Siblings and Other Disappointments, the debut collection from Kait Heacock, abounds with memorably flawed characters making their way through life in a series of towns in the Pacific Northwest. Some are still reeling after the effects of trauma; others find that their quotidian routines have been challenged, or that they must rethink a relationship that had been central to their lives. (Also of note: her story “Upstairs” was first published here in 2013; she’s also contributed several essays to the site.) It’s a dynamic and frequently moving book, and I talked with Heacock about the process of making it, her connection to the works of Raymond Carver, and more.
Many of the stories in your collection have a fantastic sense of the cities and towns that surround the characters. Where in the process of writing does location come into play?
Siblings and Other Disappointments really is my love letter to my hometown–Yakima, WA–and all the small towns of my adolescence. For me, the importance of setting can vary depending on the length of the story. When I write a novel-length work, I know setting is important because the characters will have more time to engage with it. Sometimes a short story can be quite focused or insular, so the location isn’t always as necessary to explore. But with these stories, setting is character. Many of the places I reference in this collection are real–like the casino in “Father and Daughter”–or based on real places–like the restaurant/auction house in “So Be It.” If this is my one shot at saying what I want to say about where I grew up, I knew I had to consider setting from the start in order to properly honor where I’m from.
One of the stories addresses questions of work, immigration, and the law. Reading it in 2017 added an extra dimension to it; do you think you’ll be exploring political or societal questions more in future stories?
I was in the process of editing my last manuscript–about a gang of immortal riot grrrls–when the election results came in. I woke up the next day despondent like so much of the country. I cried on the bus to work; I cried at work. At the end of the day, my boss said, “You have to write about this.” The theme of “the other” is dominant throughout my manuscript, with a particular focus on the LGBTQ community, and when I went back through it with these election results in mind, I focused even more on the concept of “othering” people. There is a lot of rhetoric right now about “us” versus “them,” reaching across the aisle, and practicing empathy, and I wanted to be sure my novel explores that.
I also believe it’s important for me as a white writer to address race, and not hide away in my privilege and let other people do all the work. I’ve been thinking lately about how our storytelling will be effected by our new president and hateful political climate. It’s hard to imagine writing contemporary fiction without talking about everything that’s happening in our country. I read an article recently praising the TV show Black-ish for its portrayal of the election results. Then I wondered if predominantly white shows will address it too or will they exist in a bubble and pretend the bad thing happening isn’t happening. This is an example from pop culture, but TV is one of my favorite forms of storytelling. What I’m trying to say is that if this election has taught white people anything, it’s that our complacency isn’t going to cut it anymore. And as a writer, I won’t cut it if I shy away from subjects that make me feel uncomfortable.
You’ve cited Raymond Carver as a substantial influence on your work. When did you first encounter his fiction?
I arrived at Carver later than most people, I suspect. I didn’t read him until after college when a friend of mine gave me a book collecting the best short stories published in Esquire, and there I encountered “Neighbors.” It didn’t take long before I consumed all of his stories, then moved on to the fantastic biography by Carol Sklenicka, and finally read some of his poetry.
I feel like Carver is, perhaps, no longer as universally beloved a literary figure as he once was. Have you gotten any unexpected reactions to you citing him as an influence?
I receive a fair amount of shock in response to my love of Carver–sometimes because people know me as a feminist and are surprised I would cite an author whose writing about women they find problematic. Once they better know my biography–I grew up in the same town as Carver and had a brother who struggled with alcohol much like Carver did–they understand how much of a personal connection links me to his work. I’ve said this many times before, but it bears repeating: I never felt like I understood my brother and his addictions until I read Carver. I love Carver’s style (and acknowledge Gordon Lish’s hand in that), but my love for him will always be very personal. I have “Migration,” the title of my favorite poem by him, tattooed on me as a eulogy to my late brother. Now, I carry both he and Carver with me everywhere.
Since writing this collection, you’ve left New York and returned to the Northwest. Do you think you’ll be using NYC as a setting for anything any time soon?
I don’t. I still have quite a lot to say about the PNW, and I’m not convinced I have much to say about NYC that’s new or interesting. I wrote my leaving NYC essay because I’m a writer and that’s a rule when you move away, but none of my fiction has moved in that direction. I don’t think there are enough books set in the PNW, so I want to do my part to add to the canon. Plus, I’m writing angsty young adult fiction these days, and gloomy Seattle is a great place to set that.
Have you found the Northwest substantially different from the way it was when you lived there before?
It has been five years since I lived in Seattle, and it has gotten much more crowded and expensive since I left it. I blame most of that on Amazon. Amazon pretty much runs the show and has pushed most people out. Much of Seattle remains the same: people have a lot of opinions about coffee, nobody dresses up, and everybody is generally polite and a touch passive-aggressive–just like me! I missed the real boom of Seattle in the nineties because I was a kid living in the not cool part of Washington State, but in the interim between Seattle and Brooklyn, I lived in Portland and do feel that I got a taste of the “I knew this place first.” I moved there when Portlandia was just blowing up. Now when I go back to visit, that city seems like it has changed a lot, and it too is more crowded and expensive. But even if they’re more popular cities now, Seattle and Portland at their cores are still weird and full of dorky, kinda socially awkward people. It feels good to be home.
What’s next for you?
I turn thirty in a few weeks, so I’ve decided to go to the desert for that. The night before my spiritual journey at Joshua Tree, I’ll be reading in LA with Michelle Tea–one of my living writer idols whom I am forever grateful to know from my time in NYC. We’ll be accompanied by this badass writer/comedian/skater named Tara Jepsen. I hope I don’t do or say anything embarrassing in front of either of these goddesses. Fingers crossed!
I’m starting work on a new manuscript about the loneliness of the internet and the mediums we use to put our stories out into the world. And I’m reading. Always reading.
Photo: Rachel Kessler