Tim Horvath is the author of Understories and Circulation. His stories have appeared in Conjunctions, Fiction, The Normal School, and elsewhere. His story “The Understory” was selected by Bill Henderson, founder and president of the Pushcart Press, as the winner of the Raymond Carver Short Story Award. He teaches creative writing in the BFA and low-residency MFA programs at the New Hampshire Institute of Art and has previously worked as a counselor in a psychiatric hospital, primarily with adolescents and children and young adults with autism. He received his MFA from the University of New Hampshire, where he won the Thomas Williams Prize. He is the recipient of a Yaddo Fellowship, occasionally blogs for BIG OTHER, and is an assistant prose editor for Camera Obscura.
To read Horvath’s story “Fuchsia Maroon Timberwolf,” and an exercise on moving a story forward, click here.
In this interview, Horvath discusses how characters engage with time, treating language and sentences as a game, and providing emotional cover for a protagonist.
This story moves through time so easily that it’s easy to overlook how impressive this is. The beginning of the story, for instance, starts in the present and by the third sentence, has moved firmly into the past—but it doesn’t get stuck in the moments of baby food and crayons. Is this something you do naturally, or do you find yourself making conscious decisions about moving through time in a story?
I think you’ve asked the right question here, one of the most bullseyeish you could’ve posed, because the question of time is key to everything I write—how does the past bear on the present, how are these characters engaging with time, etc.? Every story/work imposes its own time scheme and challenges. With the novel, for instance, I’m trying to balance the weight of entire lives with the events of a particular summer which serves as the story’s present moment. And also balance musical time with storytelling time. I’m kind of on this many-sided warped-wood see-saw, running back and forth and trying to get it to work with some semblance of gracefulness.
In the case of this story, the narrator is tracing back a sort of timeline of “how did I get to this moment?” and doing so demands that he go back to his daughter’s childhood, but there’s a Big Bang quality to the shape of the narrative where it is compressing all of those moments into a single moment. The “life flashing across one’s eyes” phenomenon is dubious to me, but, like most dubious things, it can work under the right conditions in fiction, with its preternatural ability to pummel and pinch time into the shapes it needs—see Calvino’s “All at One Point” or Nicholson Baker’s The Fermata or the magnificent end of “On the Rainy River” from The Things They Carried where Tim O’Brien sits on a rowboat deciding what to do with his life, roiling with anguish as he teeters between whether or not to try to dodge the draft, which is really to say choosing between two possible futures for himself. Even though we already know what he’s chooses because of the rest of the book, O’Brien slows time to a brutal crawl.
It’s a kind of diving board moment, the suspension in midair, that a story can linger in and even unfold in. I would say that the use of the word “How” here to propel the narrative forward became a way to ensure I didn’t get caught in any particular rut of time, didn’t get mired in the quicksand of memory or “what if.” It’s as if that word becomes an engine propelling the story forward, a device that the narrator will use to catalogue his life and his daughter’s life, their high and low moments, tracing them with the intensity of a forensic scientist. But it also means that in the background of the story there is a steady beat, this echo of “How. How How.” It’s important that the word is “How” and not “Why?” “Why” is too overt, too in-your-face. We all want to know why—the narrator wants to know “why,” but will ask “How” instead, partly because unlike “Why,” which seems to pose a question by its very nature, “How” can seem to be providing answers, as in “How-to Guides” and the like. “How” can be a word of marveling at what is, rather than attempting to unravel the causes of what is. And so while seeking to unravel “why,” the narrator hides behind the mask of “how.”
The story uses repetition, starting many sentences with “How…” It’s probably natural to use repetition to drill into a moment, to explore all of the angles of a single point in time, but that’s not what you do. Instead, you keep pushing the story forward even as you repeat the same syntax. At what point in the drafting process did you realize, okay, I’m going to stick with this sentence structure?
At first it was a kind of a game, a generative one. I always had the first word of the next sentence—phew! It actually became important to me to break with that at various points—to throw in a couple of sentences without “How” in order to make sure it was not formulaic. I always wanted the possibility of something else, so the reader couldn’t get too comfortable. It was important that they be fragments, too—there’s something liberating in them. Quickly, I found that the scaffolding allowed me to focus more on the character and his emotional/psychological condition than a more conventional story. Having that middle square in Bingo where I was “given” the first word in the next sentence meant that I could pay more attention to him, his relationship with his daughter, and the language in the rest of the sentence, which had to push toward something unexpected in each case to offset the (mostly) predictable openings.
The he of the story goes through a pretty rough time. The exact nature of it isn’t entirely clear, but we learn enough to know that it’s bad. Were you ever tempted to explain his situation clearly—or did knowing or conveying that information not matter to you as you wrote?
I suppose another purpose of the “Hows” is that they provide a bit of a smokescreen, emotional cover for the protagonist. Don’t mind me and my wounds and scars, they seem to say. Focus on this mantra instead. Focus on moving forward, one sentence fragment at a time. Focus on the “Refresh, Refresh,” to quote Ben Percy’s great story, of language itself, with its reassurance and promise, with each new sentence, of reinscribing and thus reinventing the universe, of getting things right, of undoing the damage, shaking the Etch-a-Sketch back to mint condition. Each sentence dawns in the East of its opening. Meanwhile, you’re absolutely right that there’s pain bubbling and churning down there, between those fresh starts. But as for the particulars of his situation, well, to me that is less material. I was more interested in a character taking stock of his life as a whole, and to him, frankly, the particulars are less important than the prospect of salvaging some kind of relationship with his daughter. He is painting with a broad brush, in a sense, getting the general shapes and contours of his life on the canvas. If he can get those, maybe he can stand back and behold himself. I don’t think he’s conscious of this exactly—maybe in a weird way he’s actually emulating his daughter’s art.
This story is not an outlier in terms of style. While you don’t always use repetition in quite this way, this story is certainly of a piece with your other work. I know you’re working on a novel now. What has it been like to adapt this style to that longer structure. Were there writers that you looked to for models?
The novel has presented all kinds of challenges. One of the greatest has been writing about music in a way that does justice to the subject and doesn’t make me look too far out of my depth. I’ve long been obsessed with music, but my response has been very intuitive, and now I’m writing about imagined classical composers, who of course also have an intuitive sense but are steeped in actual technical knowledge. In researching, I’ve spent countless hours with composers, musicians, and musicologists, sitting in on rehearsals and theory classes, going to bars after concerts, and that world is so rich and intricate and various that I’m continually floored, which is a great thing—may it never get old! The main character, whose third person perspective we’re in, is the more experimental of the composers, hence the narration also has to have a somewhat thorny quality, yet I want the prose itself to have a musical quality, since that’s one of the main things I’m drawn to in prose in general. I’d like to think that Understories cuts a pretty wide stylistic swath in general, with some stories blatantly playing with language while others are more obsessed with character and relationship, and some are fixated on landscape and some are staking out some territory of ideas, and in the end I’d hope that many are doing several at once. There’s a story that Lisa Cooper Vest told at a recent conference I attended on “Musicology and the Present” which might be apocryphal but I suppose could be real, of the great Polish composer Penderecki writing out two scores with different hands so that he could enter both of them in the same competition and not have them be traceable to the same person. Now, according to the story, Penderecki won first, second, and third in the competition, which leads to the natural question—what or where was the third hand? In some ways, it feels as though I’ve tried to write my stories three-handedly, and I think that I’m trying to coordinate the work of these hands a bit more in the novel, figure out their rhythms and choreography, but it remains to be seen what that will look like in the end.