Introducing FRĒDA Woman: Kate Milliken
CAN YOU START BY TELLING US A LITTLE ABOUT YOURSELF? YOUR BACKGROUND, WHAT YOU DO, AND WHAT HAS LED YOU TO WHAT YOU ARE DOING NOW?
I’m a writer, a storyteller. I’m currently working on a new, tragicomic novel set during the season of October Surprises before Trump was elected. My previous books are a collection of short stories, IF I’D KNOWN YOU WERE COMING, which won the Iowa Award for Short Fiction in 2013, and my debut novel, KEPT ANIMALS was published in 2020. I grew up in a family of storytellers. My father ran a small theatre company in Chicago, directing and acting, and my mother was a playwright, eventually becoming a screenwriter. When my parents split my mother re-married an actor, so the conversations of my childhood centered on the art of storytelling, scene structure, character motivations, about what moves people. There was no hope of me becoming a doctor or politician. I was destined to believe that stories are what will save us from ourselves.
WHAT HAS BEEN YOUR PROUDEST MOMENT AS AN AUTHOR?
The answer here isn’t a single moment or an award, but instead, it’s about a particular and only occasional sensation I have when writing. It’s the moment I feel a passage or an entire story has become its own entity; when I can read the words, the sentences that I know I wrote and no longer recognize them as my own, but as something wholly separate from me, a part of the larger creative world. So that moment of, “hey, holy cow, that bit of writing is bigger than me! It transcended me!” It’s a little like watching your kid or loved one getting an award and you just feel proud to have been some part of their journey.
TELL US ABOUT YOUR MOST RECENT BOOK, KEPT ANIMALS! WHAT WAS THE INSPIRATION BEHIND IT AND WHAT DO YOU WANT READERS TO KNOW ABOUT IT?
Kept Animals is set in Topanga Canyon, California, during the months leading up to a real-life wildfire that devastated the area in November of 1993. I was sixteen that year, when that fire began. Topanga was my home away from home. I rode horses at a barn there, almost daily. I was at school the morning the fire broke out, but I left and there was no question that I was going into the canyon, toward the danger, because I wanted to help save the animals. A few of my peers did likewise. When I set out to write KEPT, I wanted to return to that specific day, that fire, but also the feelings I had had growing up in that time in Southern California’s history. It was a time that profoundly divided; along racial lines, socioeconomically, and as a closeted queer teenager, I felt the homophobia most profoundly. So while I wanted the writing to return me to the barn and horses that I had loved, I also wanted to understand those formative years for myself (why did I run into catastrophic situations?) as well as our state (in the aftermath of the LA Riots and Pete Wilson’s famously unconstitutional Prop 187). The result is a multigenerational story that follows three families, from differing socioeconomic and racial backgrounds, as they navigate the aftermath of a tragedy, how the intersection of all of their lives might explain how that still unsolved 1993 fire began.
WHAT CAN PEOPLE EXPECT FROM YOUR SIT WITH US EVENT WITH FREDA?
I’m so looking forward to this event! I’m eager to answer any and all questions about my work, my writing process, the world of publishing, etc. I’ll read a little from KEPT, of course, but I’m most looking forward to speaking with everyone about personal narratives and how we can and should honor them. I want to get us all writing during our time together and to help everyone set goals for expressing themselves in the days and weeks that follow.
HOW HAVE WOMEN INSPIRED YOU IN LIFE OR YOUR CAREER?
I have always been drawn to women authors. Growing up, I had a difficult relationship with my mother and my step-mother, so I was always looking for steerage from other women and I’m glad I had that impulse, that I didn’t shut other women out. My high school English teacher gave me that sense of self-worth I didn’t find elsewhere, and my horseback riding instructors, all woman, gave me tough love, taught me to dust myself off—quite literally—and always try again. In college, I had a professor who took me under her wing, told me I could write, and introduced me to the work of Lorrie Moore—a gamechanger, an incomparable observer of the female experience with a sense of humor. When I was introduced to the work of Amy Hempel, who writes gloriously concise, powerful short fiction (she’d tell me to cut the adverb there), I applied to the graduate writing program where she taught. I think from a young age, I recognized the inequity of being a woman in the world and I understood that every woman that made her way in the world had to overcome more hurdles than any man, so their voices were always the voices I sought out, that garnered my immediate respect, and inspired me. I’ve had my work compared to Tom Drury and I’ll take that—I love his novels, but my favorite comparisons are to Joy Williams, Louise Erdrich, and Annie Proulx.
WHAT’S SOMETHING YOU’RE LEARNING ABOUT YOURSELF NOW?
The most honest answer is that I’m learning that I’ve not advocated for myself enough in the past. This realization stems from the fact that I’ve lived with chronic migraines for a number of years and it wasn’t until recently, until I made the decision to seek out new care, that I understood just how debilitating that regular, recurring pain had been. I just did not understand or let myself believe that they were affecting my life as much as they were, until I got real relief. This sounds like it could turn into a prescription drug add, but it’s actually a combination of acupuncture and medication that has me pain free for the longest I’ve been in years. I wanted to talk about this here because I think I’m not alone in this, that women are culturally conditioned to not prioritize our own care, to value our feelings, or trust our own physical experiences, our own bodies! I’m learning that honoring my own being as real and worthy of care is the most empowering thing I can do. I hope that saying this will encourage other women to advocate for themselves in whatever realm that they need real support.
WHAT’S YOUR MANTRA?
Follow the energy. This is a saying I use across my life, my work, my relationships. It’s a reminder to pay attention to what gives me energy and what takes it away. If it—the current project, the invitation, the idea—energizes me, I go with it, follow it for as long as it moves me. When the energy flow wanes, I try not to force it, to remember that I can always come back to it later. It’s a phrase that’s helped me appreciate and allow for life’s natural tides. Sometimes I forget, let myself get depleted, trying to drum up inspiration or connection, but of course that rarely works. Giving myself room to breathe and return, that’s always more effective.
WHEN YOU’RE NOT WORKING, HOW DO YOU LIKE TO SPEND YOUR TIME?
Guilty pleasure: I love well-written, character driven television. Thanks to my upbringing, I’m not at all a passive viewer. I think I’m as critically engaged with watching television as I am when I’m reading, so maybe I shouldn’t feel guilty about watching? Of course, I love reading—and consider that a part of my working, a necessity to my work. Otherwise, I love taking long hikes and using them as an excuse for long phone calls with family or the long-distance friends I don’t get to see often enough. And I go through cycles of loving to cook – right now I’m enjoying cooking, maybe because the season is changing and different things in the produce aisle look good. A week from now, I’ll probably be over it again and more takeout will be ordered. But I never turn down my kids’ request for me to bake cookies or muffins. I love baking, the way the smell and dusted counter make the whole house feel cozier.
WHAT’S YOUR FAVORITE WORD?
Honestly, I’d have to say all the words I don’t know. Encountering a word that isn’t familiar and looking it up is always a small thrill, like a found poem, a new depth discovered in a familiar swimming hole.
Persistence and vulnerability. I’m not easily open, I’m honestly very introverted, but I know the best work and the best relationships are created by a willingness to be vulnerable.
Joy William’s new novel, HARROW. It’s mind-blowingly good. It’s set in a hauntingly ravished earth, in a not-too-distant future, and tells the story of abandoned teenager Khristen and a younger boy, Jeffrey, and their journey. No one writes teenagers with the pointed respect William’s does, empowering them to illuminate the flailing way of adults. If I had to only read one writer for the rest of my life, it would probably be Williams. The layers in her work, the language, and her insights into our spiritual deficits, our clumsy humanity—forever unpacking her stories would be fine by me.
I’ve been re-watching Six Feet Under and I just started Y, The Last Man, which is based on a graphic novel series of the same name. I have to say, between William’s novel, the post androcide narrative of Y, and the drama set in a funeral home, I probably need to turn to Ted Lasso again soon.