INTERVIEW: Corvallis Author Kate Hope Day

We sat down with Kate Hope Day, the author of “If, Then” and “In The Quick” to talk about her writing process, inspiration, and finding a way to keep a novel alive. This true Corvallis resident and fan of Tried and True Coffee spoke about the COVID-balance of family and work. 

TCA: Hi, I’m Sally Lehman, and I’m with The Advocate. Today, I’m speaking with Kate Hope Day, author of two novels and a mid-valley resident. Thank you for joining us today.  

Day: I’m so glad to be here.  

TCA: So are you or your husband originally from Oregon?  

Day: No, my husband is from the Pacific Northwest. I am from Pennsylvania, although we’ve been here for 10 years now.  

TCA: I know that you have a Ph.D. in English that lends itself to so many different areas of career choices. What led you to writing?  

Day: Well, I had every intention of becoming a professor and writing a book about George Eliot, not writing novels. But I happened to graduate with my PhD in 2008, and that was sort of the year every academic job search got canceled because of the economy. And it just happened that I had my first child at that time as well.   

I found myself for the first time in my adult life not working. And I had a new baby at home. It was definitely like I felt like I had stepped into an alternate reality, which is kind of what my first book is about. And I didn’t have a really articulated intention to write a novel that would get published, but I had this sort of emotional need to put the feelings I was having somewhere. I had spent six, seven years in graduate school reading novels and thinking about the work that they do – structural work, emotional work, social work. And I found myself starting this book, which ended up being “If, Then” after many, many revisions.  

TCA: I understand that one. I can see so many of the things that you were talking about in that book. So, you have a character in there that is trying to create a Theory of Everything. Have you tried to do that?   

Day: I think everyone who writes a PhD, tries to write the dissertation and tries to do that in some sense. But yeah, part of my graduate degree was studying the Victorian novel, but also the science writing of that period. So I actually did quite a bit of work on the history and philosophy of science. The Victorians like Charles Darwin and John Stuart Mill, they really were invested in this idea of coming up with a certain concept or certain theory that would encompass all of life. And I’ve always been really fascinated with that idea. And it found its way into the novel in Cass’s character.   

TCA: So, do you think there is a Theory of Everything out there? Is it possible?  

Day: I mean, I think that different disciplines have some pretty good ones. I’m not sure if there’s one that encompasses all of the sciences, all of the humanities, all of religion, but it’s super fun to talk about. And it’s just really fascinating and problematic and interesting idea to think about it.  

TCA: Yes. Would you want to live in the world that you created in “If, Then”?   

Day: Oh, absolutely not. That’s something to explore in fiction, not in life. Yeah.   

I’m generally speaking, in order to write a book, you need to have a fairly boring life, but you need to be able to sit down and write and sort of explore uncanny things in your imagination. And generally speaking, having uncanny stuff going on in your real life is not conducive to finishing a book.  

TCA: So are there any scenes in your novels that surprised you when you wrote them? The uncanny things?  

Day: I think for me in both my books, and they’re quite different if you sort of take them at face value – “If, Then” is set in Oregon, it’s about four neighbors and they start to see these sort of sometimes surprising, sometimes inspiring, sometimes disturbing visions of what their life might be like if they had made another choice or if chance events had gone another way. And so that book kind of took the idea of the counterfactual or the “if then” statements and kind of ran with it and started to think about it in terms of these four characters in their lives, what would they do if they sort of saw what could have been or might be if they changed their lives. And it was a surprise in a sense to start with an idea and then have a whole world come out of it in that book.   

And similarly, in my second novel “In The Quick.” And it also sprang from an idea in a big way, sort of like the mind body problem, sort of what it means to be human. Are we our thoughts? Are we our bodies? And I love the idea for that book of really exploring that in sort of a very intense physical environment, which is part of the book being set in space.   

So I think not all writers, in fact, I don’t know a ton of writers who sort of start with an idea, like a philosophical idea, and then build a novel from it. “If, Then” was really an experiment in that sense, sort of like, “oh, let’s see what we can do.”   

And I think in both books, even though [they] started from an idea and grew into a world and characters who made surprising choices and surprised me even, it was interesting how by the time I got to the end of both books, I did have a completely different, more well-rounded [world]. I learned surprising things about concepts that I thought I already understood.   

TCA: Your novels both centered around really strong women in moments of change in their life. Is that something that you are seeing in your own life? Is that something that’s inspired by your own environment?  

Day: I am not doing anything as dramatic as going into space or training to be an astronaut or going to a new planet and making my way in a challenging environment like that. But, you know, even in these otherworldly environments, I do draw from my own life and from, you know, challenges that are everyday challenges.   

My first novel definitely came out of the very kind of emotional roller coaster of becoming a new mother. And in a real deep way, my second book was inspired by my children who have, like the main character, June, have this sort of deep interest with building things and inventing things. And at the time that I started that book, they were both super into space. And so, in a funny way, although you wouldn’t think a book about an astronaut came out of my pretty everyday life in Oregon, it really did in some key ways.  

TCA: As a fellow writer, I always wonder, do you have a favorite chapter or scene that you wrote in either of your books? 

 Day: I have many parts of “If, Then” that I feel proud of. It was my first book. I sort of learned how to do things as I went along. I had read a lot of novels and had studied narrative theory and the structure of novel writing. But, you know, that’s not the same as writing. I didn’t learn how to write dialogue. I don’t have an MFA. So I really learned how to do that stuff as I went with “If, Then.”   

“In The Quick” is kind of different in the sense that that book existed [in my mind]. The character of June kind of hung out in my mind for almost a year before I ever wrote anything down. And so I had whole scenes in my mind that I actually had made a deal with myself that I was not going to write the second book until I finished a revision of the first one. And it was a great motivator because June was talking to me, and I was thinking, I have these kind of very detailed visions of scenes that I really wanted to write. So finally, when I was able to sit down and write, it was almost like kind of a mental download.   

And I remember one of the scenes in “In The Quick” when she first arrives at a space station that’s very similar to the International Space Station. And she experiences zero gravity for the first time. And I remember very distinctly writing that scene, and it was one of those just, you know, sweet, sweet moments in writing that happens not very often where your first draft almost ends up being very close to the final draft. And just the way it came out felt very authentic.   

And I don’t tend to write in order. So that scene was actually written very early on and it gave me something to think about. Like, this is where June is going to end up sort of at the midpoint of the book, and that sort of deep physical disorientation, mental disorientation, emotional disorientation. In that moment when she’s arrived, she gets to do the things she’s always wanted to do. And yet it’s nothing quite like what she thought it was going to be. And she has this question – “can I do this?” And she’s got kind of like vomit coming up. And she has a sort of intense physical discomfort, which most astronauts do have in that moment. But she also has this deep desire to do well and to succeed. 

TCA: So what are you writing now? 

Day: Well, my kids have been home for over a year, so I am very slowly writing a third novel that is set on the Oregon coast. And it is about a paramedic and a mother and the family secrets she uncovers.  

TCA: If you could offer one bit of advice to aspiring novelists, what would it be? 

Day: Well, since we’ve gone through such an unusual, unprecedented time, most writers I know, aspiring and writers who have published a book, we’re all sort of in a very similar boat in the sense that whatever kind of schedule or systems we had carved out for ourselves before the pandemic, for most of us, those weren’t going to work [anymore]. And we had to come up with new ways to write, to find time, to stay inspired.   

And the things that I used to do, when I would write during my kids’ school hours, where I would have word count goals, or I would sort of tell myself I’m going to write a certain number of words and then I can go get a coffee. And I have a little office downtown. It’s near both of our independent bookstores. So I would say, “OK, I’m going to write this much and then I can go take a break and go look at what books are out this week or whatever.” And I didn’t have any of that starting last March. And I definitely went through some trial and error trying to come up with a new way to write and sort of keep this novel alive with very little time and also [little] energy. We’re all just tapped out. And I definitely tried doing the write-after-everyone-goes-to-bed [thing] and try to get a few hours in that way. I tried the early morning thing, which was not for me.   

I finally realized that I needed to just be a little more kind to myself and just kind of change what I consider to be a successful writing day or, more like it, writing week. And really the most important thing is just to stay connected to that idea in that world. So anything that I could do to do that, I would make that a priority. And if that was a 15 minute free ride or looking at images that help me imagine this place that I’m writing about, it often did not look like typing on a computer because I’ve got the kids iPads and I have ”In The Quick”  coming out, so I had a lot of things I needed to do for my publicist and marketing team. And so a lot of it doesn’t look like writing, but as long as I can sort of keep a hold of that idea and keep it alive so that when I did get to, maybe on a Saturday morning, go down to Tried and True [Coffee] and sit outside and get a few hours, that I actually had some things to say, because I had kept it in my mind during the week, even if I wasn’t sort of actively writing.  

TCA: Speaking about that, you had an essay published on LitHub called “How Do You Keep a Novel Alive When It Keeps Trying to Die?” It’s a wonderful essay, by the way, and I highly recommend novel writers go out there and read it. What are you reading right now?  

Day: Well, I sort of get into a mode when I’m in a generating writing phase, the early start of a novel, where I don’t tend to read a ton of novels. I tend to read nonfiction. So I’ve been really enjoying several things lately that are kind of betwixt and between memoir and something else.  

So I read “Why We Swim” by Bonnie Tsui, which is part cultural history of water and human beings and our relationship to water and swimming and part memoir.  

And I really enjoyed “Wintering” by Katherine May, which I know [for] a lot of people really that book was a lifeline during the pandemic. It’s part memoir and part, again, cultural history of the idea of wintering, the idea of having periods of your life when you’re more fallow, when you’re more sort of tucked in for the winter, and you’re not necessarily the most productive.  

And that was a great book to read over this year when I wanted to be writing a lot more than I could be. And just sort of the idea that actually having a time when you’re doing less, when you’re wintering, some interesting things can come from that. It’s not as fast as you would want it to be. And it takes some patience and sort maybe something interesting and something different can come out of this time. If I don’t try to make it into something that it isn’t, if I just accept it for what it is, it’s a time when I have to be in a winter mode, where spring will come. 

TCA: And hopefully spring will come again.  

Day: And my kids finally this week have started going back to school. So I’ve gotten some of my writing time back. But I will say, I usually always have a novel or two that I’m reading. And “Shuggie Bain” is definitely been wrecking me with that novel. It’s heartbreaking, but it’s also just really good. 

TCA: Do you have a favorite book that you would wish everybody had read? 

Day: My favorite Victorian novel is easily “Jane Eyre,” and “In The Quick” is a very loose retelling of “Jane Eyre,” which if you haven’t read [it] recently, it doesn’t matter. You don’t need to know it for the book. But if you are a person that loves “Jane Eyre,” you will get the little Easter eggs in “In The Quick.” I definitely was inspired by that kind of character when I was writing “In The Quick,” that’s sort of the character that you love them, but you can see them making their own lives so difficult just by being who they are. And “Jane Eyre” is always my quintessential example, but [there are] a lot of great ones.  

I think Arthur Less from the novel “Less” definitely falls into this category. From television, “Fleabag” is definitely like that. You’re just sort of shaking your head at her, but also you’re rooting for her, you’re [thinking], “no don’t, don’t do that.”  

So “Jane Eyre” has always been a favorite of mine. And it was a big inspiration for “In The Quick” in terms of the novel that I push into everyone’s hands and say, you know, you’ve got to read this book if you’re a human being. And Ishiguro’s “Never Let Me Go.”  

TCA: Thank you, Kate. Everyone, this is Kate Hope Day, she has two novels out. The first is “If, Then” and the second is “In The Quick.” Thanks for your time. 

By Sally K Lehman