"The Writing Has Been That Fantasy Life for Me"
A Conversation with Katie Gutierrez
More Than You’ll Ever Know, Katie Gutierrez’s debut novel about a woman living a double life and a true crime writer who wants to write a book about it, is so gripping and immersive that over the course of reading it, I started to feel like I had a secret life.
I hadn’t realized how much writing was turning into a thing I actively kept from my children until I read Katie’s book, which is, at its core, about the allure of different kinds of lives and the impossibility of living all, or even most, or possibly even more than one, of them. The book is a moving exploration of why we might hold a part of ourselves back from the people we love and whether that can ever be ok, or sustainable.
When I am with my children, I’m usually not writing. If I’m writing, I’m probably not with my kids. We all know about the logistical challenge of writing while holding a baby but babies have no idea what you’re doing when you’re not with them and they don’t care what you’re thumbing into your Notes app while they dump all of the toys out of the bin trying to find the choking hazards. Less discussed is the problem of the older child. Older kids are curious about everything but they are particularly curious about what you’re typing when they should be in bed. They know how to read, especially over your shoulder, and they usually have at least some degree of internet access. The other day my ten-year-old asked if I have a website.
This is a new stage for me. How much do I share with my children as they get older and how much do I need to hold back for their wellbeing? How much do I need to hold back for my own?
And then there are times like last week, when children have to be identified using DNA testing because another child was allowed to have an assault weapon, and I want to throw away my laptop and shrink my life down to its essential core. Why would I ever want to do anything other than hold my children while lovingly and judiciously answering all of the incessant questions that usually exhaust me after a long day of trying to do too many things? What if this one life is enough?
But there is a hunger, a drive, a need, or whatever you want to call it. And sometimes I love it and sometimes I hate it but the one constant is that it exists. Even when I petulantly cast it aside, it smirks because it knows I’ll be back. And, anyway, we’re better parents when we have that double life, right?
Read on for my conversation with Katie about ambition, writing under pressure, and our double lives.
Photo credit: Meet the Bryants Photography
I first want to talk about the road to getting this book published because I learned from your acknowledgments that this was not the first novel that you wrote.
I wrote, I guess, my technical first novel between 2015 and 2017 and it got some really quick agent responses. I think I got like five offers of representation within three weeks of querying, which felt amazing and exciting and was not at all what I was expecting and it set up some expectations for how submission was going to go. And it obviously didn't go that way. I think we got pretty close at a few different places and some really kind feedback, but it was really confusing because what one editor really loved, the next note would say that piece didn't work for them and there was no clear pattern. We sat down with dozens of passes trying to figure out, okay, well, what are the common threads here and it was almost like there were no common threads. It for some reason wasn't working for people. I've worked as an editor in the past and I really enjoy editing so if there had been some kind of clear pathway forward to sort of revise and resubmit, I would've been all for it, but it was so baffling. I already had this idea for my second novel and my agent, Hillary, was really excited about it. I'd started drafting it a little bit during the submission process to sort of keep myself sane.
And so she was like, well, it's totally up to you, we can submit this one to small presses but if you think you have it in you to wait, if you think that you can draft this next book and then wait until we can go out wide with it again, that's what I would love to do. So I was like, well, you know, you're my agent. And she was so supportive. I was really scared that she was kind of going to dump me after that first book didn't go through. She was a newer agent at the time, and she'd made a couple of pretty big, flashy deals and I was scared that she was kind of gonna move on to the next really promising writer or project but she just said that she believed in me, in my writing, so much that she'd stick with me for a hundred books, if that's what it took.
Yeah, that will stick with me forever. And she has been so committed throughout. I drafted the next book, it took about 18 months. I was pregnant for half of it.
I was going to ask, when did the kids start?
I got pregnant right when I started drafting it in August, 2017. And so I had this fear of, what is my life going to look like after having my first child, you know?
Oh, I do.
And I had that fear kind of drummed into you of like, oh, once you have kids, it's all over. And so I was like, I have to finish this first draft before this baby comes because after that, I don't know, maybe I'll never write again. And that didn't work out either. My pregnancy was really painful and I think I stopped writing around month six or seven. And I was really pushing the word count, I was hitting the word count hard, so I had a ton of pages but they just weren't very good. And then, ultimately, I had to stop anyway because I was so uncomfortable in every position. Then after I had the baby, it was, I think, four or five months before I was able to start getting back into it because that was around the time when she actually started taking naps and that made all the difference. And so really most of this book as it is, I guess I would say, was drafted during my first child's nap times. And, of course, when my husband would also be there and watching her and things like that but I really made her nap time my strict work time. It didn't matter what else had to be done around the house or how tired I was because, you know, you always want to nap when they nap.
And you never know how long they're going to nap. It’s hard for me to nap under that kind of pressure. But it's also hard to write under pressure. How was that?
It was a shift for sure. I had worked as an executive editor for a kind of a hybrid publishing company. It was a storytelling company that worked with clients to write their books from start to finish and some would publish through the company and others would go their own way with it. And mostly they were nonfiction, a couple fiction here and there, but I kind of managed our editorial roster and our editorial staff. And I left that company in 2015 to try to write my book. I hadn't been doing any of my own writing, I didn’t even read outside of what we were creating, and I gave myself a year to write that first novel and for that year I had endless days. So it's a real shift from something like that to all of a sudden, you know, okay, I have- maybe it's only 20 minutes, maybe it's two hours, who knows? I think one of the most helpful things for me as a writer was to learn to write under that kind of pressure and to get rid of whatever it takes to get ready to write.
What you need to get into your zone. You don't have time for that.
There’s no zone. You just have to do it. And I think that was actually exceptionally helpful for me and has been these last few years to sort of train myself to get into it the minute I sit down. I think I've turned out to be a better writer under that kind of pressure than when I have more time, because more time meant that I could get more words out but those words weren't necessarily the right words or the best words whereas for some reason, writing under pressure, it sort of felt like it forced me to get down to like the essential heart of what I was trying to say.
So you did not have any childcare while writing this novel? It was all naps?
With our first daughter, she would've been maybe 18 months old when we hired somebody to come over nine hours a week. And that was like a revelation. You know, nine hours a week, it doesn’t sound like much…
Until you're used to not having it. Then it's a lot.
Right. And I was home, she was home, she was still coming into my office all the time and I was still having to go out and do things with them but it was so nice to have guilt free- because even when your partner is taking over to help you work, there's still guilt.
Yeah because when your partner is doing it, you have to be like, ‘well I'm putting this on the tally. You’re watching now and I’ll have to watch later.’ When you're paying somebody else, it's a different mental game.
Very much so. And we got to enjoy that for about four months before the pandemic.
Right. And where were you in the writing? Did you have a draft finished at that point?
I started the draft in August 2017 and I finished the first draft right before her first birthday, so April of 2019. And then after that it was another year and a half to edit it with my agent. She probably read 20 drafts of this book. I edited the first one or two rounds by myself when the first draft was like 600 pages. It's not a small book as it is but it was even heftier to start with. And half of it had to go and be rewritten. There were so many significant changes that were made to this book in different stages of the process but I took the first couple rounds by myself and then I felt pretty good about it. I thought, this is in pretty solid shape. I had a friend of mine read it and she was like, yeah, I think Hillary's going to be ready to go with this. And Hillary read it and she sent back a long email of just so many notes and I was like, oh, so she's not ready, ok. So we dove back in, started editing. Every round we did, I thought, surely this will be the last round. This has to be the last round.
Those beautiful lies we tell ourselves.
Yeah, it was never the last round. Start to finish, I guess it was three years between starting to draft it and when we finally went on submission. When we went on submission, it was September of 2020 and we'd obviously been under pandemic conditions for, you know, six or seven months, which was almost the entirety of my pregnancy, my second and third trimesters, and we didn't have childcare that entire time
And that was a scary time to be pregnant, too, pre-vaccine.
Yeah, exactly. My pregnancy was classified as high risk and my husband could never come with me to any appointments. We didn't know if I was going to go into labor- if I was going to have to be by myself or if he'd be able to come. So it was extremely stressful conditions to be continuing to edit this novel. And then I was having early contractions and still sending my final edits to Hillary and I was like, this has to be the last one, we have to go on submission because I'm about to go have this baby. I think if it weren't for that, she probably still would have gone another round but she was finally like, okay, enough. So we went on submission exactly one week after my baby was born.
And those are some pretty significant life changes over the course of writing this book. You have one baby, there’s a pandemic, another baby. How did that inform what actually got written? I would assume that some of the parts about motherhood changed.
Yeah, I think motherhood became a much larger thread than I anticipated at the start. I think when I initially conceived of the project, I was really interested in more of the infidelity components and how a woman could feel genuine love for two men at the same time but be just fundamentally betraying them and how she could justify that to herself and what these different loves could illuminate about herself. Those were the questions I think I started out wanting to ask and then when I got pregnant, and then obviously the three years that followed, it very much became this idea of these different selves that we have. Motherhood became another one of those selves that can be incredibly stifling. There’s this expectation that once women become mothers, they shouldn't want anything beyond motherhood or that, if you do, you're somehow a bad mother. The expectations of what is a good mother and a bad mother and what is it okay to still want for yourself beyond the love you have for your children, that became a really important thread to me that I didn't really anticipate at all when I started writing the book.
It's a book about one woman's secret life and so it makes sense that it explores the role of fantasy and particularly the fantasy life of moms. You have such a great line where Lore, the main character, calls fantasy “an escape hatch to nowhere.” And mothers fantasizing, that’s kind of the third rail, right? People don't like to think about moms having mental escape hatches or secret fantasy lives, even if they don’t lead anywhere.
I briefly considered calling the book An Escape Hatch to Nowhere so I love that that stuck out to you. I think that moms or primary caregivers are sort of the invisible scaffolding of society, and the idea that they could possibly want something more or different, or something purely for themselves that has nothing to do with their family or their children, and that could be in fact betrayal to their family, I think it carries the underlying threat of almost like a societal collapse. It's extreme to say that but I think in playing with something as extreme as a double life in the book, that was something that was important to me to touch on.
So sometimes I’ll be with my kids and I’m physically with them but mentally I’m thinking about something that I’m writing, trying to work out a problem or thinking about a scene, whatever it is. And now, after reading your book, I’ve been thinking about how trying to write while you have kids sometimes feels like a double life. Did it ever feel that way to you?
Yes, for sure and I love that question. I've been trying to work on a piece about how parenthood, or motherhood in particular, if you're the primary caregiver, it almost kind of requires you to live a double life in that you're constantly kind of compartmentalizing your different selves. Who you are with your kids is not necessarily who you are with your husband or your friends, or where you are with them physically. Like you said, you might be somewhere else in your head. And it feels like this very real, separate life. And I think, especially because I was sort of halfway through writing the first draft of this book when my daughter was born, when I went back to working on it four months after her birth and I was working on it just during her naps and all of that, it really did feel like living a second life at that point, because it was this escape from just the mundanity of it all. It really did feel like living a double life through the characters, through writing, through kind of like that mental escape, through being in a different place, a different time. And I think that every time I was able to really focus and get in the flow of the book, I was able to go back to her and feel happy to be with her and go back to those really mundane aspects because I had this other release. And I feel like, in a way, the writing was that fantasy life and has been that fantasy life for me throughout these phases of motherhood and in particular pandemic motherhood where everything is so heightened, so compressed and any other kind of escape valves that you might have had have been closed off, taken away. And so the writing really did become one of the only escape hatches that I had. And I feel like every woman who says that, or every mother who says that, always has to qualify it with, like, ‘I love my kids more than anything,’ and I find myself wanting to say that now, but I also think I'm just a better mother when I have that double life.
Yeah, that’s a very positive way of thinking about a double life and I completely agree with it and I feel it with my younger kids. But now I have a ten-year-old and I feel like I need to kind of actively keep my work from her in a way that I didn’t when she was younger and that feels a little…
Yeah, kind of.
No, I think that's so true. And it definitely adds another layer when you think about your own kids reading your work years from now. And I wonder, if my kids ever do read this book or subsequent books, you know, if they'll kind of have the flip side of those thoughts of like, ‘oh, so when my mom was with me, maybe she was thinking about these people.’ Or, ‘when she wasn't with me, she was doing this instead. And the way I saw her was so different to what was going on inside her own mind.’
Do you ever think about that? Does it impact how you write?
No, I think you have to sort of block it off. At this point, my kids are still so young that it's not even close to a reality yet. So maybe it would be different if I had teenagers and they really are right there wanting to read the book. My parents have read the book and they've read the sex scenes, and my siblings, and I have my great aunts on Facebook, very religious, that are like, ‘can't wait to read it!’ And I'm like, okay. So I do sometimes get those voices in my head of ‘what will my parents think?’ But I think that if you want to go where you need to go as a writer, you have to block it off. And that's with any voice I think that you have in your head.
Yeah, so I also want to talk about ambition. It’s a big thread in the book, and not just Cassie wanting to write this potentially highly marketable book that she gets increasingly excited about but also Lore, the woman with the double life. There's that scene where she's thinking about Cassie writing a book about her and she's remembering the bookshelves in her secret husband's apartment. And she's thinking, ‘imagine a book about me on a shelf like that.’ And that's a kind of ambition too, wanting to be known in a certain way, or as more than a mother. I think the book treats both of those kinds of ambitions as potential powder kegs. Female ambition as having this potential to blow up a life.
I think that was definitely there from the beginning with both characters in different ways. Lore becomes sort of the primary provider for their family, which, you know, Mexican culture, there's a lot of machismo in the culture, there's a lot of that sense that the men should be the providers and the women, the caregivers. And even in the most egalitarian marriages, I think there's that sense of, if a husband no longer is able to provide, the wedge that can drive between the marriage; what it does to his sense of masculinity, how her ambition kind of impacts their relationship. So I saw her ambition kind of playing into their relationship quite a bit, whereas, Cassie's ambition, from the true crime perspective, I was really interested in exploring, you know, she's so ambitious, she wants this book, what is the cost of that ambition when you're dealing with real people? I'm all about ambition and female ambition has historically been squashed so I love reading about women who have these outsized ambitions and who are kind of willing to be pretty cutthroat about getting what they want. But I think what was interesting to me to explore from that true crime angle was: what is the cost of that ambition? And is there ever a cost that's too high to pay? Would there ever be, for Cassie, a cost that was too high to pay for her ambition? And should there be? I think those were some of the questions, when it came to the theme of ambition, that I was interested in exploring from the start of the book.
Speaking of Cassie’s ambition, at one point she's talking to her fiancé and he’s kind of pushing back against her doing something, you know, taking a call for the book when they’re supposed to be doing something together, and she says, ‘it's my job.’ And there was something so recognizable in that moment for someone who is trying to make a living through writing. It’s that ability to unequivocally claim your time for writing, especially if you have kids to take care of. Who among us has not been happy to be able to say, you know, it's not just me trying to make this happen, this is my job. I need to do this.
You're so right. I felt like the minute the book sold, I shifted into that space of like, I could claim this time. The guilt, I think, was still there but diminished because ‘this is my job, dammit.’
You have to get the book in, right? Somebody else is telling you that you have to do it as opposed to just running on your inner ambition. And that was a very recognizable moment to me and I think it will be to other writer-parents.
And that's interesting too, right? How if it is just our ambition but nobody is paying us for that ambition, we feel like it's not enough to claim that time. It's almost as though we need that external validation of a paycheck to validate our ambition, which sucks.
Speaking of validation, you’ve published a bunch of great essays lately on the impact of the pandemic on mothers.
Yeah. I kind of got into it, not accidentally, like I obviously got into it on purpose but it was a few years back where I just kind of started writing personal essays, probably after I became a mom.
Happens to the best of us.
Yeah, and I found that I did really enjoy it. I would do it at the same time as writing this book and it would be nice to kind of shift head spaces and have these shorter pieces of work. It's a different part of the brain, I guess.
Oh, totally. And you can feel like you've accomplished something, like you've finished something.
Exactly. And, you know, you make a little money, so it's my job.
More Than You’ll Ever Know is out on June 7th! Get your copy here.