'Life Among the Terranauts' explores survival in biodome

Kurt Anthony Krug
Special to The Detroit News

 Novelist Caitlin Horrocks described her latest book, “Life Among the Terranauts” – a collection of short stories – as a “grab bag.”

“There’re stories that are more realistic. There’re stories where there’s a magical element or strange, supernatural elements. There’re stories set in Michigan, Arizona, Prague or Peru," says Horrocks. "I kept writing stories and kept writing stories, then finally stood back and mixed and matched the stories I had written and tried to figure out which belong together to create an experience that readers would enjoy. This book came together slowly over a long period of time.” 

"Life Among the Terranauts," by Caitlin Horrocks

An Ann Arbor native, Horrocks lives in Grand Rapids with her husband and fellow author, W. Todd Kaneko, and their three children. Since 2007, she has taught English and creative writing at Grand Valley State University.

Horrocks will do a virtual signing of “Terranauts” (Little Brown and Company, $27) – her third book – at 7 p.m. Thursday simultaneously at Nicola’s Books in Ann Arbor and Schuler Books at its Grand Rapids and Okemos locations. Joining her will be fellow author and GVSU professor Chris Haven, who recently released his first book, a collection of short stories, called “Nesting Habits of Flightless Birds” (Tailwinds Press Enterprises, LLC $14). Signed copies of both books will be available. Registration is required for this free event.

“We’ll be discussing our writing process. I’ll ready a tiny bit from the book. I’ll have a conversation with Chris and answer questions from the audience,” says Horrocks. “One of the pandemic’s silver linings is doing this online via Zoom, so people all over the country and all over the world can log in. It’ll be fun.”

“Life Among the Terranauts” author Caitlan Horrocks

“Terranauts” contains 14 short stories. In the titular story, half a dozen people move into an experimental biodome for a shot at $1 million – provided they can survive two years. This story was inspired by the real-life Biosphere 2, which was built in the desert outside Tucson, Arizona.

“The real-life story of the people who were inside in the 1990s was not one of harmonious scientific exploration,” says Horrocks, laughing. “There were a lot of problems, a lot of tension. I find the place fascinating. I dimly remember it being in the news as a kid. I had the chance to go there a few years ago – you can tour the biodome.

“I had a lot of fun thinking, ‘Who are my people getting stuck inside? What are the tensions they might face? What are the ways the situation might really spiral out of control than the real-life events?’ A lot of being a fiction writer is if you want conflict, if you want an interesting story, you apply pressure to your characters. You see how they react – how they bend or break or how they transform. The process of writing that story was thinking pressure, pressure, pressure! Where’s the release valve? Who’ll survive this? Who won’t? What’s gonna explode?”

In “The Sleep,” residents of a frigid Midwest town decide to hibernate through the bitter winters. Horrocks wouldn’t say where in the Midwest the story occurs. 

“Depending on how you look at it, it could be a few different upper Midwestern locales. Almost everyone who reads it thinks it’s Michigan," she says. "It certainly started with living through another gray Michigan winter and finding it harder and harder to get out of bed in the morning. I read an article about historical sleep patterns – the way we sleep now is not the way we’ve always slept. I started thinking about human hibernation – it sounds kinda tempting. Similar to the biosphere story… What was supposed to be cozy pretty quickly became more complicated… The upsides and downsides are too simplistic. There were ways hibernation made them see their lives and see their community differently. The story ended up exploring that.”

Although she’s relatively new to the literary scene, Horrocks’ books have received critical acclaim. Her second book, a historical fiction novel about French pianist/composer Erik Satie called “The Vexations,” was reviewed in the New York Times Book Review and the Washington Post. It was also named to Ten Best Books of 2019 by the Wall Street Journal.

“December becomes a fraught season for anyone who had a book come out in the last year because it’s full of lists of all kinds. Of all the lists to be on, to be on a Top 10 list from a major newspaper was absolutely incredible,” says Horrocks.

“Terranauts” is also holding its own. It was named to Entertainment Weekly’s Best Books of January 2021 list.

“Traditional wisdom in publishing is there’s a bigger readership for novels; short stories are harder for a lot of readers. So, when you have a story collection coming out, I don’t know what to expect in terms of attention. I have low expectations,” she says, laughing. “For this book to make these lists like EW, which is a huge magazine with a huge audience that covers all kinds of media and entertainment, that it selected this book was really unexpected and really thrilling.”

'Life Among the Terranauts'

Virtual book signing 

7 p.m. Thursday

Registration is free and open to the public. Register at www.eventbrite.com/e/life-among-the-terranauts-with-caitlin-horrocks-tickets-132989819129. For more information, call (734) 662-0600.