Kate Wisel (2022)
Photo of Kate Wisel (2022) by Michael Schacht | courtesy of University of Pittsburgh Press

Novel or Stories? Author Kate Wisel on the Powerful Paradox of Linked Collections

Kate Wisel, the author of Driving in Cars with Homeless Men, shares her thoughts on writing linked story collections, drawing inspiration from real life, and adapting her work for television.

Driving in Cars with Homeless Men
Kate Wisel
University of Pittsburgh Press
August 2020

Linked collections are almost but not quite a novel… that is the structure that not just you chose, but the book chose.

– Kate Wisel

It’s a novel. It’s a short story collection. It’s both? The “linked story collection” (also called a “novel-in-stories”) has been around for decades—no, centuries. Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio may be the modern standard-bearer, but there’s also Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles and James Joyce’s Dubliners. All the way back to Britain’s very first printed book—Chaucer and The Canterbury Tales—linked story collections have been a literary structure of choice.

So why, then, are linked collections so often shuffled into the dark corners of the publishing world? Or forced into a binary box that robs them of their eloquent ambiguity? Even linked collections that have won awards—Edwidge Danticat’s The Dew Breaker (the Story Prize), Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge (the Pulitzer), and Alice Munroe’s The Beggar Maid (the Nobel)—are tagged as either a “novel” or “story collection”. It’s one or the other, but rarely both. Yet the linked collection’s hybrid gray middle ground is what affords an author the best of both worlds: a novel’s narrative thrust paired with a collection’s coverage of diverse swaths of space, time, genre, format, and points-of-view.

Kate Wisel’s 2019 linked collection, Driving in Cars with Homeless Men, embraces this uncategorizable structure and won the 2019 Drue Heinz Literature Prize. Wisel, a Boston-native, has been published in Gulf Coast, Tin House, and New Ohio Review, among others. She won the Beacon Street Prize and served as the Carol Houck fiction fellow at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Now in Chicago, she teaches at Columbia College Chicago and Loyola University. She’s adapting Driving in Cars with Homeless Men for a miniseries pilot with Bad Wolf and Pearl Street Productions.

Driving in Cars with Homeless Men crashes through the lives of four young women—Serena, Frankie, Raffa, and Nat—as they navigate the gritty gray panorama of working-class Boston. These are women who occupy a kaleidoscopic world of cigarettes, punk rock, bad bosses, and overdoses. The result is a polyphonic medley of cacophonous voices, all captured in Wisel’s razor-sharp lyricism. Driving in Cars with Homeless Men is a gutsy exploration of young adulthood and the ways women must untangle sisterhood within a labyrinth of violence.

Fictionalizing Real-World Violence

What inspired Driving in Cars with Homeless Men?

I wrote the collection in my early twenties. At that time I had many roommates who were my best friends. It was a clubhouse.

I think women talk more than men talk about things that are going on in their lives. What stood out to me was our common experiences of violence, and the way we would talk about or around it. I started collecting and fictionalizing the stories we traded with each other but didn’t talk about in the outside world. The structure [of Driving in Cars] was girls being together, but it’s like the girls are isolated from each other in times of need.

So we can’t save each other in the present, but we can help each other process what’s happened to us and make each other feel less alone. Because we can only save ourselves. That’s the tough part. It’s girls learning to save themselves. But it’s also coming back together and being able to help each other, even though we can’t save each other.

What are your thoughts about writing difficult subject matter, such as violence against women?

With the term “violence against women”, men are excluded from the picture. Where are the men in that? It takes responsibility and causation out of the equation. We don’t rape and beat ourselves.

More and more by the day, we’re talking about mental health and trauma, and a lot of difficult subjects. The shame seems to be lessening around discussing things. Especially in public. I have a hard time with it, but it’s also super refreshing. I’m open to it and watching and observing. There’s a lot of relief in that.

You were inspired by stories from people in your actual life. How do you draw the line between fact and fiction?

How do you write about real people? Is it them? I’m like, Definitely not… but obviously. That’s always the answer. Not at all… but yeah.

It was a little bit of a struggle because I write veiled fiction. My experiences transform on the page, but what’s written resembles the truth in ways that people can recognize. My friends were really good and accepting, but some things are painful. To a non-writer, it’s difficult to understand why writing exists and why this is OK. I also wrote about my family. There’s always an awkwardness around it. But the compulsion is there to do it.

I envy writers who are insistent that they don’t write from their own experiences. That they could never write about themselves or people they know. But I have to accept that I’m not always the kind of writer who can pull things from thin air. Even though writing about your own experience is just as big of an act of imagination, it requires the type of emotional honesty that has to be at 100%. It’s always obvious if it’s not, even if it’s 99%. That 1% is very clear.

It’s hard when real people in your life see themselves or their stories in the narrative. How does your writing process work with that?

I think the test is that you’re not really writing about a particular person or situation. When you write fiction, the test is, does this alchemize into something else I’m exploring?

For example, My friend was a seed—whether a situation she was in or a characterization. And that became a story about something else that I was interested in: the idea of not owning anything, wanting to feel like you had a place in the world. But that had nothing to do with her.

The Marketability of Linked Collections

Could you talk a bit about Driving in Cars’ structure as a linked collection?

When you’re writing, something you pay attention to is the structure. As the structure develops, it’s going to tell you something about what’s inside and what the real story is. The structure will mimic the content.

I always thought of the structure [of Driving in Cars] as a pool table where the girls are together—whether they’re in their youth or later, in their apartment—and there’s a sense of safety and community in that. But then, like the balls on a pool table, they’re shot out into trajectories and rebound and crash, and never quite go where they are aimed. They spin off into unforeseen directions but come back and are changed.

What is the publishing world’s relationship like with linked collections?

Agents see with dollar signs. They know that linked collections don’t sell. An agent that I was going to sign with wanted my book to be a novel, so I was considering that.

It’s funny how linked collections are almost but not quite a novel, and that distinction—if you really see your book as a linked collection—it’s something that you want to retain. Because that is the structure that not just you chose, but the book chose.

You’re writing the pilot for a Driving in Cars miniseries now with Bad Wolf and Pearl Street Productions. How do linked collections translate to television?

Linked collections resemble television, and that’s why I think it’s odd that agents aren’t making the connection. A linked collection lends itself to TV. While writing, I saw [Driving in Cars] visually, more cinematically.

I’m trying to think why people might consider linked collections niche, and it just doesn’t make sense. Especially because of the move away from movies—which are more like novels—and moving toward series, following characters episodically. TV mimics the short story and linked story collections specifically. Maybe there’s now more of a call [for linked stories].

What has it been like, adapting your collection for television?

I’ve been having an absolute blast, and at the same time, it’s torture. I’m really eager to write more episodes… and feel really superstitious about it. Because with TV and Hollywood, no one actually knows how anything works. Everything is always “balls up in the air”. The meetings are like, “OK brilliant!” and then they pull up their laptops, and you’re like, “What is happening?”

I’ve learned that some writers, like Sally [Rooney] when writing Normal People for television, there was allegiance to the book. You pictured it exactly and it moves exactly, and the dialogue is exact.

In the process of developing [Driving in Cars], it’s the opposite. There’s an added storyline. The dialogue is completely different. It’s the same characters and I’m using their main struggles and a lot of situations from the book—but when you write a series, it’s like you’re writing arcs. You have a character that has a flaw. It’s very technical.

I was reading an interview with a director who said something like, “With T.V. you have to throw away writing. When you collaborate, there’s always a better idea.” That’s where I’ve been having the most fun. Oh, that’s a better idea! Let’s go with that. The tone is the same, it’s the book, but with some changes. There’s a lot of imaginative reality distortion that’s been exciting to play with.

Linked Story Recommendations

As a final thought, do you have any linked collections you recommend for readers who are new to the format?

A Visit From the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan. That’s one that was marketed as a novel but is actually a linked story collection.

We the Animals by Justin Torres. They’re flash pieces, and it’s more linear. It’s about a family through time. But they’re standalone pieces, through and through, and they’re poetic. We the Animals formed me as a writer.

Sabrina & Corina by Kali Fajardo-Anstine. It’s a quintessential linked story collection, where things very much echo. Things in one story appear again in another story as background. Or a character who’s a narrator in one story is a cousin in another.

Jesus’ Son by Denis Johnson. If you’re in grad school, you’re going to get hit over the head with Jesus’ Son. It is so good. It’s like the Beatles. It’s so good, but it’s so overplayed. Still, you’re like Ah! I worship Jesus’ Son.

Driving in Cars with Homeless Men is the winner of the 2019 Drue Heinz Literature Prize and is published by The University of Pittsburg Press. You can learn more about the collection, Kate Wisel, and her work at www.katewisel.com.