A Conversation with Kate Wisel about her debut, Driving in Cars with Homeless Men

Driving in Cars with Homeless Men is a love letter to women moving through violence. These linked stories are set in the streets and the bars, the old homes, the tiny apartments, and the landscape of working-class Boston.

Serena, Frankie, Raffa and Nat collide and break apart like pool balls to come back together in an imagined post-divorce future. Through the gritty, unraveling truths of their lives, they find themselves in the bed of an overdosed lover, through the panting tongue of a rescue dog who is equally as dislanguaged as his owner, in the studio apartment of a compulsive liar, sitting backward but going forward in the galley of an airplane, in relationships that are at once playgrounds and cages.

What was the inspiration for these linked stories about four female friends who find themselves in abusive relationships with men? With today’s #Me Too, and other movements focused on eliminating sexual, physical, and emotional abuse towards women, Driving in Cars with Homeless Men certainly seems like a timely and necessary read.

KATE WISEL The structure of the book is a web, and at certain points, like a Venn diagram, the girl’s lives intersect. I’ve likened it to a pool table too, the intersection is more like a crash in that it’s impactful, sends you on a different trajectory. What I didn’t know, before this web structure emerged, was that I was writing about the insidiousness of abuse. How it impacts a life, how women experience all these shades of abuse. These too are intersections that change trajectories. When I look back at the younger writer who endeavored to write stories about the ubiquity of physical, sexual, or emotional violence that can occur in a woman’s life at any age, I feel pride but also a sadness that writing characters who did not know how to speak about abuse was the only way I could speak about abuse.

Today’s conversation doubles back to blame women, to accuse them of lying, to question why they never said anything at the time abuse occurred. With the hopes that men might be more inclined to buy the book, I had the cover art changed from a bright pink to a more toned-down red lipstick smudge. Part of the cool part about reading versus watching a movie, is that you are forced to inlay your experience onto the text. You must conjure images from your own experience to keep the reel moving. This book, though told from women’s experiences, calls upon men to confront their own experiences as well. Because of the non-chronological, web-like structure of the book, with holes in time, the reader is forced to imagine cause and effect, why a character might end up here instead of there.

Pain is one of the threads that runs through your linked story collection. Another thread is the strong and necessary close relationships among four female friends. Can you say more about pain, these friendships, and why you chose this particular quote from Irish author Kevin Barry to preface your story collection?

“But the way it happens sometimes

is that pain becomes a feed for courage,

a nutrient for it: when pain drips

steadily, it can embolden.”

— Kevin Barry, “Last Days of the Buffalo” from There Are Little Kingdoms

KW Kevin Barry has this way of twisting words so you can physically see the nuance of a broader idea. I love imagining pain in a sort of machine that transforms the flow of it into something physically greater. Steadily, too, which feels like it builds in power over time. It’s not that I endorse suffering, which can be useless, but I think pain is a type of energy that can drive a person into action. I’m generalizing, but in my experience, I’ve seen how men who don’t know how to articulate their pain or anger transform that energy into violence. Women who don’t know how to articulate their pain or anger transform that energy into self-harm. And these are just facts. 85% of domestic violence victims are female. Women are five times more likely to have an eating disorder than men. Part of the challenge for my female characters is learning how to navigate their pain and to make different choices. The interesting part is that our problems can also free us. For example, Serena struggles to form language around the abuse in her life but teaches ESL and the young girl she babysits to speak. Frankie struggles with the death of her mother then becomes a mother.

Though each character has their own trajectory, the pain they experience is shared because it’s in the same vein. They notice each other’s pain, which is often the best medicine. They take each other in without question and act as witnesses to both successes and failures. There’s an emphasis on the tribal love and friendship the girls share because there’s an everlasting and pure quality to it, which works in opposition to the romantic love the girls have witnessed or experienced. I’m generalizing again, but I feel for men who don’t experience friendship the same way. Women share a oneness that is nothing short of empowering.

Winter was a wall we couldn’t see beyond till the garage door moaned when Fetus pulled it, the sky above the triple-deckers dripping colors like splat fruit…And beyond the tips of trees, the Boston skyline looked tiny as a postcard in the window of a gift shop we were once kicked out of.” (p. 5, from “Hoops,” the opening story that provides a snapshot of the book’s four main characters in their early, rebellious, and unprotected teens.)

“Newbury Street on a Monday morning in March. Men in gray suits sporting backpacks, coffee splashing down their fists. I’m a honeybee, circling and zipping through the crowded streets for a space. I swerve like I missed an exit on the highway, an inch from running a biker off the road. The woman wears no helmet and has a blond child strapped to her back. Does she think this is Europe? Picking up my speed in reverse, I nail a spot, tap a BMW’s bumper, then reapply my lipstick in the rearview.” (p. 65, from “When I Call, You Answer,” a story about a secretary and her abusive boss.)

Throughout your book, you write about Boston as if it were another character. Your readers will certainly come away with an image of what it’s like to live in the working-class neighborhoods of The City on the Hill. What would you say is responsible for your strong sense of place?

KW In a way, Boston fits in seamlessly as a character because of its deep roots, its tangled streets with sharp turns. Boston is diverse and also has a distinct history of violence. I wanted to portray Boston, not only because it’s the place I’m from, but because I hadn’t seen the Boston I know portrayed in literature.

In “She Says She Wants One Thing,” Serena finds herself in court with other domestic abuse cases, trying to decide whether or not to press charges against the violent boyfriend who has repeatedly beat her. She describes how she envisioned this day in court and describes every single detail about what is going on in the room, even down to the “In God We Trust” sign that hangs on the wall. Do these meticulous and illuminating details show up in your first drafts, or do you gradually add them during your revision process?

KW Serena’s imaginings that border on fantasy in the courtroom have to do with being seen, and her writing of the story as a literal account has to do with being heard, without the consequences that would arise from pressing charges against the boyfriend she knows she will go back to. Some stories come out whole and I only have to tweak them here and there. This was a story that came out whole. I wrote it in the few blank pages of a book just like the character did.

You’ve spoken about the tribal love of women friends. Can you talk about some of the things you and your friends do to have fun and inspire each other?

KW In high school we used to drive around in a car and listen to music for hours. We’d then park in the apartment’s lot, talking until it got dark, forgetting to go to whatever party. The deepest bonds are formed through vulnerability. Simple things like this, talking in a car while it snows outside, feeling safe and heard and appreciated, is where tribal love comes from. As we got older, we moved in with each other and lived in apartments. To see friends through the ups and downs of their lives is a profound experience. You start to wonder why this isn’t family…or why it can’t be forever. That’s where the inspiration from the story “Cribs” came from. Being poor made us so outdated. We watched VHS tapes all night and walked to the store to buy ice cream if we had quarters. We wore each other’s clothes and cooked for each other. These were simple times, and the best of my life.

At my fellowship in Wisconsin, I was lucky to be among six of the most talented and open-hearted women. We shared our own writing every week at salons, and this kind of vulnerability, sharing words from our hearts, brought us close together very quickly. This was the most inspired I’ve been by a group of women. Some of us had books in the world, some were working on their novels or poems. We all loved each other’s work and were supportive of the value of that work. We met up to write and spent that whole year listening to each other between typing, helping each other along. One of the deepest things we discussed was whether or not we wanted to have kids. One of my friends said she intuitively felt like her body had a different purpose. A few of us wanted to have kids but felt fear about being working women in the world, and how a child would impact our lives as writers. Who would I be if not for discussions like this? Can you imagine if, all our lives, we were forced to keep these kinds of thoughts inside? I’m grateful to the women I love, for holding my hopes and fears inside them so I don’t feel so alone.

Earlier in your college career, you were involved with acting and theater. When did you know you wanted to be a writer? Who was the first person to encourage you?

KW After I dropped out of college, I took a creative writing night class with a woman named Jenn De Leon. She is the most enthusiastic and positive person I know, and at the time she encouraged me to submit my stories and to get an internship in Boston at a creative writing school called Grub Street. She even invited me to a workshop in Guatemala. This was where I felt a shift in my whole attitude towards life. Not only did I have something inside me that I could use, I was starting to understand how to use it, and this changed the way I felt in the world and the way I saw the future.

Who are some of the authors who have inspired you?

KW In Jesus’ Son, Denis Johnson has such control over his language that it reads like poetry. Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad inspired me to structurally part with convention. Justin Torres’ We the Animals is so artful in its compression.

How does a story start for you—is it with an image, a piece of dialogue, a character, a real or imagined scene, or something else?

KW All of the above, and all of which have, by default, moved through what I think of as a filter. If material has moved through the filter, I’ve either remembered or noticed it enough that it stuck out. I’m interested in it for that reason, its uncommon quality and the fact that it provoked me.

Throughout your stories, there are several scenes involving swings. Is it true that you sometimes draw inspiration for stories by swinging on the playground? What are some other rituals or routines that might be part of your writing day?

KW I do swing to draw inspiration. Writing, or creating art in any genre, is allowing yourself back into a child’s sensibility: playing, imagining, questioning or interrogating reality. Motion of any kind helps me to re-see the world. There’s something about going forwards and backwards that frees my mind to feel more cinematic or creative.

What is the best piece of advice you’ve ever received about your writing?

KW Your last question reminded me of this. The best advice is that you should have fun. Sometimes it’s hard to remember that, especially when things feel so serious. But the best writing days I’ve had are the ones where I’m as adventurous and curious and free as a kid at play.

For the past year, you’ve been teaching at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, and you are currently teaching in the English Department of Columbia College Chicago. How does teaching inform your writing?

KW When you’re a teacher, you’re also a student. You offer students your expertise, but the act of teaching is an exchange. Learning goes both ways. I don’t possess magic knowledge. I let the space of the classroom be a place to float ideas and to investigate what it is my students are interested in so they can generate material. I always felt that the best classes were the ones that asked me what or why or how I did something rather than tell me how or why or what I should do. If I’m questioning rather than lecturing, I’m then open to learning about ideas outside my range of knowledge.

You’ve published numerous stories in literary journals. What has been most rewarding or stressful about writing and releasing your first book into the world?

KW It’s rewarding to be able to see my characters, who peopled my entire twenties, enter the world, and without me! The stressful part is watching my book, my home through my twenties, enter the world, and without me! The finality is difficult, accepting the fact that I can’t act on my urge to make anything better. I still think of lines for characters to say in certain scenes that would have been perfect or would have advanced or elevated something. This is part of the process of letting it go.

What are you working on now?

KW I’m a big note taker, which is often how I start projects of any size and am drawn to a lot of patterns in my note cards. I’m also superstitious and feel hesitant to say what exactly I’m working on.

What was your reaction when you learned that your story collection was picked from over 530 entries to win the Drue Heinz Literary Prize?

KW I got the phone call when I was in my office at UW. I didn’t totally understand what was being said, although the woman told me not to say a word, not even to my mother. I went back into my office where my friend Mary was sitting and said, “Mary, I’m not supposed to say anything but….” Writing a book, when no one is asking you to, is like having a ball of fire inside you. You can feel it, and sometimes you question whether anyone else knows it’s there, or if it will ever make its way outside of you. Winning the prize felt like someone else saw it, that it wasn’t just my imagination. At the time, I was about to sign with a literary agent, and found out that I was a finalist in three other prominent book competitions. After a couple weeks of picking at food and taking a lot of walks, I chose to go with the prize, because it felt right, like the place my book was meant to be.


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