“In Dialogue with Yourself ”: An Interview with Kate Doyle – curated by Wendy Chen

Kate Doyle is the author of I Meant It Once, published by Algonquin Books in the US and Corsair in the UK. A former bookseller and a 2021 A Public Space Writing Fellow, she has lived in New York City, Amsterdam, and Ithaca, New York. Her stories have appeared or are forthcoming in No TokensThe MillionsSplit LipANMLYWigleafElectric Literature, and elsewhere. She studied fiction writing at NYU and nonfiction writing at Brown.

In Kate Doyle’s debut short story collection I Meant It Once (Algonquin, 2023), the author weaves a rich cast of characters who grapple with adulthood, social expectations, gender, and the paralyzing anxiety of choice. Life and all its potential unfolds before the characters who often feel trapped in varying states of limbo or on the cusp of transforming into better versions of themselves. Doyle presents their stories with such tenderness and empathy that readers can’t help but be fully immersed into the manifold worlds of this collection. I sat down with Doyle on the cusp of her book launch to ask her a few questions.

Wendy Chen: How do you come up with your stories? What comes first for you—narrative, theme, character, setting, time? Or is it a word or a phrase or a dream that serves as a germination point for your stories? 

Kate Doyle: Most of the stories in the book I would say came out of some real memory that had stuck with me, something that still bothered me even after time had passed. I don’t mean that these are true stories, at all, but just that in many cases something real was the germination point, the story came out of some feeling of I can’t stop thinking about this. When I was first starting to write seriously, I wrote personal essays, and when I started trying to write fiction instead, I remember how nicely familiar and true it felt to still begin with some kernel of real, but then so liberating, and in many ways much truer, to get to then change and reshape and transform things. A lot of the book was written out of that impulse, which is something the book kind of ended up being about: how storytelling is away to look closely at something you can’t figure out, a way to sort out why you have some deep need to make sense of something. 

WC: What was your revision process for these stories? Was there one story that was particularly challenging to revise. If so, why? 

KD: A challenging revision was the story set in Dublin, Briefly—I did a big overhaul quite late in the revision processI had written a draft of Briefly years ago as a standalone piece, and at some point I pulled that draft into the collection. I think honestly at that point I was feeling defeated by my own slow writing process and I kind of stumbled on this old draft and thought “well I wrote this one already and it might fit, let’s put it in, presto, more words.” Eventually my editor wisely noted it was hard to say if it really did belong in the book mainly because it was hard to understand what was actually going on: in that version it was so much about a person who is really in her own head about a memory, who doesn’t want to speak directly about it. Which is very true to a certain kind of remembering, but from a storytelling standpoint made it too hazy what was happening. So I did the only true out-and-out rewrite in the book, where I braided in the second plot line around the original narrative, which places the narrator at a remove of many years from the events in question, trying to explain this memory to someone else. Normally I kind of find the shape of a story in the first draft and stay with that more or less, and my editing is more micro-level. So I’m grateful for that big-picture insight from my editor, and very glad she pushed me on it. 

WC: Place is so important in this collection—as a site of longing or memory or a record of a past self for the characters. How do you go about crafting place and setting in your stories? 

KD: That’s really nice to hear, because I think a lot of the places in these stories are places that, maybe, in the publishing industry, people are often ready to say “oh that’s already been done.” New York City, for one. Or a college campus. Christine, in the story Two Pisces Emote About the Passage of Time, has this moment where it dawns on her, and really moves her, how much she loves New York, this city that has been her home for a few years. She feels this rush of affection, and she tells her friend about it, and her friend kind of shrugs it off like: Okay but lots of people feel that way about New York—boring! And Christine is sort of crushed. I think that moment in the book came out of an anxiety I was feeling myself then, so anyway—this means a lot to me that you found place affecting in the book! As far as crafting setting, I guess one thing writing about New York specifically taught me, which ends up being broadly applicable, is how fun it can be to let your characters use the off-handed familiar terminologies of a place: simple things like the F train goes by, or the bar on Greenwich Avenue, or what have you. Or if it’s a college campus all those weird specific shorthands of this little world, like how in the first story the narrator runs into her friend at the dining hall in the Tastes of the World line, which is just such a goofy turn of phrase. I think there’s a pleasure in getting to know a place very well yourself and that if you can give that to characters, it makes the place live on the page all the more vividly, for feeling lived-in.  

WC: Along with that, how do you go about character? One particular strength of this collection is how distinct and alive each character feels amidst such a large cast of characters. Do you have any tips for writers who struggle with creating their characters? 

KD: For me dialogue is the big way into character. The three siblings that are in several stories together—Helen, Evan, and Grace—I could write about them forever, because any time one of them says something, the other two have such an opinion about it, they have something to say that illuminates the whole dynamic and all their years of history together and the themes that are at play between them. I think my love for dialogue has to do with the fact that when I was in high school and college, theater was a big love of mine, and in particular I got very interested in directing plays. I think I figured out so much about character, and how characters affect each other, just from that experience of sitting in a chair in front of a room for hours, listening to people talk to each other, observing their energies interacting, troubleshooting why the scene feels one way if it’s done like this but another way if that do it like that. (Is this my advice for crafting character, take a theater class? Maybe!) 

WC: Who or what were some of the more surprising or unusual artistic influences that helped shaped this collection? 

KD: I don’t know if this is surprising, but to step outside the realm of books, I think I couldn’t have started writing this book if not for the film Frances Ha. There’s a friendship between two young women at the heart of the story and the film treats it with as much gravity as a romantic heartbreak; I had never seen that story onscreen before and it opened the door for me to write about Helen and her friend Catherine and how they drift from one another, Helen with deep reluctance and Catherine seemingly without looking back. So that was a very literally influence, but I think too Frances Ha was stylistically formative at the time I saw it, when I was just starting to seriously write fiction. The film kind of works in the accumulation of its different moods and emotions, rather than being per se plot drivenand that became a big part of how I write. Also the way it uses dialogue to say something seemingly in passing that echoes across the whole story—that made an impact on me. There’s this moment for example where Frances is in the dressing room after a dance performance, and she’s the only one who’s still not ready to leave for the night, and she says sort of at once wryly and cheerfully, I have trouble leaving places. It works as a line on its own terms within the scene, but also in a big-picture sense, it gestures at some of the film’s themes about nostalgia and growing up and letting go. That kind of thing happens again and again in the film, and I really love it and have tried to experiment with that too. 

I guess another surprise influence to mention would be music, a surprise because it’s something I really don’t have expertise in. I mean, I’m very moved by music but I had never had a particular depth of knowledge about it or curiosity about the technicalities, if that makes sense. But around when I started writing this book I also started dating my partner, who does get music and who would put on an album over dinner and be interested in how the different tracks add up to the effect of the whole, how the parts work together, how one track might echo or complicate the one that came before. Or how one side of the record might be one thing, and then you flip it over and what you experience on the B side might change your understanding of what you heard on the A side. Those conversations definitely shaped how I thought about putting together a story collection, by thinking about it like a record album: considering the discrete parts both in themselves and in relation to each other—considering how I wanted the experience of reading to unfold by way of these different stories accumulating.

WC: There are so many lovely connections across the stories—whether that be theme or character—in a way that creates an incredibly rewarding reading experience. How did you go about ordering the stories in the collection? How do you choose which stories to begin and end the collection with? 

KD: I know I redid the order many times, and that every time thought I’d gotten it right, and then I’d do it again six months later. The same is true with how much I pulled forward and back on connections between the stories. It was a lot of just feeling my way through it and going on instinct, so it’s a little hard to describe, looking back, what that process was. I just kept thinking about how to create variety of theme, tone, character, point-of-view throughout, while also being attentive to how the ending of one story might chime interestingly or contrast interestingly with the next. The first story, That Is Shocking, and the last story, Briefly, were at one point the second and second-to-last stories, and two people said to me separately: you know this one could be good first, and maybe this one should actually come last. A happy accident of making those changes is that the two sentences that now begin and end the book I think are just the right bookends to the whole. I guess I won’t say the ending, but the first sentence of the book is This happened to me, and I think of that line now as like—an invocation or something. It’s storytelling distilled all the way down: this happened. And a little bit radical for being a young woman’s voice saying: maybe you think what happens to me is irrelevant but guess what, I’m talking about it, this happened. 

WC: I was particularly struck by the form of the story “At the Time,” which is framed around sentences that include words like “unless,” “except,” or “or else.” These sentences, thus, are constantly equivocating, filled with uncertainty and ambiguity. How did this story come about? What was the process of writing it like? 

KD: Ah, I’m glad you asked because it has a fun origin story. It came out of a writing prompt with some friends, years ago. The prompt was just ask someone where they were in May 2012 and write something fictional inspired by what they tell you. May 2012 was chosen randomly on this particular occasion—we used to do this prompt every so often and would just run with a random date. The friend I asked—Alisa Koyrakh, also a writer—had to think for a second if she had been living with her parents in Minnesota that summer after she finished college, or had already moved to New York. So that first sentence, At the time I was living in Minnesota, or maybe New York is what I wrote first, and the rest of it came out of experimenting with that “unless” formulation. It was a different way to get at what happens much more literally in some of the other stories: where characters wonder how life might have been different if some other choice had been made. 

WC: I was also moved by “What Else Happened,” a story that describes the evolution of a relationship from a friendship to something more sinister. The protagonist’s slow realization of the wrongness of their dynamic, and the ominous way you describe the encroachment of boundaries is so compelling and persuasive. How did you go about calibrating the buildup of tension in that story? 

KD: I almost spoke about this one when you asked about a challenging revision, because this one was difficult! It’s such an important story to me, and it was difficult because it is a story about not getting resolution—but a lot of our conventions of storytelling say resolution must happen. I didn’t want her to realize at some point that she was right or wrong, I wanted to describe not-knowing, second-guessing. So the whole way along, and I revised this one off and on for years, I was always trying to figure out how to make it work within the formal constraints of a short story, while still ultimately signaling that it wasn’t going to conform to the idea that there must be some kind of answer or shift by the end. I feel very strongly about this piece because I think storytelling is so much about try to give ourselves some understanding of something that happened, but often in our lives stories actually resist giving us that clarity, especially if the story is something society doesn’t pay a lot of attention to: in this particular case, the story of a young woman’s discomfort with someone else’s behavior toward her. To me the fact that she keeps thinking about it and talking about it without getting answers doesn’t make this not a story, it makes it very much a story and one that lingers, unresolved. It’s a story that has a lot of power in her mind because it never resolves. So calibrating that tension just right, those memories of times when things just felt off to her—it was a tricky balance because they had to be a whole bunch of things really residing in a gray area, things that feel ominous but that you could talk yourself into believing were nothing. We need to be right there with her going over the details of her own past, trying to decide if her instincts were right or not, trying to decide if she’s right to remember this part of her life as being so bad. It’s a story about questioning your own instincts.

WC: Do you have any advice for writers who are putting together a short story collection? 

KD: Lots! For one thing I would say, take full advantage of this aspect of story writing we’re so lucky to have, something novelists don’t have in the same way, which is the possibility of submitting our work to editors all along the way. Sending individual stories out to literary journals is such a wonderful built-in system for development and encouragement: you can submit your stories, you can work with editors, you can work the individual parts of this whole. Every time I had an acceptance somewhere over the years it was a little burst of: okay, this is working on some level, I should keep going. So send your work out and get every extra bit of encouragement and feedback you can from that. And I think there’s a similar upside to applying to residencies—not just because maybe then you get to go to a residency, which is obviously wonderful—but also because you have an occasion to articulate what your book as a whole is about, for the artist statement. I think it’s important to be in dialogue with yourself about that over the years as a story writer, because what holds a collection together in the end is themes, concerns, etc, not a larger plot. It’s important to get clear with yourself on those themes. So for me any occasion to write those things down for an application was a way to develop an understanding of the book as a whole, little by little over the years. And lastly I feel like I should say, try to prepare yourself to be told often, once you have a full manuscript, that “no one wants to read stories” or, as they love to say in the publishing industry, “stories are hard.” This idea really has its grip on the industry. And it is discouraging to hear book professionals say to you again and again that your book, simply by taking a certain form, is inherently less likely to be read than others. I guess I’m saying, we have to try to learn early on to let that roll off of us as much as we can. This form is still being written, still being published, still being read—it’s alive and well. 

WC: What current or future projects are you excited to be working on? 

KD: I’ve been writing a novel, sort of a novel I’ve been writing for years now—except this past year I threw it all out and started again. So now it’s about the same characters, but in a different time in their lives, when they’re a little older. It’s about the character Helen and her two siblings Evan and Grace. I think I knew from the time I wrote that first story about them, eight years ago now, that I had a lot to say about them. I could write them forever; they are each so themselves. But the novel I was writing started to feel like a rehash of the same themes as these stories, and not in an interesting way. I was bored and forcing myself to work on it and I realized that for one thing, I was so caught up in doing a novel next that I wasn’t using the things I most love to do as a story writer—things like concision, and precision, and accumulation. So I have a new structure now where those things I love can suit the story. I also realized I had to find a way back to what felt urgent to me about these characters, back when I first started to write about them, which if I was being honest with myself, had to do with how Helen’s life was not dissimilar to my own life at the time, in my twenties, which were a mess. Helen gave me a place in which to think through these desperate-feeling questions I had about how to live in the world. And Helen’s siblings were back then, and remain, a great way of teasing out those questions, because in their separate ways they are so different from her—such examples of another way of being in the world. So Helen is in her thirties in the new version of the book. I’m letting her have some of the questions that weigh on my now in my day-to-day life. And the whole thing does feel urgent to me again. So we’ll see.