It Comes From Life Experience: An Interview with Kate Milliken – Michigan Quarterly Review

It Comes From Life Experience: An Interview with Kate Milliken

Kate Milliken’s collection of stories, If I’d Known You Were Coming, won the Iowa Award for Short Fiction in 2013. Her debut novel, Kept Animals centers on a real-life wildfire in Topanga Canyon, California, in 1993, which Kate experienced firsthand. Heralded as “an event-packed novel of class, desire, coming-of-age and familial disintegration,” and named one of the best LGBTQ books of 2020 by O, the Oprah MagazineKept Animals was longlisted for the Center for Fiction’s First Novel Prize.

Kate was born into a theatre family, her mother a playwright, her father an aspiring actor and director. After her parent’s divorce, Kate bounced between the glamour of 1980s Hollywood and a subsistent, working class home in Chicago. As a junior in high school, Kate wrote an essay about her recovery from an eating disorder, her family’s struggle with substance abuse, and the inherent void created by fame. That essay won her acceptance to an experimental five-year undergraduate program, enabling her to leave high school and a troubled home life early, and cemented her belief in the power of storytelling.

A graduate of the Bennington College Writing Seminars, Kate’s writing has been published in numerous literary magazines, anthologized, and supported by fellowships from Yaddo, Tin House, and the Vermont Studio Center. Informed by her early awareness of economic inequities, addiction, and her experience of growing up queer in an era of overt homophobia, Kate’s work aims to explore character dualities and the power of our appetites: from true hunger to our most unwieldy desires.

Milliken visited the University of Michigan in October 2021 as a Helen Zell Visiting Writer. She and Eva Warrick, an MFA candidate, discussed the writing process, the life experiences informing her writing, writing for women (and not for men), and much more.

Eva Warrick (EW): What is your daily writing practice like?

KM: My daily practice, when it is a daily practice, looks like me journaling for a minute, and then opening the document where I was and reading back a few lines and trying to work in small increments of time. Sometimes I can handle fifteen minutes, sometimes I can handle two hours. It just depends on whether or not the energy picks up behind what I’m working on. The days I can work three or four hours without going back and getting critical are rare and fabulous and we live for those. I can’t say that that has really changed from book to book but I’ve definitely gotten more habitual over time.

EW: When you sit down to write, what comes first?

KM: Usually an image. I have a story about a hand model who gets into an awkward situation with a teenager at a birthday party. I saw him standing on the edge of a lawn at a children’s birthday party. I remember that viscerally and I remember feeling very weird about his hands, and that was the start of that story. It’s usually an image, and then a voice.

EW: Where do you write?

KM: I write in the same place all the time. I have a spot on the couch where I love to read and journal, and then I move into my office, which has no windows, only a skylight. It’s a little nook off of our dining room and it’s just got a big bookshelf and a massive screen. I’ve found over the years that windows lead to a lot of daydreaming that hasn’t necessarily proven effective. It’s better for me if I can get up and go for a walk, to get my blood flowing and then come back to the writing. When I can, I’ll leave for a few days, and then my schedule is just nuts. I go into these sort of power cycles, where I’ll write mostly during the night. It’s like something turns on around seven at night and then I’ll write until three or four in the morning. In the last novel, that was when I knew I was getting toward the end of the project, and when I needed to read really big chunks of it to know how cohesive it was. I needed those long stretches of time.

EW: When you begin a new book, do you find that your initial hunches about what the book is about stays stable, or does that change throughout the process?

KM: I’m on book three and so far, my hunches have been pretty right. They’ve been right, but the amount of time it’s taken for me to second-guess myself has ranged from a few years down to a couple months. You second guess your instincts when you are looking at your work from everyone else’s perspective. You are not grounded in your own voice, you know, to use the term we all use for a lack of confidence. You also want to do some of that questioning when you’re starting a project, like, would it be better from third person or would it be better retrospective? Or in the present tense or in the second person? What am I trying to do here with the reader? And what is the dance I want the reader to do with this character? So, it’s good to spend some time asking those questions. It’s just whether or not you’re asking those questions from a technical perspective or a berating yourself perspective.

EW: On that note about other voices entering into the work, do you feel like your work is in conversation with other writers current or past?

KM: I hope that I will find the voices I’m supposed to be in conversation with. In the past, I very much knew who I was writing toward and where I wanted the book to sit in the world of fiction. I’ve also learned that those desires don’t necessarily come true and that it’s better to just focus on what you can do. Forget about the market, it’s not going to help you get the project done and the book’s not necessarily going to go where you think it’s going to go. Right now, with the new book I’m working on, I don’t totally have an understanding of which authors I’m in conversation with.

EW: I am interested in your exposure to the film industry and to photography. You’ve mentioned Kept Animals was inspired by a Francesca Woodman photograph. Can you remember what it was about that particular photograph that helped you?

A: It was from an issue of the Missouri Review from 2011. There is a girl falling out of a curio cabinet, and there’s taxidermy animals around her. That photograph just so captured the feeling that I was trying to get at about being a teenager in that period of time, where we have lost touch with what it was like to be a teenager. It captured a feeling that I had had, of a loss of agency. And yet, it was a feeling of being very aware of my own connection to the animal world and to nature, and the world trying to contain and do violence to that and to empty it out. And yet, she made it beautiful and striking, and I wanted to see if I could do that in prose.

I really love being prompted by other mediums. Music was a big influence on Kept Animals, too. The band, Sylvan Esso, had a song called “Sound” that came out toward the end of my writing that book. It repeats the lyric “I was going to write a song for you, I was going to say it out loud.” The past tense of that, the idea of singing a song to someone that you can’t is just so profound and aching, and it really hit on where I wanted to get to between the characters Charlie and Rory.

Also, I love film and I love well-done TV. It’s so impressive to see people turn out story-worthy material on a regular basis, and to do it in this collaborative fashion. I will watch good TV again and again to look at story construction, and I occasionally have students watch a show together, because I feel it’s such an easy way for us to look at a story. They know they’re getting attached to a character, and we can really look back at what happened in a scene, and ask, what did this dialogue tell you about the subtext, how did this happen, and then, can you describe that in a character function on the page. How do you translate that to prose? Because what we’re all doing in or minds is imagining an entire film and yet, we also get to break that fourth wall and go into the consciousness of a character. You don’t get to do that anywhere else besides writing, there’s no other medium where we have access to each others’ brains. I’m a huge Scorsese fan. I really admire a lot of his movies. I studied Good Fellows repeatedly as a college student. And that’s based on a novel.

EW: In Kept Animals, you’ve got characters coming of age, class disparities, racism and homophobia, environmental disaster and general cultural noise. You have said that all these elements are connected and cannot be isolated from one another. I am curious about your experience writing into those nodes of connection. How do you organize and represent all those conflagrations and overlaps?

KM: The organizing principle was based on character. Every character became an embodiment of those various cultural constructs, you know, the idea that affluence is going to make you happy – let’s pop that bubble with Sarah Price. The idea that fame is actually worthy of a pedestal, let’s pop that bubble with every member of the Price family. The idea that manliness is strength, let’s pop that bubble with Gus Scott. That parental love is unconditional, well, that’s pretty easy to run to ruin with Mona. I wasn’t conscious of this strategy in the beginning, I just knew I needed to write complex characters, and that none of us are any one thing. All those elements, I’d seen growing up in Southern California. I think something I always want to do, wherever I go, is ask, why is this this way?

EW: Talking about your characters embodying all this complexity and chaos, they are often presented as being captive in some way to limiting forces, whether that’s misogyny, the vicissitudes of parenting, the economy, or climate change. How do you see your characters negotiating with uncertainty and the unpredictability of these larger-than-life forces?

KM: It comes from some life experience. I’ve been in situations where people had no money, and I’ve watched  people go from having no money to having a lot of money. In my awareness of economics, the idea that money brings you happiness is a total lie. And we’re not very attentive to our spirit as a culture. I think capitalism is based on pigeonholing us and having us believe we are all supposed to be a brand. Grey areas and complexity do not go well with marketing. So, I knew my characters were unaware of their discomfort in their cages, they were unaware of their cages, but I wanted the reader to be aware of their discomfort and to be able to recognize where it came from.  

EW: Shifting to your story collection (If I’d Known You Were Coming, 2013), could you talk a little bit about representing vulnerability, specifically the vulnerability of children and teenagers in your work?

KM: I think about it a lot. I had a hard experience as a teenager and I got to watch that happen for both of my sisters. And I recognize how young women watch how much we, as a culture, don’t honor them. It is a place at which we are asked to stop knowing ourselves and to start performing, for someone else’s script. My oldest is thirteen now, and I feel like this is the age that I am as a parent most comfortable because I got to spend that time with my two half-sisters. I can at least say to my daughter, I will pick you up wherever you land, call me, I will never judge you. And that is the kind of love that teenagers need that our culture does not foster. And then, parents get to a place of comfort in middle age where they’re no longer the ones on stage, and then their kids are performing for them.

EW: How do you see identity and agency for your female characters in a world of male power?

KM: I think it’s really hard. I recommend everyone read Claire Vay Watkin’s “On Pandering.” I think it’s important that we as women rally behind our stories and our truths and articulate them, as the male voice has, for years. I think that women recognizing each other as a community needing to support one another in the arts is imperative.

EW: Who is your audience? Do you feel that you are writing for other women?

KM: I feel like I am writing for my friends. I want the other women in my life to feel seen. If I can reach the twenty people that I would want at my dinner table to laugh with, then I’m happy. There was a moment in time when I was working on Kept Animals that I remember saying to my agent, I want to trick men into reading this. But I stopped worrying about that. Honestly, I read more women writers, those are the voices I need to hear and I am glad I recognized that early on, because it helped me support my own voice and helped me think of women’s perspectives as valid and valuable.

EW: Several of your characters recur throughout your works, does that mirror the way you experience relationships?

A: It definitely mirrors my life. I think our imaginations and the spaghetti of our brains and synapses are formed by our experiences. My life has had so many forks and multiple homes and multiple divorces and siblings from various marriages, that I could not help but feel the connection of all people to each other. And so that inevitably became part of my subject matter, and I just saw the domino effect of it, reverberating across homes. The way people treat each other became my material, and that’s just the way my head works.

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