An Interview with Kristen Millares Young, author of “Subduction”
April 22, 2020
By Gabriela Denise Frank
We are sharing a seismic moment. An unprecedented global pause is shifting space-time as we know it.
Our struggle with sheltering in place has revealed both tension and gaps in our relationships that require tending. We are forced to stay and listen when we might otherwise leave. This quarantine has also left us yearning for contact with friends and colleagues, even passing strangers, in the outside world.
Like any social species, humans thrive through community. Any genre of expressive art—books, plays, films, music, dance—becomes more critical to our health and wellbeing when we cannot meet physically. Art provides a golden tether to humanity when we feel most isolated.
The stories we cleave to, especially in hard times, center on people who dare to illuminate darkness, both inside and outside themselves. Not necessarily heroes, but seekers. Ordinary people who upend routine and plunge into mystery—those driven to discover how they were made and who they are.
Last week, I spoke with Kristen Millares Young, author of the novel Subduction, released on April 14 by Red Hen Press. The story follows two such seekers to the tip of the Pacific Northwest at Neah Bay: a Latina journalist searching for solace and community on the Makah Indian Reservation and a prodigal son seeking answers to his father’s murder. The journey to Neah Bay is one that Kristen, a prize-winning journalist, took herself many times over thirteen years to research this book. Like her characters, she found that the relationships she forged on these journeys reconnected her with her own past, a family legacy spanning generations and continents to the birth of two sons whom she nurtured alongside this book—and a career in journalism, teaching, and activism.
Kristen and I spoke about launching her first novel during a pandemic; the commitment and craft of writing through twenty drafts; her approach to moderating conversations; and the support of poet, essayist, and novelist Luis Alberto Urrea, a friend and mentor who she will be in conversation with at an upcoming SAL event. (Kristen’s recommended method of preparation: read everything the author wrote.)
The pulse of our conversation kept returning to community, connections, voices. Afterward, I kept thinking how every story is really an origin story, even when we set out to write something else. Human curiosity, our attraction to narrative, our longing to sit knee-to-knee around the firelight—to learn, to know, to share—is embedded in our DNA.
In life, we prefer past and future—memories and plans that we believe we control—yet it is by paying attention and caring for one another through the painful and uncertain present that we learn to live. The present is where the greatest stories take place. Stories that provide safe shelter by which we follow a seeker on her quest, learn from her adventures and imagine how we might, and will, endure our own.
The following conversation with Kristen Millares Young is excerpted from a longer interview. If you’d like to listen to the audio version, click the play button below—or, read a full transcript here.
Frank: Your first novel—Subduction—comes out this month. Tell us a bit about it.
Young: This novel has two protagonists. Claudia, a Latina anthropologist, makes her way out to the Makah Reservation to conduct field research. There, she meets a commercial diver named Peter, a Makah man who recently returned to care for his mother who is suffering from dementia and has become a hoarder in his absence. He left decades earlier because of the sudden death of his father and, having suffered that trauma, went into diaspora, like Claudia. These two people encounter each other and find a way into relation that defies ethical boundaries and catalyzes situations lain stagnant for too long.
I started researching the book in 2007, several years before I began to write. I wanted to learn how we, as immigrants, come to be settlers on this land, which is native land. What are the mechanisms by which that has happened and continues to happen throughout our history, into the present day? What I found was a very welcoming, generous community in Neah Bay, which is where the Makah Nation is. Their way of being precedes the arrival of settlers to this region by millennia. It’s a really amazing community and pretty remote, geographically—they’re right on the northwest tip of the Lower Forty-Eight.
Frank: You have said that you wrote twenty drafts of this story. At what point of weaving, unweaving, and weaving again, did the novel shift into a pattern that felt right?
Young: Probably draft eight. There were major re-workings that happened in the very first draft. I realized I had started the book a few weeks too early in Claudia’s life. Because of that, I came to know her very well. The book now begins after these chapters, which were the majority of what I’d written while attending graduate school at the University of Washington. Cutting them felt momentous at the time.
I had never written fiction before I started writing this novel; I had been a journalist for years. For me, it was an extended inquiry. I think it’s essential to take time to reflect before producing a work of art, especially one that is multicultural and polyglot, the way Subduction is. I learned not to be precious with my own time.
I believe in the iceberg theory not just as an analytical tool for understanding movement and meaning in a story, but as a revision tool. There’s so much you can take out of a story, yet the text remains haunted by it. Now, Subduction begins with a tremendous amount of energy. Claudia is haunted by all these things that she’s just been through and carries that image with her into this community. This is, of course, the real and long study of contact between settlers and indigenous peoples in this nation.
Frank: You participated in the Jack Straw Writers Program while working on Subduction. How did that shape your work?
Young: The year I was in Jack Straw, I finished my second draft right before I gave birth to Jack, my first son. The first outing I had after giving birth was performance training with Elizabeth Austen, former Washington State poet laureate.
Subduction is about oral histories and the ways in which legacy is passed on through traditional means. I ended up using orality in the revision process. I read the book aloud to myself many times, and I performed it. Get up on stage and it’ll tell you real quick, what needs to go. It’s a hard way to burn something you don’t need out of the book, but a good way.
Jack Straw played a huge role in keeping me on track, getting me out in public during that first year of a child’s life. I learned how to become a performer and, in the process, develop a lyric prose style. The musicality of sentences comes from giving them breath many times. It’s something I encourage my students to do. It’s a revision technique that works every time.
Frank: Were there moments you felt discouraged or stymied while writing Subduction? How did you work through challenges?
Young: I received very good advice from a mentor: one, always be known as a closer; two, have multiple projects going on at any one time.
During the time I spent writing, researching, revising, and bringing Subduction into the world, I worked full-time. I was at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, which was swallowed by the great wave of newspaper closures of 2008-2009, so I started a nonprofit investigative journalism studio called InvestigateWest where I served as board chair from 2016 to 2019. I became an active freelancer while attending graduate school at the University of Washington, and was on a Pulitzer Prize-winning team with the New York Times. I started writing dailies for The Guardian. I wrote my last daily on the Oso mud slide two hours before giving birth to my second son.
I published numerous personal essays and was fortunate to become the Writer-in-Residence at Hugo House where I’ve made mentorship an active part of my literary practice. Writing is not an open-and-shut story. It’s keeping yourself accountable to your community through performance, providing feedback, receiving feedback, mentoring other people, and staying current with issues.
Frank: As a moderator, how do prepare to interview someone like Luis Alberto Urrea?
Young: The very first thing I do is read everything that the person has ever written. That’s number one! Luis has so many books—it’s really inspiring. I consider it a continuation of my lifelong education. Through that process, you get a sense for someone’s stylistic evolution—the way they have refracted the prisms of their concerns through different works in different genres over the years. Beauty elicited over time complicates the narratives that our youth-obsessed culture perpetrates on artists, which is: if you don’t flower forth at the age of thirteen, you’re done.
Art is a continual excavation of the self and the reflection of the possibilities of society. That takes time and seasoning. It takes sadness and sorrow and all the things that life is doling out to us, bit by bit. What I find, being a literary moderator, is that the process of preparation makes me better as a writer, a thinker, a human being. The deep study of another person’s work also provides a platform for me to know what they haven’t been asked.
I like to figure out a writer’s aesthetic, their philosophy of being and writing, which comes over time through craft choices. I ask about their intentions and try to connect those intentions to larger issues in society. To me, a conversation with an author is something that should elicit more inquiry, more investigation in the heart of the reader.
Frank: What about Urrea’s work, from a craft perspective, are you excited to explore with him and the audience at Seattle Arts & Lectures?
Young: There are two things I want to highlight particularly. One is performance. Luis is one of the best performers I’ve ever encountered. He said, and I don’t think he’d mind me telling you because he wants everyone to be better, Read it to yourself twenty-five times in a row, and you’ll get it. And, you know, he was right. It works.
The other aspect I appreciate so much about Luis—and this is something that I’m going to work on for the rest of my life—is range. His emotional range within a particular work is astounding. The sorrow and pathos of living is heightened when you have the discipline to get joy right on the page. Luis does that well. He finds the absurd, the tender. He finds care and joy—even in situations rife with injustice. That, I believe, is why readers love him so much.
Frank: You are launching a book during an uncertain and shifting time. What advice would you give to other authors weathering the effects of the pandemic, especially those who will launch books this year?
Young: There is something beautiful about looking into someone else’s eyes without the mediator of a screen, but the fact is, there are very real opportunities to connect with people online. The people you love and admire are still out there—they’re just in their homes—and that is where your book will reach them, regardless.
I feel very lucky that a number of people on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram have been posting about Subduction. Their kindness and appreciation of the nuance of the book have helped to keep me going. I have about a dozen conversations, reviews, and essays coming out over the next month, which is the largest part of the tour I’m doing now. I’m conducting a series of live readings and recordings that I will post on the thirty-five days of the original book tour I had scheduled—and am now in the process of rescheduling. Fortunately, some of the key bookstores and institutions have invited me back for next year’s conferences or for readings this fall.
Ultimately, you take care of yourself and people around you during a hard time, recognizing that hard times are pivot points in one’s life. Being a mother has taught me that, when we come into this world, we come in with a lot of joy. I believe that joy is the natural human condition. It gives me hope for humanity that we might pivot toward joy in the long arc of our future.
My hope is, during this long period of time—however long it is before we’re able to emerge into the light and into each other’s arms—we will reflect upon the lives that we’d like to lead: how we might care for one another, and the ways in which we can support each other.
We are about to experience a socio-economic cataclysm related to this pandemic, and people are already in dire straits. We will need to come together as a society to make something good of this era. That’s why I’m grateful to books, for reminding us of our humanity.
Gabriela Denise Frank is a literary artist whose work has appeared in galleries, storefronts, libraries, anthologies, magazines, podcasts, and online. Her essays and fiction have been published in True Story, Hunger Mountain, Bayou, Baltimore Review, Crab Creek Review, Pembroke, The Normal School, and The Rumpus. A Jack Straw Writer and Artist Trust EDGE alumna, Gabriela’s work is supported by 4Culture, Mineral School, Vermont Studio Center, Jack Straw, Invoking the Pause, and the Civita Institute. www.gabrieladenisefrank.com