Zibby Mag

The Webby Award-winning literary lifestyle destination.

Kate Christensen on Writing Complex Characters, Resetting Between Projects, and Coming Home Again

Tuesday, December 12, 2023

“Books come to me in one of two ways. Either I wrestle a book I need to write into the world, or a book comes and sits on my head, demanding to be written”

By Diana Tramontano

Kate Christensen is a prolific writer whose latest book, Welcome Home, Stranger is about grief, love, growing older, and the complications of family. Christensen has written ten books, and this latest is her eighth novel. Her 2008 novel, The Great Man, won the PEN/Faulkner Award for fiction. She’s also published two food-centric memoirs, and has taught at the Iowa Writers Workshop. She currently lives in Taos, New Mexico with her husband and their two dogs.

Zibby Mag: Welcome Home, Stranger is your eighth novel and tenth book to be published. What piece of the writing process do you most look forward to with each book?

Kate Christensen: I look forward to that sweet spot at around page 50, or 75 maybe, when I’ve generated the novel’s momentum, when I’m fully in the world I’ve created, and I’m in lockstep with my characters as their stories unfold. I know of no greater joy in the world than this feeling, which encompasses a simultaneous sense of curiosity and sustained creative clarity. Beginnings are hard, structure can be a bear to figure out, characters don’t always behave the way I want them to, and endings are tricky. But that luxurious joy of being solidly in the heart of a book, finally in control of the thing, is like being on a horse in full gallop—flying over the earth in easy, headlong motion, connected to a living thing of my own creation, my novel, whose progress feels magical, even though I’m the one holding the reins and determining the route. That’s when the process of writing a novel feels charged with a deep sense of kinetic power.

You’ve created such a unique cast of characters in Welcome Home, Stranger. When you’re creating depth in characters and relationships, what elements are most important?

I always look for believable tension between characters, and whenever I sense it coming up, I apply pressure to it, let it balloon and ratchet up. It’s fun. I loved writing the scenes between Rachel and her younger sister Celeste in particular, because underlying and feeding their tension is so much deep, painful, lifelong love and loyalty. So a lot is at stake for both of them.Their fleeting moments of harmonious connection give them both a heady joy unlike any other in their lives. And then they’re caught in the old, painful patterns again, and rinse and repeat. There’s no love more complex and beautiful than that between sisters, and these two sisters, in particular, have a lot of fraught, damaged, unresolved history between them.

You’ve written culinary memoirs, literary thrillers, and literary fiction. How does your process differ across genres? How do you decide which genre your next project will be?

Books come to me in one of two ways. Either I wrestle a book I need to write into the world, or a book comes and sits on my head, demanding to be written. I seem to have no control over any of this. My food memoir, Blue Plate Special, demanded to be written, as did a few of my novels, Jeremy Thrane and The Epicure’s Lament. Other books came into being because I willed them to, because I envisioned them and made them happen: The Great Man, The Last Cruise, and my new book, Welcome Home, Stranger are among those. My detective novel (fingers crossed for a series), which is being published under a pseudonym, almost wrote itself—I had to type fast to keep up with its emergence. But genre is just as tricky as more literary fiction. I have a YA trilogy in the works at Disney with a co-writer, and together, we wrestled the first book into the world, but I sense the second one will write itself. This dual process of generating books is very interesting to me, and mysterious! I’m open to both means of writing a book, and one isn’t necessarily better than the other.

As such a prolific author, what do you do to reset between projects?

I read books in the bathtub, hike in the mountains with my dogs and husband, cook and bake, daydream and woolgather and cogitate and space out, see friends, do word puzzles, practice my violin, read some more. I put myself into a state of receptivity, waiting for my next book to appear on the event horizon, either as a thorny, gnarly idea or an unstoppable force. Often this happens as a glimmering at the edge of my awareness, a kind of perking up in my peripheral vision, a slow focusing of my attention from diffuse anticipation that coalesces into rapacious, laser-focused curiosity. The first sentence comes to me like a sneeze, and then boom, the big bang happens again, it explodes out of nothing and language starts to unspool with imaginary people attached to it, and I have another book underway.

As an author who crafts such complex, realistic characters, how connected are you to your characters? Are there some you enjoy writing more than others? Are they based on people in your own life?

Some novelists are primarily cerebral; they seem to write with their brains, their intellects. When I write, I feel intensely grounded in my entire body, so everything emerges viscerally, intuitively, and empathetically. In other words, as I write, I feel what my characters feel–all of them, not just narrators and protagonists. I’m interested in inhabiting everyone’s point of view, everyone’s body and psyche, as much as possible, even a minor character who appears only briefly in a cameo or walk-on.

I observe people very closely in the course of my daily life. I always have, as far back as I can remember, and I do it with appropriate and empathetic (but hopefully not creepy) attention, imagining my way into how they feel, what it’s like to be them, how it feels physically to inhabit their bodies, what their lived experience is like. This passionate inborn curiosity about other people translates into characters whose physical existence feels as real to me as what they say and do. Everyone has a body, everyone feels pain, joy, fear, and hunger. The way these people relate to one another always comes out of that for me—the fact of their corporeality, their bodies interacting as much as their minds and psyches, the way we all pick up signals wordlessly from one another, as mammals, as human animals. I like to sense the electric force fields between my characters.

All my characters contain elements of people I’ve observed, to a greater or lesser extent. It’s like painters using objects in the world as material; I use other people’s gestures, behaviors, speech patterns, way of moving, inflections. I enjoy writing about people who are hungry, who want things very badly. I love the dramatic potential of desire and yearning and neediness. It intrigues me, it gives me insight into who they are, and it makes characters feel real to me, fleshed out and dimensional.

Ann Packer said, “To the great literature of going home again we can now add Kate Christensen’s superb new novel.” What does going home again mean to you? Why is it such fertile ground for stories?

From birth, I’ve had a peripatetic life, moving every couple of years throughout my childhood and adolescence. As an adult, I’ve lived in France, Oregon, Iowa, New York, New Hampshire, Maine, and, most recently, New Mexico. Along the way, I’ve learned to fully inhabit wherever I am, to bring a sense of home along with me, to create the concept for myself wherever I land. Home for me is essentially a state of mind. It’s wherever my husband and dogs are. It’s wherever I can cook a meal or there’s a friend I love and trust. In recent years, as my climate grief has deepened and taken on its own life in my psyche, home is also the planet itself. As I get older, I feel at home in the world, in my own body, in my own mind.

All of my work comes out of a sense of place, either passionate engagement or nostalgic leave-taking. My early novels are about my great love for New York City. My memoirs are both predominantly about food but rooted in geography. Welcome Home, Stranger is my farewell to Maine the way The Astral was my farewell to New York. The Last Cruise takes place on a ship in the Pacific Ocean and is about living on earth, a metaphor for our planetary crisis, the way we’re all interconnected. I’m setting my detective fiction in Arizona, where I grew up. The setting of my books is as much a character for me as the people who live there. It’s integral for me, this notion of a book’s home, the place where that book lives. So I also live there too, while I’m writing the book. And that’s a whole other sense of home for me.