Pushing Against the Constraints of Circumstance: Q&A with Kate Milliken

(photo by Adam Karsten)
(photo by Adam Karsten)

Kate Milliken is a graduate of the Bennington College Writing Seminars and recipient of fellowships from the Vermont Studio Center and the Tin House summer writing workshops. She has recently published her first collection of short fiction, If I’d Known You Were Coming (University of Iowa Press, 134 pages), for which she was awarded the 2013 John Simmons Short Fiction Award. Stories from this collection have appeared in a variety of publications, including Fiction, New Orleans Review, and Santa Monica Review. Her story, “A Matter of Time,” was published in ZYZZYVA’s Fall 2013 issue.

Told in the intimate details of Milliken’s prose style, If I’d Known You Were Coming’s stories—some of which follow recurring characters in new contexts, while others add to the thematic resonance while being unto themselves—coalesce into a stark display of the implications of tragedy on the American family. Toward this end, Milliken presents situations in which, as in the case of “A Matter of Time,” the banal of a dinner party is disturbed by dark undercurrents that expose her character’s fantasies and despair. At other moments, Milliken is interested in the aftermath of tragedy and in how characters inherit and are constrained by traumas to which they have been both passive victims and active participants. Milliken’s work seems to be an attempt to wrest agency from the past, to embrace human possibility before old memories and pains devour us.

Kate kindly agreed to be interviewed by email about her new collection, writing, and her future endeavors.

ZYZZYVA: How did If I’d Known You Were Coming take form? Was there one piece in particular from which the others unraveled?

Kate Milliken: First, I’ll explain a little about the construction of the collection. Half of these stories are connected by specific characters, a girl named Caroline in particular, while the other stories, the stories that I placed in between the Caroline stories, are only connected thematically, and, more obviously, by their Southern California settings.

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So the first Caroline story I wrote was “The Whole World,” which appears toward the middle of the collection. In that story it is known that Caroline’s mother, Lorrie, left her daughter and husband around the time Caroline was eight years old. I had some sense of why Lorrie left, and I knew I would eventually write her story, that I needed to know her more fully. That story, “A Matter of Time,” written six years later, became the opening piece in the collection. Other characters from “The Whole World” continued to return to me, Roxanne in particular—she epitomizes a particular feeling I have about Southern California—and so “Parts of a Boat” exists, etc.

The second thread of stories, the stories unrelated to Caroline, took shape over the same seven years, “Names for A Girl,” being the first of them. In some ways those stories were harder for me to write. They were more personal, less traditional, but I felt they were each in conversation with the preoccupations of the Caroline stories and I ordered them in collection as I did in hopes of giving the reader breaths between the longer pieces—not as a distraction or break from those stories, but rather as an opportunity (at my insistence) to sit longer with each story’s central concern.

Z: Is there any particular influence, thematically or technically, on If I’d Known? It seems that some of the stories are kindred to Faulkner’s exploration of the deterioration of the family, but perhaps that’s too far back in literary history.

KM: I appreciate the connection you’re drawing, but it wasn’t anything of which I was conscious. Stylistically, on a sentence level, I am influenced by the writers I admire: James Salter, Amy Hempel, Fredrick Barthelme, Carver. All of them really concerning themselves with the sentence level of storytelling, which I believe lends their work to very intimate portraits of the human experience, their attention to language simultaneously intensifying the focus of their lens. There is a closeness, an arresting quality to what you witness and feel from those pages. Life is happening and changing through mere gestures. Stylistically, I aim to have a comparable attention to the details of our interactions as well as the musicality of language. More broadly, what my stories are about thematically—the complications of misplaced desires and of parent-child relationships—I don’t feel a hard line lineage to another author. That said—and this might seem an odd pairing—but reading the poetry of Sharon Olds as well as the novels of John Irving in college, each of them gave me permission to mine territory I might not have otherwise.

Z: In her appraisal of If I’d Known for the 2013 John Simmons Short Fiction Award, Julie Orringer writes that your collection is a deft exploration of  “the aftermath of abandonment; [your] characters, cast adrift, find themselves painfully alone, futilely seeking what was torn away long ago.” As much as your collection is about abandonment and loss, it also seems to be about new connections, however haphazardly and imperfectly formed?

KM: How’s that Chumbawumba song go? “I get knocked down, but I get up again…” Yeah, they’re like that. So I’m glad you found that to be true. They are characters who don’t just want company or to heal old hurts, but who want to be known—a tricky desire when they themselves are often unsure of who they are. Still, yes, they’re very much trying.

If I'd Known You Were ComingZ: At the end of “Names for a Girl,” the principal character, paging through a book of baby names, hopes to find a name “without a story, without a history or a masculine derivation, a name of uncertain etymology,” before she concludes, “I will have to make something up.” In the later piece, “Parts of a Boat,” the central character, a widow whose husband committed suicide, finds herself unable to reinvent herself through storytelling as the past is always with her in the iteration of the word “rope.” As a writer, do you consider storytelling redemptive, as a medium in which to extricate the writer and reader from the passive forces of circumstance, history, or the tragedies that are so central to your characters?

KM: I absolutely consider the act of reading and writing stories to be redemptive. Not only redemptive, but fundamental, necessary for us to evolve. And I hear modern science is getting wind of what us nerdy reader/writers always suspected. (http://www.theguardian.com/books/booksblog/2013/oct/08/literary-fiction-improves-empathy-study & http://www.independent.co.uk/news/science/brain-function-boosted-for-days-after-reading-a-novel-9028302.html). If stories increase our abilities to empathize—never mind increase our brain function—naturally they can also improve our outlook on the future, on the potential for change. Now, my characters aren’t always redeemed, but the more important shift for me is one that happens in the reader.

I have to say that phrase “passive forces of circumstance” threw me a bit as I don’t think there is anything passive about circumstance. It’s either working for us or it’s working against us, but there’s not a lot of neutrality out there. Stories, books, language—these are the tools, the productive ones, at our disposal to best affect a change. I’m preaching to the choir here, but I wish that as a culture—speaking about beyond our school age years here—we continued to value reading as the sustenance that it is. Water, food, rest, and books. We’d be nicer people. I’m one of those “stories saved my life!” folks. Here I’ll lean on a Susan Sontag quote, she said it so much more eloquently: “I wouldn’t be the person I am, I wouldn’t understand what I understand, were it not for certain books … reading is an education of the heart. It enlarges your sense of human possibility, of what human nature is, of what happens in the world.”

For balance I’ll add that I can also be that crabby writer who has a hard time being in the present moment, with the real people, as I sometimes prefer relating to the world through story, which requires a certain retrospective remove—or a closed door.

Z: It is not often that you read a collection in which a hand model figures prominently; and yet, while it is certainly a comic device, the way you use the character to navigate the boundaries between fantasy and reality seems a central theme. To what degree are the characters in If I’d Known pained by the discrepancy between different fantasies and facts?

KM: In Southern California hand models are commonplace. They’re your aunt, your cousin, your brother-in-law, your green grocer. I’m joking, of course. They aren’t that rampant, but so many professions in Hollywood lend themselves to comedy. But this pain of the discrepancy between fact and fantasy, of which you speak, is one that L.A. seems always to be striving to narrow—from Photoshopping to plastic surgery.

And so, yes, some of my L.A. characters—there in order to enact a dream, a fantasy—are inevitably humbled by a reminder that they are human. And while I don’t intend it when I sit down, I probably get some pleasure from humanizing these professions that we are so quick to revere and romanticize. I grew up around actors and directors, and I can tell you that they, too, make fools of themselves, cry, lose their car keys, fight, forget to brush, let down the ones they love, and feel empty inside. Maybe all that much more for having been placed on a pedestal. No, I’m not saying you should feel sorry for George Clooney. We waste enough time.

Z: Does your forthcoming novel explore similar territory to If I’d Known?

KM: Well, now I’m sweating. My novel is far from forthcoming as it isn’t yet finished! But, yes, to answer the other end of the question—it does. But I’d like to believe that the longer form has given me the chance to mine similar territory more deeply, more effectively and to give these characters—and myself—the opportunity to come out the other side of their plights. To maybe communicate the different understanding of themselves and their world that can only come of having survived something. Since writing most of the stories in If I’d Known, I’ve had children, I’ve lived longer, more fully, and I have a greater faith in what can come from writing—the personal necessity of it more than anything—and so I’m comfortable now in the commitment that is a novel. I’m three and a half years into it, but I’m really enjoying writing and living with the two families that people it, so I don’t feel an urgency to finish it so much as I feel the need to give them my time.

Z: I’ve read that you’re currently working on a screenplay adaptation of one of your short stories. Do you find it difficult to transfer a story you have created in one medium into another medium founded upon different constraints?

KM: One of the things I love most about writing is the constraints, the problem solving, the puzzle. A screenplay makes for a different set of constraints, but it also opens other doors. I’m adapting the short story for a short film, which I’d think is simpler than adapting a novel or story for a feature length film. I don’t need to build up additional story lines or develop second or third acts, but I do have to work out how to convey backstory within a tighter time frame. That said, the story I’m adapting has a fairly scene-to-scene structure, making it easier to translate than, say, Munro or Anthony Doerr might be—writers who flawlessly move through large shifts in time. I actually mention both of them as I would really love to see the title stories from Munro’s “Runaway” and Doerr’s “Memory Wall” made into movies. (Somebody do this, please!)

Another thing that makes my adaption simpler is that I’m writing with my husband’s directorial eye in mind. He’s already a commercial director, and we’ve talked about making a movie together since we met, always liking the same films, sharing similar aesthetic, structural, and thematic interests. We love a non-linear film. Noir? Seen them all. French film? Date night. Before having kids, movies were our big past time. A short story to a short film seems a logical place to start—and what we can handle given the early stage of parenting we’re in. In some ways it even feels like a cheat. Sure, I have to structure scenes, swap out exposition, but I already made this movie in my mind. Really, the variables, the tough stuff, will happen later and be more his burden than mine. Real, living, breathing actors. Lighting. Sound. Music and editing. We’ll get there when we get there. So, the screenplay, yeah, no problem—just close the door on your way out.

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