Telling Our Own Stories: A Conversation with Kate Reed Petty
Reviewers are going to call Kate Reed Petty’s debut novel True Story timely because it explores a sexual assault rumor and how the accusation affects four people’s lives. But stories like this are always timely. What sets this novel apart is that it is a story about what happens as much as it is about how we talk about what happens—how the survivors talk about what happens and about who gets to talk about what happens. True Story explores the lives of its four protagonists with different genres, including horror and noir, and with different forms, including screenplays and a college admissions essay.
I started reading the book as the shelter-in-place began in Portland, Oregon, and I couldn’t put it down. I first read Kate’s work after we met at a writer’s conference, and it has always pushed the boundaries of form. (After reading one of her stories, I cajoled myself in a journal to be more inventive.) It should have come as no surprise to me, then, that her novel tests the limits of form and genre to examine the storytelling impulse itself.
Kate Reed Petty has been recognized with a Narrative magazine 30 Below Award, as well as grants and scholarships from the Robert Deutsch Foundation, The Mount, Bloedel Reserve, and the Sewanee Writers Conference. Her short fiction has been published in Electric Literature, American Short Fiction, Blackbird, Ambit, Nat. Brut, and Los Angeles Review of Books, and she has a Master of Letters from the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. She currently lives in Baltimore.
We spoke recently by email about True Story, the creative process, the pressure survivors feel to share their stories, and more.
The Rumpus: What is the genesis of your novel’s structure? Did you always plan on the book being this many voices and genres, or is that something that emerged in the process?
Kate Reed Petty: Yes, the structure of this book was always kaleidoscopic. True Story is a book about men, women, and the politics of storytelling. From the beginning, I wanted to play with different kinds of stories as a way of looking at how we all refine and polish our personal stories for public consumption—and, more importantly, the differences between the ways men and women are expected to present their stories. Our society, our news, and our public conversations tend to be more receptive to stories when people conform to some expected tropes. In examining the reverberations of a single high school rumor over the years, in multiple angles and genres, I wanted to challenge those expectations.
The structure emerged when I started writing this during a DIY at-home writing retreat I took in 2015; I had a pile of eternally unfinished writing projects at the time, but I decided to set all that aside and spend every day writing whatever I wanted to write. At the end of that month, I had most of the voices and major plot points of True Story and I knew the book would alternate between two characters’ points of view. I also knew that the disparate parts of the book would mirror the way that rumors of sexual assault are often pieced together into a public narrative from disparate sources.
But it still felt a little preposterous to be using such a kaleidoscopic structure. I took inspiration from A Visit from the Goon Squad and Cloud Atlas (two of my favorites), so part of me hoped that readers would be open to what I was writing—but for the most part I assumed nobody would ever want to read the complicated thing I was putting together. It was actually liberating! I stopped trying to write something I thought could get me an agent, and instead just focused on what I was enjoying, and what I felt was important.
Rumpus: It sounds liberating. What were the challenges of writing the different voices and genres?
Petty: I usually set up an explicit challenge for myself in choosing a narrative voice. I think of it like an algorithm: I set up some rules for a particular character, input some setting and plot details, and the voice helps guide the story.
In one section of True Story, for example, I decided the narrative voice would skip past the subject of her sentences whenever it was possible to do so while still making sense. She would never write, “I woke up sick today,” but rather, “Woke up sick today.”
That voice contributes to the urgency of the section, while also giving the character confidence and power. And it works because the character has gone into hiding—she is literally hiding her self. The voice, built on that absent subject, is inextricable from the character arc.
Writing in genre is a bigger and different challenge. Genres contain a set of rules that shapes a story, with a limited set of outcomes. But I was trying both to write within genre and to highlight how restrictive genre can be—the way those limited outcomes restrict our society’s willingness to listen to certain people tell their stories, or certain kinds of storytelling.
I stole tricks from genre fiction because I wanted to hook readers who might not gravitate toward feminist books. But I also know that readers are protective of our favorite genres. Whether it’s horror, noir, or realist literary fiction, we expect a book to offer some innovation and variation while still hitting the familiar beats. In playing with genre, I knew that I was going to frustrate every reader with some piece of the book. Which is why it was such a good thing I wrote this book without expecting anyone to read it; I never would have finished otherwise.
Rumpus: I find those explicit challenges interesting. Did they emerge during the first drafts of the sections or during revision?
Petty: The challenges are always part of the first drafts, but they get sharper and clearer in revision. I try to let my first drafts go wild, and commit to the idiosyncrasies of each narrative voice at any cost. Then I go back and tone it down as I edit.
The tricky part is in finding a balance between protecting the voice and making it legible. I never want a narrative voice to be completely opaque, but I also put a lot of trust in readers to stick with and get comfortable with something that might seem a little strange at first.
Rumpus: Was there a voice that you wanted to do but didn’t, or a genre that was left on the cutting room floor?
Petty: This is going to sound like a joke, but during that first writing retreat month, one of the things I experimented with was zombie erotica.
It turned into a short story about a different character, a college student who takes a freelance gig for an erotica magazine. She does it because she needs the money, but she tries to make it into an art project by sneaking subversive themes into an old-fashioned porn mag. She ends up in a power struggle with the magazine editor, and as it escalates, she starts sending in zombie erotica.
While it was always clear that the piece wasn’t part of True Story, it came out of my thinking about some of the same themes and styles; that piece was the first place I workshopped some of the marginalia techniques that appear in one section of the book.
Rumpus: That sounds great. Has the zombie erotica seen the light of the internet?
Petty: Weirdly, no! 🙂 The market is just so fickle these days, I guess.
Rumpus: This is your first novel, but your second graphic novel, The Leak, is forthcoming in 2021 and you recently sold a screenplay. Does your creative process differ for those other forms? Has liberation from expectations been as important?
Petty: I spend a lot more time outlining when writing a script than when I’m writing fiction. For a screenplay or a graphic novel (I write them in the same way), I probably spend a full fifty percent of my total time making the outline before I start writing. It’s important because the script itself doesn’t appear in the final product of those forms; the plot has to function independently of the language, because it’s going to come to life through other artists’ visual work. The emotions and mechanics of the plot have to stand alone. In a novel, where the reader experiences the plot and the language woven together, I tend to find my way through the story more as I’m writing it, rather than planning ahead.
The visual format of a script changes the creative process, too. For any text, the physical form really matters. One of my favorite (maybe apocryphal) stories is that the editors at the New Yorker will often put a writer’s draft into “the font” to read it, because they get a better feel for the piece. I have similar feelings about my favorite fonts, and I know a lot of other writers do, too; the timbre of writing changes with the format.
With a script, you are not only working in a different font and layout, but the physical page has a more direct relationship with time—as a rule of thumb, one page of script should work out to about a minute of film time, and I similarly make sure the content for each page of the final graphic novel fits on a single page of the script, to make sure I’m leaving plenty of room for the artist to work with the material.
I think readers will feel some of that in True Story; as the novel offers different formats, the sense of time passing contracts or expands to reflect the urgency of the subject matter.
Rumpus: One of the things the novel does well is explicate pop culture—films, television shows, and so forth. The next time I watch Silence of the Lambs, I will watch it differently after reading Alice’s college application essay. Some writers, including this interviewer, are always hesitant about proper names in fiction. But pop culture plays an important role in the lives of your characters. What role does pop culture play for you in characterization and storytelling?
Petty: I really appreciate you saying that! I totally share your hesitation about pop culture in fiction—it’s an easy thing to get wrong, and a lot of references end up being so corny. But because the book plays with genre, I wanted to dive directly into some of the repeated patterns and explicit references that form genres.
A lot of us learn about life through books and movies; as we grow up, we have to learn to look at these influences skeptically. In the section you’re referring to, for example, I wanted to invite readers to look critically at the ways we all absorb tropes from movies. It’s easy to feel like movies operate according to some natural laws, when really a lot of genre tropes are drawn from temporary (and sometimes flawed) social ideas.
The other thing about pop culture references is that you get into annoying copyright issues. One of the very last changes we made to True Story was a joke about Personal Pan Pizzas (™!). I originally spelled it with lower-case letters, but Pizza Hut (™!) still has the trademark on Personal Pan Pizza (™!). We had to capitalize, which I think makes the joke look a little bit weird, but it’s okay.
Rumpus: That reminds me. This is a very funny book. Was it difficult to balance or manage the book’s tone? How do you blend in humor without minimizing the seriousness of the book’s plot?
Petty: Thanks for saying so! Some of the jokes are easy, because they’re at the expense of Nick—a misguided bro character who comes from such a place of power and privilege, humor is a healthy antidote. I would also describe a lot of the book’s humor as playful; because the book explores so many facets of storytelling, I found opportunities to play with the expectations of different kinds of stories, which I think ended up coming out funny.
The heart of this book for me is the struggle to tell our own stories—and to tell them exactly how we want to tell them. The book ends on a note of triumph and hope, based in the power of storytelling; it’s hard to explain without giving too much away, but the fact that this serious story could be told in a playful way is part of what makes the hopeful ending possible.
Rumpus: It is hopeful, but in a much different way than I expected. Late in the book, there is a pivotal moment of confession, presented as a screenplay. It seems like the intent is to give us more direct access to the confession, but as a reader, I felt like the form distanced me from whatever truth might be in that screenplay more so than telling me what happened in first-person prose would have. Does the book believe that version of events? Do you?
Petty: I won’t answer that question explicitly, because it is important to me that each reader interprets the book for themselves. I want people to question not only what “really” happened but how the act of storytelling shaped the consequences.
I will say that screenplays are a native storytelling language for some of the characters in the book. The childhood screenplays presented throughout the book are a snapshot of early creative energy; by reverting to the screenplay at this pivotal moment, the book wrests control away from another character, whose voice has been more dominant in previous sections. I know that layer of distance changes the reader’s comfort with the story, but that’s okay, because I didn’t want this moment to be too comfortable.
Rumpus: One of the issues this book explores is what the public often expects from survivors. Obviously, that’s a controversial and relevant question. We demand people come forward and tell their stories to the press and be publicly appraised. What did writing this book teach you about that question?
Petty: It’s an important and difficult question, and I would never want to pretend that I have the final or only answer on this. As I’ve started to get early reader reactions to this book, one thing that has been jarring has been the personal questions it has elicited. True Story is entirely a work of fiction, but a few people still have pushed on whether it’s autobiographical. That question is a form of the exact issue you are talking about.
I started writing this book in the years-long gathering storm before [the most recent iteration of] #MeToo. People, primarily women, have been coming forward with urgent testimonies about rape culture for decades. I was struck by an episode of Hidden Brain about the women who had been speaking out against the playwright Israel Horovitz’s sexual predation since the early 90s; that story crystallized for me how much of #MeToo was less about victims speaking up, and more about society actually listening. (Although of course a lot more people felt comfortable speaking because of that listening).
Still, now that we have more space for these stories, there seems to be more of an assumption that any survivor will speak, or should speak, or must speak, which is unfair. I believe we all have a right to our stories, and that includes the right to decide whether, and when, and how, to tell them.
Photograph of Kate Reed Petty by Nina Subin.