Kate Wisel is a native of Boston. Her writing has appeared in publications that include Gulf Coast, Tin House online, Redivider as winner of the Beacon Street Prize, among others. She received her MFA from Columbia College Chicago, and is currently a Carol Houck fiction fellow at the University of Wisconsin-Madison where she teaches fiction, and works as an assistant for music critic Jim DeRogatis.
Driving in Cars with Homeless Men is astonishing--so astonishing it won the Drue Heinz Literature Prize. And Holy Moly, Look at just some of the praise:
This debut collection of short stories traces the visible and more subtle scars of four women: Serena, Frankie, Raffa, and Nat. What binds them above all else are their experiences of violence. Against the vivid backdrop of early 2010s Boston, their antics and heartbreaks are kept inside tiny apartments, spill onto the streets, and wander into dirty dive bars. It’s GIRLS without all the privilege and a fictionalized version of Lisa Taddeo’s Three Women(2019), if the three women were friends…this is fierce and emphatic.
You can hear the crackle of heat and the roar of a powerful fire burning through these pages. Young angry women, brokenhearted mothers, and men who are lost to themselves and others struggle in the world of Driving in Cars with Homeless Men. Close to the edge, fearful of love yet dying of longing, Serena, Frankie, Raffa, and Natalya are vital and tender. Their stories are incandescent.
Min Jin Lee, 2019 Drue Heinz Literature Prize judge and author of Free Food for Millionaires and Pachinko, a finalist for the National Book Award
“Kate Wisel’s women think like razor blades. They talk tough and love tougher, except how they love each other which is pure and deep, and ought to be enough, except it isn’t, ever. These women vibrate with life, with longing, with an urge toward self-annihilation, with hope. Their hope will break your heart the hardest. Along with the sentences, which seem to be written by angels, razor-blade toting angels. This is one architecturally stunning, linguistically dazzling, hyper-intelligent, heart-expanding debut.”
Pam Houston, author of Cowboys Are My Weakness; and Deep Creek: Finding Hope In the High Country
“Kate Wisel is a fearless writer—with literary guts and a distinctive nitro style--and Driving in Cars with Homeless Men is a remarkable debut. The gritty lyricism of her voice makes me think of punk rock and blown mufflers and creaky bedsprings flavored with cigarette ash, red bull-and-vodka, gum stuck to the bottom of a Doc Marten, a little bit of Denis Johnson mixed up with a Janis Joplin howl. Welcome her. I can't wait to see what she does next.”
Benjamin Percy, author of The Dark Net; Thrill Me; Red Moon; and Refresh, Refresh
Thank you so much for being here, Kate!
I absolutely loved the fierce young women (and the struggling men) in Driving in Cars With Homeless Men. Where, in your psyche, did they come from? What haunted you into writing this fabulous collection?
Thank you so much for your enthusiasm. I’m so glad you loved the women. I think of the psyche as the internal state, and there’s a filter between the outside world and the psyche. For me, what moves through this filter is patterned when observed as a whole, and by default, has a point of view.
Sometimes I feel like a metal detector, which is fine by me. I’d rather feel primarily like a metal detector than, I don’t know, somebody’s third wife? I look, am attracted, let life as it is speak to me. If imagination is the connection between what’s real and physical, and what can defy that, a possibility, a beyond, then the characters and material come from my experience, filter through as an amalgam, then run away from me into imagination. Writing the stories felt like chasing after a predator and tackling them to the ground. That’s how I knew they were stories, if I was moving behind them, sometimes angrily or with a type of trepidation. And then I picked up different DNA as I went, the best laughter I know, a woman’s fingers looking like keyholes on the train, sifting through the contents of an addict’s backpack, the cadence of a Boston accent, how the Goodyear logo is a pair of wings above the heel of a sneaker. Life is Seinfeldian, perfectly timed, a design that calls back to itself, even and especially when it’s going disastrously. That’s why it’s satisfying to recreate life, all the parts as a whole are painfully perfect as is.
Because I was being taken to defining places or moments in each character’s life, structurally, I could tell the women’s overall story more intricately, like a web, all messy and connected. I realized I was interested in the consequences of these four character’s pasts, their victories and failures. More broadly, what came through the filter was what happens to girls who keep men’s secrets inside them. Where they go, together and alone, and how they survive.
Do you think there is ever a moment when hope is truly lost?
Never. I wanted the book to feel like it was never at rest because my characters can’t afford to stop. They’re in motion, and because of that there is a physicality to hope and it’s how the characters are propelled. Also, I don’t think the girls ever lose their sense of humor, which is another form of hope.
What kind of writer are you? Do you map things out, or does that pesky Muse guide you along?
I don’t map things out but if you think about, a story’s like a map. You’re guided by the tension of logic and imagination, which is really just a scenario. Here’s what happens if…
Being such a highly praised debut author must be intoxicating—how does it fuel you into your next work? How does it hamper you?
Literature is, of course, a conversation, and if I’ve had the chance to speak then my job now is to listen. If there’s something I’m working on, I dedicate my life to it. But I’m learning now about process and reading a lot about what other artist’s processes look like. I like what Mathew Klam says about being versus doing. Sometimes an artist’s job is to be so they can do. You can’t have a point of view, use it, then expect you’ll have another like a beer. I want to earn my point of view. I’m not churning out pages to impress anyone. I want to know what this time is about, what moves me, what I’m interested in.
What’s obsessing you now and why?
Last week I saw a man texting with his toes at an outside patio. The man had his forehead pressed to the table, and underneath, his toes were typing as if he was playing a piano. From my car, I saw a woman dancing in a park, alone, so happy. We caught eyes and she wasn’t angry. She was okay with me witnessing her. “I hope you got the diamond necklace that I sent to you.” These were the lyrics I remember from the song that was playing in my car. In the documentary One of Us, about Hasidic Jews in Brooklyn, there’s this scene, against all of the violence and religious oppression, that takes place when the subject returns from LA to a Seder dinner, and all the men begin this impromptu hymn and it’s actually gorgeous, and you realize, oh, it must be really hard to leave this kind of familial community. These insane domestic paintings by Mark Greenwold that are both hyper-real and surreal, sort of depicting the grotesque nature of intimacy, which I learned about by reading that Mathew Klam interview. If you haven’t wondered my internal state is pondering connection.
What question didn’t I ask that I should have?
Maybe what I’m reading? I’m loving Prodigals by Greg Jackson. Hard Damage by Aria Aber which I can’t recommend enough. Why Did I Ever by Mary Robison and I Dreamed I was A Very Clean Tramp, the Richard Hell autobiography.