Sheltering: Kate Milliken on Running Towards Danger
The Author of Kept Animals Talks to Maris Kreizman
On this episode of Sheltering, Maris Kreizman talks with Kate Milliken, author of the debut novel Kept Animals, which centers on three teenage girls, a horse ranch, and the accident that changes everything. Milliken discusses the research that went into her knowledge of the Topanga Canyon biome, her own history riding horses, the influence of Sylvan Esso’s music, and the complications of family. Her favorite local bookstore is Book Passage; please purchase Kept Animals through their website or through Bookshop.
From the episode:
Maris Kreizman: Welcome to Sheltering. I’m Maris Kreizman, and I’m so excited today to be joined by Kate Milliken. Welcome!
Kate Milliken: Hi, Maris.
Maris: Will you introduce yourself and tell us a little bit about how you’re doing?
Kate: Sure. I’m Kate Milliken, I’m the author of Kept Animals, which just came out, my debut novel. And I’m doing okay! As good as can be expected, given everything. This week is actually the first time that I’ve felt kind of itchy.
Maris: Where are you hunkered down?
Kate: At home in North California. We live in San Anselmo.
Maris: Tell me about the Topanga Canyon and how you become so familiar with it in terms of its weather. It’s such a little microcosm of the world. Say more.
Kate: I didn’t completely realize that when I started writing the book. Topanga—I grew up riding horses there. It was my home away from home. I was actually 16 in 1993, when the book is set, so I experienced that fire; I wasn’t in the mix of it, but I actually did go to the canyon the day it started, trying to help horses. Part of my motivation to write the book was to understand what makes a 16-year-old so reckless, when I didn’t have a home there. It felt like home to me. What makes you want to run toward danger, basically. I did a lot of research on the weather systems, the biome; Mike Davis was a big influence. I just wanted to go back to that place that I loved, and back to horses, and ended up writing a bigger story than my own, obviously.
Maris: Tell me about Rory, who is the main, well—
Kate: Yeah, she’s the main character. The book is told through her daughter’s perspective. She’s trying to figure out her mother’s history, and how she ended up becoming the person she is. She’s a photojournalist, but she’s fairly absent from their lives in Wyoming. So, part of the book is set in 2015 in Wyoming, and the bulk of the book is set in the months leading up to the 1993 real-life wildfire that Charlie, her daughter, suspects her mother may have had something to do with the start of. She’s reflecting back on the experiences that her mother had, and over the course of the story coming to know her mother, and of course, as one does, coming to know herself. It is Rory’s story, but she’s also the hardest character to get to know, partly because she’s so hard for her daughter to know. That was part of the journey of writing the book for me, understanding and getting to know her. There were some characters who were immediately there, and their voices were so vivid. One of them, the character Vivian, is actually a holdover from my story collection; she’s the character who wouldn’t go away, so she was easy to put into this book.
Maris: It’s hard to get Vivian out of your head, I think, after you’ve read the book. It seems like she is rightly someone who has to be very careful with whom she lets in.
Kate: Yeah. What I identify with Vivian, what made her so easy to write, is her frustration of the expectations of women. She’s growing up in a Hollywood home, so she sees what the world wants of girls, especially at that age. Just to be a certain age, and here she is—she’s pretty bookish, and she wants to be seen for something else, but she literally doesn’t know what that something else is. She begins this romance with her former English teacher over the phone and just toys with him as a kind of revenge on the rest of the world. I think hit’s understandable for a lot of women to have that feeling of resentment and not know where to put it, and act it out the way she does as a teenager. I mean, she ends up not being fair to her girlfriends either.
Maris: With reason. And of course, she’s the ultimate poster child for bad parenting.
Kate: Yeah, she’s pretty much abandoned by these people that everyone else idolizes, right? Or would want as parents. The movie-star father, the heiress mother. But they’re not with her.
Maris: Do you still ride horses?
Kate: No, I rode a lot and competitively for a long time, but I had not ridden since I was 22. So, I hadn’t ridden in twenty years. My daughter briefly did this really terrifying equestrian event called vaulting, which I thought was another term for horseback jumping, and I was like okay, let’s go take some vaulting lessons, sure. Her friends were doing it. It turns out it means you’re running alongside a horse in ballet slippers and no helmet and then jumping on their back and doing acrobatics on their back. It’s gymnastics on horseback. It lasted a little awhile, but I was only okay with it because it was a completely bomb-proof horse. A bomb could’ve gone off and the horse would’ve been fine, not moved. It was terrifying. So, we don’t do that.
Maris: You’re so careful in the book to explain that the whole point of horses is they are animals who are unpredictable. And then, even just the breeding of horses I found really, really fascinating.
Kate: That was one area where I had to do a lot of research. That was nothing I knew. I did interview a thoroughbred breeder, that was really helpful. Just the culture around it is—at least, in a lot of my reading, there was some “women are not allowed in the breeding shed” talk, it’s just too vulgar. And yet. That was the one area that I really hadn’t had any experience. It’s been twenty years since I rode, so I did have to do a lot of verifying of my own memories. But I also wanted to write a book that people could read and not know anything about horses and not necessarily be horse people, and have it be accessible, and have the metaphor of it be there for them.
Maris: Absolutely. I feel like I learned a lot. Tell me about—this series is particularly made for people like you who have a debut novel out during quarantine, and of course the world is full of worse problems and harder things, but that’s gotta be really tough, anticipating this thing for so many months and years, and you’re stuck at home.
Kate: I did spend nine years on this book. I kind of knew that things were going to start cancelling, and I was able to put my head down and look for different opportunities and other ways of connecting for readers. I think there is something of an opportunity here. I actually saw your tweet this morning about how great it is being able to do this, and having access to an audience that you might not necessarily—I mean, I was going to tour a lot in California because it’s such a California book, but now I’m doing something with Buffalo Street Books in New York. It’s just able to reach other readers in this way. But I think my itchiness in the past week has been, okay, now I’m doing these things, but I miss my friends and the book cake and being able to just hug and celebrate together. Because it was a village that helped me write this book, and I want to celebrate with them.
Maris: How are you doing in the day to day now? And how are your kids, I should ask.
Kate: It’s harder on them for sure. I already worked from home, so this doesn’t feel that unfamiliar. I’m learning that I need to get outside a lot earlier, that you need the sunshine. I’ve been programming myself—I take a walk really late at night, and I need to get out earlier. That’s the only thing I’ve noticed, is that my own mental health might need more sunshine earlier.
Maris: Yeah, I was just telling my husband to start taking vitamin D pills because I was a little worried about that. Are you able to get work done? Are you distracted? I mean, so much of your work right now is promoting the book, I understand.
Kate: It really is. I didn’t understand how much—there’s been written interviews and a lot of stuff that way, and corresponding and wanting to keep up with people, so that’s been a lot of my writing. I’ve ended up posting the little things I’ve been able to write on my Instagram because I’m like, “Look! I am writing!” In the beginning, I started working on a new short story, and I was like, I’m going to write every day, and I had this whole list of things that keeps me happy, you know, writing for fifteen minutes, reading at least twenty minutes, meditating—those things have kind of fallen to the wayside.
Maris: And in place of that is?
Kate: Is just way too much screen time. I’m actually going to fire off an email today to teachers because I think there’s some repetitive-motion injuries happening here. We need to get the kids’ hand-writing. I know it’s a lot easier for them, we’re just all figuring this out, so I get it. I do just want to pull the screens away from all of us for a few days.
Maris: What will we do?!
Kate: I’ll make that list today, too.
Maris: Alternatives. Here in Brooklyn, the streets are still pretty crowded. I should probably do more yoga inside; that’s what I would do.
Kate: Are they really crowded?
Maris: I mean…
Kate: A little bit? And you feel nervous about it, yeah. I saw some drone footage that was pretty magical, just seeing the city silent.
Maris: Yeah. I’ll get back to Manhattan sometime. Tell me, is there an indie bookstore near you that you’d like to shout out?
Kate: Ooh, yeah, absolutely. I was supposed to do my launch at Book Passage in Corte Madera. They actually set up—I’m so excited for this to happen—they’re going to get a shipment of books for me to sign, and they’re closing down the store and letting me in to sign them. I can’t wait to be in the bookstore on my own. I was joking with a friend that I might go through and write notes in the books I love.
Maris: It would be hard not to touch them all, I feel like.
Kate: I’m going to wear gloves!
Maris: Amazing. Is there a question you were hoping to be asked on book tour that I can ask you now?
Kate: Sure, I love that. Somebody else asked me that and I couldn’t think of it, but then I thought, the one thing that was so influential for me with the book was music. I tried not to be too heavy-handed with 1990s music because I think it’s easily an earworm for all of us or triggering in some ways, so it wasn’t music of the era that was particularly influential on me, but I started writing this book listening to Cat Power. Her album The Greatest I probably played five thousand times, just to get the tone. Music is so, that’s what it does for me—it gets that tone and helps me access language in a different way. In some ways, I think the book took as long as it did because I was waiting for Sylvan Esso to come out with another album. I don’t know if you know them. They’re a band out of North Carolina; they’re amazing. Their album—not the most recent album, With, that just came out—but their song “Sound,” if I can get people to read the end of the book listening to the song “Sound,” that’s the experience.
Maris: Amazing. There is a reference to “Smells Like Teen Spirit.”
Kate: And that’s it!
Maris: Hello, nineties! Kate, thank you so much. This was a pleasure, and everyone should read Kept Animals.