In Kate Milliken’s first novel, Kept Animals (350 pages; Scribner), Topanga Canyon of the early ‘90s is an isolated, wild place, beautiful but vulnerable to the destruction and chaos of wildfire. Two teenage girls suffer loss one summer in this rugged canyon nestled beside a Los Angeles of wealth and celebrity. As they seek solace in one another, their connection ripples through the small community with dangerous consequences. Milliken’s clear-eyed telling weaves their story with that of Charlie, a young woman who two decades later searches into the mystery of this relationship and the fire that swept through Topanga. The novel evokes the hopefulness and combustion found in the geography and socioeconomics of California. Milliken is the also the author of the award-winning story collection If I’d Known You Were Coming, which includes “A Matter of Time” (ZYZZYVA Issue 98). We met to talk about her new book on a sunny afternoon at a San Anselmo café before the Bay Area’s shelter-in-place and continued our talk over email. We spoke of desire and loneliness, tragedy and resilience, which now feel prescient themes:
ZYZZYVA: Kept Animals unfolds in the months before a 1993 wildfire in Topanga Canyon. How do you see landscape—Topanga and later the Wyoming horse ranch that becomes the setting for Charlie’s present-day narrative—as a presence and influence?
KATE MILLIKEN: Since I was writing about a real-life fire, and since the topography and the ecology of the canyon had everything to do with how and why that fire burned, I knew the landscape would play an integral role, as much as any character in the book, really. The early draft of the first chapter was so much—too much—about the roads through the canyon and how difficult a place it was to evacuate. I think I was establishing for myself how we can be kept by our environments, and from there I realized how the landscape was metaphorical for what I really wanted to get at: how our homescapes, our communal, cultural, and family narratives, can keep us from being fully ourselves.
Topanga, by the way, is one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been. It can make you feel small and full of hope at the same time. So much of California does that.
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As for Charlie’s storyline, her present-day narrative being in Wyoming, that was a counterbalance for me. A landscape I didn’t know as intimately and that I liked fantasizing about and researching—the history and its vistas and predictable seasons. A more open space for my imagination.
Z: The novel balances different time periods in what emerge as dual coming-of-age stories: a teenager and a young woman finding themselves in the aftermath of traumatic events. The structure creates suspense. How did you shape time and pacing in the novel?
KM: After working on a short story collection, and with stories so often turning on small, more subtle moments, I wanted this novel to feel propulsive. Honestly, I needed to write it that way so that it held my attention! I tried to create suspense by steadily revealing information, making sure each scene and transition between the generational threads allowed for a new discovery. I looked at each scene like a puzzle piece. If the edge of one scene wasn’t properly lining up against another, feeding into what you knew from the previous, then something needed to shift. Obviously, nothing snaps perfectly into place. But from early on I knew the final scenes of the story, where the generational threads would intersect, so that acted as the picture on the puzzle box, the final moment I was always working toward.
Z: A sense of longing echoes through the generational threads, and also resilience. Were you aware of balancing these elements as the narrative explores teenage desire and loneliness?
KM: Are we ever as resilient as we were as teenagers? I think we all have that teenage memory we shake our heads about, knowing we’d never survive such a decision now. So, it was less of a balancing act and more that the story required that teenage capacity for resilience—in each generation’s thread. Teenage longing is, I think, just a perfect cocktail of desire and loneliness. Every teenager desires love, they want to be seen, to be known beyond the definition of their families. And that desire coming up against the loneliness of figuring out who you are outside of your parents, that creates some sparks.
Z: You depict traumatic events without sensationalizing loss. How did you approach these dramatic scenes?
KM: Since traumatic events do bookend the novel, I knew I couldn’t be heavy handed at either end. In the opening chapter, one family loses a son and another family bears responsibility for his death. For the aftermath of that opening event, I wrote thirty pages, just putting it all down, full throttle melodrama. Later, I cut that entire chapter, but it was necessary for me to live in the enormity of those feelings so that I could understand how every character might behave weeks in the future. As for the final twenty pages of the book, those scenes were always understood to me. I never let myself commit them to paper until I reached them in the story, but at that point I had gone over them in my mind so many thousands of times I only needed to draft those moments a few times. And I knew how little I could put down, how much would be tolerable and still resonant, I hope. Writing Kept Animals taught me that writing trauma is often about paring back, taking it to the bone, just one string plucked so that you can really hear, and see, and feel its singular reverberation.