Kate Reed Petty lives in Baltimore. Her debut novel True Story (Viking, 2020) has been shortlisted by the Center for Fiction’s First Novel Prize and was a New York Times Editor’s Choice. Her fiction and essays have been published online by Electric Literature, American Short Fiction, Blackbird, Nat. Brut, the Los Angeles Review of Books blog, and Ambit, and her short films have appeared on Narrative magazine and at the 2019 Maryland Film Festival.
SA: This novel is a page turner. It draws on horror, noir, and mystery—complete with tales of murder and a number of unexpected twists. However, there is a whole cast of characters sharing the spotlight and a web of complex relationships among them. Why was juggling this many interpersonal relationships essential to a novel that borrows from genres that more often stick to a single protagonist?
KRP: I’m glad to hear that you felt it was a page-turner! I love page-turners, and I wanted to write a book that would be absorbing and fun—partly because I wanted to entice readers who wouldn’t necessarily gravitate toward a feminist novel otherwise.
True Story is a book about men, women, and the politics of storytelling. The book begins with a toxic high school rumor, and radiates out through different perspectives and genres, as that rumor influences the lives of four characters for the next 15 years. I wanted to think and write about the stories we all tell ourselves about our own lives and the ways we polish those stories for the public narrative.
Playing with different genres was also a way to question our society’s expectations about the stories people are supposed to tell. What are the elements that make a story so good we can’t put it down? And if a story doesn’t have those elements, are we less likely to listen, and less likely to believe the person telling it? Creating a complex novel with multiple characters and perspectives was a way to set some of those storytelling expectations against each other, so that the reader can see the cracks in the expectations themselves.
For example, an early part of the book follows a high school lacrosse team that embodies some of the worst stereotypes of high school masculinity. For those boys, storytelling is an exercise in self-glorification. They get to cast everything they do as the exciting escapades of tricksters and outlaws. They see themselves as the heroes, or anti-heroes. Either way they see themselves as the center of the story. And the boys largely get away with it, because the society they’re part of sees them as heroes too. But hopefully the reader sees beyond what the boys are saying. And the point is underscored later, when a character who finds himself in a horror story is still trying to tell himself stories that cast himself as the hero. He’s deluding himself and overlooking real tragedy.
SA: A primary theme of the novel is the relationship between narrative and truth. Was this at the core of your original conception of the book or did you write yourself into it? And how did this theme evolve as you wrote? In the end, what most surprised you about what moral questions are being asked in regards to the relationship between narrative and truth?
KRP: The relationship between narrative and truth was at the core of the book’s original conception. Part of my earliest thinking was about how our society evaluates truth and the way narratives can reinforce or challenge those expectations. I wanted to explore what it takes for someone to tell a painful story, especially when their preferred mode of storytelling doesn’t fit society’s expectations.
Our culture is not very good at listening to people who testify against people with more power than them. We tend to pick the less-powerful person’s story apart, and any detail or stylistic choice that falls outside of a narrow set of established stereotypes undermines the entire testimony.
A good example of how narrative expectations can paper over truth is the idea of a “he said, she said” story. It’s a defeatist genre. Describing a news item or a criminal trial as a “he said, she said” severely limits the possible outcomes, because the category suggests that we can never get enough facts to establish justice—while also papering over the discrepancy in power between the two sides of testimony. The name creates the impression that we’re hearing two different perspectives on equal footing. But actually, there’s often an imbalance of power. If it’s the word of a woman against that of a man, for example, her side of the story gets evaluated against generations of myths about women being untrustworthy. I’m always upset when, in the context of a high-profile sexual assault, the public conversation turns to whether a woman is lying, but not whether the man might be. Calling it “he said, she said” makes it seem like this is all natural and normal, while disguising the inherent unfairness of it.
What surprised me in writing this—or rather, what made me queasy—was my own ability to recreate the “he said” side of this story. For example, an early section of the book, set amongst the members of a high school boys’ lacrosse team, was a shock to write. I know we are all familiar with misogyny in our culture, but I was still disturbed to see how much it was in my own subconscious.
SA: Given the pressure put on the concept of “truth” in storytelling, it makes a lot of sense that you would choose a collage/bricolage approach that mixes texts, genres, time periods, and points of view to provide multiple vantage points on the same story. What were some of your craft challenges in managing so many variables?
KRP: My biggest fear is that a format or style will feel like a gimmick, so I want to make sure each choice I make for a particular voice or style resonates with both the character and with the story. There has to be a reason to tell the story a certain way. I don’t want to give away too much about any individual section, but there is an example overall: The collage approach of found texts and different voices mirrors the way charges of sexual assault are pieced together in public narratives.
From a craft perspective, I also think it’s important to make a new style inviting. You have to make readers comfortable when the style switches abruptly, so that they stick with it. I love the way George Saunders does this at the beginning of Lincoln in the Bardo. Most of the book is a rapidly cycling chorus of voices and quotations, each of which is attributed to either a character or a historical source, epigraph-style.
But in the first chapter, Saunders eases us in. The first two pages look like a traditional narrative, with a single character narrating a story in first person. It’s not until the third page that we get the first of the attributions and meet a second narrator. Lincoln in the Bardo starts with a monologue, that becomes a dialogue, and then the chorus starts in earnest in chapter two. Saunders is walking the reader step-by-step into how we need to read this book. It is such a generous overture! (There’s even a poop joke at the end of the chapter! What a friendly thing to offer a reader!)
SA: One of the riskier elements of collage utilized in the novel may be the inclusion of horror film scripts ostensibly written by middle school students. “Risky” because all artists know that unique sting of looking back at our own early, cringe-worthy drafts. That risk pays off in True Story in that the inclusion of these scripts is both authentic (to the minds of middle school girls raised on damsel-in-distress horror tropes) and essential to this sophisticated novel. What were your challenges and goals in writing and revising these “recovered” childhood narratives? What do you hope readers will see in these scripts?
KRP: My goals for the scripts was to represent a time in the main character’s life when she had pure creative energy. I wanted to show her precocious, zany talent and her innate creativity and urge to express herself, which become more important as the novel goes on.
The scripts were a lot of fun to write because I was imagining what this character and her best friend (eighth-grade girls who love horror movies) would think was funny and cool. The scripts are pure in that the girls aren’t making these movies for anyone except themselves. As they get older, each script shows how they are becoming more sophisticated writers, as well as more constrained by the influences of misogyny and cultural expectations.
SA: As our understanding of literature evolves, “traditional” narration (single narrator, often omniscient, with a rising action to climax to resolution structure) is being recognized more often as a “masculine” shape. For example, I am currently reading Jane Alison’s Meander, Spiral, Explode: Design and Pattern in Narrative, which highlights narrative structures that are not so easily compared to a male orgasm. In addition to the mosaic form working mimetically in True Story, I am wondering if you consider structure of narrative—in addition to the act of storytelling—as one that can exert control over gender norms?
KRP: Definitely! I love Jane Alison, and that book is so fantastic and inspiring and smart. I like how Alison talks about narrative patterns in novels being revealed only in retrospect—first to the writer, who finds their structure as they write, and then to the reader, to whom the structure is revealed only when they reach the end.
The first part was true to my experience of writing True Story. I started out with some ideas and direction, including the experiment of alternating between the points of view of a male and female character, but the overall shape of the book revealed itself through the writing process.
For readers, too, the pattern of True Story isn’t fully revealed until the end. Within individual sections, True Story does lean on some storytelling arcs that are a bit masculo-sexual, in Alison’s words (i.e., swelling to an explosive climax and then deflating in denouement). But the novel as a whole is more circular. At each new section, the reader circles back and questions previous assumptions.
SA: I was struck by how this novel refuses to allow a discussion of truth that leaves out an interrogation of audience, or how a story is received. I am thinking here about how the story of what happens one wild night after a legendary high school party changes based on who is telling the story, but perhaps more so by who is interpreting it. How do you see this novel as interrogating the important role of the audience in the relationship between narrative and truth? Do you hope that the reader will be implicated as part of this interrogation, and if so, how?
KRP: Part of what inspired me to explore this story was the roles and responsibilities of bystanders. I started writing True Story before #MeToo, but I’m excited to be publishing this book in the current climate because of how many more people have seen their own closeness to the patterns and perpetrators of sexual assault, even if they haven’t been directly implicated. We are all bystanders at some point, and reckoning with that role feels like one of the most useful ways of actually changing society. I do hope that readers will question their own assumptions and reactions as they read.
That’s why I would say one of the big important relationships in the book is between Alice and the reader. Alice introduces herself in the prologue, and while she is sometimes enigmatic, she is the most pervasive presence in True Story. The thing that is most important to me is how readers think about her by the end.
SA: It’s interesting to hear you talk about Alice’s presence in the novel, because while it’s clear the story ultimately belongs to Alice, she is also the character most silenced in this narrative. Can you talk a little bit more about how you situated Alice’s voice as the hole at the center of the story while also making the story central to her character?
KRP: Alice was always the center and heart of the story, and the personal journey and growth she follows through the novel is closely aligned to the ideas I had for the whole book early on.
At the same time, I wanted to explore the story that her antagonists would tell, and the story told by an antagonistic system—which are stories that tend to leave her voice out. (The systemic forces and individual biases that contribute to silencing people often leave those people out.) The tightrope to walk in this book was figuring out how to depict those antagonistic stories in individual sections without losing Alice entirely. I know some people might find it frustrating to spend any time with these kinds of antagonists—and it was painful, in the writing, to be consciously eliminating her from some of the narrative to reflect how society was also eliminating her voice—but my hope is that the reader gets a keen sense of Alice’s absence.
SA: At a craft level, how did you navigate Alice’s presence in the narrative versus her absence?
KRP: The sections I wrote from Alice’s point of view are more complex than Nick’s, because I wanted Alice’s voice to reflect her emotional journey—as she tries to decide whether and how to tell her own story.
Going back to Jane Alison, this is definitely a pattern that emerged intuitively through the writing rather than by design. But as I look back, I can see that sections of the book that feature Alice are all playing in some way with the tension between the character’s desire to hide and protect herself, against her need to understand the truth. There are the movie scripts you mentioned. Another section comprises drafts of her college application essays, and in another, she is writing emails (which she never actually sends). In contrast, Nick’s sections are more straightforward prose forms (although there are some tricks in those, too). All of these choices were a little bit playful when I first started writing them, but they evolved into alignment with Alice’s development over the 15-year timespan of the novel.
SA: The subtext of this complex exploration of narrative and truth in True Story seems to be the guilt and shame that emerges for men and women surrounding gender norms. The novel could even be described as sketching anatomies of shame associated with systemic gender inequality. How does guilt and shame link these characters together and/or keep them apart? Do you see the novel as depicting these emotions as a universal equalizer, or are readers being asked to discern degrees or nuances of humiliation?
KRP: This question reminds me of a weird and hilarious scene in the 2016 movie The Love Witch, which I just watched. The main character, Elaine (the titular witch) has seduced a womanizer and cast a spell to make him fall in love with her. He confesses why he’s never fallen in love before: “All the girls I’m attracted to aren’t smart enough. And all the bright ones are too homely,” he says.
“Poor baby. That must be so hard,” Elaine says.
He nods, bursting into tears. “It is!” he says.
It’s such a wild scene. I read it as a hyperbolic parody of how some men end up hobbled by the masculine expectations that men must be “conquerors” in love and shut down their willingness to plumb some of the depths of human emotional experiences as a result.
That’s true of some of the characters in my book too. We all feel guilt and shame, including villains and perpetrators—the difference is that shame, mismanaged, turns into evil. The ability not only to tell a story, but also to understand a story from another person’s point of view, is one of the key factors in True Story.
SA: On the subject of craft, Nick’s character is written in three points of view, beginning with the first person, moving to the third person, and finally ending in the second person point of view. Why did you choose this particular movement, and what do you feel it ultimately accomplishes?
KRP: I originally wrote Nick’s final section in third person (in a loving pastiche of Raymond Chandler). The idea to switch it to second person was an editing trick—I was trying to find a way to crack open that section to do a significant edit, and I started writing it in second person just as a way of making the material fresh for myself. Then I ended up loving it.
For me, second person works there because it matches Nick’s mindset at that part of the book. He’s constantly berating himself, trying to beat himself into being a better person. First person was a better match from where Nick starts out, as a self-conscious and self-centered teenager. And third person was the best for the middle section, because Nick spends that part in such a deep state of denial. I always imagined him narrating himself in the third person as if he were imagining himself in a movie.
SA: What is one question about the writing of True Story that you wish someone would ask?
KRP: Your questions have been so good and thoughtful!
I guess the one thing I always want to talk about more is horror movies—maybe the question should be, have you seen any good horror movies lately?
SA: Have you?
KRP: Funny you should ask! I always want to talk to people about Midsommar, which I found exhilarating. And I recently finally saw 2001’s Trouble Every Day, by Claire Denis. She’s one of my favorite directors, but Trouble Every Day is notoriously disturbing, and I’ve always been too chicken to watch it. I finally did, and it is, indeed, very disturbing! I’m not sure I would recommend it—watch Denis’ 35 Shots of Rum instead—but it did give me the feeling of adrenaline-fueled pride that I love when I watch horror.
But my favorite movie so far this year is Bacurau, a genre-defying film about a small town in Brazil under siege from mysterious gunslingers. It’s riveting and completely unexpected, and it’s both a thrilling story and a gut-punching anti-colonialist and anti-white-supremacy allegory. It uses a lot of the tropes of a western, but twists them around so that the audience feels revulsion for the American, white, Clint-Eastwood-style gunslinger that the original western genre was created to glorify. It’s such an impressive film, I wish I could make art like that!