Caitlin Horrocks' novel "The Vexations" immerses readers in the life of composer Erik Satie
Through chapters alternating between characters’ perspectives, Michigan writer Caitlin Horrocks’ new novel, The Vexations, narrates the life of not just composer and pianist Erik Satie but also the lives of his sister and brother, Louise and Conrad, and the people in their lives. The siblings’ experiences diverge as they are raised with different family members and pursue their unique interests and desires. Hardship, pain, and loss mark their pursuits, yet, true to history and especially for Erik, they find success, too.
Originally from Ann Arbor, Horrocks lives in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and teaches at Grand Valley State University. She will read at Literati Bookstore on Monday, August 19, at 7 pm. She answered some questions for Pulp here.
Q: What drew you to write a novel around Erik Satie’s life? How did you balance history and fiction as you researched and wrote?
A: Years ago, as a piano student in Ann Arbor, my teacher Margaret Faulkner assigned me one of Erik Satie’s most famous compositions, “Gymnopédie no. 3.” I found it incredibly beautiful and immediately went looking for more of Satie’s music. At the time, I was dismayed, even annoyed, to find a handful of what I thought of as equally beautiful pieces and then a huge range of playful, often experimental, music. But I ended up with a curiosity about who the person had been who created this disparate body of work.
Once I started researching and writing to answer that question, I struggled to find the “correct” balance between history and fiction. As a reader, I’ve read and loved historical fiction that ranged from very faithful to very loosely inspired, so I don’t actually think there’s one correct way to do it. But in writing The Vexations, where essentially every character is based on someone who really existed, I struggled constantly with feeling like a literary grave robber, unsure what liberties I could or should take. I ended up following the historical record relatively closely, and while the book inevitably contains invented scenes and moments, I eschewed including things that I knew couldn’t have happened. I took heart from an E.L. Doctorow quote: “The historian will tell you what happened. The novelist will tell you what it felt like.”
Q: You’ve played Satie’s music. What do you like about it? How did you start playing the piano?
A: My grandmother and mother both played piano, and I don’t remember starting, or making a decision to start: it was just part of my life from a very young age. I started playing Satie as most people do, with the Gymnopédies, which are short, relatively easy to play, and unambiguously beautiful. When I returned to Satie as a novel topic, I also returned to his music and at least attempted to play a lot of different pieces. As a (deeply amateur) pianist, I’m still a sucker for the lovely stuff: the Gymnopédies, Gnossiennes, Pieces Froides, Trois morceaux en forme de poire, and others. As a listener, I also really enjoy some of the later orchestral pieces, like Parade. The pieces I least enjoy playing are many of the Rose + Croix era works, which often feature slow, stately series of chords my fingers are too short to reach.
Q: From your acknowledgments in The Vexations, it sounds like you researched this book extensively. What was the most interesting thing you found? How did you go about researching this book? What was your time in libraries and archives like?
A: I took a research trip to France very early in the process, with the idea that I would mostly just bumble around soaking up streetscapes, finding old addresses, and taking notes and photos. I also visited archives, but I don’t know what the archivists made of my early requests for seemingly random items like Satie’s hat or doodlings. Later on, I read voraciously about Satie, both biographies and works of music scholarship. Then, I realized I didn’t have nearly enough knowledge about daily life during the period and read more books to fill in the gaps. Then, as the book finally took shape, I researched to track down specific information I needed, like which perfumes were bestsellers during WWI. One of my favorite factoids is from the daily-life-oriented research: the Laundry for the Unforesighted, which Philippe frequents in the novel, was a real place, for men with only one change of clothes.
Q: At almost 450 pages, this novel is substantial. How long did it take to write? Tell us about your writing process.
A: I worked on the book off-and-on since summer of 2010, when I wrote a failed short story that spawned the novel. I didn’t know it was going to take me nine years, and I don’t particularly recommend that timeline. Some contributing factors: the amount of research I did was important but, at some point, was also procrastination. I was nervous about my ability to pull off this book and kept ducking away from it into more research or into short story and essay projects -- or sometimes, into revising chapters so they imitated short stories and could be sent out for publication, which was honestly a stupid use of writing time. After I finally buckled down and set my other projects aside completely (and learned to plow forward without pausing to look up information every few sentences), the writing got easier and faster. Once I was more firmly immersed in the world of the novel, it became a place I existed in more comfortably and felt eager about returning to, rather than worried.
Q: In addition to music, the core of this novel is the connection between the three siblings, Erik Satie, his brother Conrad, and his sister Louise. Without giving too much away, their relationships and challenges extend back to being separated as children after a death in the family. Do you have siblings? Where did you find inspiration for their very human and fraught interactions?
A: I have one sister, and I’d like to think that, despite living 850 miles apart, we have a closer, more positive, relationship than those in the book. Although I guess you’d have to get her side of the story, too! I think the sibling interactions in the book arose pretty naturally from the historical record. Their childhood separation was real, and the relationship between Erik and Conrad is my interpretation of what records remain of their correspondence, or reminiscences; they had a sort of Theo and Vincent Van Gogh dynamic, with Conrad trying to support a talented but troubled brother. Their sister is much more absent from the record and was largely absent from the brothers’ daily lives; but partly because of that, I didn’t feel like I was going very far out on a limb in imagining the hunger for family and belonging she might have felt.
Q: The title of this book -- The Vexations -- is the title of one of Satie’s compositions. It also suggests the trials that the three siblings go through; none of them seem to have anything go easily for them. Their friend, Philippe, tells Louise, “Life punches everyone in the nose. Not much use trying to avoid it.” Are their hardships true to history? How did you think of the challenges that each character faced, from separation from family to career setbacks, when writing?
A: The hardships are very true to history, and there are enough of them that I always felt the challenge of making sure the book was striking a variety of emotional notes. The book covers 72 years, so to some extent, it’s natural that the characters would experience a range of losses. But certainly, Louise-Olga Satie-Lafosse’s real life was a painful catalog of the ways that the legal system of the day left women vulnerable. Even as her problems, and that of other characters, mounted, I wanted to be very intentional about weaving in moments of humor or love or camaraderie or success. I was also wary of accidentally creating hierarchies of problems, where one character’s professional setbacks just didn’t feel interesting in comparison with someone else’s larger, personal crises. I tried to create a textured life for each character, with shades of both darkness and light.
Q: Tell us about your path to becoming a writer.
A: I was a kid who always loved making up stories, but I thought that at some point I’d have to set writing aside and get realistic about my life. I assumed for a long time that I’d go to law school. But I just never stopped writing. I kept doing it, and then got more serious about improving as a writer and went to graduate school for an MFA, and then started sending out for publication, and then became published, and then started teaching writing, and then .... What I’d tell my younger self is to stop waiting for permission, stop waiting for someone to promise you that this is the path you’re supposed to be on. If writing is important to you, just keep doing it, without apologies, and see where the path takes you.
Q: You live in Michigan and much of this novel is set in France. What draws you to write about France? Where are you from?
A: I’m from Ann Arbor originally, although I was living in Arizona when I got hired at Grand Valley State University, which is just outside of Grand Rapids, Michigan. I’ve been really happy to be back in the state but have always written work that takes place in a variety of geographical settings. I like sending readers on journeys to different places. I’ve spent time in France but haven’t ever lived there for significant stretches. There was definitely hubris involved in writing The Vexations (see: the sections that take place in Buenos Aires, where I haven’t been at all). But once I committed to writing about Erik Satie, I had to commit to learning as much as I could and trying to do justice to both the people and the places (and of course trying to understand how these people and places shaped each other).
Q: What’s on your nightstand to read next or that you recently read?
A: I’m currently reading Milkman by Anna Burns, which I first listened to on audiobook. I usually choose one format or the other, but I needed to revisit the text because I have a student doing work with the book, and I’m fascinated at how the audiobook “taught” me how to read this particular, idiosyncratic, narrative voice. I’m still hearing the main character as actor Bríd Brennan. In the teetering to-read stack: T Fleischmann’s Time Is the Thing a Body Moves Through, Bonnie Chau’s All Roads Lead to Blood, Anjali Sachdeva’s All the Names They Used for God, Airea D. Matthews’s Simulacra, and more.
Q: You also write short stories. Is another novel on the horizon for you, more short stories, or something else?
A: My next book is going to be another short story collection, tentatively titled Life Among the Terranauts, coming out with Little, Brown and Company in 2021. I hope by then to be deep into another novel. I like the idea of going back and forth.
Martha Stuit is a former reporter and current librarian.
Caitlin Horrocks will read at Literati Bookstore on Monday, August 19, at 7 p.m.