We asked Skip Horack a few questions about his latest novel,“The Other Joseph,” advice for aspiring writers, and his three ‘desert island’ books. Here’s what he had to say:
1. Where did the idea for The Other Joseph come from?
Oh, a thousand different places, probably! But for quite a while I kicked around the notion of writing about a man who gets injured in an oil rig accident, then sets out on a road trip to somewhere. That’s a blueprint you see in plenty of stories and films, come to think of it. That is, give the main character an interesting job, then find a way to cut him loose on the world. So there was always that germ of an idea, but it wasn’t until I moved from Louisiana to San Francisco myself—a city that, for me, might as well have been another planet—that I had a destination for Roy Joseph, my nine-fingered roughneck. And then the business of giving Roy compelling and believable reasons for heading to that city helped lead to the formulation of the novel’s plot.
2. Roy has gone through a lot—he has a missing brother, he suffers the tragic deaths of his parents, and also has a felony conviction. Were any of these events or situations inspired by people you know in real life?
Honestly, I can’t think of any event or situation in the book that wasn’t inspired, at least in part, by actual people and “real life.” And I reckon that’s true of most novels and stories, to some extent. The characters in The Other Joseph are no doubt composites of people I know well and people I hardly know at all—with a good dose of myself in each of them, I’m sure . . . as the process of constructing and fleshing out characters always winds up becoming an exercise in empathy, the act of putting myself in fictional shoes and trying to imagine how those Frankenstein’s monsters of my creation might realistically react to the various situations and circumstances I put them in.
And though I’m neither a felon nor an orphan, I did have an older brother who passed away when I was young—and this is probably my most in-depth and direct attempt to examine the special bond that exists between brothers. There is indeed no lack of misfortune in Roy’s backstory, but mainly because I was excited by the possibilities such a hero would present on the page. The opportunity to envision and chronicle the actions this lonely, marginalized man might take if given a shot at redemption and a flicker of hope . . . here, the possibility Roy might have a niece in San Francisco. The prospect that he is not, in fact, the last of his kind. I love back-against-the-wall characters with little left to lose.
3. What’s one message about life—from the joys to the sorrows—that readers can take away from Roy’s journey?
I’m not a huge fan of didactic, message-driven fiction, and I doubt the majority of folks are. Once a book is published it belongs more to the reader than to me—so I don’t really view it as my place to suggest messages or meanings from the sidelines. What I hope, what I always hope, is that I’ve done a good enough job of breathing life into a specific fictional world, and into the struggles of the characters who inhabit it, that readers who enter and experience the book cannot help but come away with their own private epiphanies. To me that’s the most magical aspect of reading fiction: how universal truths can be revealed via the resonate depiction of the unfamiliar, the other. How we can learn so much by simply observing lives being lived—without being told how to feel.
Strive to write well-crafted scenes, ones that linger in the moment and are rich with detail, description, and language. Learn to approach story and novel drafts not as essayistic, sprawling endeavors but as jigsaw puzzles comprised of many such bejeweled pieces.
4. Were the places that Roy visited on his journey to San Francisco places you’ve been to personally and could speak about, or was there research needed on the sites, sounds, and routes that Roy experienced?
The two primary settings in the novel are Louisiana (my home state) and San Francisco (where I lived for six years), so those are definitely places I know quite well. And the locations Roy tarries in while driving his beaten Chrysler LeBaron from the former to the latter are also settings I have some familiarity with. But, regardless of familiarity, there is always research that comes into play . . . whether taken from the page or the computer screen—or more enjoyably, from those focused revisitations and wanderings writers engage in as they attempt to see and feel certain locales as their characters might. And though much of that setting research is basic fact-checking, equally important are the surprising discoveries I stumble upon. Details, descriptions, and specifics I learn of and observe, which I can then layer into the narrative to craft an even more interesting and authentic world. Almost from inception, one ambition I had with The Other Joseph was to paint an accurate portrait of America, to create a real sense of the nation during the particular time period of the book. So a biopsy, of sorts—and the precise, unblinking portrayal of the various Americas that Roy moves through was crucial to this goal.
5. You’re currently an assistant professor of creative writing at Florida State University—what is one tip you can provide to the aspiring writer looking for a bit of guidance or motivation?
The obvious, best, and most common advice aspiring writers will receive is that they need to read widely—and not just for entertainment, but as students of craft. To “read like a writer,” using the books and stories they encounter as templates for imitation and inspiration. So I’ll add my voice to that wise chorus, noting as well that there is often lots to be gleaned from those texts that don’t fully click for us. So that’s the familiar and unassailable advice, and to perhaps suggest something less often heard, but that has been helpful for me to remember: think small. Strive to write well-crafted scenes, ones that linger in the moment and are rich with detail, description, and language. Learn to approach story and novel drafts not as essayistic, sprawling endeavors but as jigsaw puzzles comprised of many such bejeweled pieces. All in all, I suspect we sometimes worry too much about “what next?” while writing—when, in actuality, and if given enough attention, the page we are on, and those rich, thoughtful pages that have come before, will typically lead us to where we need to go.
6. How did you go from practicing law to a writer and academic? Do you see yourself jumping back in the legal world in the future?
I practiced law for about five years in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, working for a firm that primarily represented rural hospitals throughout the state—and though I enjoyed being an attorney, even then I considered myself a writer in disguise. Not so different from all those bartender/actors in Los Angeles, I suppose. That said, the people and places I encountered during that time in my life—and just the plain old work ethic a legal career demands—were no doubt vital to my development as a writer. Indeed, there’s a healthy bit of crossover in the skill sets required of attorneys and fiction writers. Plenty of scribbling, of course, but also the disciplined imagination and creative problem-solving abilities needed to take oceans of complicated facts, ideas, and conflicts and make sense of them. I’ll never view those years as anything but valuable to me.
Now, to answer your first question: chances are I’d still be an attorney who wakes up early to write every morning had I not been fortunate enough to receive a creative writing fellowship from Stanford University. A grand, unexpected stroke of luck, but while in California I also discovered a love for teaching—and in this new circus I’ve happily remained ever since. But I do keep my law licenses in good standing, and if I’m ever rear-ended by a Walmart truck I’m sure I would immediately jump back into the legal world.
7. What three books would you want with you if you were to be stuck on a desert island for five years?
Probably texts on the desalination and purification of water, primitive boat building, and a more general survival guide with edible pages. Or maybe a really big book that could function as shelter and shade. But, were I limited to fiction in my tiny, island library, one of those books would just have to be Robinson Crusoe, no? That was my favorite as a kid, so that works great for me. And what would be better than that—a novel that might help teach me how to look at my circumstances and not lose hope? Or at least feel some kinship. All of my favorite novels do that, actually—even the ones that break my heart.
8. What are you reading right now?
Three truly wonderful books, fortunately. Tom McGuane and David Vann were gracious enough to provide early words of praise for The Other Joseph—both are writers I admire tremendously, and both have books out this spring: the story collection Crow Fair and the novel Aquarium, respectively. Fantastic stuff. And I’m just finishing the debut story collection Night at the Fiestas by Kirstin Valdez Quade. She and I will be appearing together in April for a few events, and I can’t say enough about how beautiful and evocative that book is. So yes, reading is essential to a writer—but it can also be quite humbling!
Thanks so much for the questions, and my greatest appreciation to House of Anansi. This has been my first opportunity to work directly with a publisher in Canada, and y’all have been a dream.
A masterful depiction of a life driven off the rails by tragedy and sin — a man now summoned by the legacy of a beloved, lost brother to embark on a journey in search toward understanding, happiness, and redemption.
Haunted by the disappearance of his older brother Tommy in the first Gulf War, the tragic deaths of his parents, and the felony conviction that has branded him for a decade, Roy Joseph has labored in lonesome exile — and under the ever-watchful eyes of the law—moving between oil rigs off the coast of Louisiana and an Airstream trailer he shares with his dog.
Then, on the cusp of his thirtieth birthday, Roy is contacted by a teenage girl from California claiming to be his lost brother’s biological daughter. Yearning for connection and the prospect of family, Roy embarks on a journey across America, visiting childhood haunts in the South to confront his troubled memories and history, and making a stop in Nevada to call on a retired Navy SEAL who may hold the answer to Tommy’s fate. The ultimate destination is San Francisco, where a potential Russian bride and his long-lost niece await, and Roy may finally recover the Joseph line.
With The Other Joseph, Skip Horack delivers a powerful, spellbinding tale of a man nearly defeated by life who is given one last chance at redemption — one last shot to find meaning and alter the course of his solitary existence.