Dead Darlings Debut: Kate Milliken, Kept Animals

Kept Animals is a darkly beautiful book, tender yet powerful, an exquisite exploration of hurt and desire, the why of wanting, taking, and giving.” —Jeannette Walls, author of The Glass Castle and Half Broke Horses

“In this rugged and ravishing debut, a tragic car accident upends the lives of multiple Southern California families—particularly three teenage girls, whose lives and desires intersect in ways none of them could have imagined.” —O, The Oprah Magazine

What is your book about? 

Kept Animals (Scribner Books) is about desire, betrayal, and what it’s like to be a young woman too often held to someone else’s standards. The story is centered on the daughters of two very different families—different culturally and economically—and the heated friendship formed between the daughters of these families after a tragic accident. Predominantly a coming-of-age story, Kept Animals is set in Topanga Canyon, California, on horse ranch during the months leading up to the real-life wildfire that devastated the area on November 2, 1993.

Can you tell us about your path to publication?

This is my debut novel, but my first book was a collection of stories. I wrote most of those twelve stories while I was a graduate student in the Bennington College Writing Seminars. After graduating, I had some luck publishing them in literary journals, but not as whole book, so I started to outline a novel. This was six years after I graduated, after having two kids. I remember vividly in September of 2012, my kids had both been in school for the first time, going on one month, and I was really frustrated because the pages weren’t exactly flowing out me. So, I printed out all of my stories, moved them around, reprinted them, and hurried to the post office before pick-up so that I could make the deadline for the Iowa Award. I was doing this just so that I would feel like I’d accomplished something that day. A few months later I got a call. Julie Orringer had chosen my collection, If I’d Known You Were Coming, for the 2013 Iowa Award. Orringer’s collection How to Breathe Underwater was one of my favorite books in grad school, so that made it twice as thrilling. When If I’d Known came out in 2013, a few agents reached out to me, but it was Meredith Kaffel Simonoff who wrote me this incredible letter about my work and she’s been my agent ever since. If it weren’t for her belief in the early days of writing Kept Animals, well, it might have taken me seven more years to get here.

Where were you when you heard your book tour and/or launch party was cancelled and what did you do?

Somehow my partner was very aware of what was coming, so he had us ready to shelter-in-place the week before the order was given by Gavin Newsom. We live in Northern California, in an area that was hit hard early on. This is all to say, that I suspected my events would be canceled. Days before Newsom’s order, I’d had to find the nerve to get on a plane to San Diego for a bookseller’s conference. I’m so glad I went and spent time with the booksellers and authors there because the day after I got home we didn’t leave again. So, I was mentally prepared when the first cancellation came in and very much hunkered down with my kids. Given that the literary community is simply the best, I reached out to friends and went online, immediately finding wisdom and support — such as this opportunity, for which I am so grateful!

Are you and your publisher doing anything special/ different instead of a book tour to promote your novel? 

Several of my canceled events were in-conversation events with incredible authors (Edan Lepucki, Melissa Cistaro, Lori Ostlund, Peg Alford Pursell). I’m hoping that those conversations will still happen, but over Zoom so that we can share them with viewers – either in real-time or as a link. I’d love to find new ways to generate support for independent bookstores, especially those that so generously offered to host me: Books Inc., Book passage, Book Soup, and Copperfields, all incredible California stores! Our bookstores need us as much as we need great stories.

On a lighter note, do you have any quirky writing rituals?

I have this great little corner office in our house, where books line my desk, the light is lovely,  and there’s even a door I can close, but this is also where I pile everything I don’t want to deal with. So, I write on the couch, in the middle of everything and everyone coming and going. It’s not effective. Don’t take this as advice. Also, I have to have a hot and cold beverage when I first sit down and then a new pack of gum to keep going.

Where can we buy your book?

Please find out if your independent store is delivering! As of this writing Amazon was deprioritizing book delivery, so your local store is likely to be just as quick – and you’ll help them keep the lights on. Bookshop.org is the next best way to get your book in the mail AND support your local bookstores.

What was the hardest thing you had to cut from your book, your favorite Dead Darling?

The whole third chapter. I fawned over and rewrote that darling a thousand different ways. Then we, my editor and I, cut it altogether and started from scratch. It was a wonderfully melodramatic darling; there was a lot of breathless, palm-to-the forehead acting as we showed her the door. But I’ll admit, I kept her best lines and sprinkled them around elsewhere.

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