Award-winning author Kate Christensen says it usually takes seven years of living somewhere before she can capture the place in her fiction. She was only able to finish her newest and eighth novel, Welcome Home, Stranger, set in Portland, Maine, after she and her husband moved to New Mexico—they are building a home right outside Taos—approximately two and a half years ago. That being said, she’s already written a novel set in Taos—although we sadly won’t get to read it—at least not any time soon.
“I wrote a New Mexico novel because I was so excited to write about Taos,” Christensen tells SFR. “Last summer I wrote an entire draft of the novel set in Taos, and then I threw it away. It was like my offering to the sacred mountain…maybe I’ll revisit it in five years.”
Christensen, whose previous novels include the 2008 PEN/Faulkner-award winning The Great Man, as well as two food-centric memoirs, Blue Plate Special and How to Cook a Moose, will read from and sign her newest novel at 6 pm, Tuesday, Jan. 16 at Collected Works Bookstore, 202 Galisteo St. (and online via Zoom). The story’s protagonist, Rachel Calloway, is a Pulitzer Prize-winning science writer who returns home after the death of her mother to confront painful memories and present-day problems, along with her own fears about the future of the planet. The following interview has been edited for concision and clarity.
SFR: ‘Home’ has so many different levels of meaning in your new novel: It refers to the people and places Rachel revisits; specific houses; the entire planet where we all live. Did the process of moving reflect how you were thinking about home when you wrote the book?
Kate Christensen: The interesting thing is that I started the novel in 2019 when I was living in…Maine. We lived there for 10 years. I’ve had a very peripatetic life [and]…this whole thing of building a house here in New Mexico—I really want to settle here, put down roots and never leave and die here. And I feel like the novel didn’t really work until we moved to New Mexico. It generally takes me about seven years in a place to be able to write about it and to feel like I know it well enough to put it into a novel, to fictionalize it. And the book wasn’t working. I came here with a fourth draft that I was beating my head against feeling like, ‘I don’t know why this book isn’t working.’ And then we got to New Mexico, we settled here in Taos, and meanwhile, I had written a detective novel—which is coming out this summer under a pseudonym—just for fun, just to get away from this book and its sort of dark existential questions, and all the other parallels that it had with my own sort of thorny family. So, we settle in, I went back in the novel…and I stripped it down to the studs and did another draft. I feel like coming to New Mexico absolutely allowed this book to breathe. And maybe I had to leave Maine. It’s really different to write about a place when you’re not there [versus] writing about a place when you’re there.
Rachel’s personal story drives the novel, but the backdrop is the climate grief she’s experiencing. As a Pulitzer Prize-winning science journalist, she’s very familiar with the data and the research and she sees the planet—particularly at the start of the novel—as doomed. Do her knowledge and concerns reflect your own?
It’s extremely personal for me. It’s something I have been aware of probably all my life. I was born in 1962 in Berkeley, and I remember my mother saying to me, ‘Well, you know, your father and I really debated whether or not to have children, whether or not to bring you into this world.’ It was sort of instilled in me also at school…in the 70s…there was this whole surge toward saving the planet that got completely squelched by the corporations. But as a kid, I remember growing awareness—Silent Spring [by Rachel Carson] kind of kicked it off—and there was a lot of education in the schools, even in the Arizona public school system, about pollution, about saving the whales, about…the fact that the planet was in danger. And this was 50 years ago, so it stayed with me. I never lost the awareness. I remember in the ‘90s thinking, ‘this is just unsustainable, this whole system that we live in is going to collapse around us.’ This book came out of a lifelong preoccupation that deepened in the darkness of the Trump years leading up to the pandemic. I needed to put this in a novel because that’s where I put all my questions that I’m wrestling with, and it always feels like the right place to put it.
There are several contemporary issues integrated into the novel—it feels reflective of society as we’re currently experiencing it: fentanyl, homelessness. I have this incoherent idea that maybe that’s due in some degree because it was written during COVID.
I set it before COVID, and your question is absolutely right. I wanted the pandemic to be looming in the book, even though it’s set before the pandemic and it’s set during the first years of the Trump presidency when he was systematically dismantling all of the things that some of us hold dear in this country, and the homeless crisis was escalating in Portland in Maine. There were just all these connections I was making that felt intuitive to me. I felt like they were important to fictionalize because story is how we make sense of things. And again, I was feeling very dark and I wanted answers.
I think the reason the book wasn’t working was that I kept throwing stuff at Rachel: a lot of things that I was feeling; a lot of the losses I was feeling. I liked inhabiting her voice because she’s not me. She’s not someone who gives into emotion. She’s pragmatic and fact-based and really interested in science and action. And so, she was a very effective avatar for me during those years, but the problem with her when I was writing the book was that she kept solving her problems. The book ran out of steam and fell apart because that was comforting for me, but bad for the book. The thing I have to do and the thing that I finally could do when I came to New Mexico and came to ground here in Taos, was to sustain her struggles and sustain her losses and really let myself see where they would go because I wanted to see what she would do.
That was my next question was wondering if you knew from the start how things would work out for Rachel?
I had to not know in order for the book to work. I had to put her through all this stuff, and it gets really dark. She loses everything. During the time I was writing the early drafts, I felt this possibility of losing everything and I thought, ‘what are we made of and what happens to us when we lose everything we take for granted?’ And it was a really interesting question, an existential question for me, and I thought worthy of exploring in a novel.
I read your first novel, In the Drink, when I was basically the same age as its main character Claudia, and thought there was this line drawn between her and Rachel and their relationship to alcohol—the novels point out the very large differences in struggling with drinking in your 20s versus your 50s.
With Rachel, I always think of the image of an ice core, that she’s a frozen woman at the beginning, even though she’s molten with hot flashes. And the idea of drinking for her is the idea of pleasure. And she’s afraid of it. It’s not so much that she has a drinking problem. It’s more that she’s afraid of her own desires, and she’s sublimated and suppressed them. Drinking for her means letting desire back into the world, back into her body, thawing a bit. But I love that parallel between her and Claudia.
I also thought about Dante reading the new novel—that Rachel is in the journey of the middle of her life, and having a very gendered experience.
Do you mean the menopause?
I wanted to write about menopause. I feel like it’s an existential rite of passage for women that is sort of joked about. You know: Hot flashes are a joke and bad moods are joke and not being able to tolerate the sound of your husband chewing is played for laughs, but it’s really existential. It’s like adolescence in reverse. We treat coming-of-age and adolescence really seriously and there are a lot of great novels about it. But I don’t think menopause is given the same seriousness and the same attention and complexity in fiction.
One question about food, which obviously plays a big role in all of your books. It seemed to me Rachel’s response to food changes as the book proceeds. In the beginning she can barely eat because she’s fixated on how bad the food is for her, and by the end, when she’s at her grandfather’s cabin, she’s eating anything she can get her hands on. Why was that important?
This sort of gets at the heart of the entire book. I think that food is character, food is class, food is…the building block of the day and the most common shared experience we have. The food Rachel eats and how she eats and what she doesn’t eat traces her evolution through the book, from sitting at a table stymied, because her former FDA scientist husband filled her with too much knowledge about what’s in our food, to eating the plausibly disgusting, very simple, very working-class meal her aunt makes at the end of the book, which shows her homecoming. It shows her rejoining her own tribe.
And New Mexico cuisine, how are you finding it?
I love the food here. I wish there was a good Indian restaurant up in Taos, but you know, you can’t have everything.