Ready for Rocky Roads

by Janet Moore

Features Editor Janet Moore talks with UNCA professor and author Lori Horvitz about what has inspired and fueled her writing journey.

Lori Horvitz’s first collection of memoir-essays, The Girls of Usually (Truman State UP), won the 2016 Gold Medal IPPY Book Award in Autobiography/Memoir. Her creative nonfiction has appeared in a variety of journals, including Under the Sun, Hobart, Epiphany, South Dakota Review, The Laurel Review, The New York Times, The Guardian, Bustle, and Hotel Amerika. Her new book, Collect Call to My Mother: Essays on Love, Grief, and Getting a Good Night's Sleep (New Meridian Arts 2023), received a starred review from Kirkus and has been short-listed for the Santa Fe Writers Project Literary Award. Professor of English at UNC Asheville, she has been awarded fellowships from Yaddo, Cottages at Hedgebrook, VCCA, Ragdale, Blue Mountain Center, and Brush Creek. She holds a Ph.D. in English from SUNY Albany, and an MFA in Creative Writing from Brooklyn College. Professor Horvitz has taught courses for the Great Smokies Writing Program, and she contributed an essay on writing craft to the fall 2015 issue of this publication.

Janet Moore: What drew you to writing?

Lori Horvitz: My undergraduate degree was in photography and printmaking, and when I got out of college, I moved to Manhattan and worked as a freelance graphic artist for advertising agencies and an Irish American newspaper. After saving money, I would sublet my apartment and travel on a shoestring for months at a time, mostly in Europe. While on the road, without access to a darkroom and printing facilities, I started to journal and write poetry. Traveling on trains and planes and buses was the bridge that facilitated my move from visual arts to writing.

JM: How has this background shaped your writing?

LH: Since I didn’t have an undergraduate degree in English, I felt a bit unsure of myself when I began my MFA in poetry at Brooklyn College. My advisor was Beat poet Allen Ginsberg, who was also a photographer. “Poetry should make trouble,” he said. He taught me to experiment and take chances with my writing. Because I had done that with my photography, it was a natural path for me to take with my writing, and my life.

JM: When did you decide to be an essayist?

LH: I started my Ph.D. program in English as a poet, but during my first semester, one of my professors required us to write fictional narratives. To my surprise, I loved writing prose and ended up writing a novel for my dissertation. With the craft elements of fiction, I started to write personal narratives and realized I felt more at home in the world of creative nonfiction. But my experience writing poetry and fiction laid the groundwork for my nonfiction, both in terms of craft and content.

JM: I’m eager to find out more about your latest book, Collect Call to My Mother. What a great title.

LH: It’s the title of the first essay in the book. At twenty-one, I traveled through Europe alone, without any plans, just a big maroon backpack and a youth hostel handbook. There were no smart phones back then, and if you wanted to make a call, you had to go to a post office. When I got to Oslo, Norway, I was with a new friend and went with him to place a collect call to his parents. I had never done such a thing before, but I thought, why not call my parents, too? When the operator asked my mother if she would accept the charges, she said no. Fast forward to 2016. I was taking a financial literacy class for women. The instructor asked us to discuss our emotional relationship with money. That memory of the rejected collect call came to mind, and I found myself wondering, why did my mother do that? I couldn’t ask her. She died in an automobile accident four years after I made that Oslo call. I was traveling in Italy when I learned of her death. I got that news on the day of her funeral. That’s a lot to unpack, and this essay became an avenue for doing that.

JM: I’m struck by the length of time between the Oslo call and your writing about it.

LH: That was a buried memory, but once I unearthed it, I let the idea “mulch” in my mind. In this case, the years in between gave me the latitude to reflect on my mother, why she was the way she was about money, family, and motherhood.

JM: On the book’s cover, the title and subtitle float above a photograph of a young woman making a call at a pay telephone. She looks familiar!

LH: That’s me at nineteen, at a phone booth, taken by a good friend from college. We traveled up and down the California coast together. I imagined that photo on the cover as soon as I came up with the title for the book.

JM: I was reminded recently that in every work of creative writing, the title should do some heavy lifting. This one certainly does. I’m assuming there’s similar work going on behind the title for your earlier collection, The Girls of Usually.

LH: When I lived in New York, I dated a woman from Mexico. While we were getting ready to go to a party, I asked if she knew who’d be there. She said, “Oh, you know. The girls of usually.” A quirky mistranslation that stuck with me. And representative of the collection.

JM: How has your writing evolved?

LH: Writing the essays in Collect Call to My Mother took me down some rocky emotional roads, yet I was willing to go there—roads that, on an emotional level, I wasn’t willing or ready to explore when I was younger. By the time I completed the manuscript, I started to understand the mother I never knew and found compassion for her. In that discovery, I also found compassion for myself.

At present, I’m exploring the idea of complicated friendships—what it takes to find friends, nurture friendships, and to keep them through hard times. As a child, I was shy, practically mute, and depended on my poodles for friendship. My father frequently badgered me: “What’s wrong with you? Why don’t you have any friends?” As soon as I left home, I found plenty of friends, but those questions still haunt me.

JM: Does this mean we can look forward to another essay collection?

LH: That’s my plan.