Tim Horvath‘s recent fiction collection, Understories, was the winner of the 2014 New Hampshire Literary Award for Outstanding Fiction; one of its stories, “The Conversations,” was given Special Mention in the 2014 Pushcart Prize Anthology. Understories is weird and wonderful—and full of wonder—and it was a pleasure to talk with Tim Horvath and find out a little more about where all this wonder came from.
Tim Horvath: I guess there are a few different phases of weirdness I can point to. From a very early age, I can remember thinking of the tiles in the shower as miniature universes, all of them abutting one another, and I was very taken with the idea that there were all sorts of possible configurations of stars, planets, matter, that ours was but one among many. Later on, I had an uncle, Steve Horvath, who had a profound impact on me. I’ve been thinking about him a lot, since he just passed away earlier this year. He’d gone to Bard and taken a bus with some offshoot of the Merry Pranksters that traversed Europe into Asia, and his art consisted of everything from these sprawling paintings of gorillas to one of my mother. There were also Balinese paintings hanging up in our house—I remember staring at these every chance I got—they depicted festivals with giant costumed monstrous figures, flaring nostrils and toothed mouths, clearly mythological beings. There was enough on the canvas that I could get lost in them, especially while I was supposed to be practicing the piano.
But on that note, music was huge for me. Hearing Rush’s “Tom Sawyer” and “Highway to Hell” and the Clash and early REM. Then there was the day Lars Weiss, who also grew up in Yonkers and was a guitarist in a bunch of punk bands that played down at CBGB, handed me the vinyl of Hüsker Dü’s Candy Apple Grey. The moment I heard the opening track, “Crystal,” I was like, “Fuck everything else.” It captured all of the rage I felt at my parents’ divorce and having been uprooted, as it seemed at the time, from bucolic Indiana and deposited in Yonkers. Once I discovered the far left side of the dial it was like I’d entered another realm of not only sound but existence. WNYU, WFMU, WFUV. The reception was so weak on WFMU that I couldn’t figure out sometimes whether the station was actually coming in or whether I was hearing a couple of different frequencies superimposed, which I loved. Apart from that, my cousin Karen worked for CBGB and made us mixed tapes and brought us to concerts and got us into that whole world, and then my dad would take my brother and I off on weekends on adventures, which could mean anything from going to Jones Beach to seeing some play.
Bloom: Did you write as a kid? Your style feels so mature in terms of references and concepts, but at the same time really playful and obviously having fun—what parts of your earliest writing experience have you brought along to your adult writerly self?
TH: I did do a bunch of writing as a kid, mostly science fiction and fantasy. In sixth grade, I wrote The Adventures of Peter Chesapeake—still seems like a great name for a fantasy series—and there was something called Saturn’s End, whose opening line was “It was only a theory, not a fact.” In high school, though, I had a bunch of great teachers, culminating in Morrow Jones. He was a scholar of medieval literature, as I recall, and his classroom was plastered with posters from films that were, to me at least, obscure. He had an approach so effective and transformative that I rely on it now as a teacher. He’d have us do a different exercise roughly every day, so that the body of work you generated by the end of the year was all over the map. We had to subscribe to the New Yorker—I can remember reading Raymond Carver’s “Elephant” when it first came out. And meanwhile, I was getting into Kerouac and the Beats, and going to see folks like Peter Orlovsky read out in Brooklyn with my dad. Did I keep a scroll of computer paper in my typewriter that could’ve wrapped around my neighborhood? But of course.
Then I went away from writing for a long time—I went from being identified with it in high school to going to Vassar, where everyone seemed to be a writer. Also, I was looking for some kind of grounding. I had these problems with perception and balance, which in turn led to a grand tour of both conventional Western medicine and every holistic approach under the sun. It also led to confidence issues, though it’s hard to say what was physiology and what was just the stage of life. However, while I wasn’t writing I was devouring the work of Renata Adler, having picked up Pitch Dark on the Strand’s remainder table for a buck and then writing a senior thesis on her literary philosophizing. I didn’t take a creative writing class until years later, when I was teaching high school, and discovered the Hudson Valley Writers Center in Sleepy Hollow. My teacher there, David Surface, was encouraging, and with glacial slowness I worked up the nerve to start writing again more seriously.
The whole time, though, I was reading, and, I daresay, gearing up for a return.
Bloom: You obviously love wordplay—it’s a delightful aspect of your writing, both the overt puns and the subtle subtextual stuff. What other books would you recommend, or cite as having inspired you, that enjoy messing around with language?
TH: Of course Joyce is the obvious answer, and even before I read Ulysses I had this idea of it—that you had to remake the language if you wanted to be a writer, duh. I’m less convinced of that now, but I think there is a bit of a prejudice against playing with language that I find often pervades our reading culture. It is seen as self-indulgent. Paul West talks about this in “In Defense of Purple Prose.” For a while, I really gravitated toward writers like Gilbert Sorrentino and Paul West and William Gass, who revel in wordplay. I love the way that David Foster Wallace takes the ugliest resources of the language, the technical jargon, the unpronounceable ingredients in a bottle of shampoo that you tell yourself are natural because there’s also jojoba oil in there. And he makes an art of them by sussing out their faint melodies, their industrial music.
One of the bigger influences on me is a book called The Atlas by William T. Vollmann, which plays not only with words but with registers of speech, styles of discourse. It bounces around the world, capturing and juxtaposing places and experiences that are often only loosely related.
And then there’s that Shakespeare guy…
Bloom: You’ve spent time as a counselor in a psychiatric hospital working with children, adolescents, and young adults. Do you do any writing with them, and if so, do you ever find any of it leaching into your own work in one way or another?
TH: When I was working in the hospital, I did try to do creative writing with the patients on numerous occasions. For some, school itself was one of the major stressors that had led them to become dangerous to themselves or those around them, and so anything that resembled school and involved a “sharp” was combustible. In other instances, though, writing could be a refuge, and a way of addressing their issues or even getting outside of themselves. I used to do a point of view exercise a lot, because it could be justified “therapeutically.” Cultivating perspectives other than one’s own, I think, is one of the ways of breaking out of the patterns or cycles that lead people to want to hurt themselves. I hesitate to call them cycles of thinking, because that disembodies them, and the more time I spent working there the more I was convinced that our language utterly fails to capture the inextricability of body and mind.
As for the experience leaching into my work, I think a lot of the influence of the milieu on me came in the form of sheer energy. I used to say “Every shift a novel”—sometimes I’d come home and write for an hour because I was still trembling and twitching from all that had gone on, from the demands of being vigilant and aware, stoic and empathetic all at once for hours on end. I hope some of that residual energy is in my sentences.
Bloom: You mention trying on different professions via writing. What would be your career(s) of choice if you didn’t write?
TH: Of course one of the signature perks of writing is getting to try on different hats. A quick glance at the things I’m working on at present will reveal a lot about some of these fantasies. In my novel, I’m focusing on composers and musicians. I’m also working on a story about a translator, and I’m working on a story about a woman who studies oysters and estuaries. Another secret fantasy is to be a travel writer, another to be a neuroscientist, another to be a marine biologist (if some kid hadn’t splatted ketchup over an eighth grade report of mine minutes before it was due, I suspect I might have become one, but this act of pollution sullied the whole field for me).
Underlying all of these, if I had to do one thing, though, it would probably be an anthropologist, hence so much of why I’m drawn to Norman Rush’s Mating above all novels. It’s all there in anthropology, the stuff I’m interested in, and I’d want to do “field work,” rather than “cubicle work”; the whole participant-observer thing I find really appealing. I’m always curious about how people think, why they act in the ways they do, and so to make music that is complex, “difficult,” beyond simple harmony or dissonance, textured or put together in unconventional ways, and then to try to bring that music into the world—all of this fascinated me. I was rapt in thinking about the language, too—what words are used to describe what is heard, to capture the sense of a rather impalpable, elusive, ephemeral and ever-shifting series of moments? How are schools formed; where do people identify themselves? How do they talk before, after, and very occasionally during, a performance?
Bloom: Your stories cover a lot of ground, literally and metaphorically. Where have you traveled that changed the way you looked at things; alternately, where do you dream of traveling?
TH: Rajastan, Alaska, Marin County, the U.S.-Mexico border, the Desert of Maine, Italy, France, Ireland … all of these places seized me in the best possible way and continue to resonate for me. Right now, I am in the process of developing a Study Abroad program with the New Hampshire Institute of Art. The program, which will take place in the Rupununi region of Guyana, close to the Brazil border, is modeled on a program that Alice Layton has run there previously with Lesley University, but this will specifically be focused on bringing together science, culture, social justice, and individual experience as generative forces for the making of art. The hope is that we will run the program for the first time in 2015—stay tuned.
Another key destination for me is Africa. Norman Rush’s Botswana, which is the setting for three of his four books, looms large in my consciousness. And if I remain true to the novel that I’m working on, some key scenes take place in West Africa, and much as one might say that I planned it that way, it also makes sense in terms of the deeper logic of the novel for me to set them there. Ultimately, I don’t want to write about it without experiencing it up close, though—it feels irresponsible. So, let’s see if funding a trip is something I can pull off.
And I must return to those Balinese paintings that loomed over the piano. There’s a part of me that won’t be satisfied until I go there and see them first-hand.
Bloom: Your longer stories are intricately woven together from various strands of POVs, plotlines, chronologies. You mentioned, in your interview at The Story Prize blog, putting the various layers together by triangulation, and that makes sense. I’m wondering about how you pull it off technically.
TH: For longer stories, I don’t really plan them out all that much. I do a lot of writing in sections, montage, and then feel them out for the best order. In other words, a lot of tunneling—a hole here, one there, and eventually some catacombs emerge. It’s lovely when a structure asserts itself—it’s like being a lost child wandering in a crowded place and all of a sudden someone trustworthy grabs your hand and pulls you to safety. For instance, in “Planetarium,” at some point as I was writing it I realized that the story itself had to be shaped like a planetarium dome, that it had to do that wonderful thing that such domes do, which is to suddenly shift, so that when you were looking at the northeastern constellations, suddenly you are looking at the opposite ones, and the sky is exactly the same yet foreign and newly, freshly alive.
But I rarely work with an outline. One fortunate byproduct of being so chaotic with form, though, is that I can have whole sections that I’ve forgotten exist that I rediscover that I think I never would’ve written in that order, and might never have gotten to if I recalled they exist. There’s something Zen there, maybe.
Bloom: Did any of the Urban Planning Case Studies start out as longer pieces, or were they conceived of as short/flash from the beginning?
TH: They started short, as etudes, and then started to grow, such that by the time I got to the later and longer ones, I knew I wanted them to be fleshed out fully. The first one was supposed to be a one-off, a way to finish something in an afternoon. The second one I tried to resist, but I allowed myself to write it. I kept writing them for themed issues of a journal called Sein und Werden, and it became a kind of a personal challenge—I can write a city that relates to that, etc. The early ones wore their Calvino influences heavily on their sleeves, but as I progressed, I decided I had to make them as un-Calvino-like as possible. No two could be alike—I had to shift the point of view, the form, the style, the genre, and the ground rules, i.e. the relationship between the city and its denizens. I also was teaching a class called “Cinefiction” at the time, which was rooted in trying to apply film technique to writing, and I wanted to essentially pour everything I’d learned in developing this class to my own story.
Bloom: Any particular attachment to lemurs? They show up in a couple of different stories.
TH: Without wishing to slander the lovely lemur, they are right at the delta between the natural and the absurd for me. In “The Gendarmes” and “A Box of One’s Own,” the stories in the book which really explore absurdity, lemurs show up precisely because are such strangers in both flesh and in figurative language. We have ready-made slots for so many creatures—pigeonholes for pigeons, grandmothers’ beds for wolves, Irish pubs and neon-bright cereals for toucans, a slew of sports teams and teddy bears, white whales and power-corrupted pigs—but somehow the lemur has remained impervious to it all.
Bloom: What’s on your agenda now?
TH: Right now I’m working on a novel about avant garde contemporary composers, so I’m immersing myself in that very strange and—in my opinion wonderful—universe. It’s no different, really, from that first time I heard Husker Du’s “Crystal” and felt like there was something more real and more elemental than anything—I’m drawn to sounds that are tinnitus-inducing, dangerous, even.
Click here to read Lisa Peet‘s feature piece on Tim Horvath.
Homepage photo credit: Clay Enos