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In Conversation with Kate Milliken

Kept Animals is one of those books that is about everything; while the main plot centers around a tragedy that ties three girls together, the book also explores the dynamic between mothers and daughters, the connection we sometimes have to animals, and how tragedy reverberates throughout a community. Upon finishing the book, I was awestruck at just how much author Kate Milliken was able to squeeze into a book of such standard length. This is a novel that I can’t stop thinking about, by a writer showcasing total control of her craft.

Milliken's Kept Animals is OUT TODAY. We discuss her inspirations, whether or not this novel fits into the ‘girl and her horse’ genre, and what’s coming next.

Hunter Mclendon: Most of Kept Animals takes place in Topanga Canyon, California. I read that you grew up riding horses there, and it’s clear from the way you’ve written about this place that you have a deep love for it. Do you find it easier or harder to write about places you love? Is there more pressure of getting it right, so others can see the same love you have for it?

Kate Milliken: I’m glad my love for Topanga came through. Writing about places I love is definitely easier because they are so vivid in my imagination, but I found I like writing about them from a distance. My story collection was centered in LA and it was easier to revise once I moved to Northern California. And while I worked on Kept Animals, I went to Topanga several times to do research, but it made me anxious. I felt hemmed in by the specifics. For instance, the proximity of Rory’s house and Vivian’s is possible in other parts of the canyon, but not where I needed to set them down for the story. I needed them in the apex of that fork in the road for the tension of that geography. And while I based their high schools on real places, I gave them fictitious names because I didn’t want readers who know the area intimately to be looking for gossip-level details. On my final stay in Topanga, I ended up staying in the Airbnb nearly the entire time and just making notes about the sensory details of living there: the traffic noise in the distance, the foliage, the way the animal sounds shift throughout the day, just getting the essence. Ultimately, I decided that since Kept Animals is Charlie’s reimagining of events in the canyon, where she didn’t grow up, where she couldn’t know it with perfect accuracy, that it was okay to blur the edges. I think the larger emotional truth should take precedent over the minutia.

HM: How long did it take you to write this book?

KM: Each time I answer this question I find myself taking a big deep breath. Nine years.

HM: It’s funny because when I read it, there were several times that I thought, she has to have spent years working on this. Donna Tartt once said something about how spending a long time working on a book gives it a certain richness that can’t be found any other way. While I know that every book requires its own process, was there anything in particular you found out about your own writing process that might be helpful to you in future works?

KM: It was a mixed bag approach, but I definitely brought my short story process to the page for this novel. Meaning, I spent so many hours and so many months reworking sentences before letting myself move forward in the story. Some of that was good, honing voices, etc., but I’m not convinced it was the best use of time, exactly. I ended up doing that work over and over again after I had a full draft and it wasn’t until then that I knew exactly what was essential. So there are pages lost that I spent months on that might have only needed to be days. I’m being hard on myself. I was learning how to write a novel and I definitely love sentences as much as I love plot. I hope I’ll be more efficient with the next book, but I completely agree that the time spent adds a layer of richness. It’s like any relationship. The time spent with your characters can’t help but deepen your understanding and intimacy with them.

HM: I was so impressed with every aspect of this book—it’s extremely difficult not to gush about it—but the thing I loved the most was that this felt like you had contained an entire world within these pages. Kept Animals isn’t really that long, but a lot happens, there are so many characters, and you explore so many ideas—nothing ever felt one-note. Some authors have said it’s impossible to contain everything inside the page, but it feels like you’ve done that. I’m curious as to what the process was of building this world and these characters.

KM: I briefly wrote for television and in television you have a bible for each character, so you know their whole backstory, all their previous interactions with other characters, and you bring that knowledge into each new episode. Backstory is character to me. So, I worked like that, knowing twice as much as what ended up in the final. And I am so glad to hear you say Kept Animals isn’t that long. My editor, Valerie Steiker, and I worked tooth and nail to trim ninety pages from the draft she bought. And my agent had helped me cut fifty before we sold. But I was up for both revisions, obviously. I wanted this to be a propulsive book. Yet on a thematic level, yes, it is everything in that it looks at all of the systems—cultural, familial, political, economic, internal, geographical—that we live under and how their intersections keep us from being fully ourselves.

Anecdotally, when I was in grad school I overheard a teacher telling another student that when he was ready to tackle a novel he should just throw everything in there, the kitchen sink, all of his ideas. Grandiose advice that also seemed to suggest that the novel form itself would turn “everything” into a digestible golden nugget. It wasn’t advice directed at me, but I apparently took it to heart. I took it as a formal challenge, while maybe that teacher just didn’t think that writer had very many ideas! But I love revising and that was what it took. I’m a little addicted to revising actually. Scribner didn’t even show me the third pass because they’d realized I couldn’t help myself. But, no, I don’t think a novel can hold everything. In fact, do you know a houseplant called the spider plant? It has long thin leaves and as it matures it throws off little baby spider plants that you can trim and nurture in a new pots. Well, Kept feels like that plant to me and I’m still preoccupied with those offshoots I couldn’t grow!

HM: Were there any books that inspired this story, or that inspire your writing in general?

KM: So many, but for this book I wanted to write toward the work of Annie Proulx, Joy Williams, Claire Vaye Watkins. Women writers of the American West who tackle all the realms—ecological, political, spiritual, and in prose that has its own terrain, a grit and beauty. I also read several memoirs by female photojournalists: Lynsey Addario’s It’s What I Do, Deborah Copaken Kogan’s Shutterbabe, Kate Brook’s In the Light of Darkness, and several pieces on Dickey Chapelle. There was a time in my life that I wanted to be a photojournalist and I lived that dream out just a little through Rory.

HM: I love that you mentioned Annie Proulx. I actually compared your work to hers in my review. I can also get a sense of Watkins and Williams. I found that the way you wrote about setting and your economy of language was so similar to Proulx in all of the best ways. Is there any of her work in particular that you were drawn to?

Also, Speaking of Claire Vaye Watkins, her novel Gold Fame Citrus is speculative fiction. I think with how well you constructed the world and characters in Kept Animals, it would be really interesting to see you delve into that genre. Would that ever interest you? Or do you prefer more grounded stories? Do you have any interest in exploring more genre-specific fiction?

KM: I definitely return to Proulx’s short stories the most often. The story “A Lonely Coast,” provided the epigram for Kept and set a tone for me. When I was teaching I sometimes opened new classes by reading the first line from “The Half-Skinned Steer” as a kind of challenge: this is what a sentence can do!

“In the long unfurling of his life, from tight-wound kid hustler in a wool suit riding the train out of Cheyenne to geriatric limper in this spooled-out year, Mero had kicked down thoughts of the place where he began, a so-called ranch on strange ground at the south hinge of the Big Horns.”

Kicked down thoughts is just so great. I’d have students write simplified versions of Proulx sentences, an exercise meant to show the elevation of her language, how it’s always in-character, always of the place she’s writing about. Paring it down, writing in reverse, actually reveals how much a sentence’s meaning is deepened with each pass, how much you can strip away and what is lost. I probably love the stories the most because I could teach them. But talk about a writer who can hold everything.

And yes, I so admired Gold Fame Citrus. I read it when I was about halfway through Kept Animals and I worried there was no reason for me to continue, that she’d said what needed to be said about the environment and motherhood and their relationship. Actually her short story “Rondine Al Nido” was what gave me the bravery to look at the female friendships of my youth. That’s such a powerful story. But, to answer your question, I don’t think I’ll adhere strictly to realism. Especially given the science fiction reality of our present lives, I think I’ll let my imagination escape however it needs.

HM: How did you get into writing?

KM: I grew up around writers and actors. One of my earliest childhood friends is the daughter of the novelist and short story writer, Melissa Pritchard. It was actually her daughter’s, Noelle’s 7th birthday party that got me on a horse for the first time. I’ve just always been surrounded by storytellers. My mother was a playwright and eventually moved into writing for television and film. When I was very young, my father was a director and actor in his own theatre company in Chicago. I have vivid memories of watching him rehearse Children of a Lesser God. And my stepfather is an actor. The conversation was always around movies, story structure, performances, motivation. No one had a "normal job" with normal work hours. I was destined for this foolishness.

Portrait of author Kate Milliken
Photo courtesy of Kate Milliken

HM: This book has two timelines, one in 1993 and the other in 2015. The 1993 timeline almost felt like a different world. So much has changed, but especially in how we navigate conversations about identity, race and sexuality—what was it like, writing from that period?

KM: Well, it’s a time and place I know by heart. I was sixteen in 1993 and I felt very aware of the oppressive narratives happening around me, but no one talked about it. The early nineties were incredibly charged, 1993 in particular as it was bookended by the LA riots in ’92 and the passage of Prop 187 in ‘94. California was red then and the governor, Pete Wilson, won reelection in ’94 through fear mongering and promising to pass 187, which took away an immigrant’s right to healthcare and an education. It paved the way for the policies you see Stephan Miller enacting today. Some conversations, at least in politics, clearly aren’t so different. Fortunately, 187 was declared unconstitutional and was overturned and California went blue because of the organization and voices of the Latino community. As for conversations around sexuality, the homophobia of the 80s was still palpable. Hate speech was just a part of the vernacular. My riding instructor was the only out lesbian I knew. From the time I was nine, I knew I was bisexual, but as a teenager I never admitted that to anyone—even her. I wanted those feelings to go away, as Rory does. It wasn’t until I was in college that I thought how I felt might be okay. And that was only because I went to Emerson College, where they have always been proud of their LGBTQ community.

HM: So, I never read anything about a book before I start it, and given the cover of Kept Animals, I almost expected something more along the lines of that movie Flicka, about the girl and her horse, where that’s pretty much the main plot. I’ve learned over the past few years that ‘girl and her horse’ stories are actually really popular. Would you consider Kept Animals to fit into that category? What are your thoughts on that genre of books? (Are we calling that a genre?)

KM: I’m so glad you are asking this question. The entire time I was writing, I was concerned it would be thought of as a “horse book,” a categorization that implied to me, at least, a saccharine story of a girl saved by horse. That wasn’t an experience I had. In fact, riding gave me a world outside my parent’s purview and introduced me to an affluent community that didn’t have a lot of boundaries. I rode hungover, high, sleep-deprived. On the flipside of that, horses showed me how stupid that was, how not present I was in my life, so they taught me how to be hardworking, patient, and empathic. Honestly, when Scribner sent me the cover concept, I teared up because it was a connection I knew well, but not because horses saved me so much as they reflected how I felt in the world, how disempowered. I’ve worried some that the cover will turn off more readers than it pulls in, so I’m quick to say it’s not just about horses. Halimah Marcus, the Executive Director of Electric Lit, is editing an anthology called Horse Girls that I think intends to peel back some of this romanticizing. I mean, Cowboys are always seen as tough and rugged while women who ride are somehow prissy? Wrong. “Horse girls” are the toughest and most intuitive people I know.

"Kept Animals is a darkly beautiful book, tender yet powerful, an exquisite exploration of hurt and desire, the why of wanting, taking, and giving. And Kate Milliken knows her stuff when it comes to horses." --Jeannette Walls, author of The Glass Castle and Half Broke Horses "In this rugged and ravishing debut, a tragic car accident upends the lives of multiple Southern California families--particularly three teenage girls, whose lives and desires intersect in ways none of them could have imagined." --O, The Oprah Magazine A bold, riveting debut novel of desire, betrayal, and loss, centering on three teenage girls, a horse ranch, and the accident that changes everything. It's 1993, and Rory Ramos works as a ranch hand at the stable her stepfather manages in Topanga Canyon, California, a dry, dusty place reliant on horses and hierarchies. There she rides for the rich clientele, including twins June and Wade Fisk. While Rory draws the interest of out-and-proud June, she's more intrigued by Vivian Price, the beautiful girl with the movie-star father who lives down the hill. Rory keeps largely separate from the likes of the Prices--but, perched on her bedroom windowsill, Rory steals glimpses of Vivian swimming in her pool nearly every night. After Rory's stepfather is involved in a tragic car accident, the lives of Rory, June, and Vivian become inextricably bound together. Rory discovers photography, begins riding more competitively, and grows closer to gorgeous, mercurial Vivian, but despite her newfound sense of self, disaster lurks all around her: in the parched landscape, in her unruly desires, in her stepfather's wrecked body and guilty conscience.One night, as the relationships among these teenagers come to a head, a forest fire tears through the canyon, and Rory's life is changed forever. Kept Animals is narrated by Rory's daughter, Charlie, in 2015, more than twenty years after that fateful fire. Realizing that the key to her own existence lies in the secret of what really happened that unseasonably warm fall, Charlie is finally ready to ask questions about her mother's past. But with Rory away on assignment, Charlie knows she must unravel the truth for herself. Product Details Price: $27.00  $24.30 Publisher: Scribner Book Company Published Date: April 21, 2020 Pages: 368 Dimensions: 6.6 X 1.2 X 8.6 inches | 1.14 pounds Language: English Type: Hardcover ISBN: 9781501188589 BISAC Categories: Coming of Age

HM: When I wrote the review for Kept Animals, the first thing I said was that this wasn’t just a book about horses. It really is a book about so many things. But I also took a step back and wondered if I had my own prejudices about the genre—I think you’re right, that we have such a specific idea about what the relationship is with girls and their horses. There’s a bit of underlying sexism in how we view the genre. Another book that comes to mind is Anton Disclafani’s Yonahlossee Riding Camp For Girls. I read it a few years ago, and I absolutely loved it. It’s got the element of horses in it, but it’s also about so many other things. In a way, I feel like these books really do bridge the gap, elevating the genre to literary fiction and expanding it. Do you think there’s a possibility that books like these will help redefine the genre?

KM: I’m so glad you mentioned that book! I also loved it. That was a page-turner, with a cast of badass girls, deep family drama, and the horses were present, but secondary. I vividly remember going to see Anton read from it, when I was early into drafting Kept Animals, and I just thought, she is so fierce, I’m going to keep at this. So, yes, was inspiring to me for exactly this reason, showing me that a “horse book” could appeal and should appeal to a wider audience.

HM: Did you find any particular character or specific storyline difficult to write about? If so, how did you navigate that?

KM: Charlie’s storyline came to me first, but her voice was the hardest for me to get right. It wasn’t until I went to southern Wyoming, to the town of Savory and the Little Snake River Valley, where I set her childhood, that I could really hear her. After spending time there, I rewrote her chapters almost from scratch. Her basic story was unchanged, but she was real to me then. I knew the sensory details of her world and what she would want to change about her life if she could.

HM: What was the most difficult part altogether about writing this book?

KM: Without giving too much away, I knew where, when, and how the two generational storylines would come together. Knowing that acted as the picture on the cover of the puzzle box for me. I didn’t commit those pages—I really couldn’t commit them to paper—until I had made sure all of the other 999 pieces fit together just right. I needed each scene and each transition between the two storylines to fit like the edges of puzzle pieces, so that they bled into one another to form the larger whole. So on a craft level, getting those edges just right was the hardest part. Obviously, nothing snaps into place so exactly, but the idea of each piece needing the pieces on either side of them to support them, to clarify them, that was what I tried to do. Emotionally the ending was the hardest part to write.

HM: The ending of this book is perfect. There’s no other way to describe it. I cried, I re-read it, I cried again. I’ve read the ending to my husband and many of my friends. I called my friend and the owner of my local bookstore to explain to her how perfect this ending was. What was it like, getting that ending? And did you always see the ending happening along those lines?

KM: So, yes, what I knew from early on was the opening day of the story and the last twenty pages of the book. The scenes of the opening day I rewrote and rewrote for years, honestly, but the last twenty pages: I could physically and emotionally only write them and revise them four times. But I think only needed that many drafts because, as I said above, I had been lining everything up to get to that picture the whole time. And I quickly learned that I couldn’t work on those pages during the day. Every time I tried it was too much, but if I stayed up all night and I worked from 1am until the morning, that was fine. I wanted the ending to be a big emotional release, to have that feeling of letting your breath go after holding it, but to get there I had to be totally objective on the sentence level, unflustered by my attachments to my characters. After my third all-nighter, I was wondering to a friend why working at night was the only way I could see it clearly and she clued me into the fact that we produce less cortisol at night. So I was emotionally sleepier, less triggered by it all. Also, I think I needed the band Sylvan Esso to release the song “Sound” before I could finish. I must have listened to that song 5,000 times as I finished those scenes. That song has the perfect blend of melody and dissonance and it embodied Charlie’s yearning for her mother in those final moments:

“I was gonna write a song for you

Gonna sing it out loud

Gonna sing it at such decibels that

All you hear is sound.”

That use of the past tense creates such an ache. I think that’s how I imagine us communicating, unknowingly, with our dead, with our animals, through the vibration of our beings alone. It’s what we have when words fail us, but it’s also the essence of love, that resonance between two people. I still cry when I hear that song.

HM: I know you’ve written a collection of short stories and now this novel. Are you working on any new projects?

KM: I’m toggling between a few short stories and a new novel that I’m currently calling The Split. It involves a hairdresser, a painter, her deceased best friend with whom she still communicates, and the painter’s husband. I suspect it’ll one day be marketed as a love triangle novel, but for me it’s about adult women finding their way out of internalized misogyny through their friendships. It has some structural challenges to it, because I think I need that for something to hold my interest. I’m trying to work more in first person, too, and that alone is a challenge for me.

HM: Can I just say, I already want to read The Split. That sounds fantastic. I used to do hair, and my Granny is a hairdresser—I also used to do portraits for a living. This feels like it was meant for me as a reader. Do you have a specific reader in mind when you’re writing? Who is your first reader?

KM: You are the reader I will have in mind for The Split! For a while I wrote Kept Animals with a specific friend in mind who is a very discerning reader. I shared the early chapters with her. Often her notes were something along the lines of, “have you moved the story forward?” Eventually, I pinned that question over my desk and decided I wouldn’t share more until I could answer yes for every page I sent. I also benefit enormously from writing groups and I was fortunate enough to have the input of two different groups over the course of writing this book. I didn’t always share pages, but just thinking of those readers, individually, and what they might say, that was how I got objective on the work. My earliest drafts always go to my writing group now. The Hugging Party, we call ourselves; me, Yael Goldstein Love, Kara Levy, Helena Echlen, and Kelly Browne. The deadline a group provides and wanting to impress writers you respect; those things keep me motivated. And they’re all working on books that you’re sure to hear more about soon.

HM: Did you have any ideas of the types of stories you wanted to tell, when you first started writing? I always wonder if authors wanted to write war stories or coming-of-age stories. Was there anything in particular you wanted to tackle?

KM: No, not so consciously as that. Like many women writers my age, Lorrie Moore showed me how it could be done, how honest you could be about what it was like to be a woman in the modern world. I was never going to be as whip-smart funny as her, but she made me want to look closely at my own experiences. There was some low-grade inappropriate behavior in my family, not overtly traumatic, just standard Gen-X stuff: micro-misogyny, overt alcoholism, a helluva lot of anger. The things that inadvertently groom you to be accepting of more dangerous spaces. After being assaulted twice before I was nineteen, the page was where I could put that. The only place. Before #metoo that involved a lot of anxiety, so much shame—it still does! My adolescence trained me to be hyper aware of my surroundings—you’re always telegraphing what might happen, but I was also taught to ignore or deny how I was feeling. Stories became where I could say what was uncomfortable to say in other spaces.

HM: Let’s say we’re fifty years down the line: What kind of books do you see yourself having written? Do you currently have a dream about the kind of writing career you will have had later on down the line?

KM: Stop me if this is just gross to say right off the bat, but I would love for someone to make Kept Animals a series and to get to write more of these stories there. I started my MFA program as I way to get out of writing television, but now I can’t help but want to see certain storylines, those baby spider plant offshoots, that I wasn’t equipped to deepen, get their own water and sunshine. I want more of Jorge, Sonja, Tomas. I want to see Sarah on the road, Everett on set, Mona at the bar. I would love for all of these people to keep breathing and out from under my pumping hands. Maybe it’s because I grew up around television sets, but it would feel like a kind of coming home for this particular cast of people.

In terms of the books I want to write, well, it took me sixteen years to finish two books. I’m forty-two years old, but I think I have a half a dozen stories to tell, maybe eight, or maybe I’ll just throw them all into the new novel. Kidding. I think The Split will be a slenderer book. But I hope my work will always be politically engaged on a character-driven level. The first novelist I ever wanted to emulate was J.M. Coetzee. A ridiculously high bar. His novels have such psychological depth and I love his allegorical structures. He pulls people in with these masterful sentences, moves through time like Fred Astaire, and spins people around to look in a mirror, always teaching people about themselves and how the world has shaped them. Honestly, to write one book like that—that’s a goal.

I don’t know why this just came to me, but there’s a line in the new Lily King novel, Writers and Lovers, where the protagonist’s landlord says to her, Cassie, about her writing a book, “I just find it extraordinary that you think you have something to say.” I know that voice well. Most of all, I hope I can turn down the volume on that voice down. That novel, by the way, was great quarantine reading.

HM: What do you hope people get from Kept Animals? If there’s one thing you hope they understand after reading it, what would that be?

KM: I hope Kept Animals plants a seed of compassion. And I would really love if it got one reader to admit to someone else a secret they’ve felt ashamed of and that only acceptance and love grow out of that interaction. Writing Kept made me open up, again and again, so I hope I’m passing that impulse on. I hope I’ve articulated how sharing our stories can connect us and set us free.


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