It is the late 1990s, and a bunch of kids gather for a party. What happens at that party, and how those events get talked about, have deep, startling repercussions for everyone involved. That’s the premise for “True Story,” the terrific debut novel by Kate Reed Petty. It is a delectable cocktail of different genres – there are sections devoted to noir, horror, and even a college essay – but they are all service of how toxic masculinity leaves a stain on the soul. There are two main characters: Alice is the victim of sexual of assault, and Nick who helped perpetuate the rumor she is a slut. Neither really knows the other, and over the course of decades, one episode comes to define their lives in ways they will never fully understand.
Before I continue, I should add that Kate and I are old friends. We have known each other for well over a decade, and throughout that time, I’ve eagerly followed her career. I could not be happier about her success – the book got a rave review in The New York Times, and readers are excited by it – but I also suspected that our friendship might lead to a deeper, genial interview.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Brightest Young Things: What I found really fascinating about the novel is how the imperfect information flows between all these characters. How did you go about charting that out?
Kate Reed Petty: Each section is a fairly straightforward kind of puzzle within itself. It was not too difficult to chart out each individual section with the book. [The book] shifts large sections between different characters’ perspectives and plays with different genres, and so each of those is almost like a self-contained story or a self-contained world. And so within those, the charting, it was a natural storytelling process to start with a character and a voice.
There’s always certain things that a character doesn’t know about themselves, or is unwilling to look at about themselves, and some of my favorite narrative tension just starts with that kind of character place. When it came time to put the whole book, I was looking for places to help the reader understand how all these different pieces fit together and what were important. It was more just a lot of hard thinking. It’s hard to recreate the process of how it came together, but it’s sort of like a lot of very slow chewing and then realizing what the pieces fit together. I guess I should also say that the later sections are definitely informed by the earlier sections. I was writing things to speak to the problems that had come up earlier on, so some of those pieces were already kind of fitting together.
BYT: Did you diagram anything out or anything like that?
KRP: Yeah, I always do a lot what I call a reverse outline. I write first, and then I make myself a map of what is happening, and this is where the character is going. There’s one section where Nick, one of the main characters, is on a bender in a cabin in the woods alone. I was trying to carefully track of how much he was drinking because I wanted I wanted to make it wasn’t too much. I had a detailed map of when his whiskey runs out, when his nice whiskey runs out, and when beer runs out.
BYT: My favorite thing about this book is that instead of making each section only a style exercise you’re also exploring what the genre is about and how it can serve the story. For example, the noir section is about Nick’s competence, whereas the horror section is about a fear of the unknown or a fear of yourself, just something much more primal. Were you just looking for a genre to fit your ideas, or did you write to those themes?
KRP: I picked the genres specifically to speak to the story, and what the characters were going through. One of the things I wanted to do with this book was think about talking to men about rape culture, which is, I think, something a lot of men who have been doing a lot more since the MeToo movement. I chose on purpose horror and noir, which have culturally-coded macho roots more than many other genres.
BYT: The noir hero is often the brooding, intellectual, dark, mysterious man who is betrayed by a woman.
KRP: Exactly! That noir sort of specifically came out of that post-war period in America when women, all of a sudden, had filled in all of the jobs and were doing fine, and so there was this very gendered anxiety and economic anxiety. The first [part] is kind of different, a campus novel. Some people have said it feels a little YA because the characters are in high school. It’s almost like Can’t Hardly Wait. Yeah, so I was choosing those specifically to think about a man who didn’t really understand rape culture, and yet was still shaped by it, constrained by it, hurt by it. Even if you had not directly participated in it, it was still affecting his life in ways that he couldn’t see. I wanted to look explicitly at how human beings take those messages and make our decisions based on them.
BYT: It’s funny you mentioned that a lot of people compared the first section to YA because it reminded me more of Bret Easton Ellis, except slightly more middle class. A big problem with his books has been how he’s casually depicts these terrible things that happen to these very privileged young people. I think he’s so cavalier that it seemed to me that you were maybe responding to that.
KRP: There was a stretch of time where it’s cool to be really gritty, and I think Bret Easton Ellis speaks to this a little bit. I leaned into that a little bit, but readers talk also say they feel icky and uncomfortable in that section, and I think that is a little bit on purpose. I want people to think, “Oh gosh, these poor kids. This is real, but they’re trying to be cool, and it’s so sad.”
BYT: As someone who also grew up in suburban Maryland and graduated high school roughly around the same time as you, it also struck me as a weirdly familiar. Did anybody else talk about connecting with that section? I’m curious because you and I have somewhat similar backgrounds, and many of your readers do not.
KRP: One person reached out to me, and I was tickled. She asked me if it was Broadneck High School, which is the high school one town over from mine. I went to Severna Park High School, and it was so funny for her to have picked that out. I’m not sure if she knew anything about my background or if she just recognized that. [That part] is definitely a public school, mid-Atlantic, suburban white neighborhood vibe that some of my readers have recognized. And I’ve also heard people who went to private school, or boarding school, or Catholic school that connected with it. Some people who studied abroad in high school were surprised by that section, which was interesting to me too because it is ordinary to me.
BYT: All of the sections have a conversational quality to it. It felt like I was being told a story, or the characters are kind of letting me in on their secrets, rather than an omnipotent approach. To what extent were you thinking about how what you’re writing is in conversation with the reader?
KRP: That’s a really interesting question and an interesting way to put it too. When I was writing this book, especially, the voice and the character are very closely knit together. I think sometimes with more of an omniscient third narrator, you start from a more omniscient place, and so it is true that all of these sections didn’t start from a place that was very close to behind the characters’ eyes. Some of that does translate to the reading experience that you’re experiencing close to the character. I love books that do both things
With “True Story,” I want the reader to be actively interpreting what’s happening, and questioning their assumptions throughout, at the same time that the characters were doing that. Being so close to the characters’ shoes pushes reader to make the same assumptions that the characters are making, but then also puts them in a position of agency where they can question that. As each section changes, they get new information and meet a new character, a new perspective, so those earlier assumptions fall away.
BYT: There’s been a recent kind of contending with rape culture, whether it’s Dare Me, Unbelievable, or I May Destroy You. It feels like an important change that these issues are discussed so openly. How you feel your book is in conversation with those texts, if at all?
KRP: I try not to interpret too much into the book because as I’m thinking through my answer, it is important to me that readers get to decide what they think about it. I don’t even want to say what I want them to decide.
I think as our culture is getting better at listening to the voices of people who have less power. We’re definitely not good at it yet, but we as a culture are working hard to get over the biases and look frankly at all of the structural impediments that are in place that keep people from being able to speak the truth. As we get better at doing that, I think we also have more and more stories that look at all of the thorny nuances of what that means, whether it is the things that people do to each other in intimate relationships, or the things that people do when they have power over each other. There’s a lot of nuance and messiness there that I really admire. These stories can exist with creators not being afraid that those complications will undermine the victim’s voice, in a way that I think 10 years ago, or 20 years ago for sure would not have been possible.
BYT: Which section was the hardest for you to write?
KRP: The noir section where both Nick and Alice’s chapters get shorter and closer together. It took me a long time to figure out how to paste the information out in that ending because the ending does change a lot of things for the reader early on, and there’s a lot of different little twists and different revelations. I definitely changed the order of the twists pretty dramatically. I’m really happy with how it turned out, but it puzzling it out.
BYT: Yeah. It’s not so much in terms of getting into the voice, but it’s a more of a kind of tinkering with how things fit?
KRP: There’s a lot of days adding up to weeks of getting 10,000 words shaped well, but the part that felt most painful was that last section, tinkering.
BYT: Speaking of the noir section, I liked how it’s written in the second person, which you don’t see too much in literature, except in a Choose Your Own Adventure. What made you decide for a second person? Did you just want another way for us to empathize with the noir hero?
KRP: I was stuck in the writing, and I had been writing Nick in the third person, and I was like, “Well, let me try…” Sometimes to rewrite something it’s helpful to just change it dramatically to make it fresh, so you can rewrite it. At first, I kind of did it as a joke because a lot of people talk about second person like a pet peeve. I think people do it sometimes and it feels annoying, right? So I did it as just like, “Well, I’m going to do the annoying thing and see how that works.” But as I was writing it, it felt really right for Nick. The section you’re referring to, it’s the third time in next life that we’re spending time with him, and so he’s gone from 17, to his twenties, to his early thirties. In the beginning it’s first-person and he’s so self-absorbed, and in the second part it’s third-person and he’s almost kind of watching himself because he’s very self-conscious still, but starting to be more self-aware.
In that third section, as I was writing it, as I was writing with the second person, still saying you walked down the street, you do this, it felt like I could feel Nick white-knuckling his way through the story. He’s sober at this point. He’s trying to be a good guy, and so that sense of directly addressing himself, of almost beating himself up, felt really right. That ended up being the thing that unlocked that section for me.
BYT: You’re on Twitter a fair amount, and a lot of what you talk about is how to get over writing humps. One technique that I use to this day is, when I’m bored with something, I write it sarcastically, and then make it sincere. That seems to really help. The reason I bring it up is because I think there’s a lot of that back and forth with Alice constantly. Is that a part of you that’s in the character? I don’t want to say Alice is based on you, obviously, but…
KRP: I’m thrilled that you use that technique because it really does work. I think where it comes from is that writing Alice I believe very deeply that experimentation is great for creativity. If you can flip something completely inside out or upside down, you can let go of the things that you thought you had and play with it. It just becomes alive and easy, but also better and good. It’s definitely a secret.
I think unfortunately Alice’s experience is the opposite because her story is basically her deciding whether she wants to tell the story of one of her most traumatic experiences of her life. There’s more of an urgency to her creative experimentation. But at the same time, one of the things I love about Alice, and that I really love about this book, is that there is a lot of her creative joy and her creative vitality in that struggle, that through the process of figuring out how to write these different things, I tried to give her as much joy as I could.
That’s part of why there are short screenplays that Alice and her best friend made as children, and that was why I wanted to include those. I wanted to show this original creative force that was in these girls before they puberty, high school, and social pressures that crushed them in some ways.
BYT: I was going to ask you some dumber questions that I wouldn’t normally ask an accomplished novelist because I would be embarrassed, but because we know each other, I feel I can get away with asking them.
KRP: That’s fun. I want to know what they are.
BYT: Now that your first novel’s out there, what do you wish you knew now that you could have known when you started?
KRP: It would have been really nice to know that I could do it. It’s only recently that I felt like the book is real. I think many, many writers struggle with just very intense self-doubt throughout the whole process, and I think that really holds the process up. With this book, because the structure is a little bananas, and I was doing some unorthodox things, I wasn’t really sure that it would ever get published. So at the same time, there was a sense of freedom with thinking that maybe I couldn’t do it, so I almost don’t even want to give myself the advice because I appreciate the sense of, nobody is going to read this, so it doesn’t matter.
BYT: When was the moment where you just decided that it was real and it was happening?
KRP: When I finished the first draft, I sent it to my big brother who I have worked with creatively and also just admire him so much. And so when he read it and was like, “Yes, this makes sense. This is a cohesive book.” That’s just the classic little sister answer. I worked on it for another two years after that, before I sold to Viking. That moment was also big. I was actually… My agent sent the book out on the same day that I went to a creative residency, which is on Bainbridge Island off of Seattle. It’s this really gorgeous, 100-acre wooded estate where I had a little cabin on it to write and no cell service.
Basically, we had sent the book out, and I was expecting it to take weeks and weeks. I thought, “Great, I’m going to go to this cabin and not think about it. I’ll come back and, then I’ll worry about the book.” I think it was the second or third day, my agent sent me an email, and was like, “Hey, can you find a phone line because there’s an editor who wants to talk to you.” That was a really exciting moment of because it happened a lot faster than I thought it would.
BYT: I also feel this constant self-doubt whether I am a serious writer, and it just never goes away. It doesn’t matter how much affirmation I get or where I publish, it’s just going to always be there.
KRP: Yeah. It is really true. I feel like it literally never goes away. When you reach one goal or one lifelong dream and that doubt remains, you realize, “Oh, this is what it is to be human. This isn’t actually connected to my external goals.” This is just how it feels.
BYT: So now that the book is out, and you’ve discussed it and you’re getting feedback, what’s been the best and worst part of that?
KRP: A lot of people have said that their favorite section is a section called “Final Girl,” where Alice is writing her college application and about horror movies. That section is close to my heart, and I also feel it’s a little bit of a test. Some readers are really frustrated by that section, which is fair. There’s a sense of repetitiveness to it because Alice is circling over these same things in her own life. But I always feel really happy and connected to readers who tell me that that’s their favorite because that it means a lot to me.
The stuff that I’ve been surprised by or the stuff that’s worse, it’s really interesting… it’s kind of beautiful to get to see lots of different people’s reaction to a book. I’ve never had this experience of having so many different pieces of feedback on something I did. Some people don’t like it, or don’t feel like it speaks to them, or whatever else, and it’s just interesting to get to see those different textured answers. I feel weirdly good about it because I was worried about it before publishing. I thought, “Oh gosh, am I going to feel really self-conscious about negative reviews on Goodreads.” But honestly, I just find it fascinating. It’s an intimate look into people’s brains or just how different people work.
BYT: You said you have your interpretation, and you don’t want to poison the well that readers should think one way, but have there been times where you like looked at Goodreads or Twitter or something, and you’re like, “How dare you? Wait to miss the point, buddy.” Has that happened?
KRP: I actually love hearing readers’ reactions, and I’m always grateful and amazed at what people see in the characters. There is the fact that this book is about a rumor of sexual assault, and so in some reviews I see people worrying that a story that is not 100% straightforward is damaging to the larger cause of change — our system has so egregiously disbelieved survivors, and so I completely respect that concern, and I think it’s valid and important. And I’m excited that we live in a world now where so many people are strongly saying believe women, believe victims, believe survivors in all cases. But it breaks my heart a little bit when readers interpret the fact that the heart of the book is a rumor to be damaging. Still, my goal was to take a critical look at rape culture through the lens of complicated and conflicting stories, so I stand by it.
BYT: My reaction to that would be the classic “depiction is not endorsement” argument, which I thought was what you were going for. This is showing that an event that happened 20 years ago when young people didn’t have the resources that they did now, and how things could spiral the way that they did…
KRP: Yeah, yeah. I don’t think this is too much of a spoiler, but the boys in the beginning of the book are bragging about committing a crime and not even realizing that that’s what they’re talking. To me is the real, vicious, awful part of this book.
BYT: Is there anything that you wanted to talk about that I didn’t ask you?
KRP: No, no, this is really great. I really appreciated talking to you about the book and the good questions. It definitely was a lot of fun.
BYT: Oh, I’m glad you liked my questions.
KRP: Yeah. They were good and smart, but also unexpected. You can put that in.