This summer we came across a collection of stories by a new writer out of Louisiana, who captures the South in way that reminded us of first works by Larry Brown and Tom Franklin. The Southern Cross is set over the course of a year along the Gulf Coast — a very eventful year — and the stories are divided by seasons, each capturing the particular atmosphere of its time, place and character without sacrificing narrative and suspense. We've been recommending it for months, and the book continues to win new fans.
After striking up an email conversation with the author, Skip Horack, we invited him down to Greenwood to hang out and introduce local readers to these stories. Horack is a Wallace Stegner Fellow at Stanford University, where he teaches creative writing, and he agreed to stop in Greenwood on his way back home to Louisiana for holiday break. He'll read and sign at Turnrow this weekend (Saturday, 12/5).
Before he left California, Skip talked to us a bit about his book and his writing:
Turnrow Book Co.: These stories exist in a blue-collar world. Just curious, since all we know about you is that you teach writing at Stanford, if you were raised in that world. How long were you in Louisiana and what sort of work did you pursue before writing?
Skip Horack: I was born in New Orleans and was raised in a small town named Covington. I went away to Florida State for undergrad and law school, then practiced law in Baton Rouge for about five years. I left Louisiana in 2006, when the opportunity to venture out to Stanford and take some creative writing workshops came along.
I like to hunt and fish, and growing up in Covington, we lived on a good-sized piece of land out in the country where we had cattle, sheep, chickens, and whatnot. So, if you include all the odd jobs I had prior to becoming a lawyer, I imagine most of the activities in the book I've done or seen done — but of course that still requires a lot of research in order to fill in the gaps and make sure I'm getting things right. Also, working as a lawyer brought me into contact with all sorts of interesting people and places throughout Louisiana, so that chapter of my life was actually very helpful to me as a writer.
TBC: As a dyed-in-the-wool Louisiana boy, how do you take to California living?
Horack: I've enjoyed my time in California. It's very different than where I come from, so it has sort of been like living abroad. Also, stepping away from the South for a few years has helped provide with me some perspective for my writing. Right now, I have a great job a few years as a creative writing lecturer at Stanford, but I'd love to find myself back in the South before too long.
TBC: Your stories are sketches of distinct people at a critical juncture in their lives, yet the settings and scenes are not overwrought. It's almost, to assume the Katrina metaphor, a depiction of the calm before the storm. Reminiscent, in a way, of Chekhov. Was he an inspiration? Which short story writers formed your sense of the story?
Horack: I think anyone trying to write short stories these days is hugely influenced by Chekhov, whether they're aware of it or not. He throws a very long shadow, and so yes, his work certainly inspires me. Of course, I wince at hearing myself compared to him in any way — as would he, I'm sure! — so I have to object, or else my writer friends will tar and feather me.
Two other big influences on me as a short story writer, and on this collection in particular, sadly aren't with us anymore: Breece D'J Pancake and Larry Brown. The Breece Pancake collection in particular was sort of a revelation for me. Also, nature and landscape plays a big role in most anything I write, and I'm a huge fan of a beautiful book of stories by Barry Lopez titled Winter Count.
Flannery O'Connor, Tobias Wolff, Raymond Carver, Alice Munro, etc., etc. I had better stop, or else I'll kick myself later for all the other great writers whom I admire greatly but neglected to include.
TBC: One thing unique about these stories is the way they leave the reader. They leave us hanging, in a way, yet satisfied, curious, wanting more. How do you deal with the ending of a story?
Horack: I guess my primary goal with the end of any story is to leave the reader with the sense that the events on the page have left my main character changed in some way (or that she has made some conscious decision not to change). I typically resist writing to far beyond that (albeit sometimes slight) emotional shift because, personally, I like the idea of the reader filling in the blanks a bit — that is, sort of having to conclude for themselves what will become of my characters as a result of the experience they've just been through. Hopefully, not writing too far past the "change" that I mention above helps put the emphasis there.
TBC: We appreciated the fact that Katrina lurks through these stories but is never, but once or twice, baring down on us. There is an admirable restraint to your handling of the storm. Someone even suggested you might not have been around when it struck. What, in fact, was your Katrina experience?
Horack: I was living in Baton Rouge during Katrina and Rita but was a lot more fortunate than many folks living along the Gulf Coast. The first four or five stories in this collection were written in the year prior to Katrina and Rita, and so I became very interested in contrasting life in the region before the fall of 2005 versus life after. For that reason, the collection is divided into four sections — Spring, Summer, Fall, and Winter of 2005-06 — and, to keep the momentum of the book pushing forward, I wanted each story to occur after the previous ones on a timeline. In my mind, that structure fit best with my overarching goal of capturing a year in the life of this region. Katrina only really shows up "in scene" in one story because — for the arrival of the storm in the book to have the power that I hope it has — I sort of felt like I should only have one shot at it. I wanted Katrina to arrive, destroy, and dissipate, just as she did in reality.
TBC: Everyone's compiling their best-of-the-year book lists, have you considered your favorites of 2009?
Horack: I certainly haven't compiled any lists, but a few 2009 books that I really enjoyed were:
The New Valley by Josh Weil, Going Away Shoes by Jill McCorkle, My Abandonment by , and The Adderall Diaries by Stephen Elliott.
Come out and meet Skip this Saturday, or reserve a signed copy of The Southern Cross.