Kate Doyle, I MEANT IT ONCE: Stories

Kate Doyle, I MEANT IT ONCE: Stories

Zibby speaks with author Kate Doyle about I Meant It Once, a witty and sharp collection of stories about the inner lives of young women during their transformative twenties, navigating relationships, nostalgia for the past, and the uncertainty of the future. Kate talks about her writing process, her exciting book tour events (many are with past podcast guests like Jennifer Savran Kelly and Lynn Steger Strong!), and her life in Amsterdam. She also describes some of her favorite stories from the collection (they involve dogs and heart-shaped break-up scones).


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Kate. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss your short story collection, I Meant It Once.

Kate Doyle: Thank you so much for having me. I’m very excited to be here.

Zibby: I’m also really excited you’ll be doing an event at Zibby’s Bookshop on August 22nd.

Kate: I’m really excited. , I love, love, love her work. I’m really excited.

Zibby: She’s awesome. I’m sorry I won’t be out there then, but I’ll watch on livestream and everything. So fun. Tell listeners about the collection. So exciting. Tell us everything there is to know. Why did you write a short story collection? When did you start writing? What is this about? Why should people read it? Just go ahead.

Kate: I Meant It Once is a collection of stories about being a mess in your twenties and also more universally, about time and memory and the ways we live with past versions of ourselves, past versions of other people. There are some sibling relationships in several of the stories. Dynamics are, the younger versions of ourselves color the present, and the present makes us reconsider the past. I didn’t really know I was writing a short story collection at first. I was writing individual stories and just trying to figure out how to do that. At a certain point, I realized some of the themes they had in common. That’s when I consciously started gathering them together into a book. I love what the story collection as a form can do in terms of giving a reader an experience that’s different than following a plot through a whole novel, but giving different ways of looking at the same thing through multiple lenses, multiple characters, and the way the stories can then complicate each other or echo each other. I’m a big fan of the form.

Zibby: Amazing. I actually interviewed Tessa Hadley yesterday about her short story collection, After the Funeral. Have you read that?

Kate: I love her, yeah.

Zibby: You two should be in conversation, too, at some point. She’s such a pro. She’s been doing this forever. She was saying she uses stories as almost interstitials between her novel writing. To take a break, she’ll write a short story.

Kate: I feel like I’m still learning how to do the novel thing, so I’ll aspire to that.

Zibby: She’s been doing this for a long time, though, so rest assured. Where did your interest in writing come from? When did it start?

Kate: I’ve always, since I was a little kid, worked things out a bit through writing. I have a lot of memories of writing as a way to process some period of life in one way or another, which in many ways, I think is what these stories ended up being about. There’s an idea of the short story or a story in general as always having a resolution, or a transformation occurs. A change occurs. That’s the occasion for telling the story. These are a lot about stories we tell because we haven’t figured them out or we don’t have resolution on them. We’re telling them to ourselves to try to understand why something — a lot of these characters have a memory that’s really — they’re stuck on it. They’re driving themselves crazy because they don’t really want to think about this, but it keeps coming back to them. They keep trying to figure out why. Then in my twenties, I went to a writing program, partly because I felt like I needed structure in my life. I had come out of the period of being in college and life being very structured. I was working at a restaurant. I kept trying to find a job that would feel more like a life path than what I was doing. It wasn’t happening. I thought, I’ll go to school for writing. I’ll be in school. I love school. Not everyone needs to go to a graduate program, by any means, to do this. For me, it was really to be around a lot of other writers. We were all trying to do the same thing. It was just such an uplifting experience and very motivating to really dig into getting really serious about this. Then when that program finished, nothing else was landing as I had a — I was a receptionist at a meditation studio. I had this terrible temp job at a hedge fund. The book was the thing that kept feeling like it gave me more — it had a lot of meaning in it for me. I’m a slow writer. Over many years, I just kept picking it up and working on it. Now there’s a book.

Zibby: Wow. When did you know it was done? When did you decide, okay, I have enough stories, I’m going to take this out? Then what was that whole path like for you?

Kate: I had done a little googling of, what’s a good length for a story collection? As soon as I was kind of in striking range of that, I was like, okay, I think I can try to do this. I had a wonderful writing group of all women at the time. I lived in New York. I gave them the draft I had at that point and just asked them to tell me if they thought it was time to do that. They said yes. I queried. I got my agent by cold querying. Then we started working together at the beginning of 2020. That was a complicated time to be trying to go on submission with stories. Of course, there is this idea in publishing that short stories are hard and that readers don’t want them in the same way they want a novel. You’re up against that too. It was quite a long, sometimes fraught process of trying to find the right home for this book.

I was just telling the story at an event last night. My editor, Betsy at Algonquin, she and I had a phone call. You know this, but you sort of mutually interview each other a little bit. Then they decide if they think they want to move forward or not. I thought to myself, this is about to be over one way or another. It’s her, or a big reassessment needs to happen. I thought, either way, I’ll know in a day or two. Then she waited six more weeks. During that time, The New York Times ran a recipe for a cake called Gâteau d’Hélène, Helen Cake. Helen is this character that recurs in the stories. I went out and bought all the ingredients for that cake. I said to myself, I’m just going to put them in the cupboard, and it’s going to work out. I’m going to bake that cake on the day that it happens. Now I know that Betsy’s a baker, so I think that’s why my magic spell worked.

Zibby: If you will it, it will come. Something like that. That’s great. How did the cake turn out?

Kate: It was delicious. It was great. I just did it again to celebrate the book launch.

Zibby: So exciting. Tell me about planning your tour and how you found that and which authors you decided to be with. I know there were many, I saw, that have been on the podcast, like Jennifer Savran Kelly, who wrote Endpapers, who is great, and more. Tell me about that and who you’re touring with and about the writer community in general. I know you said it was great in your writing group, but how you found other more established writers welcoming in a newbie writer and that whole thing.

Kate: The fact that it did take me many, many years to write this book leant itself to that. I had writing teachers. I would sometimes go to a writing conference. I went to Tin House. I’ve just experienced meeting so many kindred spirits through writing. People stay in touch and support each other. In the case of Jen Savran Kelly, we hadn’t met, but we were both living in the same town. It just happened that our books sold at Algonquin within a few months of each other. That kind of felt like fate. That’s been really great, getting to know Jen. With the tour — I live in Amsterdam now because of my partner’s work. We’re coming back for a wedding at the beginning of the summer, a wedding at the end of the summer. We thought, it doesn’t make sense to fly back and forth a lot. I was like, let’s travel to every friend or family member we can and just try to do events at bookshops in between. Everywhere I’m going is somewhere where I have friends or family or a little bit of a community. Last night, I did an event with Lynn Steger Strong.

Zibby: She was also on my podcast.

Kate: Some of them are people that I knew in some way. My other event in LA is with Tess Gunty, who actually was in that writing group that I was just talking about.

Zibby: No way. She won the National Book Award. That’s so exciting.

Kate: In the case of Lynn, it was so amazing. I read her book, Want, in the summer of 2020. She had done that interview in Electric Literature a few months before. It was how I heard about her. She was just talking about friendships between young women. I have several stories in the book about that. Very interesting to me as a theme. Her thinking about it was so smart and interesting and moving. I eagerly awaited that book. I read it. I loved it. When we were looking for blurbs for the book, it just happened that my agent knew her agent. I didn’t even know at that point that she lives in Maine now, which is where my family is from. Not everybody would say yes to reading it and doing a blurb, and she did. I met her for the first time a few months ago. We took a beach walk. That was really fun. Last night, doing an event with her, I was thinking about me three summers ago not knowing this would ever be a book and reading her book and loving it. She was like, “ telling me you’re honored.” I was like, “I’m not going to. I’m very honored.”

Zibby: Aw, I love that so much. What about Brandon Taylor? He also blurbed.

Kate: Brandon Taylor, several years ago, accepted a story of mine to Electric Literature. Then at the AWP conference in Philadelphia a year or so later, I was like, I know Brandon Taylor is doing an event. Maybe I’ll run into him at some point. All our communication had been through my agent, so I didn’t “know him” know him. We all had our name tags on. He came up to me and was like, “Are you Kate Doyle?” I was like, this is the coolest thing that’s ever happened to me. Really, really nice. Blurbed the book and wrote me just a really wonderful blurb. He’s been great as well.

Zibby: All these people, it’s amazing. Claire Lombardo as well. I don’t usually talk about blurbs. Kevin Wilson. It’s so cool. Darin Strauss, oh, my gosh. So cool. It’s just amazing. It’s so great.

Kate: Strauss was my thesis advisor in grad school, actually.

Zibby: Oh, wow.

Kate: of the book way back when.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh. Let’s talk about some of the stories. Tell me about I Figured We Were Doomed. I have not read all the stories, I have to admit to you. Although, I do love the format and how you have these short sections, which I really appreciate as a busy reader. Take me through that one.

Kate: I have to say, look at your cute dog over there.

Zibby: There she is.

Kate: Sorry, I got distracted by your dog. The question was, talk about ?

Zibby: Let me pick a different one. Tell me about We’ll Be Alone, or pick a story you want to talk about and how it came to be.

Kate: I’ll tell you about I Figured We Were Doomed. They usually come from a place of something in my life. Then they change a lot. That’s usually the jumping-off point. Then it becomes very much changed. My boyfriend’s roommate — my still boyfriend, but his roommate at the time — had a dog. We really connected. The dog felt like our dog because we were all in this apartment all the time. We used to take the dog. My boyfriend, if we were going on a trip, we would bring the dog with us to get him out of the city and stuff. Then when they stopped living together, I remember this feeling of, I had this bond with the dog, and having this funny feeling of — in some way, someone would call this not that important. I can tell myself it’s not that important, but I’m really having this feeling of loss. I started out just trying to write about someone’s relationship with someone else’s dog, basically.

It ended up being about this couple and then all the memories that this character has of this time in her life that is now over. The last line of the story is, “Anyway, it didn’t work out.” almost like a door closing on those memories. Many of the stories in the book are like this where it’s about something where you’re preoccupied by it. You’re telling yourself, I should sort of be over this. I’m interested in what happens when these characters let themselves obsess over the thing that obsesses them and what they find out from that. Some of them get more resolution than others or are willing to face things more than others. In the case of this one, I don’t think she really gets a resolution. She dwells on this sweet memory. She talks a lot in the story about whether or not she thinks of herself as a good person, which comes up in a lot of the stories. She’s dealing with missing this period of her life and this person by saying, maybe I didn’t deserve it, or something, I think is the subtext.

Zibby: Wow. There’s this personal essay by an author named Jane Ratcliffe. It’s all about this, how she was going through a really hard time with chronic pain and all this stuff in her own life. Her neighbors were a young couple with a dog and kids and all that stuff. She became the person to take care of the dog all the time. For three years or something, it was essentially her dog. She took care of it all the time. The dog got her out of all this pain. It renewed her faith in life and made her feel better and got her walking and all this stuff. Then the family ends up moving away and taking the dog. I know, it’s heartbreaking. The essay was so good. I guess it went viral somewhere or the other. I don’t know. I found it on her Substack. Anyway, I think of that a lot because you can certainly love things that are transient in your lives, whether they’re animals or people, friends that move away. It’s something that happens to kids. I would take away the “it shouldn’t make me upset” thing because it is one of those things.

Kate: In a lot of the stories — this has to do with the fact that they’re mostly narrated by young women. There are things that these young women have been told about what is important and what isn’t and what’s a significant concern and what’s not. A lot of times, they’ve grown up feeling like their feelings aren’t that important. In the first story, the narrator, she’s gifted a basket of heart-shaped scones as a break-up gift.

Zibby: It was so funny, and then found the cookie cutter in the drawer and obsessing with her friend Tom. Oh, my god, I loved it.

Kate: Her feeling is, what’s more innocuous than a basket of baked goods? They’re literally shaped like hearts. There’s something about it that also feels so bad to her. People around her keep being like, why do you keep talking about this? Can’t you get over it? I think that applies to a lot of things. The friendships between young women that are ending, I found myself thinking a lot about, if you’re that age and you have a romantic break-up — or any age. If you have a romantic break-up, people expect you to grieve. In the case of a friendship, especially with young women where there’s this idea in your twenties that maybe it’s not your real life or something and you’re not real yet, they’re really sad to have lost this friend. There isn’t a space in our culture to grieve that. They’re gathering this idea of, just move on. Just get over it. Just get a different friend. In the case of the scones, she obsesses. She obsesses. Then at a certain point in the story, we realize that years have gone by. She’s obsessing, but she’s not totally wrong to obsess. She eventually realizes there’s something in the memory about being treated as disposable by a man who clearly is so much more comfortable in the world than she is or has been since then and that she also has seen this repeat in a few different ways in her life and that that’s why the memory has stuck with her so much.

Zibby: You said it in such a good way, though, about why break-ups — this one was so funny when you said, “I thought this was unkind and funny.” This is when you were talking about the class. “I said how it was not about loss, rather about humiliation, about being treated as disposable, about human decency, and also how it isn’t fair to tell a person you’re breaking up in those words precisely when you have not, in fact, really been dating. You have only done things like make out on the back stairwell of the Literary Society dorm, the stairwell where we kept the communal vacuum cleaner, a stairwell, he told me, no one ever uses, which did not even turn out to be true. Natalie from the third floor had appeared descending on her way to make oatmeal cookies in the kitchen. I had been unable to disentangle my feet from the hose of the vacuum.” I love that.

Kate: Thank you.

Zibby: It’s true. When someone breaks up with you or you end a relationship or something, is it okay to just be cast aside? That’s okay? It’s outrage, really.

Kate: Yes. She gets a little older, and she has a bigger breakup, a more real breakup where it was a more serious relationship. It’s that pattern repeating, and that outrage. Well said.

Zibby: Any breakups you’ve been outraged about?

Kate: Yeah, for sure. My editor, when she was editing the scone story, she was always writing “When you…” Instead of the narrator, she was like, “you.” I said, “I guess I might as well come clean about this.” The scones are stranger than fiction. The story is not true, but the heart-shaped break-up scones are all too real. I could not have made up a detail like that. needs to be used.

Zibby: Has that person reappeared on your book tour or in your life in any way? Yes?

Kate: No.

Zibby: You never know.

Kate: You never know.

Zibby: You never know. So funny. You referenced earlier you might be trying to write a novel. Is that true? How is that going? What’s it about? What’s the roadblock? Spill it.

Kate: I’m into it now, but it took a while to get there. I always had the idea that I would want to write a novel after writing this collection. I didn’t totally anticipate — though, I should have — how much publishing stories would come with this — there is an idea that was communicated to me very clearly; your publisher will want a novel next, for sure. There was a version of it that I wrote. There was a point when we thought we might try to do a two-book deal. We were going to do a partial novel. I was furiously writing it. Then thankfully and correctly, they were like, “We just want these stories.” I was like, okay, that’s for the best. That gave me permission to put that novel down for a while and think about — I was doing it so much from a place of, what if these stories won’t be able to exist in the world without a finished novel next to them? There was a lot of fear and anxiety in it. Putting it down and just letting myself, for a while, be like, artistically, really, what do I want to do with a novel? What did I get to do in stories that I feel is missing from writing a novel?

It almost felt like I was trying to stretch out one short story. So much of what I’m interested in in the story collection is being concise, being precise, the way little memories in paragraph form can be juxtaposed against each other and how that creates momentum. The way I was writing a novel didn’t really make any room for that. It felt very baggy and full of extraneous writing. I have a new form now where the chapters operate internally more like the stories in this book, but then the way they are in relationship to each other accumulates like a novel. I also realized that I had been trying to write more about being in this time of life in your twenties. A part of the urgency of that for me in those years was I was living those years and feeling a lot of feelings and having a lot of questions about how to be in the world that I was working through by writing stories. I was like, I have to make these characters — I have to make them older. For me to feel that again, they have to be where I am now. I’m in my thirties. The questions are different. It’s about Helen. It’s about Helen and her siblings, who appear in several of the stories. It’s about them.

Zibby: Wow, that’s exciting. What is it like living in Amsterdam? I was just there for a wedding. It’s beautiful. I was trying to imagine what it would be like to live there. Who are the people living in these houses? What is this like? What part of Amsterdam are you in? What is it like?

Kate: I live in the east part of the city. It’s in a neighborhood called — as an American, I would pronounce it Water-graaf-smeer, but it’s in Watergraafsmeer . It’s cool. Centuries ago when it took much longer to travel, it was actually a town outside the city where people went in the summer. Now it’s very much a part of Amsterdam. I can bike into the middle in twenty minutes or so. Because of that, it has this quiet feeling that’s really nice. I love living there. The experience of just landing somewhere new and figuring it out in all its little details brings the world alive to you in a way that I think, for art, is so productive. You’re in the grocery store, and brands of toothpaste are really interesting and fascinating and different in a way that they just wouldn’t be at home. I’m really loving it. To meet people there, I signed up for — some people from the Chicago Improv community, thirty years ago, went to Amsterdam and started an improv theater. I joined an improv class the week I got there. I’ve been doing it since then. That’s been a really cool way to meet people who are, in different ways, creative, some writers but some not and some professionally creative. Some do something totally different professionally. For writing, it’s been great because it’s very collaborative in a way I love. I think it’s the same muscles of, just make something up. See what happens. Try to make sense of it as you go. See what it’s offering you that you can use. What can you do with that? That’s been cool.

Zibby: I made a point to go to the grocery store in Amsterdam. I love going to grocery stores anywhere I go and seeing, what are all the different things? We had the best time. Of course, my kids ended up getting M&M’s or something ridiculously common, but we got a few new snacks. We were just in Tokyo. We got the best snacks there. You just never know what the local stuff is. I agree, looking at things in a new way makes all the regular things have a new hue to them. Something like that.

Kate: and noticing something where you’re like — they have this tradition that — it was around the end of the school year. We were seeing people would put the Dutch flag out with a backpack on the end of it. We were walking around and seeing it everywhere. Me and my partner were saying to each other, “What do you think this is about?” and trying to guess. My instinct as an American, I was like, is it a protest? Are they protesting something? It’s what they do if a senior graduates from high school or whatever the equivalent of a senior is. They get to put their backpack on the flagpole. Then neighborhood knows they finished their exams. It was stuff like that, something you would never have heard about, except that you’re walking down the street and you come face to face with it. It’s really fun.

Zibby: Look, now we’ve all heard about it. How cool is that? What advice do you have for aspiring authors?

Kate: I would say make writer friends. People that you meet through writing, stay close with them. Keep reading each other’s work. Those relationships have been, both emotionally and professionally, very important for me in bringing this book into the world. I would also say, for me, submitting these stories to literary journals along the way was such a — as much as you can put your book in front of an editor, have a conversation about it, incorporate edits, think about it more, you become a better writer. Also, every single one of these that I published over the years, it was just a little burst of encouragement to keep going. When I think about if I had been writing a novel and I was just sort of — a novel, you can’t necessarily break into pieces that way and have that experience. I definitely feel very grateful that that was part of my process of writing this book. I definitely recommend pursuing that kind of thing in any way possible.

Zibby: Awesome. Kate, thank you so much for coming on. It was so fun to chat with you. Congrats. I’ll be following along. Can’t wait to see what happens next.

Kate: Thank you so much. Thanks. Take care.

Zibby: Buh-bye.

Kate: Bye.

I MEANT IT ONCE: Stories by Kate Doyle

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