I'm really excited to be here today with debut novelist Kate Hope Day. Kate is a former associate producer at HBO. A graduate of Bryn Mawr with a PhD in English from the University of Pittsburgh, she currently lives in Oregon with her husband and two children. Let’s talk to Kate about her novel If, Then.
Welcome, Kate. Thanks for coming on “Moms Don't Have Time to Read Books.”
Kate Hope Day: Thank you so much for having me. This is delightful.
Zibby: I'm so glad. Now is the time to tell people what your book is about, so you won't forget. [laughs]
Kate: Hopefully I won't forgot. If, Then is a novel about four neighbors who share a cul-de-sac in a fictional town in Oregon called Clearing. It follows these four people as they're going about their lives. One of them, Ginny, is a surgeon. She lives with her husband Mark and their eleven-year-old son Noah. Mark is a wildlife biologist. He studies how animal behavior can potentially predict natural disasters.
Zibby: Which was very interesting. I had no idea. Is that true, by the way? Does that actually happen?
Kate: That is real science. I can talk a little more about that later.
Zibby: Sorry to interrupt.
Kate: At first, I just made it up. Then I went and looked. There's some real science. It’s so interesting.
They're in one house. In the other house is Cass, who’s a new mother. She's struggling to still maintain her work, which is being a philosophy scholar. Then in the other house is Samara who has recently moved back home after her mother’s death. She is a fledgling real estate agent. Those are the four main characters. They're going about their lives the way we all do, trying to balance career, kids, friends. Then some strange things start happening. They begin to see visions that they don't entirely understand. As the book unfolds, we begin to realize that they're seeing glimpses of an alternate reality, which is like their lives but with some startling differences. That’s my little summary of the book. [laughs]
Zibby: Well done. You passed the test.
Kate: I didn't even have to look at my...
Zibby: Good, no notes needed. The book was really interesting. It lets you think about what if, of course with your title, but what if your life went in a different direction? It’s the whole Sliding Doors movie phenomenon, which is one of my favorite movies. You always think these little things in our lives, what if I had done this or that? What inspired you to write this?
Kate: To start off, I think it’s a universal thing. We all have those things in our minds, these imagined or ghost lives, if I had taken a different job or had married someone else or if I had one more kid. That's a perpetual one for me. What if I'd had girls? I have two boys. What if I'd had a third child? To be more specific, the book really grew out of two forks in the road for me, which were having my first baby and then moving to Oregon right after I graduated from my PhD program. I was in this very strange space of not working for the first time in my life, being home with a new baby. My husband was working long hours because it was his first job out of residency. I was quite isolated the way my character Cass is. I definitely thought a lot about my old life.
The emotional impulse behind the book was trying to understand this feeling of being split in two when you have a baby. I think of that in terms of both linear time -- you were a person before and then you're a person after, there's some differences there, and it’s hard to hold onto who you were before you had kids -- but also this perpetual, and this never goes away, this perpetual needing to be in two places at once. You want to be with them, but you also want to do whatever it is that your passion is. For me, it was making things, telling stories. That was the emotional impulse behind it.
In the soup of ideas of where the book came from, I also had been studying philosophy of counterfactuals in graduate school. I had some of those ideas in my head. This particular philosopher, David Lewis, who is the real-life inspiration for Robert Kells in the book, he wrote several books where he posited that any counterfactual statement that you make, any if/then statement or scenario that you can pose, actually exists in the multiverse. If you can pose a scenario in which you did the other thing that you always thought maybe you could've done --
Zibby: -- If I had worked out this morning, I might be feeling more fit right now.
Kate: [laughs] Seriously. If I had not drank so much coffee, I would not be so jittery. Exactly. That you exists because there's a multiplicity of realities. I had that. There was the emotional impulse behind the book and the intellectual ideas that I picked up on. Those two things came together. It started with Cass. Then I looked right. Ginny and Mark were in the house next door. I looked left. Samara was in the house to the left.
Zibby: There you go. Let’s talk about Cass a little. She was one of my favorites. I so related to her stuck in the car and sending desperate texts to her husband who was far away and just having the baby. I started with twins, but having your life be enveloped by kid-dom after being a normal, functioning member of society...
Kate: [laughs] A person that can have a conversation and finish the thought and wears clothes and takes showers.
Zibby: Yes, exactly. You mentioned this a minute ago. You had this great quote in the book about Cass. You said, “Her life is much smaller since she had Leah and less free, but it’s also much more than it was all at once, all at the same time. She has to be more than one thing now. She has to be two, three, four. It seemed impossible at first, but now, maybe it’s not.” I feel like you added a little bit of hope in that moment. Do you want readers to feel hopeful that this time will pass?
Kate: It’s definitely that time will pass. It does. What's so strange about reading this book out loud is that when I wrote it, I was like, Cass is me. That was true, just so authentically came out of me in that moment. That's where I was when I was writing the book. Now, I read it and my kids are more school-aged.
Zibby: How old are your kids now?
Kate: They're eight and just turned five. I have one kid that's still in preschool. He goes to preschool. He has hours away from me. It’s not that physical nursing where they're always on you. On the one hand, it passes. It becomes something else. I also think you get better at it. You say, I can't do this. I can't do this. Then you realize, no, I don't have four arms, but I metaphorically have four arms. You just figure out how to be in two places at once in a way and little work arounds. Then other people in your life step up. You adapt. If you're lucky enough to have a partner to do it with, then the two of you, you do, you get better at it. I managed to write this book.
Zibby: So impressive. You did it.
Kate: I think there is a way to hold onto the parts of yourself that are most important. I also think part of it is letting go of things that can be let go of. When people ask me, how did you write this book? I try to be honest. I don't want it to seem magical. I gave up a lot. There's a lot of things I don't do. I don't keep an organized record of my kids’ photographs. A lot of the things that other moms I know do at night, they call a good friend on the phone, I don't really do that anymore. I’ll send texts. I try to stay in touch with friends. I don't have hobbies. I have my kids. I have writing. That's totally fine for me. That's not necessarily a choice everyone wants to make. Part of it is figuring out what are the things that I have to do? Obviously, loving your kids and being with them is something you have to do, but what's that other thing? For some people, it’s riding their horse. For me, I have to write. I have to tell stories. My house is not very organized.
Zibby: The confessions come out. We’re just [indiscernible] in.
Kate: My car is a mess, usually. I look around. This is not what I would want, but that book exists. [laughs]
Zibby: You should get one of those cars. You know the buses where you have wrap-around decals? You should put that on the outside of your car. Anybody who says anything, be like, no.
You had this line by the way, I was like, I have a feeling that the author just felt this way herself. It goes, “Cass thought she would be okay to leave. She wants to leave, to get back to the notes she just typed. She's going to leave. She's shouldering her laptop bag. She's waving goodbye. She's leaving. She's doing it, but it feels awful. Will it feel this awful every time?” This is when Cass is trying to leave to go to work. How great to have a job where you can then just sit and reflect on the fact that you had to leave to go to your job. Do you know what I mean? I just loved that.
Samara, the neighbor, you wrote really movingly about the loss of her mother and how she was working through that, which is another part of motherhood, the being the daughter and then seeing that relationship. When her dad was starting to give away some of her mom’s possessions, Samara was like, don't do that. She thought maybe he was secretly thrilled about it. Then you wrote this line, which I starred because I loved it. “His face sags.” The dad says, “I'd carry every object in this house on my back if it meant I could have one more day with your mother.”
Kate: It gets me too and I wrote it. The two of them together I just find...
Zibby: Did that come from a place in your own life? Where did that come from?
Kate: Things are hard, especially things that belong to someone that's gone or even things that belong to someone and your relationship with that person has changed. They're weighted in a way. I witnessed the struggle that my mom and my uncle have had with my nana’s things. It’s a lot of stuff. It’s a house full of things that she loved. You don't want to sell it. You don't want to give it away. It has to go somewhere at some point. There's a such a craze right now for reducing stuff, which is great. Sometimes in that conversation, some of the meaning behind things generationally gets lost in some of that conversation. Especially since I'm just a couple generations from Italian immigrants coming on a boat, for my nana, a lot of those beautiful things that she had -- it wasn’t anything that was worth all that much -- but it meant a lot to her. They were chosen with care. Those things meant that she had made it. She was an American.
If you give all that stuff away, do you lose that sense of history and the connection to her? Samara’s really in it because her mom has just died. How can you shed the stuff that is for Samara, her? As the book unfolds, you start to find out that the dad and her mom had this other plan. They were going to have another life. He has more allegiance to that. It’s these competing ideas of the people that we loved. She has one idea of her mom. Her father has another. In a way, we all have different realities all the time. I'm one way with my mom and one way with my husband. We always have competing selves.
Zibby: My son is often better behaved not around me. I'm just going to cling to the fact that other moms say he's really polite when he goes over for dinner.
Kate: I know. It’s so interesting.
Zibby: As long as he has another side, then I've done part of my job. [laughs]
Kate: I have one kid that's a bit of a challenge at home. At school, his teachers tell me he's the best listener. I say, really? That's so interesting.
Zibby: You're going to have some surprising conferences over the years. I’ll stop at that. [laughs]
Another one of your central characters is Mark, who’s married to Ginny. They end up having these marital issues throughout the book. Mark has this single-minded focus on managing his anxiety by fortifying himself in some way, so making a bunker -- I don't want to give anything away. His emergency preparation goes to extremes. I wanted to know how you saw that playing into their relationship. Did that cause the demise? Were they just on different pages?
Kate: With Mark, it’s this very human impulse to want to try to protect the people that you love, your spouse, your kids. He's got this personality where he wants to try to control things, even things that probably can't be controlled. His wife is in the medical field. I know from being married to someone that's in a medical field that they have a different attitude about bad luck and accidents. They just don't believe that you can completely avoid it. It’s not like if something bad is going to happen to you, it’s when. Hopefully, it won't be really bad. The most important thing is figuring out how to live through it. That's the ER doctor/surgeon attitude. You just grin and bear it. You move through it. Mark is, in some way, more like me. I'm running interference trying to keep the bad luck at bay.
In fairness to my husband -- this is so relevant for kids too -- yes, you can try to protect yourself from bad things happening to you, whether it’s an earthquake or something much smaller. It really walls you off from some maybe scary but also incredibly rewarding experiences. It’s the same thing with kids. You want to protect them. You also want them to experience the world. Part of experiencing the world is there's always some danger involved. I'm not sure I totally can tell you I think their marriage split up for this reason. To me, that's the tension between the two of them. They haven't really been able to understand each other in that way. They each have started to live separately in a way in their own minds and aren’t able to communicate in a way that the other person gets what’s preoccupying them.
Zibby: You did, also, such a great job of depicting a couple in the midst of having the doctorhood be another part of their marriage. I haven't been, ever, in a relationship with somebody in the medical field. Just even hearing what it’s like at night, or the exhaustion, or when you have to go in, and the double life of being a doctor in such an intense environment -- I always wonder when I go to a hospital, how do...?
Kate: They don't belong to you one hundred percent ever. I went into it knowing that. I met my husband when he was in medical school. I truly knew what I was signing up for because we were together for a long time before we got married. He had me watch this truly horrifying documentary about Harvard doctors and how they all get divorced as a “Listen, it’s not going to be super easy.” [laughs] Luckily, that did not happen. They couldn't get through residency without splitting up. It’s tough. You have to be okay with fact that someone who has cancer is going to sometimes go ahead of you. Sometimes, that wears on you. Most of the time, it’s such a rewarding career for him that that outweighs the middle of the night stuff.
Zibby: It’s not like he's up working on a PowerPoint presentation or a [indiscernible] model or something. Saving someone's life is a little bit...
Kate: Yes. His patients are so wonderful and grateful and constantly bringing him gifts.
Zibby: Aw. I’ll be here for the brownies. [laughs]
Kate: I can't be mad at them for calling in the middle of the night.
Zibby: Tell me a little more about your process. I read somewhere that you had a Google Calendar that you kept for each character so that you could keep their timeline straight? That's intense.
Kate: I’ll say a little bit about some of the things I did with If, Then. Then maybe I’ll say a little bit more about my process generally because I just finished my second book. If, Then, I hadn’t ever written fiction before. There was a lot of trial and error. It took me a while because I was teaching myself how to do things like dialogue and how to do character arcs.
Zibby: How did you do that? Did you google it? You tried it? Did you take a class? I know I'm joking around. You just experimented?
Kate: I read novels for seven years in graduate schools. One of the things that I studied was narrative structure. I used to work with my students a lot. We would plot Pride and Prejudice on the board. That was already a part of my DNA. Some things you might not know how to do it, but you know when you're not doing it well. You can sense what it should be. You just have to butt-in-chair, keep working, keep writing that scene, or write a different one and then come back to it. I did take some classes. The best thing I ever did was find my wonderful critique group, which is seven years going. They don't lie to me. If something’s not working, they say. At first, most of us really didn't know what we were doing. Now, another member has been published, actually by my same imprint. They’ve always been extremely astute with “This particular thing isn't working.” I did that. I did some conferences like Tin House and Squaw Valley. Mostly, I just read, kept reading all the things, things I don't like, things I do like. I was trained as a Victorianist, so I still go back to those books all the time, things that are coming out now.
Oh, back to the Google Calendars. [laughs] If, Then was unique in the sense that there were four points of view. They were seeing other versions of themselves, so technically there were eight timelines I needed to keep track of. My editor and I did some work to make sure that there was some real specific continuity across the points of view. One of the things we did was make sure that the weather lined up in a very precise way. I had a Google Calendar for each character. Then I had a weather. There's a hail storm at one point. I need to make sure that’s happening at the right time when you switch into another point of view. I had a lot of tricks with that book to keep track of the different points of view and the different glimpses they were seeing into another reality.
More generally, the way I like to work is I will write very freely -- this is how my second novel came about -- write very freely for about thirty thousand words to get a sense of voice, main characters, the world. I don't edit. It’s just what it is. It’s probably not very good, but I don't worry about that. Then I’ll go back, and I’ll start really thinking about structure. I do a lot of visual things. I have plot charts. I have character arc charts. I’ll do a thematic chart. Once I have some visual of what I think the book should look like in terms of how the characters develop, or they change, or what are the major plots, or thematically how do we go from one idea to where you're supposed to end up at the end of the book, then I’ll go back and I’ll try to make those thirty thousand words into something that's actual scenes. Then I try to write through to the end. I'm always redoing my plot charts. I'm always going back. I'm a visual person that way. I’ll have them right here. We’re at your desk.
Zibby: At my bulletin board.
Kate: I’ll have a chart of what the book should look like structurally. I'm always referencing that to make sure, have I gotten to the midpoint? Is something happening in the midpoint? Are characters changing?
Zibby: Very cool. Can you say what your next book is about?
Kate: I just finished it in the sense that I gave it to my agent. It’s also going to be forthcoming from Random House with my same editor. I'm thrilled about that. It is an imaginative retelling of Jane Eyre set in the near future. My agent calls it a book about the ultimate STEM girl. STEM as in, you know. Sometimes I call it Jane Eyre meets The Martian. It’s been really fun to write. It’s very different from my first book. It has some commonalities. There's a character in it that's trying to figure things out in the same way that Cass is trying to figure something out. I've gotten to learn about things like fetal cells. For the first book, I learned about frogs. I love that stuff.
Zibby: You never know where your novel will take you. What after this? Are you going to do another book? Is it too early to say? I know you already have so much in progress.
Kate: I have an idea for my third book in my mind. The way it’s worked for me is characters take up residence in my mind for about six months to a year before I ever write a word. If they stick around that long, then I know that has to be the book. My retelling of Jane Eyre was like that. I didn't let myself write anything because I was going to finish If, Then.
Zibby: If I hadn’t finished If, Then, then I could have written the Jane Eyre book.
Kate: Right. I kept wanting to switch to something else. I have a great member of my critique group who was like, “You have to finish it. Otherwise, when you get to that part of the next book, you won't know how to do that part, the end part or the final edits.” I'm very glad I took her advice on that. I'm excited about that book.
Zibby: What advice would you give to someone just starting out?
Kate: I've been thinking about that quite a bit. I was just at Bryn Mawr College. There were a lot of undergraduate writers. I think of myself as starting from very little six years ago when I started this book, but I had an academic background. I had work experience, life experience. I’ve had kids. They're really at the start. What are the most important things? I think I've mentioned them. You need to read a million books and know what you like in terms of on the page, at the sentence level. Do you like writing that's layered? Do you like more clean, spare writing? Also, what are the stories that you can't stop talking about? What do they do? For me, they're often about characters trying to figure something out. Anything that you just can't get out of your mind, you should probably read that book multiple times.
That's my other thing I like to say. Rereading has been the best thing I've ever done for my writing. You reread things that you love. Maybe it’s not the best book, the highest literature. I'm not necessarily talking about that. That's great, too. A book that’s under your skin and you don't know why, if you read those books, they become part of your DNA. Once you sit down to start working yourself, those books are in you. It’s not a craft lesson. It’s part of you at that point. It comes out. Just like the movie Sliding Doors was part of me because I watched it so many times, I don't think I really thought I'm going to write a book that’s in that vein. That movie was just hangin’ around in my brain because I watched it so many times. The other thing I would say is it’s amazing what can happen if you just sit down and you keep at it. You will get better. Butt-in-chair is the best advice.
Zibby: Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don't Have Time to Read Books.” It was so much fun chatting with you. Wishing you all the best. I can't wait to read the next one.
Kate: Thank you. So glad to be here.