Kate McQuade

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Kate McQuade is the author of pieces Tell Me Who We Were and Two Harbors. Her work has appeared in several publications, most notably The Harvard Review, The Lily for The Washington PostTIME Magazine, and American Literary Review, who awarded her with the ALR Essay Prize in 2019. She is currently an instructor at Phillips Academy Andover in Massachusetts. 


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What started your passion for writing? 

  • I think a passion for writing usually starts with a passion for reading. That’s certainly how it worked for me. I love few things more than getting lost in a book, and even now, when I’m writing, I’m really just chasing that feeling. Since I rarely know what I’m going to write before I write it—I’m almost always figuring things out as I go—stepping back and reading my own work often feels like discovering something. I care about my audience, too, but my passion for writing started long before I showed my work to anyone but myself. It was always that anticipatory, what-comes-next feeling driving me, that feeling of looking forward to reading what I’d written.


Every writer faces intimidating obstacles in their career, what was the most notable impediment you faced? Was it physical? Emotional? Mental? 

  • I think the hardest obstacle has always been the daily challenge of keeping myself in the chair. It’s a question of willpower. Specifically: will I have the willpower sit there and endure my own bad writing, long enough for it to turn into good writing? Bad writing is important; it’s what paves the way for the good stuff. But that doesn’t mean bad writing is particularly fun to experience. Certainly, it’s much less fun than social media and HBO and all the other things that try to pull me away from my desk. Withstanding those temptations, keeping the faith that the bad writing will eventually turn into something better—that’s the biggest hurdle. Which stinks, because I have to jump over it every day.


How did your childhood or past experiences affect your writing? Does it manifest in your vocabulary? Or influence your style of writing? 

  • Most of what I write is about looking backwards: at adolescence especially, but also at early motherhood. I’m drawn to periods of time when characters experience a lot of simultaneous changes—not just of identity, but of their body and their sense of how the outside world sees them—and so I guess you could say that my past experiences don’t just affect my writing, but are my writing. I’ve known that for a while, but until you asked this question, I’d never really thought about how my past manifests itself in the actual text. Clearly, it comes out in the form of character and plot. But I do think the past guides my style, too, now that you mention it. I can’t get into a piece of fiction until I hear the voice of whatever it is I’m trying to write, and that voice tends to be informed by the life stage I’m writing about. The emotions I associate with those life stages of significant change—urgency, dislocation, exhilaration, anxiety, longing—tend to show up in the cadence of my sentences, the relative curtness or expansiveness of the voice I’m hearing as I write.


Can you tell us a bit about the crafting, drafting, and writing process of your novels? What do you think is the hardest phase to overcome? 

  • I find first drafts to be both the hardest part and the most exciting. Drafting, for me, involves a lot of false starts. Generally speaking, I can’t get into a piece of writing, whether it’s a story or a novel, until I’ve found the right beginning. I might put a lot of words on a lot of pages while I’m searching for that beginning, but doing so is like spinning a single gear that hasn’t yet hooked into all the other gears that will turn the machine of the story. Only once I’ve found what feels like the real beginning—which usually means I’ve found the right voice—does the work take off with its own momentum. At that point, the story starts unfolding quickly, sometimes faster than I can write it down, and if I’m really lucky, that energy will carry me all the way to the end of the first draft. On great writing days, I’m just along for the ride. But that ride is such a small part of the process, and it requires many, many false starts along the way.


Being an instructor at Phillips Academy, what do you think are the more important aspects of encouraging younger writers to pick up a pencil? 

  • Storytelling matters most to me, although I wouldn’t say I teach students how to tell stories because they already know how to. (We all know how to tell stories. It’s innate in us. We are so good at it, our brains literally do it while we’re sleeping.) What I try to teach students is how to use different tools to more accurately translate their stories onto paper. All writing boils down to that act of translation, that movement of an interior thought to an exterior page. It’s really hard, and it’s often frustrating. Everyone knows that sinking feeling you get when you realize that what you had in your head and what made it to paper aren’t the same thing at all. My focus is on helping students appreciate that how you tell your story is just as important as what the story is about—that paying attention to things like structure, imagery, voice, rhythm, and tone can help that story feel more true to itself, more in line with the story you had in your head. Accurately recreating an interior experience for an outside reader is one of the most empathetic and connective activities I can imagine. And if we aren’t aiming for empathy and connection, what are we doing?


Do you encourage your children to write? What do you think is a fun and creative way for budding writers to engage with the art of storytelling? 

  • I absolutely encourage my kids to write! Right now, I do that mainly by reading out loud with them, because I always, always want them to associate books with love. They have their own stories to tell, and eventually those stories will find their way to a page somewhere; that will happen when they want it to happen. In the meantime, I think the most important thing is for them to see that words on a page mean connection, and reading together is the best way I can show them that. I also enjoy talking with them about how narratives work, or what makes them like certain stories more than others. When my daughter was a toddler, she used to remind me to please include some “pwoblems” in the bedtime stories I told her, and just the other day, my kids said they didn’t want to watch a movie that didn’t have “bad guys” in it, “because then it would be boring.” It’s clear to me that they already see conflict as an essential part of a good narrative. Just talking with my kids about things like that—articulating the parts of a story as we witness them together—teaches them that stories are constructed things, that they’re puzzle-like assemblages of many devices and choices. I hope that recognition both feeds their natural curiosity about how things work and empowers them when they begin to write their own stories someday.