PEN-Faulkner Award-winning author Kate Christensen joins Zibby to discuss WELCOME HOME, STRANGER, a lively, sophisticated, and emotionally resonant novel about grief, love, growing older, and the complications of family. Kate discusses her protagonist’s journey through postmenopausal life, environmental gloom (she’s an environmental journalist with way too much knowledge about the food on her plate…), and the death of her problematic mother. She and Zibby also talk about anxiety (do all novelists have it?) and aging (61 is Kate’s favorite age she’s ever been!).


Zibby Owens: Hi, Kate. Thanks so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss Welcome Home, Stranger.

Kate Christensen: I’m so happy to be here. Thank you.

Zibby: You’re welcome. I loved this book so much, the way you write, the way you write about family, the way you write about midlife desire and the messed-up relationships that everyone can relate to and family and all of it. I’m delighted we have a chance to chat, even briefly. Tell listeners what your book is about and where this story came from.

Kate: I think of this book as being about the twin existential crises that sort of complement each other, not in a good way, of being postmenopausal and living in a time of what seems to be pending environmental breakdown. I wanted to write about a woman who is angry and alive and not giving up and also struggling with all of it, and in the wake of the death of her very problematic mother. That’s another existential thing to face, to be a woman whose mother has died and to feel that sense of her own mortality but also her own coming into the matriarchy, coming into her role as a female elder and what that means and what her responsibilities are in terms of everything that’s happening around her. This character is named Rachel Calloway. She’s fifty-three. She’s an environmental journalist in DC. She goes back to Maine because her mother has died. She has to deal with her very angry younger sister who took care of their mother while she was dying. There are a whole lot of reasons why Rachel didn’t, but her sister doesn’t understand. As our parents get older, I think siblings, the ones I know, have a lot of struggles and a lot of truth-telling moments. I think of them as the sibling “come to Jesus” moment where you understand that you have different relationships with your parents. It’s very much about that as well and just the realities of being a woman in her fifties. Rachel also feels invisible and worries about professional obsolescence. I take that big ball of wax, and I explore it in terms of what it looks like when I throw a lot of other stuff at her to deal with.

Zibby: I love it. It’s like, take someone on the brink and push them over.

Kate: Yes. Why didn’t I just say that? That’s so well-put.

Zibby: Go ahead. You can take it from now on. The part about the environmental stuff, you have this very funny scene where Rachel is talking about how she can’t just enjoy dinner. For her, the meal is — I don’t even know if I dogeared this or not. Wait, let me see. I have it here. “I stare at my plate, ravenous and stymied. Seeing David has made me hungry for the first time in so long. I can’t remember the last time, but I can’t eat any of this food. It’s beyond me to contravene Wallace.” Wallace is the ex-husband. “I hear his horrified voice loud in my ear, my brilliant, gay, former FDA scientist ex-husband me about the tasteless, invisible, potentially sickening contents of every single thing on my plate, the factory-farmed antibiotic and chemical-fed meat, the bisphenol A- tainted –” I probably pronounced it wrong — “canned tomato sauce with glyphosate –” I shouldn’t even read this — “soaked pasta.”

Kate: You’re doing really well. I wouldn’t know how to pronounce those things either.

Zibby: Thank you. “– and pesticide-heavy asparagus and iceberg lettuce grown in phthalate ester mulch soil and watered with fracking byproduct. Everyone else gets to happily eat their dinners in peace and won’t know what hurts them until they’re diagnosed with cancer or have a heart attack or stroke. Meanwhile, I sit here with my useless overload of information sipping my glass of sparkling water which was imported from Italy, so big carbon footprint, but it also came out of a glass bottle and is the only reasonably crap-free thing on the entire table. I feel like a veritable lunatic.” I love that so much.

Kate: Thank you.

Zibby: I had breakfast this morning, and I was like, what chemicals? What am I doing wrong? What would Rachel think?

Kate: You know what happens to her. She chucks it all. What the hell? How am I not going to eat? We have to eat.

Zibby: You can only do so well. You have a whole discussion about, what do you do with this type of knowledge? What do you do when things are out of your control? It’s, of course, not just food and chemicals, but family and now life in general. It’s such a timely thing to be thinking about in the context of upheaval and things that are out of your control.

Kate: That’s right. I was feeling like it was all out of my control. I put it all into a novel looking for — I often make my protagonists sort of fictional avatars. I use a novel not as a way to work things out, but as a way to explore things that I have sort of worked out in my own life. I think I have to do that work before I can fictionalize it. I always say that writing a novel is the opposite of therapy. For me, writing has always been a way of taking control from when I was a little kid in a really uneasy childhood, a seventies childhood, sixties and seventies and everything that means. I felt like writing was a way to put all my anxiety and all my sense of — as a kid, it was lack of agency, but as an adult, it’s more just sometimes despair and sometimes — I worry a lot. I’m a very anxiety-prone person. That doesn’t do any good. As my mother always said, worrying is wasted energy. I find that, among other things, among so many other things, writing this book was a repository for all that anxiety for me in my own life. I feel like a lot of people feel that way. I didn’t want to feel alone in it. I wanted to connect to readers who also struggle with these things and feel a lot of the same things, anxieties, so I used Rachel. Poor Rachel. I gave them all to her.

Zibby: By the way, I completely relate to the anxiety. My grandmother was like, “We all just have the worry gene.” I’m like, yeah, okay, it’s just a gene. I didn’t actually realize people didn’t have it until —

Kate: — I didn’t either. I didn’t realize it was a waste of time. I thought I could change the outcome of things if I worried.

Zibby: I’m not sure it’s a waste of time. You think it’s a waste of time?

Kate: Thank you. Maybe it’s not. Maybe my mother wasn’t always right.

Zibby: I don’t know. I don’t know that it’s a waste of time. The jury is out. You’re prepared. You’re always prepared. It doesn’t necessarily stop it, but I feel like worry itself is something you can do.

Kate: Also, don’t you come up with solutions when you worry?

Zibby: Yeah, totally.

Kate: Don’t you look at every side of something?

Zibby: Without all the what-ifs, how could you write?

Kate: That’s a good point.

Zibby: That’s why I think so many authors I’ve had on this podcast do have anxiety, because it allows you to go off on all of those things deeply. What if this? What if that? I don’t know.

Kate: It’s the way the novelist mind works. We do have a spiraling — there are all kinds of decisions you make in the course of writing a novel, in every little scene, every little micro scene, every sentence. I think the worrying brain is also the contingency brain. We allow — I’m speaking of “we” as the vast array of novelists who all write very differently. I do think there’s this thing in the brain of the novelist that maybe isn’t “normal.” It is a multifaceted way of imagining the world, not just looking at the world, but also imagining it so that potentials proliferate in every second. They just exponentially branch off. You follow one. It’s like the multiverse, but you’re only allowed to be in one at a time. I keep using these video game metaphors. I send my avatar through a multiverse. I don’t know where that came from.

Zibby: Do you play video games?

Kate: No, I don’t.

Zibby: You never know. A lot of people do. No judgement.

Kate: I don’t.

Zibby: Where exactly did this start? Did you realize you had to come to terms with how to deal with the environment and then said, okay, now this book? Was it Rachel who came to you, or what?

Kate: I was thinking a lot about adapting and thinking a lot about how to — and also myself as an elder. I’m sixty-one.

Zibby: You are not an elder. Are you kidding me?

Kate: I’m coming into that time in my life. I’m sort of at the threshold. I feel like ten years ago when I was fifty-one, I was still young. Psychologically, I’m talking about. I felt myself still in the world with a lot of time ahead of me and thinking in terms of adventures and etc. Now I’m thinking pragmatically in a way that I never have before and also proactively and not so much about myself. I’m really loving being this age, I will say. It’s my favorite age I’ve ever been. I think it’s because I feel the strength of mind coming out of menopause with clarity — thank god those hormones are gone — and also a sense of — I don’t have kids. I didn’t raise kids. I have dogs, which is different. I feel a sense of wanting to sort of help the next generation. At the moment, I’m teaching at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. It’s exciting because my students are so brilliant and ambitious. I’m just giving myself over to them in a way that when I taught here ten years ago, I didn’t in the same way. Through your fifties, you kind of go through a — I don’t know what to call it. It’s menopause, but it’s something deeper. Okay, maybe the word elder is premature, but I will use the word — I think a lot about adapting to what’s coming and helping others. Earnst as it sounds, that’s where my priorities are now. I think that that’s kind of where Rachel ends up out of despair, which is a good thing. It’s deeply pragmatic. While I’m still alive, I have work to do.

Zibby: Kate, I know this is a really abridged episode, but I’m glad we at least got to talk a little bit about it. I was going to be so disappointed because I really loved this book. Hopefully, we can continue in some other form because I had lots more to discuss. All to say I really enjoyed it. Thank you for coming on. More to come in some way, shape, or form.

Kate: Thank you so, so much.

Zibby: Have a great day.

Kate: You too.

Zibby: Bye.

Kate: Bye.

WELCOME HOME, STRANGER by Kate Christensen

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