September 04, 2020
I first met Kristen Millares Young at the venerable Hugo House, a central hub of literary life in Seattle, WA where she was Prose Writer-in-Residence from 2018-2020. I’d driven up from Portland to read a story at the Hugo Literary Series that featured a new mother whose brain, body, and sexuality made choices the narrator didn’t feel in control of. After the reading, Millares Young approached me and said, essentially, Thank you for that. I knew exactly what she meant. She also had two young children at home, was midway through mentoring a hundred or so writers as part of her writer-in-residence post, and her first book Subduction was due out the following year. Within the first few minutes of our conversation, she felt like kin.
When speaking, Millares Young exudes a fearless intelligence and a laser focus of concentration, with just the right amount of cursing (to my taste) peppered in. I suspect all three traits are useful and/or born from her background in investigative journalism. Her work appears in the Washington Post, the Guardian, and the New York Times, where she was the researcher for the team that won a Pulitzer Prize for “Snow Fall,” as well as many other newspapers, literary reviews, magazines and anthologies, including Latina Outsiders: Remaking Latina Identity (Routledge). She has degrees from Harvard and the University of Washington, and she was co-founder of InvestigateWest, a nonprofit news studio in the Pacific Northwest.
Her debut novel Subduction launched on April 14th, the same time COVID-19 began to pummel New York after shutting down most of the West Coast, and many of her book launch events had to be postponed or moved online, including a bunch of readings coming up this fall. By the time we got together for this interview on June 1st, we were more than two months into lockdown while homeschooling our kids, and it had been exactly one week since George Floyd was murdered by the Minneapolis Police.
The escalating roar of national anger and demand for rights and protection is a macrocosm of the issues explored in her novel. As a Latinx woman, Millares Young is well acquainted with both the weight of America’s historical oppression and its racist counterpoint of representation.
Precisely as in real life, Subduction and its characters navigate complicated truths that often don’t settle easily into alignment with everyday reality. The story unfurls between dual narrators, Claudia and Peter. A Latina anthropologist, Claudia has just fled her falling-apart marriage to throw herself into fieldwork studying the ritual songs of a Makah whaling village. She collides with Peter, back home in Neah Bay to get answers from his failing mother about his father’s murder. Both of them, in their own ways, are desperate to make meaning of their lives.
As are we all.
Subduction is a finalist in two categories (Best First Book and Best Novel, both in English) of the International Latino Book Awards.
I’m curious about the idea of complicity in Subduction.
Millares Young: Subduction is a case study of complicity. Which of course is a national condition shared by immigrants to this country and their descendants, everybody who’s not Indigenous or who was not brought here against their will. We have a responsibility to address the truths of our nation’s founding as it pertains to continued repression, and to uphold the rights of Indigenous peoples to self-determination and their lands.
The best way for me to bring readers alongside my decade of exploring these questions was through fictional narratives, which allow readers to process dangerous emotional responses in a safe place.
I’m interested in the dance that happens between complicity and appropriation where Claudia is concerned, the Venn diagram overlap of these two ideas in the book.
Millares Young: There’s a very long history of exploitation of Native stories and immigrant stories, and rarely are they put into juxtaposition in such a way that affords greater insight into the pressures that each are facing as they come into moments of contact. My hope was to show through Peter and Claudia how even small moments are imbued with fractals spanning cultural, interpersonal, historical and geologic concerns. If I can help readers begin to highlight patterns in their own thinking, or if they can begin to recognize some of the forces that condition their ways of being and thinking, then I think that the book will have done its work.
There are many white people across this country right now who, in part because of the structural insufficiency of our educational system, are struggling to understand what it means when a police officer asphyxiates a handcuffed Black man to his death. And it’s because they have not really confronted their role in revealing and healing the truth of our origin story. And, of course, the truth is that origin story is so multivalent. It’s Black, it’s white, it’s Indigenous, it’s Latino, it’s transnational, and that story cannot just be stripped down to its parts.
But part of the project of fiction is to portray complexity by allowing access to the interiority of characters and also to heighten the readerly experience of that complexity by choosing the glimmers, curating the portrayal of those moments, and allowing these daily situations to stand in for hundreds and thousands of years of cultural conflict. And so, you have to be incredibly careful about what you choose.
Is that a lesson you’ve carried over from journalism into your fiction writing, knowing how to curate research and material to tell the best story, or is that just naturally how your brain works?
Millares Young: To share the knowledge that they can build very quickly, which despite the necessary critiques they often do well but not always, journalists must distil complex truths into stories that can be understood by the many. Within this context, nuance is sometimes welcome, but an aesthetic affinity for ambiguity is not. Fiction allows for multilayered crosscurrents of ambiguities that are anathema to most journalistic editors (and too many publishers, frankly.) People’s thoughts are in conflict with each other, and too often their thoughts are in conflict with their actions, and their actions are in conflict with their speech. Rather than erasing or minimizing the role of those divergences, fiction allows us to explore how we hold multiple and conflicting narratives in simultaneous keeping.
One of the dynamics at play in the book, is this idea of what I call “the studier and the studied.” I was curious when I was reading if the seed of the idea for this narrative came from one of those directions, the idea of being one who studies others or being the one who is studied?
Millares Young: The question of representation is one I’ve pursued for much of my life, often being one of the sole Latinas in my newsroom or in a section or within a a slate of freelance writers. And so, when you are that person, you are often tasked with being representational of a polylithic series of cultures with quite a bit of variability within each of them. Despite the need to provide a framework for the political unification of many peoples, there is no one pan-Latinx culture, in the same way that there’s not a pan-Indigenous culture. When making representations, people attempt to paint with broad brush strokes because it’s more convenient than getting specific. But for me, I’m cognizant of being both the person tasked with providing the observations and then being observed while providing those observations.
Which sounds really uncomfortable. For me, this is what writing is really all about, being comfortable with being uncomfortable. That’s the number one place we need to get to as writers and the place we want to take our readers. And obviously, most readers don’t want to be there for very long. But we have to be able to put it on the page, and get comfortable in that place. We work so hard not to notice what will make us uncomfortable.
Millares Young: It’s an odd thing. That avoidance is individual, it’s cultural, it’s federal, it’s historical, it’s educational.
And so here we are.
How long did the process take for you, from the idea of the book to publication?
Millares Young: I first started going to Neah Bay in 2005. I think I made a hard and fast decision that I was going to write a book in 2007. I then researched for two solid years without writing, which I don’t advise my students to do.
Millares Young: Well, most people won’t finish because you get bogged down by the research. In an acute way, you become cognizant of your own ignorance. You forget to uptake research materials into character studies. You let the narrative get overwhelmed by trying to show what you know. You become convinced of the impossibility of portraying anything accurately, you know?
Through that experience, do you have a compass or a dial now that says, Okay, that’s enough research, no more. What’s your takeaway been?
Millares Young: Every day of research needs to be concluded by several hours of writing up the research, figuring out the frameworks and taking notes about what it might mean for your characters and their intentions.
In the style of my book, the research comes through the characters. It’s pretty close third person that alternates between them. So, choosing the interlocutor is important because that decision conditions what is known, when it is known, and how it is disclosed both to the reader and to people around them. And in Subduction, particularly, there’s quite a bit that Peter and Claudia and Maggie don’t say to each other, and never reveal to each other, even though the reader knows.
Four years after I first began preparing my mind to enact this idea, I started writing in earnest. It was 2009, and that same year, the newspaper I was working for ceased printing and laid off the majority of its staff. So, I started a nonprofit called InvestigateWest. After a year of nonprofit building, I realized that I wasn’t going to get that book done. Not in this way.
Were you actively writing the book then? Or did you have to put it to the side to focus on the nonprofit?
Millares Young: It stalled. It just did. I realized, you know, life is short and I may not get to do the thing I want to do, and I don’t want to be a nonprofit administrator. I did this thing because I wanted to fill a need. I really wanted to help salvage investigative reporting, which I think is the central service of journalism. But it wasn’t enough to make me feel that my life was worth living. I had to try to do the thing that I always wanted to do.
So I went to grad school in 2010. I graduated in 2012, and in 2014, just before my first son’s birth, I sent the second draft of the book to my first round of readers. Between finishing the second draft and signing with my agent in 2016, I made another six drafts. Revision, to me, is a critical element of the writing process because it layers insights gleaned over time. You can decide what to do with what you’ve made.
Can I open that up for just a second and ask, because I’m always curious how writers, especially women, navigate this: early parenting plus writing. How did you negotiate that?
Millares Young: I wasn’t very kind to myself. You know what I mean?
I do. I do know what you mean.
That phrase, I wasn’t very kind to myself. I’m curious if that is a phrase born of reflection, or a phrase that you understood at the time?
Millares Young: I still try to understand it because I’m angry with myself for not being more productive than I am. And I do try, but things fall apart.
Is this a part of you that existed before motherhood? Did it intensify during motherhood?
Millares Young: I used to be a little bit rowdy, and I remember those days, but as a mother you just ratchet it up on yourself, again and again. And if you’re not plowing through the work of maintaining a household, the cleaning, the cooking, the caretaking, then you’re really trying to get the writing in.
At the same time, I became the prose writing resident at Hugo House. It’s a community service position that requires many hours of one-on-one manuscript consultations, mentoring and teaching alongside literary organizing, equity work and event curation. I’m my own assistant, of course, doing all the scheduling and promotion for that and the thirty events of my book tour. I teach all around town, particularly the personal essay for the University of Washington’s Continuum College. I try to keep the focus on my next book alongside personal essays that I can’t help but write, and I freelance book reviews and stories for WaPo.
If you need anything done, give it to a working mother. I mean, she will get it done.
Millares Young: For real, most people are rolling around in acres of time. They don’t even know it. They have no idea.
I’m curious about writing violence and sex, both of which exist in the book in harrowing, fantastically written sections, and about how it’s different when you’re doing so through the lens of journalism versus fiction.
Millares Young: In a journalism piece, you need to make sure that people have the language. It’s important to give them some framework, some language that guides their understanding, so that you’re building knowledge and calling things by their name. In a fictional story, you have hundreds of pages to show the effect of trauma on the mind and the body and the spirit and decision-making process, and in an article, it’s 5,000 words, if you’re lucky.
A good book gives readers an embodied intellectual experience rather than providing a narrative summary structured into an oblique lesson. In a novel, it’s possible to watch how trauma warps the stories we tell ourselves, which are the most important kind. Through bearing that witness, as writers and readers we can learn to reshape our own ways of being and knowing.
What was the most surprising thing for you in retrospect, having written the book? The most unexpected?
Millares Young: I didn’t have trouble trusting the reader. I carved the book down to what I felt was its barest essence. And so, I really needed to trust the reader. The book pivots around this architecture of the unsaid between them, and that takes a writerly pact with the reader.
Is that your phrase, the architecture of the unsaid?
Millares Young: I suppose so.
Millares Young: It’s the subject of the book in so many ways. Most people live their entire lives without disclosing their deepest truths.
Also, grappling with the long trajectory toward whiteness that is assimilation in this country, which entangles both Peter and Claudia. The complexities that readers and critics have found value in were the very things that the commercial markets wanted me to eradicate.
That’s interesting, which means what?
Millares Young: Well, they wanted Claudia… they wanted me to make her fresher.
What does that mean?
Millares Young: Younger, whiter, kinder, nurturing, softer, less jaded, less critical, less calculating.
Did you ever entertain that?
Millares Young: My agent is a woman of color, Ria Julien at Frances Goldin. And she understood exactly what I was doing. She wasn’t afraid of it. Some other agents and editors, the vast majority of whom were white, didn’t connect with the characters. I’d be like, okay, well, I think what you’re telling me is you don’t recognize yourself. But you should.
Also, the title Subduction refers to a process that not everyone understands, even though it’s beneath our feet, and there was some question about whether that should remain the title. I held fast. And it was what the Paris Review used as a central metaphor for understanding storytelling in the book.
Are you at work on another project now? How’s that dance for you, having to promote one thing while creating and living inside another?
Millares Young: Basically, in 2016, as soon as I had finished Subduction, I had an idea that has remained lodged within me ever since. It’s called Great Mother. It’s a hybrid. There’s a fictional element based in ancient pagan Rome. The other part of the book unspools during intermittent chapters where I, as the nonfiction I in the now, am moving through archeological sites in Spain where there’s evidence of this mother goddess cult, and using those moments to unpeel the layers of my own family story and diaspora, and to connect with great women thinkers throughout time.
Holy shit. That sounds awesome. Have you been able to do anything with it yet?
Millares Young: The nonfiction parts of it, actually, those are coming along. The fiction is taking longer. Because fiction takes longer for me anyways. I need six hard, solid focused months minimum.
Tell me, what does “a hard six months” look like to you when you’re actively writing? Because, in my mind, with your journalism background, I picture you with a fedora and a cigarette, writing twenty hours a day with a scotch on the table.
Millares Young: What it means is staying away from the phone, staying away from other people, staying off of social media, really lengthening my email response times, reducing my teaching and freelancing, and pouring myself into the work. I will never have the consecutive hours that many other people have, those who don’t have young children. I just won’t have those hours. But it’s waking up at night hounded by it. Worrying about it in the morning. It’s the reason why some authors have learned to say no. Because if they don’t say no, they’ll fly apart.
My experience in watching writers go through the part of the process you’re going through, the promotion and touring, saying yes to everything…when your book comes into the world, there is a wave of “yes.” You have to say yes because of all the work that went in. It’s about riding that wave until eventually you hit this wall of “no,” I can’t, I have to start saying no.
Millares Young: Here’s my suspicion. I say no, and then a hellmouth opens up beneath me, and I’m dropped in, and the hellmouth will consume me.
It’s like a bad relationship. You stay and you stay and you stay and you stay. And then finally leaving is better than the awfulness of staying. And so, one day the horror of the hellmouth will be better than one more yes.
Millares Young: I really love being in my new book right now. And I don’t yet know what it is has to teach me. Thus far, it’s taken my mind across the millennia. I’ve found connection with ancient thinkers and their wild aches. In that way, Great Mother relates to Subduction. I’m interested in wisdom that has survived the ages. But I need to follow where it goes, and that’s often back into my own life and family history and emotional metamorphoses. I’m just riding that tide.
Is there a question you wish people would ask, but no one has yet?
Millares Young: I asked a friend for the best advice that she received before launching her own novel. She said it was that, fundamentally, your world is unchanged. That was the advice she received from a bestselling author who had all the trappings of success that others might see and think would be transformative. The truth is that the fundamentals of your life, for the most part, remain unchanged, no matter how well it goes. And so, the life you need to build in the process of birthing your book needs to be something that you can sustain and that sustains you. Because this will not yield happiness, right? That’s not what’s to be found here.
That’s the capstone right there.
Millares Young: The truth is that you need to build a life that you want to keep living. This process will test you. It can be devastating without proper support. But carving joy from those hollows – that can done. And one day you wake into the desire to write another book, and you do it again.
Kristen Millares Young is a prize-winning journalist and essayist whose work has appeared in The Washington Post, The Guardian and The New York Times, along with the anthologies Pie & Whiskey, a 2017 New York Times New & Notable Book, and Latina Outsiders: Remaking Latina Identity. The current Prose Writer-in-Residence at Hugo House, Kristen was the researcher for The New York Times team that produced “Snow Fall,” which won a Pulitzer Prize. She graduated from Harvard with a degree in history and literature, later earning her MFA from the University of Washington. Kristen serves as board chair of InvestigateWest, a nonprofit news studio she co-founded in Seattle, where she lives with her family.