Columbia College Chicago Adjunct Professor and MFA Alum Kate Wisel Publishes Thesis Project

Credit: Kate WiselCredit: Kate Wisel
Kate Wisel is the author of Driving in Cars with Homeless Men, winner of the 2019 Drue Heinz Literature Prize, selected by Min Jin Lee.

Kate Wisel, a Columbia College Chicago MFA in Fiction alumna and adjunct professor’s first book of short stories, Driving in Cars with Homeless Men, is now widely available. 

A linked short story collection, Driving in Cars with Homeless Men is a love letter to women moving through violence, set in the streets and the bars, the old homes, the tiny apartments, and the landscape of a working-class Boston. Wisel is currently touring the country with her Drue Heinz Lit Prize-winning short story collection.

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Here, Wisel discusses how her experience and advisor at Columbia helped her writing and her advice for aspiring writers.

How did your experience at Columbia help you write and finish your book? Are there any CCC faculty that helped you throughout the writing process? If so, how?

Don De Grazia was my thesis advisor at Columbia. Instead of dissecting my manuscript, he interrogated my own mechanisms as the creator. This was brilliant and backwards. When a teacher marks up a page, you might learn a few things about what they think. But what about what you think? Don was more interested in my arrival at an idea than the idea itself, as ideas are stagnant entities until they are exchanged. There are writing teachers whose pedagogy suggests that the writer must conform to the story and not the other way around. They teach like doctors, assuming works in progress are poised to be fixed. That the story needs to be told from the toddler’s perspective. That the toddler needs an arc. That the story should begin with the toddler calling CPS. Those are antidotes, but characters are complex, and questions are more complex than answers. Don, instead, spent a lot of time asking me genuine questions along the lines of: why is she speaking? Do you like, right there, what she says?  These are simple but eternal questions concerned with voice and how it wrestles with experience. And if voice is desire, what is more recognizable to a reader than an incorrect route, a flaw in the architecture of a sentence?

Making art is like being in communion with God, having an insane invisible devotion, speaking back and forth to a presence that is real to you and no other. It’s beautiful but can be isolating. So, besides Don being really excellent at what he does, it was powerful to have someone in that sphere with me, caring about my book and pushing it to be the best it could be. In lots of ways, we do better when we believe someone we respect or admire is seeing and understanding us. In literature specifically, you speak back to the people who have spoken to you. Besides Don being a profoundly influential teacher, I really loved American Skin. It's physical but full of intellect, hilarious but heartbreaking, strangely classic for being so original. I respected his work. I wanted him to respect mine and watch over it. I’m so glad he did.

Driving In Cars With Homeless Men started as your graduate thesis project, how did you find inspiration for the short stories? What is your writing process like?

“Taking” something or “using” it has a negative connotation. I make something from my experiences. I create alternatives because I sometimes find reality intolerable. In mimicking something, the artifice is a vehicle for recognition, and if you can recognize something you can change it, and if you can change something you have revolted against it. Which I think is a healthy cycle.

Was there ever a time you thought the book wouldn’t be published? If so, what did you do to make it happen?

Besides there being a natural amount of uncertainty, my intuition was that the book would be published. My love for doing it guided the entirety of my twenties, and I don’t think I would have kept at it if I wasn’t putting my whole heart into it and believing in the thing that it was becoming.

What are common traps for aspiring writers?

Figuring out who not to listen to is as important as knowing who to listen to. Workshop is a barometer for how you feel about your work and what it’s doing, not a barometer for how much everyone approves of or agrees with your art.

What advice do you have for other writers? Any advice for students?

Our voices are broken because we’re human. Find logic in the flaws, the patterns that problems make within the piece, versus attempting to write something that is technically perfect or bulletproof against the critique of others. 

If you could tell your younger writing self anything, what would it be?

You’re not bad and I’m not a dream.

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