An Interview with Libby R. Horton
by Andrew Miller, Mud Season Review Associate Creative Nonfiction Editor
You have a Ph.D. in physical chemistry and an interest in creative writing. Have you pondered how to reconcile these two disparate fields?
I’ve seen creative writing as orthogonal to my work as a scientist. It took me a long time to accept and foster my creative side because I was so dead set on my identity as a scientist. In grad school, my thesis advisor was well-established so publication wasn’t a struggle the way it is in the creative writing world.
Does your quantitative background give you a unique advantage in creative writing—not only in putting words on paper but how you envision a story or an essay?
Yes, I think my background is a unique advantage, or at least a unique perspective. I see essays as thought experiments. Each piece I write helps me hypothesize and puzzle out something that my brain is chewing on. In this way, writing essays mirrors the scientific method, where the goal is to get a closer and closer approximation of the truth.
When you write, is one of your goals to teach a little about your field? You did some of that in “Solution Phase.”
My goal is to share my understanding and appreciation for my field. Science has been a lifelong outlet for my curiosity, and it helps me to understand how the world works which gives me great comfort in our uncertain world. I love sharing the satisfaction science brings me with others.
This essay revolves around chemistry: your inherited DNA, psychotropic drugs, and the dissertation. Yet your healing began with spoken words in a therapist’s office. Does that irony propel your work?
Being a human is hard, and science can’t really tell us how to suffer less. I needed professional help to learn how to “human” better. Is that ironic? I’m not sure, but I’m fascinated by phenomena that science cannot (yet?) explain.
You have three alter egos in Solution Phase: The Heckler, Sad Creature, and Quiet Voice. What do these characters add to your essay, and why did you develop them?
Those alter egos are a product of lots of work in therapy. We all have conflicting thoughts in our heads and naming the characters that come up with some of my more problematic thoughts has really been helpful for me. It seemed natural to let them live in my essay.
Have you always been interested in creative writing? Or is your interest recent, triggered by your mental health issues and disillusionment with the sciences?
I’ve always been a writer, but when I was 14 years old, I decided I was not creative and should focus all my energy on being a scientist. I knew that technical writing is an important part of any scientist’s work, so I figured my ease with words wouldn’t be wasted. Fast forward to 2016, I happened to attend a personal essay writing workshop. Finding the personal essay form got me writing again, helped me to make friends with my creative self, and made me realize I had something to say.
Early on, you did not believe you were a creative person. However, doesn’t it take creativity to design an experiment or formulate questions about a process? Also, “Solution Phase” shows a lot of creativity both in writing style and how you approached the subject. Do you think your opinion at age 14 was entirely correct?
My opinion back then was incorrect. When I stopped being a student, I learned that my brain requires content to mull over all the time. Tendency toward rumination is often coincident with depression, so my brain is like a giant maw. If I don’t feed it interesting things to think about, it will do things like troubleshoot my physical body and decide that I have a rare disease. Creative work is a great place to give my brain free reign. It took me a while to realize this because I was occupied with academic pursuits for the first twenty-six years of my life.
The body of your essay is in the second person, and the beginning and end are in the first person. What does this switch do for your essay?
When I first started writing this material, it came out in second person; second person gave me enough distance that it felt safe to go back to that dark place. This was a controversial choice, but for me, the second person voice gets at the emotional truth of how depression feels. The isolation, the separateness. I bookended the essay with the first person so that there would be a stark contrast between the dark parts and the recovered parts.
What are your writing goals?
I would love to publish a book. I am working on a collection of linked personal essays about the intersection of science and the messiness of lived human experience. I would describe my collection as Hope Jahren (Lab Girl) meets Chloe Caldwell (Legs Get Led Astray). Science + Mental Health + Sex. Hope Jahren makes science accessible and interesting for a general audience and addresses mental health but does not delve into her romantic life. I admire how Chloe Caldwell is both literary and confessional at the same time. She is unflinching in how she tackles mental health and relationships and sexuality.
What works of other authors inspire you?
I like the way that Roxanne Gay (Hunger) is spare with language but also uses anaphora to give her work a meditative quality, and she is another author who willing to write sex. Melissa Febos (Whip Smart) is both academic and accessible, very plot driven, and she writes beautiful sentences. Sarah Manguso (Two Types of Decay) is the ultimate minimalist; her prose is stark and haunting. I love how Sarah Sentilles (Stranger Care) plays with short form and juxtaposition.