Cultural Hierarchies: Kate Milliken Interviewed by Lydia Kiesling

On writing about California in the 1990s, embodying our experiences, and launching a novel during a pandemic.

Cover of Kept Animals by Kate Milliken

I met Kate Milliken when we both lived in the Bay Area and our mutual friend, the novelist Edan Lepucki, convened a small writing group to exchange pages and encouragement. Kate was deep in the weeds with a long, epic-sounding novel that she was working on in pieces around her other responsibilities, which included raising two young kids. I remember specifically that she once checked herself into a motel for two nights, the longest she could get away, to plug away at a massive revision she was supposed to be sending to her agent. This was my first exposure to the life of a working writer—Milliken had just won the Iowa Short Fiction Award for her book of short stories, If I’d Known You Were Coming—and I was awestruck by her commitment to what seemed like the very daunting undertaking of writing a novel while also fulfilling her other obligations as a person. 

Now, that very same novel, Kept Animals, is out in the world, a sprawling but tightly controlled book about California, horses, family, class, race, love, and violence kaleidoscoping out from a ranch in Topanga Canyon in the early 1990s. Kate and I, now living far away from one another and both sheltering at home in the second month of the pandemic, reconvened (part of) that writing group over email to talk about the fruits of her labor, and bringing a book out during a global pandemic.

—Lydia Kiesling

Lydia Kiesling We were in a small writing group together (I miss those days so much) and I got to read small pieces of this book then. What I remember about that time period, now over five years ago, is that you were embroiled in big rewrites of what sounded like a massive, complicated novel. I remember several motel trips where you locked yourself in a room for a weekend to try to get something done. Can you talk about your practice writing this book? How did you keep all of the narrative strands together?

Kate Milliken I miss those days, too! Maybe we’ll regroup on Zoom? Or have we all reached Zoom capacity? So, I started this book when my kids were about one and three years old and my writing time was really fractured, but I was enjoying writing several different voices in the short stints of time that I had, so the book became multiple perspectives. As soon as I had more than 150 pages it was impossible for me to hold the arc of it all without those concentrated stretches of living in it. At one point the book was nearly 500 pages—it’s now a reasonable 350. As the kids got older and I could get away, it couldn’t be for a two or three week writing retreat because my spouse runs his own business, so that really wasn’t practical. But I could do a weekend in a motel and I was able to do  two trips down to Topanga, for research.

In the last two years of revising, my friend invited me to use the guest room above their garage. So whenever I could, I’d buy a bag of groceries and cart my lap desk and computer up the stairs and hole up all weekend there. I kept crazy hours, napping in two to three hour stretches and writing when the world was truly quiet. I needed that and I was ridiculously fortunate to have it. Given the scope of this book, it would have taken me even longer without my village. Our writing group included! I think you already know that you finishing The Golden State was hugely inspirational to me. I even tried your—what did you call it? Your spreadsheet of accountability? 

LK Yes! (For people not in our former writing group, this is a very basic spreadsheet that tracks the date, the number of words written, and the total words written to date. If you don’t write anything on a given day, you note the reason why.)  

One review I read complimented Kept Animals for its beautiful writing and plotting but took issue with how many elements it contained—horses and riding, photography, journalism—which is the thing I love about it! What did you want to say when you got started with this novel?  

KMHonestly, I knew I would get a reviewer who said the book was about too many things. So that was criticism I had anticipated. But to write about early 1990s Southern California accurately and honestly, I had to look at the economic disparity, racism, homophobia, and environmental disasters that created this kind of cultural din, a pitch that was inaudible but totally felt by everyone. As a kid, when those fires started igniting in the fall of 1993, there was this emotional logic to it. It made a kind of tragic sense and I wanted to capture that feeling. The end of a fuse being reached.  

So while I didn’t write about the LA riots or Prop 187 or Clinton’s “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” policy specifically, I wanted all of that to be felt underneath a character-driven story—as the pulse of culture is felt in our daily lives, invisibly permeating everything. The 1993 fire became the bookend that held the story of three very different families together. Photography and horses, the sensitivities of each, became how I could explore and somewhat articulate the impact of cultural hierarchies. The families in Kept Animals, especially the experience of the young women, are like all of us, a product of the time and place they are living in.

Photo of writer Kate Milliken by Adam Karsten

Photo of Kate Milliken by Adam Karsten.

LK Immigration and nativism play a role in the novel in a way that echoes the present moment. The storylines in your book keep playing themselves out in this horrifying way in America. How did you navigate the way you wrote about the 1990s with what you know about today?  

KMI didn’t know I was writing a book that would end up seeming reflective of our country’s present moment. When I started making notes for Kept Animals in 2011, I was thinking about environmental disaster and global warming, but I was not yet thinking as deeply about immigration, or queer rights, or rape culture. Valeria Luiselli’s Tell Me How It Ends set me straight on how the travesties in our immigration system predate Trump. But Trump is the embodiment of the world I considered “past,” one I was trying to excavate and, at least personally, move on from. Actually, I had already sent a complete draft to my agent when he was inaugurated. Little did I know then that a kid from my neighborhood, from Santa Monica, a boy who was about nine or ten at the time my novel is set, would go on to be Trump’s right-hand sycophant, amplifying the xenophobia of that era. I’m speaking of Stephen Miller, of course.

The book is set the year before Pete Wilson would win reelection based on his fear-mongering campaign, in favor of Prop 187, which intended to take away immigrants’ rights to an education and healthcare. I’d had a friend, growing up, who made the crossing as a kid and who hadn’t left the canyon since he got there; in a dozen years he’d never gone down to the beach for fear of being deported. While my conversations with him informed the story I told to some degree, I knew I could not fully embody his experience. But I could write about white complacency. Alcoholism. I could embody a closeted teen, held captive by adult opinions. I could, at least, show the common human-animal thread of being limited by forces outside yourself.

LK I love how centered in place this novel is—the windy canyon of Topanga. What is your connection to California and how did you think about place as you were writing?

KM I moved to California from Illinois when I was eight years old, but I still went back to the Midwest every summer. I ended up feeling like an outsider in both places, but also at home in each. I love the environment of California. Not the it’s-always-seventy-three-degrees kind of love, but the fact of its enormity, its grandeur. Mike Davis, in his book The Ecology of Fear, talks about everything in California happening on a godlike scale and clock and how surprised us little people are each time one of these natural “disasters” happens because they don’t happen on a normal four season calendar. I’m fascinated by how much bliss and anxiety live side by side here. And how we build ourselves into these wildernesses and then freak out when a coyote walks through our yard. It’s all so ripe for stories. I resent the cost of living here, of course, but I love California for its sassiness and its creativity and big ideas. 

LK Emotionally speaking, this is a book, among other things, about violence and a kind of redemption. How did you think through your portrayal of the tragedies?   

KM Without giving too much away, yes, there are a few kinds of violence in the book. There’s, of course, all of the kinds of antagonism between women, which were hard to write, but easy to know and get down. Then there is the violence in the opening chapter, the car accident that is a tragic kind of violence created by complicity and negligence. I had been at fault in a car accident when I was sixteen. I ran a stop sign three blocks from my house and I hit a car that had grandparents and two kids in the back seat. Neither of us had been going very fast, but I remember the horror of realizing that there were children in the back. I got in the backseat with them before their grandparents could, holding them. I was so flooded with regret and terror. So I had some glimmer of the horror of that. It’s the only car accident—knock on wood—I’ve ever been involved in, but I read Darin Strauss’s incredible memoir Half a Life about the aftermath of striking and killing a young woman with his car. Through it was no fault of his, just pure tragedy—she swerved her bike into the road. 

So my experience and that book informed my writing there, but I had to go full-blown melodramatic, overwriting the pages that followed the accident, because that accident involves the death of a child and that is a loss I do not know. I could barely comprehend that pain, so I overwrote a lot in the early drafts to figure out all of the feelings possible, to imagine it. I ended up cutting that chapter because readers didn’t need to live in the soup of that, but I needed to write it in order to jump forward in time and know how and why people would be behaving how they do weeks later. 

As for the sexual violence, that is something I have experienced firsthand, so the research I did was purely to confirm the reality of the generational trauma that can result from it. I never committed those scenes to paper until I had reached them in the narrative. I never wrote more than I had to. And I always worked on those scenes in the dead of night, when I was in enough of a dream-state to not get triggered, to stay objective enough to think of the reader’s experience more than my own. I’ve said this elsewhere, but if there is anything I learned about writing violence and trauma over the course of this—it is that less is more. Trimming it all back to the most resonant of details is what can make it felt most deeply. 

LK That’s really narratively effective because you don’t linger on the sexual violence; somehow the brevity, which approaches but isn’t quite reticence, makes it a horrific gut punch when it happens. 

KM I want to say “thank you,” I think. I also wish I didn’t have to gut punch anyone with any of this, but I wrote this story because it was one I felt I had to. 

LK I feel like this interview is focusing on the bleak elements of what is really a breathtaking book with a lot of life in it, but this is sort of the mood these days. My experience of publishing a novel is that it is exciting but fairly miserable, and that’s when everything is working more or less as it should. To end, give me a snapshot of your mental state as a sheltering-in-place debut novelist.  

KMI guess it’s just that putting a book in the world makes you so incredibly vulnerable, right? That’s the miserable, squeamish side of it … Well, that misery will now be recorded in front of a Zoom audience! Please tune in to see my uneasiness live on Facebook?

Kept Animals is available for purchase here.

Lydia Kiesling is an American author and literary critic. Her debut novel, The Golden State, was published in September 2018 by MCD Books, a division of Farrar, Straus, and Giroux. From 2016 to 2019 she was the editor of the San Francisco-based literary magazine The Millions.

The House That Donovan Built by Sarah Wang
Sarah Wang Banner
Winning and Losing: Bladee and Mechatok Interviewed by Alexander Iadarola
Two portraits side by side. On the left is musical artist Bladee wearing a black mesh helmet with tall, pointed ears and holding a silver coin up to his right eye. On the right is producer Mechatok, a young man with a buzzcut holding two fingers with acrylic nails that have flames coming off of them.

On techno-spirituality, impending doom, and making failed pop songs.

Spinning and Daydreaming: Kristin Oppenheim Interviewed by Vijay Masharani
A close up, low-angle, black-and-white portrait of Kristin Oppenheim's face. She shields her eyes from the sun with her hand and looks to one side.

On her newly released collection of circuitous sound works created in the early ’90s.

From the Illustrated Novel by Forsyth Harmon
Cover of Justine by Forsyth Harmon

A coming-of-age story about girlhood in the suburbs during the 1990s.