Go Forth: An Interview with Kristen Millares Young

Kristen Millares Young by Natalie Shields

Kristen Millares Young was a prize-winning journalist when I first met her and I first read the beginning of Subduction in a class I taught at the Port Townsend Writer’s Conference. It was clear she was both talented and ambitious and her pages were sharp and refined. Since then, she’s honed her craft, developing a prose style the Washington Post called “quiet beauty, deep emotion and sharp observation.” Of her debut novel Subduction, just out from Red Hen Press, I wrote this for a blurb, “This book is as unforgettable as it is timely, a story that keeps us riveted from beginning to end, written with abundant grace and lyric intensity. Beautiful, smart, and urgent. Read this book now.” And I meant it. Named a staff pick by The Paris Review, Subduction explores legacy, cultural identity and consent through the sexual entanglement of two people trying to salvage their lives from wreckage of their own making.

—Robert Lopez

THE BELIEVER: Where did this novel, Subduction, come from? How did you come to find Claudia? 

KRISTEN MILLARES YOUNG: When you and I first met, I had just done something monumental. I cut the pages I wrote while in grad school from Claudia’s perspective. To be frank, I was in a state of shocked mourning. All that time! Two years of work. I had polished those sentences, scenes and chapters down to the word. It seemed a waste, and I was ashamed.

I asked you to read the new first chapter. In it, a steely, self-hating Latina anthropologist named Claudia—do you think that’s a fair description of her character, Rob? Inquiring minds, etc.—anyway, a steely, self-hating Latina anthropologist named Claudia heads out to the Makah Indian Reservation at Neah Bay, three hours west of the writing conference that brought you and me together in Port Townsend.

So Claudia launches herself upon a Native community, bringing her damage with her, as people tend to do. And though I was grieving the lost pages, I learned something crucial that summer, vivifying the iceberg theory — the grace, beauty and grandeur of the iceberg is due to what moves beneath — which I had once understood as an analytical tool, and not as a craftsperson.

My deleted chapters—in which Claudia receives the news that she is being left via text message, to which she responds by wandering into a bar before going home and downing the pills her husband left in unsubtle rebuke—haunted what remained, thereby fulfilling Hemingway’s edict that “the omitted part would strengthen the story and make people feel something more than they understood.”

Claudia carries all that emotional resonance with her on the ferry from Seattle to Bainbridge Island, where she will continue her journey to Neah Bay, arriving with an implacable need to save her own life, or at least her idea of herself, no matter what it costs those around her.

So I found Claudia slowly, wastefully, through excessive amounts of time spent on backstory, time which I no longer see as slow or wasteful or excessive, but necessary. I now teach that good writers follow the lead of their characters to unwind what Eudora Welty called “the continuous thread of revelation.” On the long path toward completing a manuscript, discovery is both inevitable and disconcerting. As writers, we trace those epiphanies over many drafts. In so doing, I found my purpose in writing and rewriting Subduction.

BLVR: I like the idea of Claudia saving the idea of herself and will circle back to this shortly. For right now, though, I want to go into your experiences as a journalist and how this informs the novel. One of the great accomplishments of this book is the mix of journalistic/anthropological detail of the region and its people with a deep dive into Claudia’s psyche. So, how does being a journalist help you as a novelist? Are there any drawbacks to such a background? 

KMY: Being a journalist helped me get comfortable hanging out with people I don’t know. I used to call that activity “cultivating sources” which is an honest, somewhat clinical way to refer to establishing relationships. When I was a beat journalist investigating port corruption, my sources never became my friends. Even if they considered themselves to be within that category, the reality of our working partnership was too transactional to meet the standard I set for friendship. But we trusted each other enough for me to conduct interviews and receive documents both on and off the record. I never forgot why I was there.

In an effort not to get used for some higher, unseen purpose by my sources, I always forced myself to question why they would work with me even when it could imperil their job or professional standing to be discovered as a source. Though I am sure they had motives I could not see, I believe that publishing the information I gathered did lead, for the time that I was a staff reporter, to less corrupt governance of public resources along the waterfront. The feds came in and followed my trail, conducting their own investigations, as did the port itself, though most public self-scrutiny is a cover up. So, too, performative conversations that pretend to affect intellectual intimacy.

As a journalist, I was always a bit more thorough than was required. I would FOIA documents that filled so many boxes that the copying costs became exorbitant, and even digitization was eating time, so I thumbed through them for hours in a glass-walled room while a port PIO popped in, checking on my progress, wishing I would hurry up and be gone already. They liked to go about their business of crafting false narratives in peace.

It was a stressful, harried time. Because the maritime industry was old and white and male while I was young and Latinx and a woman, I had to work twice as hard to prove myself through the production of regular articles in the business and metro sections, pieces which showed I knew my stuff, which helped me build trust enough to create primary source documents – transcripts of interviews given by nervous, ambitious and self-righteous men – and amass records in my pursuit of serious investigations.

In short, I learned how to be a serious researcher, how to examine a situation from many angles and how to contextualize information sourced through oral histories as well as documents. When I traveled to Makah territory, I took myself off the timer. I didn’t want to build relationships on a deadline. I wanted to get to know these people and, over time, to become known to them as well. Even as I was interviewing elders and fishermen, transcribing their words furiously in my invented shorthand – in short, working and performing the work so that they understood my presence for what it was – I began to relax into sharing more of my real self, including doubts that I would never have daylighted on the job.

The drawbacks include that I was very hard on myself about the process of writing Subduction, from how long it took to how many drafts I made. Accustomed to being much more efficient, I was conditioned to create with purpose. It’s hard on the body to be under deadline, but I liked being able to discuss the reasons for my work immediately upon publication of the story, which would come within days, weeks, months and even years. But never a decade. Not until this book.

BLVR: There is an internal journey for Claudia in the novel and the external journey of her fleeing her old life and making a new one on the Makah Indian Reservation. Peter also is on a journey towards home and his family history. I suppose this question is about the past, how your characters are dealing with what’s happened to them and how it haunts them in the present. How conscious of this were you of all this as you worked on the book?

KMY: Soon after she arrives, Claudia laments that she immediately ruined her chance to build trust in the Makah community—she was found passed out at the wheel on the reservation’s main road. She thought she was going to be able to leave her damage behind, but of course, she brings it with her. Similarly, Peter tried to hide the effects of his past trauma, which leaves him shaky and short of breath at inopportune moments. Though they refuse to disclose such insights to each other, both of these characters understand that our society punishes people for their vulnerability. Peter and Claudia try to operate from positions of strength, even though their strength is constantly eroded by their emotional burdens and what I would call personal mismanagement of their individual crises.

In much the same way that we can learn about ourselves through the retrospective examination of our unwitting behavioral patterns, I discovered these elements of their character through recurrence. By which I mean, I created many scenes that I cut, though I was loath to do so. I created a whole “Slaughtered Darlings” file for those pretty words, and as I wrote through the rest of that next draft, I searched for places where I could slip in some context, if only a pulse of memory. What I found, of course, is that backstory can create a rhythmic, almost tidal pull on the present, a gravitational force which must be carefully modulated so that it doesn’t overwhelm the momentum of the narrative.

Just as in life, at some point in our personal development, we must take ownership of our actions, no matter how they are conditioned by our past. Once I had established what their decisions might mean for Peter and Claudia, it was time for these protagonists, surrounded by a constellation of other characters, to enact their futures in all of their frailty. 

BLVR: I would describe the prose in your novel as both lush and restrained. There are times when the sentences are chock full of poetry and others are short and unadorned. How did you come to/find your prose style/voice?

KMY: The greatest formal constraint I placed on myself was keeping the perspectives in a very close third person, which through alternating chapters provided access to Peter and Claudia’s interiority. More importantly, that choice limited the universe of knowledge disclosed through each perspective. Subduction unfolds primarily through the interplay of what the characters do and do not reveal to each other, whether cultural insights, personal loss or sexual interest.

Every decision forecloses some possibilities while affording others. Choosing unreliable interlocutors with a flawed grasp on the import of their own lives and cultures meant that I needed to trust the reader to both see around and think through these characters. I did my best to signal the closeness of the text to their perspectives by hewing closely to their mentalities in their chapters. So the language around Claudia ebbs and flows through clauses laden with her intellectual insight, historical acumen and cultural ignorance. More emotionally attuned to others than Claudia, Peter nonetheless expresses his angst and misogyny through hardscrabble phrasing; I couched his deep thoughts and honest, belittling observations in terms boiled down almost to the point of noir. If I first wrote that “true self-knowledge is elusive” through his perspective, I would revise that into “true self-knowledge likes to play hard to get.”    

As a writer, I honed my lyric style on this book. The best way to find the music in prose is to give it breath, and so I often read Subduction aloud, reading back my lines as I wrote them, but also reading through scenes and chapters and, toward the end of my rather lengthy revision process, the entire manuscript. Doing so also helped me intensify the pacing. I have patience for the slow burn, but the prose must keep smoldering.

Though it is a harsh way to learn, I believe that performing excerpts of Subduction on stage also did its work to improve the manuscript. Up at a mic, under the lights, with everyone watching and listening, you learn real quick what’s good. They don’t have to say anything. The air tightens when they’re listening. And slackens when they’re not, which induces panic that I channeled into revisions that I hope were ruthless enough to do their work.

BLVR: One topic of conversation I’ve explored with writers lately is the idea of conversation, that our work and our books are in conversation with other writers and books. What are your thoughts on this? Are there particular writers and books you think you are in conversation with when it comes to Subduction?

KMY: I would be lost in this world without reading. People can be so brusque, thoughtless and unkind. Spending time with the otherwise unseen mindscapes of protagonists reminds me, again and again, that we are all carrying our own burdens and that those who are most hurtful are often in real pain. Which is not to excuse mistreatment. But reading introduces new information to often beleaguered understandings. Books are the distillation of many years of living, the lessons carried, cupped like embers, across long swathes of time.

Literature reminds us to be kind. You learn not to take things personally, which is code for not allowing other people to take you down. The books I carried into this journey are not the same as the ones I am reading now, but I’d like to share the authors who brought me into writing. Before I had kids, I was an obsessive re-reader, and in that way, I studied Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson, House Made of Dawn by M. Scott Momaday, The Living by Annie Dillard, The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera, Ceremony by Leslie Marmon Silko, The Master by Colm Tóibín and Nobody’s Son by Luis Alberto Urrea.

Many years elapsed between reading those books and publishing my own. What follows is a short list of beautiful novels that share thematic inquiries with Subduction. In Where the Dead Sit Talking by Brandon Hobson, a young Native man, long accustomed to repressing his turmoil, stumbles on obsessive love while seeking purpose in a life marred by fallout from his mother’s actions. In Euphoria by Lily King, a female anthropologist’s cultural research and romantic affair catalyze the betrayal of the tribal peoples who opened their lives to her. In The Veins of the Ocean, a multicultural love story about starting over by Patricia Engel, a Latina tries to redeem a family riven by intergenerational trauma. In LaRose, Louise Erdrich’s lyricism unspools from violence to meditate on how Native traditions allay grief and build community. In Fourth of July Creek by Smith Henderson, a social worker tries to fix other people’s families while letting his own disintegrate amongst troubled communities of the Pacific Northwest.

With its inquiry into how ambiguity, cruelty and hope imbue the meeting of diaspora and indigeneity, Subduction joins the conversations sustained by these books. To be in dialogue with such minds is my joy. 

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