully (in “Circulation,” the narrator worries about offending the reader, while in “Planetarium,” the narrator points out that the reader might be wondering why he didn’t reveal a piece of critical information earlier). I think there’s a part of me that is foremost a musician—in my head, I am never tuneless—and improvisation in particular is one of the things I admire most, when an ensemble can carry that off.
Something I’d like to get back to in my work is dialogue. I used to write more of it, and I’m not sure why I got away from it. I’ve been reading Jennifer Spiegel’s The Freak Chronicles this past week and drooling over her dialogue, which consists of a steady series of jabs amounting to a knockout.
I guess my writing is non-conversational insofar as it undergoes tight revision to the point where the sentences feel fully-wrought and crafted. I worry about wielding the chisel heavy-handedly. I do miss the days when I’d write a bit more un-self-consciously, a bit more conversationally, perhaps, before I even used a word-processor. It’s likely a natural outcome, too, of spending a bunch of years studying the sentences of writers and wanting to emulate those. I’m glad that this story felt as though it enlisted you in conversation, I’m hoping not of the Ancient Mariner type but something with a bit more back-and-forth. If I had to point to the best moments of my life, they’d probably be conversations. I won’t say anything about the context of them, or what was going on around them, behind them, between them…I’ve said enough already.
3. When the Conversations occur, the characters feel like they’re “reading someone else’s lines, lines that made an astounding, uncanny sense in the context of [their relationships],” often “after an impasse of some sort had been reached or at a point of extreme frustration, where those involved had been ‘going in circles,’ or had ‘already talked about this, in one form or another, a thousand times.’” I love how this elegantly suggests that a relationship’s most mundanely aggravating moments have the greatest potential to be destructive to our lives. Can you talk a little about how you struck upon and/or developed this trigger for the Conversations?
I think it was a stroke of fortune that when I got to that part of the story, this trigger actually worked. Up until writing it, it hadn’t occurred to me that the Conversations would be anything laden or loaded—remember I began with a villain looking to be inconspicuous, incognito. But my passions and interests incline me more toward human nature and relationships rather than the supernatural, so at some point I realized that the particular subspecies of conversation that was being put on trial here was the perennial conversation, the one we always have. That’s a shapeshifter, nothing supernatural about it—in every relationship, I’m guessing, there are one or two that manifest themselves in every season and every circumstance. They’re like whirlpools or strange attractors, too—they suck the interlocutors in from any given point, any given subject. Maybe each of us, with our significant others, is engaged in that conversation at all times, and everything else, from where to go for dinner to where to spend the holidays to how those choices are made are all variations on that conversation. Can that be destructive? Absolutely. Sometimes, maybe it is better if that conversation is held in abeyance, stays dressed as a sheep, gets drowned out in bad connections. Because it reveals, nakedly, who we are, where our stakes of self are planted, and how deeply, how tough they are to pluck out of the frozen ground. Again, just surmising here, but probably most relationships that end do so with a whimper rather than a bang, and the bang—the explosion—has already taken place, dispersed in a million infinitesimal non-explosions that are strewn throughout time, in the said and the unsaid, the ignored and the “understood otherwise.” Alcohol brings them out more as it brings out the capillaries in eyes, but makes it tougher to actually articulate the issues or understand them, and maybe that’s a good thing.
4. Does this piece appear in your story collection Understories? If so, how does it fit in? (And if it isn’t in this collection, does it mark a new direction for you, aesthetically?)
This was one of the last stories written for Understories. I’d like to think that I want to try everything, aesthetically and thematically. I was thrilled when The Collagist wanted this piece, because I dig the journal greatly and it was only one of two stories that was still unpublished. It’s interesting because I don’t think of myself as a writer of fantastic stories in general, but rather of stories that enlist reality and imagination in, if you’ll pardon the borrowing, a conversation with one another. In some sense, I think that this story may be viewed as a darker, menacing reprise of “Circulation,” which was the first story written that made it into the collection. Both are teeming with stories within stories, but in “Circulation” those stories serve as balm, showing off their power to connect, to nurture and sustain. I was younger when I wrote it, not necessarily more optimistic—I am still—but I hadn’t then read Joshua Cohen or Blake Butler’s Scorch Atlas or Gary Lutz’s or Matt Bell’s work. Again, though, I wouldn’t describe this as a new direction, per se. My tendency in the past has been to veer in the opposite direction from what I’ve done most recently. One direction from the story where I’m likely to wind up, though, is the desert. I’m a desertphile, and I want to write something that takes place in there to a significant degree, although Hari Kunzru has now written Gods Without Men, which is like three or four desert novels in one. Between that and Breaking Bad, I think I should just go off the grid and just read and watch the desert itself, first-hand.
5. What writing projects are you working on right now?
Picking up on the previous point, one of the stories that I was most heartbroken about not being able to get it up to par for Understories was called “The Desert of Maine,” which is about a young woman who essentially abandons her home and family and relocates to the Desert of Maine, a 45 acre tourist attraction that actually does resemble a very tiny desert. At this point, it—the story, not the attraction itself— is threatening to becoming a novel, although whether that is mere bravado or not on its part remains to be seen. I’m also working on several stories, including one called “The Nodder” and one involving people who climb bridges and recovering addicts.
6. What knock-out writing have you been reading recently? Are there any upcoming releases you're excited about?
Two books to look out for later this year are Gabe Blackwell’s debut novel, Shadow Man and Peter Tieryas’s collection, Watering Heaven. Gabe is someone with whom I share more than one obsession, including shadows and film. Shadow Man brilliantly reimagines biography as a mashup of literary criticism, history, and noir itself, at once parodying and paying homage to each of these genres—all that while being plain fun and having some of the funniest similes I’ve seen this side of Chandler. Tieryas’s collection sprawls over a lot of space, geographically and thematically, but his specialty seems to be nascent relationships, which flicker in his stories like neon signs from which maybe a letter has been knocked out, so we read them while ever-reminded of what is missing. His writing is incredibly witty and intelligent, and science seems to find its way into most of his stories in thoroughly unexpected ways. I’m also enjoying and admiring Jennifer Spiegel’s The Freak Chronicles, just out from Dzanc (I know, it will appear that I am playing to the home crowd, but it is all sincere and circumstantial that I happen to be reading these). Other things I’ve enjoyed a lot recently are Lauren Groff’s Arcadia, Nathan Englander’s What We Talk About When We Talk about Anne Frank, “The Particles” by Andrea Barrett in a recent Tin House (best story of hers I’ve read since “The Behavior of the Hawkweeds,”), and Gary Lutz’s Divorcer sentence #414. Seriously, although I can’t vouch for the number, you could number the sentences in that book and cull from them a top list. I open at random: “An accelerating metabolism meant he needed starches within arm’s reach—pillowy regional bagels, pretzels candied in their contortions.” What a great description of his own sentences, come to think of it. I love it. His brain is like a fermentation tank, English words undergoing a chemical change into something new—verbal cheese, beer, sauerkraut. Also, as I mentioned earlier, the Kunzru novel really stole my breath away. Upcoming, Junot Diaz is going to have a short story collection out, his first since Drown. He’s such a master of rhythm and voice—talk about a conversational writer, in the best possible sense. I’m also excited about the next issue of Camera Obscura, issue 5, which includes “The Selected Mugshots of Famous Hungarian Assassins” by Tamas Dobozy, a story which somehow manages to live up to that great title. And presumably next year, Norman Rush’s Subtle Bodies will come out. I see his work the way a certain type of astronomer might view a long-awaited comet—the first faint gleam in the scope is enough to make me slightly giddy.