My friend glared at me when I told her Kate Wisel’s collection of stories was about violence against women. Other women don’t often like to hear those two words together — violence and women. Especially on a Friday night. I had promised my friend a cozy outing to our favorite coffee shop, a charming end to a not-so-charming first full week of classes. She hadn’t expected the reading to be so morbid. Nevertheless, we sat ourselves down towards the back of the less-than-full audience of bookworms on that bitter winter night. We sipped our chai lattes, noses still sniffling from the cold, as a man with a stern expression introduced the young author.
I am a self-proclaimed lover of Literati. I love its walls scribbled with pensive literary remarks and its bountiful offering of espresso drinks. I was excited to attend the event, which was part of Literati’s ongoing “Fiction at Literati” series. The night included a reading by author Kate Wisel from her book Driving in Cars with Homeless Men followed by a conversation with fiction writer and essayist Brad Felver. The coffee shop’s normal grouping of tables and benches was reconfigured to make way for about five rows of black bentwood chairs. Though the event was admittedly low in attendance — my friend and I were joined by an older couple and a few lone silver-haired bibliophiles — Literati’s tranquil atmosphere and quaint ambiance did not disappoint. All of us Literati and literary lovers successfully escaped the biting Michigan cold and sat before a petite young woman with a voice sweet as honey. She introduced her work by comparing the linked stories to a “pool table,” with the characters’ plotlines crashing into one another as the book progresses. She began the reading with a section from the chapter titled “Trouble,” which is told from the perspective of Serena, one of the central narrators.
Wisel advertises her book as “a love letter to women moving through violence;” the work is a collection of stories that all take place in the varied settings of working-class Boston. Through her pool-table architectural style, Wisel takes the reader on a journey through time and space, which, as Felver described in his formal conversation with her, lends to a disorienting reading experience. With this style, Wisel says she is able to encourage a more interactive author-reader dynamic rather than having the reader be “picked up [by the author] like a toddler and carried” through a story.
She also makes a point to pepper humor throughout the book as an outlet to convey the frustration and anger experienced by the affected women. Her first reading of “Trouble” spoke to this writing tactic: Serena, the character narrating the story, compares the yapping of her dog to a “Mormon girl [being kidnapped]” and makes repeated jabs at her neighbor couple’s matching lazy eyes. As Serena’s narrative went on to include several more colorful details, Wisel got some muttered chuckles from the audience. I particularly enjoyed the way she described the character’s dog as having a “coal-lined eye like an emo teenager.” Wisel goes on to reveal that Serena got the dog as a gift from her partner — a kind of “sorry for making you bleed” peace offering. The imagery Wisel employs to allude to the women’s experiences with domestic violence was poignant yet palatable, effective in its ability to make me and my friend grimace with discontent. In the first reading of “Troubled,” Serena’s abuse is illustrated through details describing her and her home’s physical state: her swollen eye, a bloody floor, a shattered mirror. There was no explicit narration of the abusive events Serena was experiencing. The second story was once again told from Serena’s perspective and as Wisel alluded to in the conversation that followed her reading, jumped in time from the first story. In the second section, Serena is working as a flight attendant, traveling miles and miles and basking in a sky-bound existence away from her abusive partner.
After the reading and conversation with Felver, the two authors opened up for questions from the audience. Wisel received a few questions about her unique architectural style and her method for approaching such a sensitive topic like domestic violence with humor and transparency. We got to learn a little bit about the thought process she employs when constructing sentences as she explained how she leans into the natural rhythm of what's jumbled inside her head, ultimately giving her writing a lyrical quality. Wisel answered all of the audience’s questions with humility and bubbliness as she cracked jokes about the quirky journey writing a book can be. She made it sound as though she did not approach her book with a concrete plan, but rather let the women’s stories develop naturally on the page.
After a handful of questions, the event officially ended and the audience members dispersed, one by one, going on to explore the rest of the warm bookstore. My friend and I left, minds bustling with thoughts of puppies and lazy eyes and hearts aching with a dull pain for women like Serena, bruised and bloodied and confined to Wisel’s page.