Tim Horvath is the author of the novella Circulation from sunnyoutside. Next year he will have a book of short stories come out with Bellevue Literary Press. He also edits fiction at the journal Camera Obscura. His rigorously written prose investigates families, cities, and science, as well as a lot of other arcana. We spoke about his fiction, how he writes, his history, and the myraid influences in his life.
GERKE: Tell us about Circulation. Where did it come from? Did it come jumbled? Did you play with structure or was that how it was conceived? I ask because it seems not a straight story. It goes back and forth in time.
HORVATH:Definitely not a straight story, like pretty much everything I do, it came out recursive, looping. It had a couple of starts, I guess, that came together. One day I started writing the jacket for an imaginary book called The Atlas of the Voyages of Things. The jacket was going to stand alone, this Borgesian short story. As I often do I left a lot of blanks in key places, yet when I went back and reread it, it seemed funnier when I left them blank. Another starting point was that I was going to do—this was in an MFA workshop mind you—a story from the standpoint of a book, where the book was the main character. It was a pretty bad idea that thankfully got nixed. The image I had was this scene from Kieslowski’s trilogy* where if memory serves we are watching a phone conversation and he has us enter someone’s apartment through the wires. I thought about books like that, spies or viruses that could slip past people’s doors/defenses, and I started to put that together with the idea of a book not only giving something up but picking up , collecting something from the person who handled it, read it, their skin cells, experiences, soul-lint, whatever….anyway, I really dig the way libraries are these communal places where stuff changes hands. We’ve created these boundaries around notions of ownership that of course as a consumerist American citizen I’ve absorbed unconsciously, and thus I think of my house as mine, but libraries remain this bastion of sharing. In today’s virtual zeitgeist a lot more sharing goes on, but I’m interested in the ways we don’t transcend the physical, the tangible, the way things get passed around, diseases for instance. Burroughs talks about language as a virus, which is a great metaphor even though I think he meant it as literally as you can mean something like that. So, then, a book would be like a petri dish—a swarming concatenation of language-viruses. It wasn’t too long after the Anthrax scare that I wrote Circulation, so maybe there’s a little bit of paranoia infecting it as well. All of which is to say that these ideas and openings were in play, and once I realized that it wasn’t a great idea to write from the book’s perspective (probably a terrible idea) I embedded it, enfolded it, as we do all the time, writers, with the metafictional urges that we are slightly embarrassed by—sometimes it’s better to fly the metafictional freak flag and other times it’s better to tuck it into a story and in this case I decided to tuck in, but then it began to take on a Scheherazadian element and I just followed it wherever it/she led me.
GERKE: The narrator says a few times with aplomb that he is “Director of Circulation” at the library he works at. This serves the functional purpose of him being able to get his father’s book easily, to track it, but the word “circulation” has many connotations here, many levels. The circulation of books, the circulation of blood (the business of living—or in this case the father is dying), the circulation of air, in caves, for instance (the father’s first book is Spelos: An Ode to Caves), and the circulation or circular motion one often sees in stories. All these ways of circulating get highlighted each time the narrator uses that word. Can you talk about the theme of Circulation a little?
HORVATH:Yes, Greg, you nailed a bunch of them. I was a circulation assistant in college, and it was this great job because I got to know everybody and there was never a shortage of conversation. I often felt like a bartender.But yeah, the idea of circulation, its many resonances, that the world is this churning mass of movements, of overlapping dynamisms and physical forces, that appealed to me. I’ve long been a devotee of Primo Levi’s “Carbon,” the last chapter in The Periodic Table, in which he traces the path of a single atom of carbon throughout deep space and time. It’s an extraordinary reflection on history, contingency, and the sheer unlikelihood of being alive. Somewhere in there I read Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel too, about how geography shapes how things travel globally and thus impacts cultures profoundly. To call yourself the “Director of Circulation”—it’s a funny phrase, because with that on your brass nameplate you could be in charge of the blood or the tides or the motion of the planets—godlike. Of course that idea of things circling around is archetypal, from the Hero Cycle to the Odyssey to Nietzsche’s notion of the Eternal Recurrence of the Same, so…it feels like it’s tapping into a certain substratum of the bedrock of our humanity. In the popular imagination, libraries are tame places where you’re supposed to be quiet and neo-Victorian (but not in the cool steampunk sense) and mind your manners, and yet what’s inside those books is volatile. My friend Rebecca Makkai uses this motif of the restrained librarian, ready to fly off the rails, in her wonderful new book The Borrower. Anyway, I always saw the father as a larger-than-life figure with these god-like aspirations of tracking every molecule in the known universe, which is in its own way an attempt to become immortal (as is writing a book), and because it starts out with this god on his deathbed it begins with what has proved to be failure, and the only recourse for the son is to attempt to take up his father’s legacy and task in a smaller, humbler, maybe feasible way.
GERKE: The early part of Circulation, describing a broken family (“my mother has bolted when she saw daylight”), reminded me of Chekhov or Alice Munro, yet even though parts of Circulation have domestic drama it also gets bent by the bookish obsession of a narrator who pays homage to Borges and books in the centerpiece (and center) of the book, the hinge, if you will. Can you talk about influences in general?
HORVATH:You’re right on in suggesting that there’s an attempt at fusing these disparate styles there, for sure. Given the whole Zadie Smith image of literature as a “big tent,” I’ve spent a bunch of time, as I know from our conversations that you have too, mucking around in different corners of that tent. I can never settle into one corner, one vestibule. I’d rather unzip the thing and go staggering around in the dark outside. But to bring it back to the realism and bending, like many authors I want to give you ideas and have you invested in the characters, or rather I want you to have the option of doing both, where if you’re needing the companionship of people the story offers that, but where you could reread it attuned to language, and then again for image, and then again for idea-play—I don’t think you have to be able to do all of those at once, and I don’t know ultimately if it’s possible, but I’d like to think maybe that that’s the thing to reach for.I’m really into those far-reaching connections, which you can see in Circulation in the conceit that everything is connected. The infinite exists not only in the grain of sand but in the high gloss granite countertop. Utensils can be artillery. Our most utilitarian tools are instruments of conjuring. It’s like that new Frank Gehry building, the one in lower Manhattan. Someone’s got to pay the rent on those apartments, so someone’s dotting their i’s and crossing their t’s, paying the bills, applying their engineering know-how, but Gehry knows as well as anyone that there’s something in everyone that craves nothing more than the imaginative swan-dive. What’s more quotidian than dreams, which flicker in the body in predictable nightly cycles, part biological imperative and part magic? At the same time it’s this simple: from my mother I obtain my obsession for detail and my Russian brooding over moral matters, from my father my need to play over the metaphysical fretboard, my refusal to stay inside the tent no matter how big it may be. And can you fit an infinite library inside a tent?
Where to even begin with influences? I can still remember the minute I picked up Tom Robbins’s Jitterbug Perfume in the high school library. From there it was Angela Carter. Midnight’s Children in Saturday detention every week after I scrubbed desks. Paul West’s Sheer Fiction plus my dad’s tastes; it was he that got me into Borges and Calvino and Perec and made sure I got my fill of Shakespeare. The Village Voice—not just the literary stuff but everything, and Alternative Press, the music magazine. Conjunctions. Also this box of oddities bequeathed to me by my dad’s roommate, a literal box that had Bataille, Ballard, Burroughs, Lautréamont. That was a key reference point. When I started teaching, the Best American Short Stories was a series I read religiously in search of contemporary things that would show my students that great stories were being written about their times and their world. I’ve taught Edward Delaney’s “The Drowning” probably fifty times, so that one’s in the blood by now. Norman Rush’s Mating stands to me as a monument for all the things I want my writing to do. Music is a huge influence—the Meat Puppets, Cul de Sac, the Sun City Girls, Cecil Taylor, and my favorite composer, Conlon Nancarrow**.
I like your term “hinge,” by the way. My world-class editor at sunnyoutside, David McNamara, along with the designer, Richard Kegler, deserves credit for that, for setting that segment aside and giving it breathing room.
GERKE: Your story collection has just been accepted. Can you give us a little preview of what it might look like? Will Circulation be in it? Will the stories all have been previously published? Any factors that may be guiding you during assembly of it?
HORVATH:I definitely want to have some new stories in there. I want it to feel fresh while at the same time bringing together these works from various journals, which I hope will get the spa makeover treatment, get their pores opened up through being put next to these other stories and the new ones. Erika Goldman, my editor at Bellevue Literary Press, is tremendously fluid in terms of thinking about the shape of the whole, and both of us are intrigued by the possibilities. I think the city pieces work more effectively when dispersed, almost as interchapters or in the way that Vollmann uses epitaphs in his Thirteen Stories and Thirteen Epitaphs, as a kind of counterpoint to the non-city stories. Calvino’s Invisible Cities is an obvious influence, and he had the sense to keep the cities short and potent, little espresso shots, and interweave the more contemplative conversations between Kublai Khan and Marco Polo. I think one of the biggest challenges is the varying lengths, from short-shorts to a novella, and figuring out how to sequence these. How do you establish a rhythm when you have such varying lengths? But this is a fun puzzle to try to solve. As far as a preview, the tentative working title is Understories, which, as you can probably guess, has a slew of figurative meanings. Most concretely it refers to plants in the understory of the woods, the ones that thrive in the shadows of the canopy, which arises as a motif in “The Understory.” More symbolically it refers to the notion of stories lying underneath others, which is something I keep coming back to. Hidden stories, stories squirming and writhing like little snails and worms you’d find by flipping over a rock, suppressed or repressed stories which assert themselves over the dominant or surface story by the end, stories that undergird all of our identities, all of these are valid ways of reading that title. I could go story by story and tell you about each of them, but I’ll spare you that, since ultimately I think that’s the reader’s job, and I’d probably wind up distorting a couple of them to make them fit the theme, like sticking my finger down my throat to make weight, which I’d rather not do. Still, I think generally speaking it holds throughout.
GERKE: You are one of the fiction editors at the relatively new, exciting journal called Camera Obscura. It is designated as a journal of Fiction and Photography. From the glossy covers to the esthetically refreshing stories and photos inside, the journal is quite wonderful. Can you tell us a little about its genesis and the makings of each beautiful issue? Also, how is the experience of reading blind? I know so few people who do, though it seems more par for the course in contests.
HORVATH:I’m really lucky to be part of Camera Obscura. Let me be clear that Mitch Parker, the founder and editor, and of course the photographers themselves, deserve the vast bulk of the credit for the sheer look of the thing. My role is to read the stories Mitch passes along to me and to weigh in. It’s been a great experience and a privilege to be a part of it. I know that slush piles get slammed a lot, and Mitch gives me an already-narrowed selection, but I’ve read a lot of stories that are quite good. Most of them wind up being flawed or falling short for one reason or another, part of it being, of course, personal taste, but I see a lot of stuff that if it came in one of my workshop classes, I’d be dancing with joy. The editors’ tastes seem to dovetail enough that when the issues come together I don’t think any of us is grumbling. I’m really proud of a batch of stories that we’ve published so far. In issue 3, coming out in July, Adam Peterson’s story blew me away from the starter’s pistol. As I’m midway through the first page I just want to blow through it so I can contact Mitch and shout, “Accept!” The experience of reading blindly is fantastic. That Peterson story was one where I was dying to see who was behind it, and then pleasantly surprised that I knew the name—I was already a big fan of the Cupboard, which he co-edits. At the same time, though, his story was utterly different from the stuff I’d seen from the Cupboard. And that kind of discovery is great; otherwise, I might have read the story itself with his publishing tastes in mind and not that the story would have suffered in the slightest, but it would’ve been a distraction. I propose that the whole literary world should spend a year of blind submissions, reading, etc. Think how much fun it would be. Then, when the year of living anonymously is up we pull back the veil and sort out who wrote what, and we all get to say, “I knew it!” or “Who?” or “Let’s do it again next year!”
GERKE: In reading your short-shorts and your short stories, particularly “The City in the Light of Moths,” I sense an interest in tall tales, in alternate realities: cities have feelings, they go to support groups or have to be sold to the public by a brochure writer who really thinks she sells her city as a “sex-staved temptress.” From speaking to you I also know you have lived in a few cities yourself. How do you see the role of the city one lives in affecting one’s life?
HORVATH:Abstractly, cities are labyrinths and places of excess and loci of productive resistances, where things are inconvenient and too convenient, crowded and dirty and yet tolerant of these attributes, where everyone is at once distant and uncomfortably in-your-face. I love the contradictions, the shared tragicomedy of living so much on top of others.
I’ve only lived in a handful of cities—New York, Yonkers, Poughkeepsie, and now I live near Portsmouth and Boston, and I’ve been working this past year in Lowell, Massachusetts. I’ve been to plenty of others, Rome, Delhi, Paris, Venice. I seek them out, was weaned on them, harbor a love-hate relationship with them…my parents were New Yorkers through and through and I feel as though New York insinuated itself into my DNA (I imagine my double-helix looking like the 1,2,3 train crossed with the 4,5,6 line). In my teenage years, most of my jobs were in the city, and a couple of summers I was a foot messenger in midtown Manhattan. This is pre-Internet—nowadays I imagine you can send a PDF file and get a John Hancock in nanoseconds, so I don’t even know if such a job still exists, but back then we’d deliver “by-hands” all over the city. We were given tokens too (“tokes”) for trips more than ten blocks away, if you really want to carbon-date me; there were no pigs running loose in the streets, but it was a few years ago now. Anyway, I got a double education those summers, both via the walking around and the hanging around the mailroom itself which was like all those settings—dugout, caddyshack, racetrack, etc., where people—in this case it was all men, I don’t think there were any women messengers while I was there—bide their time, their years. You get the voices, the wit, the off-the-cuff poetry, the lust, the cruelty, the misogyny, the misanthropy, the bitterness, the sports, the regret: the understories. And when they sent me out I pretty much walked every street, every alley, every lobby you were allowed to enter in midtown and all over the city, really. All the cities I’ve loved are eminently walkable.
This past year I’ve developed a torrid walking affair with Lowell, which I originally thought of as being just a few square miles of old abandoned mill buildings. It turns out to be a thriving, diverse place with 5 ½ miles of canals, the “Venice of America.” I haven’t spotted any gondoliers yet, but I doubt there are groups of Cambodian-American breakdancers who gather on corners in Venice, either. There’s something about the way water cuts into the city—the reflections and the occasional spit-forth of dam-water, the parapet-like bridges and mini-boardwalks—that makes me want to walk and brood and reflect. And they’ve done an amazing job of putting historical markers everywhere so that you can relive the boom and bust of the mills, and on certain days I felt like I could almost feel the muscle-ache of the Irish immigrants dredging out the canals every weekend, the stench and the thick mosquitoes, the cool sanctuary the church must have seemed—really, the whole palimpsest of the city and its many ghosts, Kerouac only one among many.
GERKE: In “The City in the Light of Moths,” Wes, the projectionist, questions his girlfriend Inez’s faithfulness. Yet under this common story-line, it is revealed that the city they live in is full of screens and walls where films are projected—it is a place of “cineaddicts” who live off of the highs they get from celluloid. Also, inside of this strange town is a splinter group of people who don’t believe in the tyranny of cinema, including his friend Gunther. Wes and Inez also have tattoos that morph into moving pictures on their skin. The science-fiction elements are there but they never overwhelm the story, they are simply a part of life in that city, just as early morning traffic jams are in others. Keeping that in mind, this story seems to take you in a much different direction than “Circulation,” including the prose rhythms which are more dense and ornate:
“In soberer states, she’d extemporize about how Palamoans knew exactly where the cogs of illusion meshed and where the seams flickered by undetected, how life could be adjusted with the efficiency a tailor takes to a suit: a few seconds trimmed here, an inversion or two, a telling juxtaposition, voila.”
Can you comment about this story and its differences from your earlier work?
HORVATH: This is the last and so a culmination of a series of “Urban Planning: Case Studies,” and in this case I wanted to explore a city that was obsessed with film to the point that film had subsumed so-called reality. I had this image of the walls of the town being screens, that classic moment in Cinema Paradiso multiplied a thousand times over. It seemed that in a city like this a projectionist could be a hero, and at first it was going to be an action story where the projectionist actually saved the story from terrorists, so I had to think about how terrorists would strike in such a city, how they would use film as a weapon, which was fun. But then the psychological makeup of a projectionist started to consume me and I realized that maybe the terrorist threat could be grounded in reality, but also exaggerated by his imagination in fantasies that would be stoked by his exposure to lots of such films, his continual routine of showing human beings in magnified proportions. In a way Wes is the opposite of the Director of Circulation—he controls nothing, only projects, and the story is about that in some sense, if you wanted to run a thematic Mapquest between the two stories. The question is whether Wes will ever take action, come out from behind the safety of his machine. Stylistically I would only say that I’ve always revered a certain maximalist style and I felt confident enough to indulge it here. I had just taught a course called Cinefiction in which we examined the use of film techniques and how they could translate into prose—everything from close-ups to jump cuts, slow motion to arrangements of the mise-en-scène, and I wanted to see if I could put them all to use in a single work, a ridiculous ambition, I know. It was doomed to fail but by overshooting I hope I wound up with something that still embodies some of those effects while telling Wes’s story.
GERKE: You told me you wrote some of this story on an overnight shift at the hospital. Besides teaching, you also work as a psychiatric counselor. How has that job informed your writing?
HORVATH: It’s played a tremendous role for me. I started doing it when I was still in grad school to help make ends meet, but to me it goes back to this temp job I had after college where I worked in the office of a group home in New York. I got to know a lot of the kids pretty well when they’d file through. On the typewriter, I’d help the kids compose raps and bang them out, as well as letters to their girlfriends, these heartfelt mashups of clichés and conventional tropes and truly inventive stuff, with me trying to push the latter. All of this was way over the line of what was befitting my job description, but it was great to get to know these kids. At the end of the day, though, I’d go home and the counselors had the really tough jobs, and I vowed that one day I’d stay. Fifteen years and a few states away, I made good on that vow. I love the intensity of the job, the fact that I can be going for eight hours and never know what’s going to come up, that fifteen minutes sometimes can stretch into a lifetime, that I have to bring my whole self to what’s immediately in front of me. It forces a different kind of creativity, a survival mentality in which saying the right thing or using the right tone of voice or coming up with an apt metaphor or joke can be the deciding factor in whether someone combusts or eases into calmness. So much is at stake. I can hardly measure how much I’ve learned from the patients and counselors there. I’m by no means a natural at it, but I’ve gotten better. A few of my fellow counselors seem beatific, sublime in their understanding of the dynamics of human behavior, at once authoritative and easygoing and nurturing. I’m thinking of one guy in particular where it’s like watching a great athlete at work in his awareness of where everyone is, his conservation of muscle and movement, his grace. That similarity with sports is my excuse for why I’m going to lapse into cliché myself right now and say he makes the job look easy. And then there are the patients, survivors one and all in the perpetual grapple with demons and the unthinkable and the byzantine system of mental health institutions. I don’t mean to romanticize the job. Along with grace and resilience come rampant burnout, anger and pain the likes of which I’ve never seen elsewhere, the imminent threat of violence,, and, perhaps saddest of all, abject resignation. It can be exhausting be in such constant proximity to those whom society has failed again and again.
GERKE: I really enjoy the spills of language in various short works of yours, especially in “Urban Planning: “Case Study the Fifth,”*** “Urban Planning: Case Study #7,” and “Inadvertent Literature: The State of the Industry Report. Where do we go from here?” I say “spills” ironically, because that last piece contains the acronym SPILL (Society for the Propagation of Inadvertent Literary Labors). Also, that piece ends with three blustery sentences, especially, “Wallowing in their puke they own allegory, in cancer seek solace in leitmotif,” with its invisible caesuras to make the sentence sensical and the back to back of “own allegory,” an Oon-al of unique sound. How do you work at and work over your sentences?
HORVATH:Thanks for that kind assessment, Greg. I like your phrase “spills of language,” because it captures exactly what I think I want my sentences to do, which is to go long and find this momentum to carry themselves forth, and to branch out like a good healthy spill will in some unexpected directions, too. When I really get going I will write things out in pen and that’s when I get a good splatter on, because I can’t stay in the lines and my handwriting veers around, outsized and freaky, probably the most euphoric I get while writing. I’m definitely one of those writers who works and reworks sentences before moving on, and that’s something that I’d like to get past to some degree, to heighten my tolerance for the sloppy and baggy and simply plow through to get from start to finish more. The problem with that is how the style and the sense are inextricable, so it is through reworking the sentences that I tend to figure out what the piece is about, who or what my narrator is.
GERKE: You once mentioned that you’ve taught footnote 24 from Infinite Jest which outlines the film career of James O. Incadenza (pp. 985-993). What does teaching people like Wallace and others do for you? Do you feel you are teaching yourself as much about writing as your students might get out of your classes?
HORVATH: No doubt there’s always a selfish element—if I’m not gaining from what I’m teaching, I’m likely just phoning it in anyway. I like teaching stuff I haven’t taught before and sweating over it along with my students. When I taught high school I’d do this independent reading thing, where students would read a bunch of books from off the beaten, administratively-sanctioned curricular path. They’d basically read whatever they wanted, and I got into this mode where I thought I could read all of the books they were reading and grade all their essays and sleep. I wound up blazing through White Oleander and Judy Blume’s Summer Sisters and Friday Night Lights and many others. No way I would’ve read these books otherwise, but I’m so glad I did—each one was worthwhile.
What persists to this day is that I am often humbled in the face of what I teach. When I was a student I quite frequently didn’t do my homework, one reason I wound up scrubbing desks on Saturdays and reading Midnight’s Children. Nowadays I do my homework big-time. I try to really get in there and establish an intimacy with the work so that if the author was to show up a la Marshall McLuhan in Annie Hall, I wouldn’t be ashamed or completely tongue-tied. On the other hand, with the greatest work—and I count footnote 24 and much of Wallace there—it’s often difficult to talk about the work in a way that is meaningful and/or valuable. Sometimes I think the wiser thing is to savor, to reanimate the words by bringing them into the room, reading them out loud as alertly and receptively as one can humanly muster as a way of reminding ourselves why we’re all there.
*Red – 1993, one of the first scenes
** US composer who lived much of his life in Mexico City and wrote exclusively for the player-piano, cutting out his works by hand on piano-rolls
***go to 5.14.08 at WebConjunctions