In “Run for Your Life,” the three-page short story that concludes Kate Wisel’s debut collection Driving in Cars with Homeless Men, a woman takes up running in the wake of a breakup. One day, on her usual route, she witnesses a bike theft and chases after the thief. The first time I encountered this story was during an informal salon held at the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing. While Kate read, those of us in the room collectively held our breath as we waited for the protagonist to outrun the perpetrator—or was he the victim? This is a feeling I would come to know well as I read more of Kate’s work, which teaches the reader to be aware that the rules may suddenly change. You may find, mid-sentence, that what is at stake has already been lost, and what had once felt like loss can also be a reason to hope.
“Run for your Life” is about trying to leave grief behind, but it’s also about how something as simple as movement can save you, and about how you can be a hero in someone else’s life, even when you can’t be a hero in your own. Each of the stories in Kate’s collection has this layered approach, this understanding that one story lies at the junction of many others. At one hundred and seventy-eight pages, Driving in Cars with Homeless Men is a slim gut-punch of a book about womanhood, community, violence, drug abuse, and redemption. I am in awe of its irreverence, which exists not only in its examination of taboos, but in its constant defiance of the reader’s expectations. Full of heart and instinct, the book’s power often comes from its restraint. Kate’s stories have a gem-like quality—crystal-cut linguistic precision that acts as a road map to the heart of things unsaid but understood.
Kate and I spoke recently to discuss this powerful, multi-faceted collection.
The Rumpus: I’m curious about your process in building a linked story collection. Did you start writing these stories with a collection in mind, or did you write them first, and then realize that they belonged together in a book?
Kate Wisel: My friend who I’d met in college told me a story about her friend’s boyfriend overdosing in high school, and how, the night of his funeral, the two of them slept in his bed. From that moment on, Raffa was as real to me as anything, and I wanted to see her not only in that bed but before that, and after. It was easy to picture, as high school for me was one of the more dangerous and also surreal times I can recall. The other characters came to me the exact same way, though it took writing and shedding a few other stories to completely focus on the four girls’ lineage.
I came to think of the structure like a pool table or web, where individual stories are the crash that dictate a trajectory, shooting outward, hard and fast. It was important that the reader own all of that trajectory, to imagine how or why Raffa got from here to there. I wanted the reader to decide, to have whole blank stories to imagine, as they watch the characters jump from one specific time in their life to the next.
Rumpus: You mention that high school felt “dangerous” to you—what do you mean by that? I’m wondering, too, if this affected your growth as a writer. Your prose has such urgency and intensity, and the voices presented in Driving in Cars with Homeless Men are emotionally lucid and full of coming-of-age wonder at the world. Did a love of language take root in your own adolescence? If so, is this somehow connected to the way you write about new adulthood, or the way you write in general?
Wisel: Actually, the coming of age wonder of the world is what I meant by dangerous. You only have so many firsts, and a lot of them occur during high school. That night we were talking about first love. Aria Aber had the most genius encapsulation for it. She said, “first love is like learning to swim: you have to drown in it first to know how to survive.” This is true for other firsts like drinking, driving a car, music, living with someone—all these things that eventually become so routine that you’re desensitized to the glory of the entrance. Not only that, but you have no protection from this glory, which is intensely beautiful but also insanely dangerous.
If you’re a problem-child teenager, so dissatisfied with the way things are, language is the best thing you can have that’s free. I liked to act and write as a kid because art is a refusal to accept things as they are. In a way, the book is more about grasping for language than anything.
Rumpus: Did any of the stories define the trajectory of this book as you were writing it? Conversely, were any of these stories written in response to development you felt the book needed after its initial structure was set?
Wisel: Seeing repetition emerge was the most exciting time in the writing, as I felt like the world of the characters had logic that defied me. When the characters started replicating or enacting their own trauma, I knew only to let that lead the way. Weirdly, some older writing, even a poem, made its way into the book after I became aware of all these patterns. I know some seriously good poets though, so by poem, I mean sentences arranged horizontally in rows.
No story was written for the purpose of linking it, but “response to the development” is actually an astute way to articulate writing stories based on imagining trajectories. Going back to Raffa’s teenage years, when I started writing “Mick’s Street,” a story about a woman in a Cape house with an addict, I only realized midway through that the speaker was Raffa. My preoccupation with thinking and writing about smaller moments that make up the larger crisis of the heroin epidemic was what led me there, but it was Raffa’s story all along, as her voice is the voice of a woman trying to connect with an addict to recover a past life. When I think of my twenties, I’ll think of making discoveries like this.
Rumpus: You’ve mentioned Raffa’s character twice now. Would you say her character—or any of these four women—feels more central to the project than the others? The book is divided into four parts, one for each of them. Can you talk about how you decided the order in which to present their stories?
Wisel: The problem I was having before the true structure clicked was that I was being too impartial. I was like one of those pushover moms that tries desperately to make everyone happy and her kids are just brats for it. The most crucial part felt like ordering the stories with unbroken momentum, and I couldn’t do that by being fair. It wasn’t until I was with Pam Houston at a Writing X Writers workshop when she said, yeah, you can prioritize a character, that I allowed the voices to exist as naturally unequal. Pam and I talked later about structure and how content and language, like vectors, will dictate the shape of a book. Your instinct is the shape of the book and looks like or speaks for the action inside of it.
Rumpus: This collection is concerned with place, so much so that it seems to become a character itself. Can you tell us about your connection with Boston and Southie in particular? Were there any particular aspects of Southie that you wanted to communicate to readers?
Wisel: When I moved to Chicago I saw that people were sweet on the outside and tough on the inside. People from Boston feel more tough on the outside and sweet on the inside. It’s something I really love because I think there’s a lot more room for humor when you’re on the defensive or have a guard up. I’m thinking of some hyper-Boston-accented, tough-talking, scally cap-wearing lunatics I know who would give you the shirt off their back… to hold while they get in a fistfight.
That’s a true stereotype but Boston is so historically complex. When I moved to Chicago, I was amazed at how much room there was, even on the sidewalks. Because of the vastness of the Midwest and the rebuilding after the Chicago fire, the city had the ability to expand outwards, whereas Boston’s perimeters are locked. Any movement or change has a tenser feel. I lived in Southie, in one of those Irish Battleship houses, when it still belonged to working-class families, junkies, college kids. Now there are heroin addicts outside a tapas bar and it’s nine million dollars for a studio. Gentrification isn’t unique to Boston but a mind-your-business, fuck-you, have-a-good-one attitude is. And that creates a lot of friction wherever you go. The friction of a bunch of desperate people in a small space, all filled with desire, feels like a Boston tale to me. Inside an apartment or outside.
Rumpus: I definitely felt that sense of desperation, almost claustrophobic at times. These stories are full of people running away, often straight into equally tense, unsolvable situations. For example, in “Stage Four,” Frankie walks out of her bad job mid-shift to go on a date with an older man, Villy, who seems like he might be a ticket out of her reality. She then moves in with him, partly to escape living with her ailing mother. Of course, Villy doesn’t turn out to be all that was promised.
Wisel: That’s exactly right. Pardon these young women for not having been read the classics as children, but in my eyes, they’re all smart and capable. “Why you gotta do that?” was a constant thought I had while writing, but misguided people who have good intentions, people who don’t know how to get what they want, who are their own worst enemy, have the biggest place in my heart and are what keeps the world turning.
Rumpus: One thing you know about me is that I hate it when short stories rely too heavily on symbolism as a device. But the way you used symbolism in the story “Trouble” is so effective because the symbol itself—a misbehaving, untrained puppy—comes to life as its own character, so that the reader is only peripherally aware of the fact that it also stands for a couple’s dangerous and spiraling relationship. At what point during the story’s creation did you make the connection between the dog and the relationship? Is symbolism something you consciously write, or do objects simply take on meaning as a story develops, as they do in real life?
Wisel: I know you hate symbolism and it’s one of the many reasons I respect and admire you. You are an outright hater of symbolism. There’s a lot of nauseating winking that occurs in symbolism when it’s done poorly. It also feels predictable and misguided. Like there was another story the writer could have told, but they were on a treasure hunt. For symbols.
When I wrote “Trouble” I was as foggy as the narrator and truly never realized the dog was a symbol. I was writing about a real dog. It was only during editing that it became obvious. I read the line, “Trouble’s getting bigger…” and understood then that the terror and misunderstanding surrounding the dog was clearly symbolic. Duh. The disfigured eyes of the neighbors were also a symbol I was unaware of. Serena looks down upon their deformity with a black eye, but also wonders if the deformity is what completes the couple, a state she longs for.
Rumpus: Do you mean Serena wishes to appear on the outside the way she feels about her relationship on the inside? Maybe I was imagining this, but at times I felt Serena was jealous of the other couple’s physical deformities, which were obvious and straightforward when compared with her unpredictable and violent relationship with Niko.
Wisel: That’s completely true, and it’s probably a spin of emotions. There’s the envy and the longing for her black eye to make sense but also the hatred and disgust that arises when you identify with someone for unflattering, unarticulated reasons. By seeing someone else, you must see and acknowledge yourself. If this is impossible, the way it is for Serena who’s not ready to leave the violent relationship, then she’s speechless and blind, which creates all this doublespeak. That’s the mirror where I don’t look at myself. The dog’s barks are an alarm going off that we don’t know how to disassemble. Denial is all eyesight. There are things you choose not to see, or can’t see. Intense violence blacks out memory but doesn’t erase it. There’s a huge difference. It’s no wonder that women who experience violence don’t know how to speak about it and must reckon with the lack of sense around that. So, vision and speech became the primary conduit through which the reader does or doesn’t get information.
I’ve come to think of life as Seinfeldian in terms of reality being absurd and flawless in its repetition, the logic of the present being just out of reach but popping in at every turn to taunt you. The perfection of this coherence almost hurts to watch pass by. If I can only call it how I see it, the reality of what’s around me is always a good place to start in a story. In this way, if symbols are a natural part of life, I’m okay with them doing work in a story, as long as they’re not didactic.
In “writerly circles” I’ve noticed that to write closer to one’s own experience is totally uncool. How, like, unimaginative? Everyone has zero to do with their characters. And I don’t always write like this, but this particular story came from my life in that present. It actually took a lot of imagination to see the story, even if I drew it from the cards I had, and I’m not ashamed of that.
Rumpus: Speaking of autobiographical questions, these stories about friendship and womanhood are written so intimately that it’s hard to imagine they aren’t based in reality. Were there specific real-life friendships or relationships you drew from when writing?
Wisel: I don’t recall ever meeting a woman I felt I was against. In high school, none of my girlfriends or I had sisters, so we became that for each other. The spirit of that tribal love is what I wanted to evoke in these pages.
I’m in awe of my friends and anything I drew from was a tribute to the way I see them. Some of the details, situations and larger themes come from real places, but the only way I can describe writing these characters is unfortunately through a Clue analogy. Raffa in the Cape house with the heroin spoon. Serena in the airplane with the infant. Nat in the Intrepid with the homeless guy. Frankie on the porch with the dying dog.
Even sentences themselves are mashups of reality lifting into imagination. Writing is making a new truth, so anything you write doesn’t take from the world, it adds to it. It’s an alternative.
Rumpus: You’ve dedicated this book to “Grace.” Can you tell us who she is, and whether she appears in this book beyond the dedication page?
Wisel: Grace is my brother’s daughter. She was born after I had written the book, and the dedication had always been blank. She was blank, besides having a mess of black hair and a tiny smirk.
JP is very different now from the JP that’s rendered in the book, but like the girls in the book, that is where Gracie’s growing up. I grew up in an extended Irish Catholic family so big it had its own culture, and the culture was that of a giant hand over your mouth. Books became relief from suppression, from deceit and secrets. If there was anything I would want Grace to have, it would be the power to know and tell the truth.
Photograph of Kate Wisel by Paulius Mausteikis.