Tag Archives: Tim Horvath

An Interview with Tim Horvath

10 Nov
A reviewer for NPR's Morning Edition called Tim Horvath's story collection, Understories, "My favorite collection of short stories in recent memory."

A reviewer for NPR’s Morning Edition called Tim Horvath’s story collection, Understories, “My favorite collection of short stories in recent memory.”

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.

Michael Noll

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?

Tim Horvath

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.”

Michael Noll

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?

Tim Horvath

Tim Horvath's collection, Understories, "revels in wordplay and inventiveness."

Tim Horvath’s collection, Understories, “revels in wordplay and inventiveness.”

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.

Michael Noll

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?

Tim Horvath

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.

Michael Noll

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?

Tim Horvath

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.

November 2016

Michael Noll Michael Noll is the Editor of Read to Write Stories.

How to Swim in the Narrative Stream

13 Sep
Tim Horvath's story, "Fuchsia Maroon Timberwolf," was published in Green Mountains Review.

Tim Horvath’s story, “Fuchsia Maroon Timberwolf,” was published in Green Mountains Review.

If you spend any time in writing classes, you’ll eventually encounter the term “fictive dream.” It was coined by John Gardner in The Art of Fiction and means, basically, the zone that writers sometimes hit when the world they’re writing seems more real to them than the room they’re actually sitting in. Rather than seeing words on a page, the writers are dreaming their characters to a life that gets translated on the page. It’s a great feeling, but talking about it has always struck as a bit like talking about “runner’s high.” It’s good to know it exists; when it happens, you think, “Oh, this is what everyone was talking about.” But knowing that a fictive dream is within our reach doesn’t help us find it.

So, let me suggest another term. Narrative stream: The swiftly moving current of a story, as opposed to the still water in stagnant pools along the shore. When you find the narrative stream, your story seems to really move. Writing it feels easy, and so finding it is an important part of the writing process—the process for getting into the fictive dream.

A good place to see the narrative stream at work is in Tim Horvath’s story “Fuchsia Maroon Timberwolf,” a brilliant piece of not-quite-flash fiction you can read now at Green Mountains Review.

How the Story Works

The story is about a man and his daughter. On its surface, the story is structurally complex, spanning years and using a hypnotic style in which almost every sentence begins with “How…” This style and the montage-like movement through time give it a naturally dreaming effect but also presents clear challenges, for instance, how to keep the story moving when every sentence begins the same way. It’s a story that, by its nature, could easily get stuck in the still pools along the shore. The fact that it doesn’t—and that it ends with an emotional punch to the gut—makes the story worth paying close attention to. How does Horvath find and stay in the narrative stream?

Here is a passage from early in the story:

How he brought her to museums during the days, tilting the carriage up on its rear wheels till she pointed. How even when he was working, he’d taken days off. How he kept calling them days off, though he was home for months on end. How they grew apart even before he’d moved out. How he watched her increasingly from afar, marveling at her growing aptitude for making pictures, as if he could see manual dexterity insinuating itself into her wrists like a creature moving through the ocean in a time-lapse film, fingers as fluid as anemone tendrils but also hypodermic-exact. How he encouraged her!

The movement through time is evident here: the daughter starts the passage in a carriage and ends with her old enough to have grown apart from her father. That’s the dreaminess of the story—its ability to drastically compress time in a way that makes sense in a dream but is impossible in real, waking life. But that dreaminess is secondary to the story itself:

  • We see the man’s connection with his daughter in the way he tilts her carriage at the museum and the fact that he takes days off to be with her.
  • We see the change in the man’s work status (change almost always being essential to story).
  • As a result, we see the connection with his daughter begin to change until, in the next-to-last sentence, it seems to be severed in all ways except a lingering emotional one for him.

The sentences span years and, thus, could focus on anything, but what they actually focus on is emotion and change: the foundation for basically every memorable plot going back to Homer. The man feels something, and then his circumstances change, which leads to a change in the way he’s able to feel the original emotion. As readers, we naturally want to know what happens. As writers, we feel compelled to keep writing in order to find out.

The passage continues:

Brought her brushes and joked that she herself was his little paintbrush, gripping her hair and tugging it ever-so-gently to the top of her head till it all pointed upward, how then he hoisted her aloft and angled her till it tumbled over like horsehair as if she was the world’s largest heaviest giggliest shriekingest paintbrush and he working up a masterpiece on the canvas that was their wall. How her mother worried because it was late and he was getting her riled up. How he ignored her and lifted her still higher. How often he did this, how heavy his brush got! How once he dropped her but she was okay. She hadn’t blacked out, she promised, and she hadn’t started crying until she woke up at 3:18, hyperventilating and clawing the air. How years later on the field hockey team she started getting dizzy spells. How he learned that she wasn’t going to practice any more and hadn’t for over a month.

Again, we’re shown emotion (“joked that she herself was his little paintbrush” and “largest heaviest giggliest shriekingest paintbrush“) and from more than his point of view (“How her mother worried because…”). Again, time moves with astonishing swiftness (“How years later…”), and yet the focus remains sharply on change (“How once he dropped her” and the results of that drop).

When a story stalls out, it’s often (though not always, of course) for a couple of reasons:

  • We’ve lost track of what’s going on. Our characters are simply emoting in place, feeling strong feelings and thinking big thoughts with nothing else going on. In short, we’ve got emotion without change.
  • We’ve lost track of how things feel. A lot is happening, reversal after reversal, but it makes no impact on the character. Or, the impact is cursory. We write sentences like “She was sad” but don’t make the emotion visceral, which means it’s not really felt. After all, what significant emotion have we ever felt theoretically?

Horvath stays in the narrative stream because he’s able to continually focus on change and emotion. Even amid some pretty spectacular craft fireworks, the story remains devastatingly clear and compelling.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s swim in the narrative stream, using “Fuchsia Maroon Timberwolf” by Tim Horvath as a model:

  1. Find an emotion. In any moment, what is the strongest emotional state felt by someone? It doesn’t need to be felt by everyone or returned (I love/hate you, and you love/hate me). It doesn’t even need to be directly tied to the moment at hand. A character could be reminded of something and feel strongly about whatever is in his/her head. What you don’t want is blankness. You don’t want the answer that all kids give when their parents ask, “How was school?” Fine is not interesting for anyone involved. So, if a moment is fine for everyone, go in search of a moment where it’s not, where it’s good or bad or happy or sad or whatever. The emotion doesn’t necessarily need to be clear. Often, we don’t know what we’re feeling, only that we’re feeling it. When does your character experience a moment like that? There will almost certainly be more than one.
  2. Change the circumstances. In Horvath’s story, the man’s work status changes. It’s not clear what exactly has happened, only that something has. There’s an element of mystery. This is important to keep in mind. You don’t need to fully explain everything that happens in a story. Instead, the change should impact what is important (the emotion). The change can have an external cause (getting laid off) or be self-caused (dropping a kid on her head). It could be big or small, connected to the emotion or simply in the same place at the same time. What changes occur in your character’s world?
  3. Let the change impact the emotion. Once the man’s work status changes, his connection with his daughter deteriorates—not necessarily on his end, it seems, but on her end or her mother’s. The emotional connection isn’t the same as it was at the beginning. This shift matters because that’s the nature of emotional changes. We want to fall in love and feel loved, and we dread and fear falling out of love or losing love. Emotions are difficult, maybe impossible, to separate from desire. If you find a moment when a character feels strong emotion, it’s probably also a moment when the character desires something—which is what clues readers into the story. As with all emotions, characters will naturally resist or embrace change (I want things to change so I don’t feel this way, or I don’t ever want this feeling to end). What impact does your story’s change have on the character’s emotion or the way that emotion is felt?
  4. Repeat. Don’t stop with one emotion and one change. Or, stay with an emotion but complicate it by introducing change after change. Those changes and the impact each one has on the emotion is the story’s narrative stream.

The goal is to find the current that carries a story forward by focusing on the emotion and changes within the story.

Good luck.

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