PEN/Faulkner winner Kate Christensen’s uncompromising eighth novel, WELCOME HOME, STRANGER (Harper; December 5, 2023), explores change in many forms, both the daunting—environmental crisis, menopause, aging, death and loss—and the inspiring—discovery, survival, transformation and acceptance.
Authorlink talked with her about the most intimate details of writing the novel and overcoming personal struggles with change. The novel took her five years to write. As a writing instructor she encourages authors to never give up.
In WELCOME HOME STRANGER, this “forceful writer whose talent is all over the page” (San Francisco Chronicle) delves into the fracturing life of a fifty-something woman as she returns “home” after a family death. Pulitzer Prize winner Richard Russo calls it “a revelation, offering characters as real as your family and friends, a rich, vividly drawn setting, grab-you-by-the-throat drama and always, lurking in the shadows, a fierce authorial intelligence. What more could you ask?”
What do you do when your mother dies? You get on a plane and go home. Environmental journalist Rachel Calloway is still suffering jet lag from a long Arctic flight as she boards another jet and heads to Maine to mourn. Rachel has avoided her past for years, and back in the bosom of her working-class New England family she soon remembers why she left. Amid a series of escalating crises and surrounded by the at-once comic and heartbreaking people she left behind, Rachel must face some buried truths, come to terms with repressed sorrows, and begin the process of discovering who she is meant to become.
Christensen spent five years writing WELCOME HOME, STRANGER. “When I began it, I was wrestling with many of the issues Rachel faces: fraught family history and the reality of aging, along with intense grief about climate change and environmental devastation. It was a strange, dark time, made darker by the onset of Covid-19. I kept writing through intensifying sadness, taking Rachel with me into the heart of it, exploring the outlines of this strange new reality.
The novel is set before the pandemic, but its middle section is imbued with the sense of loss and the bleakness of that time. As I wrote the last section, something shifted both in the book and in my own psyche. As Rachel swims toward her own new life, I felt a totally unexpected uplift, a belief that the human will to survive is stronger than our self-destructive nihilism…. It seems that all along, I was writing myself through the darkness back to hope, toward the light.”
About the author
Kate Christensen is the author of seven previous novels, including The Great Man, which won the 2008 PEN/Faulkner Award. She also has published two food-centric memoirs, Blue Plate Special and How to Cook a Moose, which won the 2016 Maine Literary Award for Memoir, and she writes a monthly food column, BOUFFE, for Frenchly.us. She has taught fiction at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, as well as numerous workshops in both memoir and fiction at various residencies and MFA programs. Christenson lives in Taos, New Mexico with her husband and their two dogs.
“Christensen’s writing is clear-eyed, muscular, bitingly funny, and supremely caustic about the niceties of social relations, contemporary American culture, and sexual politics” (O, The Oprah Magazine).