Kate Christensen is the author of six novels: In the Drink, Jeremy Thrane, The Epicure’s Lament, Trouble, The Astral, and The Great Man, which won the 2008 PEN/Faulkner Award. Her essays and reviews have been featured in a wide range of publications, including the New York Times Book Review, Bookforum, The Wall Street Journal, Tin House, and Elle. She is also an avid cook and food writer whose descriptions are as delectable as the dishes she describes.
Christensen earned a B.A. from Reed College and a M.F.A. from the Iowa Writers Workshop. She lived most of her adult life in New York before moving to Portland, Maine.
The New York Times once extolled The Great Man as, “Mischievous…funny, astute…” Which, it so happens, is an accurate description of the writer herself.
You went to a Waldorf school. Tell me about that.
Well, I grew up going to public school. My mother was a single mother getting her PhD in psychology at Arizona State University. She didn’t have a lot of money for private school, as you can imagine. But she grew up with a mother who was a Waldorf teacher and my grandparents and great aunt were very instrumental in bringing Waldorf education to this country.
So, we were living in Arizona, I was going to public schools. But halfway through high school I started to get really restless. I was fifteen and felt I needed a better education. And so I sent away for a lot of brochures from places like Interlochen and Putney. I would look at these photographs of beautiful, arty kids and think, “God, I want to be with them!” I was going to a high school in Cottonwood, Arizona. I played the violin and I liked to read books, I was really into Jane Austen… I didn’t have any fellow nerds. I was looking for my fellow, nerdy, introverted, bookish, musical kids and I wasn’t finding them. And I wasn’t finding teachers who could challenge me. I really liked literature and wanted to study it more in depth.
So, long story short, my grandmother, who was still affiliated with this Waldorf school in Spring Valley New York called Green Meadow, basically set it up so that I got a full scholarship there. I found a teacher to live with and to work for to get room and board – babysitting and housekeeping – and so the last two years of high school, I got to go to a Waldorf school.
And you also left home.
Yes, I left home for good. I had just turned sixteen. I wasn’t ready. I was very immature, a late bloomer to put it lightly. I was probably emotionally around eleven [laughs]. Now I had to work for room and board, I was the new girl in class. My English teacher was T.S. Eliot’s niece and she was brilliant– really my first mentor as a writer. It was challenging and it was very good for me to go. Although I had to be homesick and depressed and feel sort of out of place.
When you say it was good for you, it sounds like the adult you looking back. But was it actually quite tough in the moment?
It was really a painful struggle in the moment. But I grew up in a family of women of English extraction and one of the hallmarks of that culture is that you keep a stiff upper lip and you look at the bright side and you make the best of things and you tell yourself how lucky you are to be getting this education on a full scholarship, you’re not costing your struggling mother one dime. You don’t pay attention to the fact that you’re lonely and the teacher you live with is a total bitch and mean to you. That didn’t enter into the equation.
Now I can look back and say that, as a writer, it is good to be an outsider and to feel a little bit out of place, to view things from the outside as though you don’t belong. I think that’s one of the hallmarks of the novelist’s mind.
At the time, did you identify as a writer? Were you writing?
I think that some writers are born writers, and I am one of those. I knew I was a writer from the time that I knew that there was such a thing as writing and storytelling. It was just water and I was the fish, I dove into it and never looked back. I had this sense all my life that this is what I was meant to do. Whether or not I would succeed was another thing.
My English teacher, May Eliot, focused a lot on creative writing. In my senior year we developed a writing workshop atmosphere with high school students. It was exactly what I was starving for and it sustained me greatly and also gave me a lot of confidence.
You took a year off between high school and college. What did you do?
I went to France by accident. I had applied to Reed College and I needed a full ride so I applied for financial aid. The form that my high school chairman gave me was a year out of date. It was the seventies, he was distracted by a fifteen year-old friend of mine – I am not kidding. So he wasn’t really paying attention. I got this out of date form, so I was awarded a big financial aid package but for the wrong year. I had to defer, I was forced to. So off I went.
I got this job at another Waldorf school, thanks to my grandmother again. She got me a job taking care of four little boys at a Waldorf school called Château de la Motte. Which was in the geographical center of France – very muddy, very rainy, very rural, very beautiful. But if you are eighteen, it is really not the ideal spot.
To put it mildly.
I spent a year there, learned French, learned how to cook in a way that I had never cooked before, traveled a lot, and had an amazing time. But again, I was lonely, I didn’t speak a word of French when I went there. But I wrote, and wrote and wrote, mostly journals or letters to my mother. It was writing as a way to alleviate loneliness.
I took another year off and worked at another Waldorf school. But then I went to Reed. So I went to Reed and wrote a creative thesis, which was four short stories. Reed isn’t really known for being an art or writing school. It is very traditional and conservative academically. So I had to basically beg to be able to write a creative thesis. I got permission to do it along with three others. So the four of us had a workshop with an advisor during senior year.
I can see why they made me petition, because it was so much fun! Everyone else was pulling all-nighters and smoking eight packs of cigarettes and agonizing [over their theses]. And I sort of waltzed through my senior year. I wrote four short stories and was proud of them, but it was in no way stressful and scary.
Did you apply to the Iowa Writers Workshop right after college or was there some time in between?
I took another year off. I graduated having no idea what I was going to do. I stayed in Portland. I had a crush on a guy who had dumped me twice already, I don’t know what I was thinking. But I hung around him anyway. I worked as a cocktail waitress, I worked in a bookstore, and I sort of cobbled together a living. But I didn’t write a word during that year. I was just depressed and hanging out with my depressed gay friend.
Why were you depressed?
I think I would have happily stayed at Reed for ten years, reading literature and writing stories. I didn’t want to leave. The four years went by too fast. And then I was out in the world. Again, I was very young for my age and I have never been very good at navigating the world and getting jobs and figuring out how to make a living. It’s not a talent that I have ever had. I was depressed because I wanted to be independently wealthy. [Laughs.]
Don’t we all?
I wanted a rich daddy or a trust fund and I so didn’t have that. My family was always poor so I had to figure it out myself. And of course that was good for me. I had a lot of experiences that I ended up writing about, and that’s what they are for. But at the time, it just struck me as monstrously unfair that I didn’t have millions of dollars!
I applied to Iowa because my mother and stepfather sort of made me.
You hadn’t thought of it on your own?
I was scared to do it. And I thought I wasn’t ready. I was going to move to San Francisco, get a waitressing job down there and just bum around for a while. My mother and stepfather just didn’t think that was a good idea at all. They got on separate extensions one February night. The conversation began very gently and by the end I had promised I would take the GREs and apply to Iowa. So, I did. That was the only place that I applied. I wasn’t sure that I wanted to go to a writing program, and if I went I wanted to go to the one that seemed to be the most reputable.
I got in. I couldn’t believe it! I used two stories from my senior thesis. The guy that I had a crush on suddenly decided that he wanted to move with me.
He can’t have been that disinterested if he was willing to move to the cornfields of Iowa!
I think he thought it was a little glamorous that I had gotten into the Iowa Writers Workshop. Suddenly, I was a little bit better. So we moved to Iowa together. And there I was.
Iowa, there are different stories about it, different versions. Incredible community, but also a stiff hierarchy and lots of competition. Tell me about your experience.
I was there during the beginning of the reign of Frank Conroy. I don’t know if this is generally true, but my experience with him was that he despised female writers. Although his first book, let me point out, was a small coming of age memoir called Stop-Time, he sneered at all of us young women writers, he sneered at the small coming of age novels that we were all apparently writing. It never occurred me that his first book was a goddamn coming of age novel.
He palled around with the guys. There was a real sense of… it was a man’s world. This was 1987. They played pool together, they got drunk together, they lavishly praised one another’s writing. There was just a boy’s network.
Hearing this is making me so angry. I am so furious right now.
Yeah, it so disgusted me that I almost dropped out of the workshop. But the nurturing part of the workshop was my friends. I made friends there who I am still friends with now, a lot of them women but some of them men. The men that I befriended were sort of genre writers, or so they were seen as being. But they are some of the most successful writers to come out of the workshop. But back then they were sneered at for not being literary, which was a whole other thing that people had to deal with. And then there were the women, who were just women and Frank wouldn’t even look us in the eye.
[Grunts in disgust.]
Yeah, it was unbelievable. That was the whole atmosphere there for me. So I hung out with my friends. I wrote, but not very well. Except for Allan Gurganus – I had a workshop with him and it was like being in a warm bath even though it was challenging. He had no tolerance for smarmy show-offy bullshit in writing, but anything else goes. I loved him for that. There was a fresh breath of realness in his workshop where we were really talking about storytelling.
But, in general, being in the halls of the workshop just felt like running the gauntlet of envious eyes. There were the big men on campus who had published and were from New York and had connections and agents. And then there were those of us who had come from nowhere and were just trying to write and figure it out. The disparity was really difficult. That feeling of: Well, some of us are already ahead, some people are so far ahead of me that it is going to be really hard every to catch up.
I had a really weird experience. Frank’s workshop was the first workshop I took and it was like boot camp, he took pride in reducing writers to tears, always women. I wrote a story during that workshop that he absolutely hated. It was about a time when I was a cocktail waitress and I came outside with the blues band that played at the place where I worked and with my friend who was a stripper and we were all going to go bowling. This young gay guy was standing there and somebody came by and stabbed him. We waited for the ambulance and I pressed the drummer’s t-shirt to his chest, to the wound. We were all trying to staunch the blood while we waited for the ambulance. And afterwards we all went bowling. What else were we going to do? Life went on.
Well, Frank just loathed it. Because it was about something outside of his own experience? I don’t know why he loathed it. But I entered it into the Mademoiselle fiction contest because I had a subscription to Mademoiselle and because Michael Chabon had won the year before and his story was so good that I thought, “Wow this is a great contest.” So I entered the story and forgot about it and then I won! I found out a few months later. It was during the summer when I won the contest. So I went back to Iowa after the summer and my story came out in the September issue.
Right? I was so self-conscious and nervous but so proud. This was such a coup, to have this happen while I was at Iowa. I was sitting in this bar where we all hung out. And my friend’s girlfriend was this very self-important, very severe looking on purpose poetess. I was sitting next to her. She had never said a word to me. And she turned to me and said, “Yeah I saw your story in that magazine.” I said, “You did?” My heart started slowly rising, thinking, She is finally paying attention to me. And she said, “Yeah, I tried to read it.”
[Laughs.] That was Iowa.
But you still came out of it and dared to write. Cheers to you.
I think anger and humiliation are very good fuel for writing. And I got plenty of that at Iowa.
What was your first step out of the program?
I moved to New York, which is where I had always intended to live.
No more desert Arizona, muddy central France, or Iowa cornfields!
No more! No! I moved to New York, which was where you were supposed to go if you were a writer. That was sort of the biography I was writing for myself.
I moved there with enough for a month’s rent and for a pair of shoes to wear to interviews at publishing companies, which is where I thought I should interview. That was it. I think my mother and stepfather gave the money to me when I graduated from Iowa.
I moved in with two women I had known in college in a big nice apartment in a really ghetto, scary part of Brooklyn. I paid three hundred dollars in rent.
I got a job in publishing pretty quickly, I think because of my MFA. I worked for Susan Leon at William Morrow, who was a brilliant, wonderful, excellent editor and boss. I started in September, 1989. I was so lucky to get that job. She was probably the best boss I have ever had. Just so smart and so interesting and fun to talk to. But I was just a terrible editorial assistant.
I would say that I sucked at it. I was very good at reading manuscripts. She had a whole stack of hopeful manuscripts in her office that people had submitted. I could just blow through them really fast and write out a cogent analysis of them. But all the rest of the job was preparing me to become an editor, which is just so not what I wanted to do. I was sitting there at this desk reading manuscripts from people who had actually written a book, which I had not yet done. And feeling like I should be the one submitting a manuscript, not the one reading it and telling my boss why she should reject it.
I always wanted to leave at five o’clock and I noticed that the guy next to me, who had real editorial skills, would always stay later because he liked the work so much. I just wanted to leave and get a drink.
Did you write after work?
I did. But it was so hard to write after Iowa, I was so demoralized. I felt so depressed about the whole idea of writing, I just had a bad taste in my mouth. I felt so stymied. I wanted to be Faulkner because that is what the workshop made you think every writer should be. By Faulkner I meant that I thought I should be lyrical and fully American and write in my own vernacular and write this sort of American writing that I don’t fit in or certainly didn’t then. So, I was trying to be something I wasn’t. That is always a mistake and never gets you anywhere.
Well, what made you start writing again?
I left that job and had a series of other jobs. Each of them inappropriate in a very good way. The funny thing about jobs, especially when you are young: what else are you really going to write about when you start writing? You need to know what it’s like to work. Work is so fundamental, it is such a core part of experience. Thank God I didn’t have a trust fund, thank God I did have to support myself.
I waited tables for a while. I was a personal secretary for a while. I was a receptionist at the Rudolf Steiner School on the Upper East Side. That sort of thing.
What got me writing again was one of those jobs that I absolutely hated but that was maybe one of the most interesting jobs I have ever had.
What was it?
My first novel, In The Drink, was about that job. I worked for a woman on the Upper East Side as her private secretary and also as her ghostwriter. She humiliated me and abused me. I was alone with her in her apartment all day. I wore terrible clothes and she was very chic and fashionable. She was a former model and friends with Nancy Reagan and Betsy Bloomingdale – you know, the whole society lady population of the Upper East Side. I was a sort of hick from Arizona. I would scotch tape my hems and my part wasn’t straight… it was very funny.
I lasted maybe a year and then when I was working as a receptionist at the Rudolf Steiner School, sitting at this desk all day, I started writing about that job in the voice of someone who wasn’t me but who was like me, who was working for a woman very much like this woman. For the first time since maybe before Iowa, I felt this old sense of fun come back.
It was this sort of Fuck You to her. Feeling like I was going to get back what I had lost in that job and that I was going to find a balance in my own psyche by writing about it. The power of that, of getting to write it from my own perspective – even though I was sort of the lowly servant – the feeling of getting to create her on the page. And that relationship that we had had is so universal and so weird and so literary.
I was inspired a lot of Jane Eyre, believe it or not. I felt like there is a literary tradition of the downtrodden yet smart and quiet heroine. [Laughs.] I was actually not at all like Jane Eyre. I was a lush and out of control, in bad relationships. I was sort of a dark Jane Eye.
You were a lush in terrible relationships. Tell me about that.
I managed to find another guy who didn’t really like me to become obsessed with and get into a relationship with. I had a real knack for that in my early years. I met this guy during my first two weeks in New York. He was a wannabe screenwriter, prep school educated. He seemed really cool and really smart to me because he was so condescending. He was constantly putting me in my place and telling me how I had missed out on the real New York, and how wet behind the ears I was… He treated me like a hick. He was going to show me the real New York.
We were together for five years and I was living with him…
I know! I was so stupid. But again, I can look back and say it was good I did that. Because he turned up as a character in a few of my novels. I wouldn’t have had that character if I hadn’t studied him closely for five years.
We were going and getting drunk every night to go see music, because he had this talent for winning tickets to shows by being the eleventh or eight caller on the radio.
That is so random.
That was his greatest talent in the world, actually.
That’s a rough personal summary.
Well he was a genius at it. [Laughs.] So, every night we would go out to a concert. We would always smuggle in a bottle of something and I would be shitfaced by the end of every night. I loved it. I thought this was life. Then I would get up the next morning and go to work. Sometimes I was still drunk. I kind of sustained that for five years.
You mentioned before that your first apartment was this beautiful place in a bad neighborhood. How long were you there before you moved in with the boyfriend?
I was there a year. And then in 1990 I moved to Williamsburg, which was not somewhere you moved back then. But it was a cheap apartment and I could live by myself. It was great. Then I moved in with him after we had been together for a couple of years. We lived briefly on then Upper West Side and for three years we lived in the East Village, on 2nd between 1st and 2nd, in a 300 square foot studio. That is about the size of the room I am standing in now, which is the guest room of my house. So…
To say the least! Although his millionaire uncle had a house in Rhode Island and he spent most of his time there, sleeping with some other woman. So I had the place mostly to myself. The rent was 300 a month, which even then was a really good deal.
But then I started writing In The Drink and everything started kind of falling into place. I found this voice that I hadn’t remembered came so naturally to me. I had written a novel in eighth grade. The narrator had the same name as the narrator of In The Drink, which was Claudia. I had forgotten all about this book and I had forgotten about Claudia and I had forgotten about this voice, which was kind of angry and kind of funny and kind of using a lot of Latinate words that I had learned from Edith Wharton. And being very frank. Not trying to be literary, not trying to be “great.” Just having a really good time writing.
I wrote almost a draft of this book and stopped drinking so much and stopped going out every night, and started making money to pay off my debt, because of course I was deeply in debt at this point. I lived alone pretty much in this little studio in the East Village. I got up every morning, made a pot of tea, and worked until it was time to go to my job. And then all during my workday I would take notes, I would sneak and open the file on the computer if there was any down time at my job.
I mean, I got obsessed with this novel. I actually managed to write it because it obsessed me so much, and because I was having so much fun with it, and because I had finally reached that point of un-self-consciousness where I felt like no one was watching, no one was looking, where I didn’t have any teacher, I didn’t have any mentors, I didn’t even have any friends in those days. I was really alone. So I had me and I had my novel and I had my job and I would just… it was really like being a monk after these crazy few years.
I look back on that time with real nostalgia. Like, God, that was so much fun! Before I got published and before I had relationships with readers and the world there was a kind of innocence and adventure and exaltation. I would wake up all fired up to write. The only thing that made me write was that, the excitement of it. I woke up because I couldn’t sleep, because I was in a state of manic excitement about the book. Also, I wasn’t drinking, so I would go to bed early and my brain would sort of catapult me out of bed and over to the word processor.
And you did finish the book. Did you know how to go about showing it to the world?
It took me years to finish a real draft. I mean, I finished a draft but it was a mess. I joined a writing group. Thank god for this writing group. They took this manuscript that was a mess and they did really hands on editing for me. They really saved my ass and taught me how to structure a book.
In a way it was very brave of you to dare to join a writing group, considering your workshop experience at Iowa.
It was terrifying. I mean, the night before they were going to critique my manuscript, I felt like I had stage fright. I was sort of hyperventilating a little. But they were so encouraging! In addition to being really smart about what was needed and what was wrong with it, they were also so encouraging and that inspired me. That was what was largely missing for me at Iowa, that sense of hope and the sense that it is worth going back, that you are inspired.
It took you several years to whip that project into shape. What was the process like for getting it published?
As I was finishing the second draft of the book, I met and married my husband – who is no longer my husband, but we were together for a total of fourteen years. He was a building contractor in the 90’s. He was also an artist, a painter, musician, and photographer and he was making really good money. So after we got married, he made me the offer of letting me quit my job so that I could finish my book.
So I quit my job. At that point I was working in the World Trade Center as a secretary for a Japanese bank. I quit that job, and I sat at my desk at home every day and I wrote another draft – a really more polished, more finished draft thanks to the comments that my writing group had given me. My best friend is a novelist and her agent offered to take a look at it and then offered to represent me. So I got an agent, just like that. I thought, “Good, this will be easy! Where is my royalty check?”
Just hand it over.
[Laughs.] Yes! But the book was rejected by everyone in New York. Everyone hated it. Everyone hated Claudia. They thought the writing was good – that was the only encouragement they could give me, that I didn’t totally lack talent as a writer. But they thought that Claudia was such a loser and so unsympathetic that a few of them actually said in their rejection letters that they had thrown the manuscript across the room. It was really, really depressing. This went on for nine months. But my agent didn’t give up. To her credit. She could easily have said, “This is the twenty-seventh rejection, there is no one else to send it to.” I think we were just about getting to that point.
But then a very young, very ambitious, very smart assistant editor at Doubleday contacted my agent and said, “I am the only one at Doubleday who likes this book. I really, really want to acquire it but my boss won’t let me and everyone else hates it. But I really think that with a little more polishing, a little more work, I could maybe get it by them and we could make her an offer.” That was just, Hallelujah! There is a ray of hope! So I met with her, she gave me her ideas. I went home and over the next few months I took every single one of her suggestions and did another draft, sent it back to her. Meanwhile, her boss had quit and she was now an editor in her own right.
So it is always worth listening to that associate editor who has ideas about how you might make your manuscript better. I mean, I could see myself bristling. A lot of young writers find it really hard to take criticism and I have had those moments too, but I was just so beyond that. I was like, “Tell me, I will do anything…!”
So she and my agent negotiated a two-book deal. And that has sort of been how it has gone.
Do you remember what it was like the first time you held In The Drink in your hand, this real physical object, this book that you had written?
I remember that moment. I remember picking up the envelope, realizing what it was, standing on the verge of tears not even knowing if I could open it! I opened it, burst into tears, and then walked through the neighborhood sort of like showing it to everybody that I ran into. My husband and I had settled in Williamsburg so I pretty much knew everybody there. It was like a Sesame Street episode, dancing around, “Look what I did!” It took me so long to get there and it was what I had always wanted. It was a really amazing moment.
How old were you at that point?
I had achieved the ripe old age of thirty-six by the time I published my first novel.
Looking back at your younger self, your self in your late twenties, is there something that you would tell her?
I don’t know if I would have listened, that’s the thing, but I would tell my earlier self the thing that I finally realized when I was twenty-nine: Don’t try to write in a way that isn’t your voice. Just have fun. I was pushing myself so hard to be great. Forget being great, that’s what I would say. Forget being great and just have fun. And the more fun you’re having, the better it will be.
Was there any advice that was given to you along the way that you thought was truly valuable?
Allan Gurganus, when I was in his workshop, he had sort of fireside chats at the end of his semester. We all went by his house and sat in front of his fireplace in armchairs and talked about our work and the way the semester had gone. My boyfriend, the one who was the Physics major who had moved there with me, had dumped me and gone back to California. I was so heart-broken that I couldn’t write. And so I went and sat with Allan in this nice, cozy living room in front of the fire and I just started to cry. He asked what was wrong and I said, “I’m just heart-broken, Allan. I have nothing to talk about, I can’t write, I can’t even think about my writing.” And he said, “Honey, you’ve got to get back to work. Getting famous is the best revenge.”
That might be the best single piece of advice I have ever gotten.
If you were to give advice to writers who are in their heart-broken, confused twenties, what would you tell them?
Keep going…keep doing it if you want to do it. There is no better life than the writing life, if you are a writer. Don’t give up and do something else because someone needs you to. There are plenty of times in a writer’s life when you could give up and go do something else because something else is invariably more lucrative and possibly easier.
But if you are going to lie on your death bed and wish you had written books…that is sort of what kept me going throughout the years. I couldn’t imagine getting old and not having become a writer, not having written, not having shaped my entire life around it. And that’s something you have to do. Every choice has to be toward that shape of the writing life.
Interview by Astri von Arbin Ahlander
Photo by Giulia Fitzgerald