“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,” Boston native Kate Wisel calls upon Kevin Barry’s “Last Days of the Buffalo” in the epigraph of her recent debut, Driving in Cars with Homeless Men. The short story collection, which premiered this past fall with the University of Pittsburgh Press, is Kate’s emboldening. There is a pain that drips steadily from each page; it’s a pain so familiar and indelible that it wouldn’t be out of character for the book to reach from its binding and slap you in the face.
Once a Carol Houck fiction fellow at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Kate is the recipient of the 2019 Drue Heinz Literature Prize. Her book is an ode to the power of female friendship and the toxicity of an emotionally unavailable man. Set in the landscape of a working-class Boston, we follow the lives of four women – Serena, Frankie, Raffa, and Natalya. The four find solace in the friendship they share as they each uniquely combat an adolescence peppered with domestic violence, addiction, and assault. Kate crafts their narrative with a celebratory braveness, her voice as honest as it is heartbreakingly comic.
Kate and I met over beers and chatted about our fellow Irish Catholic up-bringing, why the New England Patriots are the root of toxic masculinity, and how to balance coexisting with your writing as an art. She was funny, articulate, present. It’s no wonder that her debut is too.
When you get homesick for Boston, if at all, what is that feeling?
It’s just that—a feeling, or a state of mind. Longing can be rooted to a place but it’s not the place you want to go back to. It’s like a conversation, there’s a gap between what you’ve said and what you meant. And so imagination fills the gap. The Boston I think of is punishing and reckless and full of hilarity and potential but it exists now in my imagination. I don’t get homesick but the feeling, I guess, is more of a reckoning between the ever-changing physical place and the memory you have of its sanctity.
When did the inspiration for Driving in Cars with Homeless Men come and how did you start writing it?
There are multiple ways to answer this. I’ve talked a lot about this story “Benny’s Bed” which was jump-started by another story my friend told me. But really, before that, I had written a flash piece in New Hampshire when I was taking a workshop with the couple who began to mentor me. My teacher, Adam, had us read “Indian Education” by Sherman Alexie. I was so taken at the time with vignette structure, like Susan Minot’s “Lust”, short variations around one common list like grade school or subject like sex.
I was pulled to write a story called “Cribs” about girls who jump from apartment to apartment. I was reading the structure of the piece like a pool table in which these four characters are clustered together then shot out, only to crash back into each other, ricocheting through this common world. I had written that line at the end about how they are pool balls. Adam and I were talking about the story and I asked him if the line was corny. He said, “No,” very sincerely and from then on, maybe even unknowingly, I was assembling this pool-table structure. I wanted the character’s trajectories to belong to the reader and the crashes to be the individual stories.
Each story in the book has some sort of unignorable male presence incorporated with this element of driving in a car, some quite literally, others more metaphoric. Who are these “homeless men” to you? Talk a bit about the title and how it came to fruition.
Don De Grazia was my thesis advisor at Columbia and instead of dissecting the manuscript he interrogated the mechanism of writing it as a whole, which I found very helpful. My freakishly brilliant friend Aria Aber once said that making art is like being in communion with God, having an insane invisible devotion that others can’t see or don’t care about. It’s beautiful but can be lonely. So, besides Don being really excellent at what he does, it was powerful to have someone in that sphere with me, caring about the book and pushing it to be the best it could be.
One day we were talking about how I used to steal my brother’s car in high school and how my friends and I would drive around trying to “hey mister” or buy alcohol, and a few times we picked up homeless guys to aid the…mission.
I guess the phrasing was just in the cultural lexicon at the time, but I said yeah, driving in cars with homeless men. I guess we looked at each other like, bingo. It worked on all the levels I thought it should. Besides the men in the book being in many ways bankrupt and every way untenable, I liked the implied action or speed as none of the girls can afford to mosey through a situation. So just by naturally exploring the material, we stumbled upon that. And it became my mission to not lose that title, because often times a publisher will change it.
Do you have a story in the book that you feel most connected to?
This is strange because this character, like most of the male characters, is tertiary and doesn’t appear again in the book, but when I was writing Gerry’s character in “Stop It” I felt like I understood him and forgave his act of violence. I felt connected to him because he doesn’t know how to get what he wants and his bad behavior is so misguided. Each of the stories, though, have this element that is sort of off the beat of the story but then becomes the story, so I feel more connected to the process of writing that and coming to some level of understanding or surprise around how characters cope.
The last thing I wanted to talk to you about is your process. How often do you write? What’s the process by which you exercise your voice?
I take a lot of notes – on notecards primarily or whatever is closest to me. When I was working at Trader Joe’s it was wine sleeves. When I see my oldest brother he likes to make fun of me by reading through the notes app on my iPhone because nine out of ten are gibberish but then there is one line that he thinks is funny and true and I have no context for it.
Note-taking is essential to me because whether or not the notes build, material-wise, I’m at least accumulating clips of things that interested me, so there’s a potential voice or story and also a stronger reflex to recognize something I want to mimic or recreate. I guess it develops a type of sensibility.
Driving in Cars with Homeless Men
By Kate Wisel
University of Pittsburgh Press
Published October 1, 2019