How Caitlin Horrocks Became a Writer

July 24, 2011 — 3 Comments

“Writers were like unicorns—rare and miraculous and hard to spot, living in some forest long ago and far away. They surely weren’t real people, not the sort of person I could actually become.” – Caitlin Horrocks

Caitlin Horrocks lives in Michigan by way of Ohio, Arizona, England, Finland, and the Czech Republic. She is the author of the story collection, This Is Not Your City. Her stories and essays appear in The Best American Short Stories 2011, The PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories 2009, The Pushcart Prize XXXV, The Paris Review, Tin House, One Story and elsewhere. Her work has won awards including the Plimpton Prize, and scholarships from the Bread Loaf and Sewanee Writers’ Conferences and the Norman Mailer Writers Colony.

She was formerly the 2006-2007 Theresa A. Wilhoit Fellow at Arizona State University. Currently, she is an assistant professor of writing at Grand Valley State University and a fiction editor at West Branch. She lives in Grand Rapids, Michigan, with the writer W. Todd Kaneko.

Visit her web site:

Read more by and about Caitlin:

BOOK: This Is Not Your City
Excerpts and reviews at Sarabande Books
Interview at The Story Prize blog

“At the Zoo,” story in the Paris Review

Just published this weekend: Review in the New York Times!

How Caitlin Horrocks Became a Writer

This is the second installment in the new How to Become a Writer interview series, which will post here at Ph.D. in Creative Writing every other Sunday until I run out of writers to interview, or until they stop saying yes. Each writer answers the same 5 questions. Thanks to Caitlin Horrocks for saying yes!

1. Why did you want to become a writer?

I was one of the many, many kids that loved reading. I usually had my face in a book, and my favorite books tended to be fantasy and escapism. As I got older, I mixed in books that I identified as “important,” usually either particularly thick or particularly old. I loved Jane Eyre, and in hindsight I think it was a bridge between different types of reading—I could imagine myself in the bleak orphanage or English manor house, but I could also see something harsh and interesting in who she was, how she might make a decision different from what I would, but how that decision would come from who she was, how she was drawn. I got angry with the book and then I was won over by it. I loved being told a good story, taken somewhere new, but also being given something to chew on. I knew that’s what writers did, but I also didn’t think I had any hope of ever actually becoming one. Writers were like unicorns—rare and miraculous and hard to spot, living in some forest long ago and far away. They surely weren’t real people, not the sort of person I could actually become.

Download a broadside of Caitlin's book!

2. How did you go about becoming a writer?

In high school and college I took writing classes, and wrote stories that had nice sentences but gasped for breath under a lot of heavy-handed symbolism. I liked writing, but it always felt self-indulgent, something I would set aside when I grew up and got a real job. It really didn’t seem like something that would or could be part of my adult life. In the years after I graduated college, I still didn’t know what “real job” I should be aiming for, and I was still writing. I applied to MFA programs, but even that felt like a temporary decision, a way of delaying something more permanent. I’d like to say a passionate commitment to writing finally came welling up from somewhere within me, but I only started to feel truly committed when I first began publishing stories. There was no monkish marriage to Pure Fiction. The fiction is more important to me than publishing, but having editors take me seriously allowed me to start taking myself more seriously.

3. Who helped you along the way, and how?

So many people. My parents, for making sure that books were valued in our house, and for, while being ever so slightly skeptical about pursuing creative writing, never making me feel bad or dumb about my choices. My teachers. The people I met in grad school: when I arrived, I hadn’t ever finished a publishable short story, and the types of discussions I was used to having about literature were more of the dead-important-people variety. At Arizona State there was suddenly this community of people swapping the names of up and coming writers, hero-worshipping authors I’d never even heard of. They revised their stories and them put them in envelopes, sending them out to editors. They collected rejections on little slips of paper and put them on the wall like trophies. I wanted to have those little slips of paper. I wanted to know the authors they talked about. This never felt competitive to me—just participatory. For three years, I was in the type of club I wanted most to join, and things like getting rejected were the way to know that you were in the game.

4. Can you tell me about a writer or artist whose biography inspires you?

"Cocteau and Satie thrived on scandal..."

I’ve been obsessed lately with the composer Erik Satie, although our work and our personalities are very different. Both his life and his compositions are incredibly quirky and fun to read about. His playfulness, inventiveness, his I-don’t-give-a-damn-ness, are inspiring, but I also get intrigued by the question of how sincerely he meant much of what he did. He was an artist and a prankster, and sometimes the art was the prank. His need to play a role, to only show certain sides of himself, would, I think, have made him kind of infuriating to know in real life.

5. What would you say in a short letter to an aspiring writer?

It’s not a race, and the goal isn’t just “to be published,” or to “express your feelings.” (Well, expressing your feelings is a perfectly good goal, but I’m assuming here that the aspiring writer also wants to be read by other people). The goal is to write good work, great work, the kind of work you feel a complete stranger would get something out of, and then trying to get the work in those strangers’ hands. Have the loyalty to your own ideas to polish them, and the necessary patience to shepherd them out into the world.

More about Erik Satie: Minnesota Public Radio

Listen to Erik Satie’s “Trois Gymnopédies”:


3 responses to How Caitlin Horrocks Became a Writer


    Excellent and inspiring, Caitlin. Thank you for sharing from your experience.


    One of the best professors ever! I can’t wait to read your book!

    I’ll appreciate it if you checked out my blog it’s about me trying to become a successful published author. And please feel free to subscribe!


    My students are having a blast investigating the craft of your story “The Sleep” (and so am I). Great stuff Caitlin! I’m definitely starting class off today with your quote about writers and unicorns. Of course, I’m a big fan!

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