These days, aspiring authors generally attend graduate school and study creative writing before they write their first novel. They attend workshops and writers’ conferences and join writers’ groups.
Not so for Dara Horn, who is heading to Central Oregon later this month for A Novel Idea … Read Together, Deschutes Public Library System’s annual community reading event. (Free tickets for her first reading, May 15 at the Tower Theatre, become available today at all Deschutes Public Library System branches. See “If you go” for more details.)
To paraphrase Sinatra, she did it her way, taking a unique route to becoming a novelist.
However, Horn did her share of postgraduate work en route to writing her first two novels, “In the Image” and “The World to Come.”
Horn, 31, has a master’s in Hebrew literature from Cambridge University and a doctorate in comparative literature from Harvard. She earned that doctorate just two years ago, in 2006 — the same year as the publication of “The World to Come,” the book of the moment in Central Oregon thanks to Deschutes Public Library System’s A Novel Idea … Read Together.
“It’s not as dire as it sounds,” she said, chuckling. She wrote her first novel shortly after she earned her bachelor’s. “I had won a scholarship to spend a year at Cambridge University in England. This was an amazing scholarship where they gave me a suite of rooms at Jesus College … I basically had a year to use as I wished.”
She decided to do a one-year master’s program, “not because England was a great place to study Hebrew literature, but because I’d gotten this scholarship, and it was a deal I couldn’t turn down.”
To add to the complication of living abroad for a year, Horn had become engaged right before heading to England.
“I could have turned (the scholarship) down and just gotten married, but I felt like I didn’t want to regret for the rest of my life that I didn’t go.”
Horn’s accomplishments attest to the fact that she’s not one to live with regret.
“As a result, it was a very lonely year for me. I just found it very isolating socially. My fiance was in another country, and I supposed I could go and drown my sorrows in a pint of Guinness or something, but I’m not a big drinker,” she said, laughing.
As a result of being “so anti-social” and despite her studies, Horn wrote “In the Image.”
OK, but writing her second novel, “The World to Come,” which one critic called “Nothing short of amazing,” was more onerous. Right?
“The Ph.D. program was considerably more onerous,” she said.
The nice thing about a doctorate, she said, “is that no one ever expects you to finish it. So there’s this assumption that you’re always constantly working on it.”
Working on two projects at once worked out very well, Horn said. “It was always a procrastination tool. I’d work on the dissertation while telling myself I was avoiding working on the novel, and I’d go work on the novel and tell myself that I was avoiding the dissertation.”
As a result, she managed to finish both the dissertation and the novel without feeling that she was doing real work, she said.
She’s still juggling responsibilities. Horn is writing a third novel, due for release next year. She also has two young children, ages 1 and 2, at home in New York.
What does she consider vacation? One project instead of two or three?
“Vacation’s sort of an alien concept at this point,” she said, laughing. “Vacation is me finding someone to watch the kids.”
When Granta literary magazine honored her as one of its Best Young American Novelist prize recipients, Horn was intimidated. They called Horn and the other winners and told them they wanted to run new, never-before-published fiction by each one of them. And they wanted it in three weeks.
“I guess some people have short stories in a drawer that they’ve been looking to publish,” she said. “But I don’t write short stories.”
However, she was able to submit an excerpt from her upcoming novel.
“It turned out to be exciting,” she said, “as I got to publish from a work-in-progress, which I never did before, and get a little bit of feedback on it from readers.”
Horn doesn’t have plans to start writing short stories, believing it’s a very different skill from writing novels.
“You can’t really predict what you’re going to do in the future,” she said. “But, on the other hand, before I wrote my first novel I hadn’t written any fiction before.”
As she develops as a novelist, her books are becoming increasingly plot-driven. Her next novel is about Jewish spies in the Civil War, and like “The World to Come,” much of the fiction stems from historical fact. “Judah Benjamin, who was Jewish, was actually the secretary of state of the Confederacy,” she said. “He was Jefferson Davis’ right-hand man, his closest adviser and confidante. He was also … spy master for the Confederacy. He’s the character in this novel.”
One of the things she enjoys most about novel writing is living with the characters. “It takes a couple of years to write a novel, and you become very involved with these people’s lives as you imagine them, and there’s even much more than you include in your book,” she said.
“I think of them in the same way that I think of real people,” she said. “That’s not to say they’re my imaginary friends and I believe that they’re real, but when I think about their motivations or what they do, it’s not really different from the way I think about people I know.
When she and her husband — a lawyer with “a normal job” — sit down to dinner, they both talk about the people they worked with that day.
“Except his people are real, and my people are imaginary,” she said. “But these are the people I work with.”