Bending Genres, Telling Lies, Searching for the True Story
“Monsters are real. Ghosts are, too. They live inside us—and sometimes they win.”
The woman quoting Stephen King in Kate Reed Petty’s debut novel TRUE STORY is Alice Lovett, a ghostwriter who makes a living telling other peoples’ stories. She’s never told her own, though her best friend Haley has begged her to.
“You’ve always been so sure of the story you want me to tell, Alice writes, the story about the things that happened while I was asleep. ‘It’s your story,’ you would say. ‘If you don’t let it out, it will take over your life.’ But the story is mine only as the victim owns the prosecution, or the whale the harpoon. Telling it has always been the privilege of the perpetrators, who have the actual facts, and of the bystanders—like you—who believe they know.”
In 1999, Alice, passed-out drunk, was driven home from a jock party, and the rumors about what happened in that car changed the lives of everybody in that town forever. Families fell apart, Alice tried to commit suicide, the boys were forever branded: “We were no longer individuals, talented young men with hopes and dreams,” says one of them, Nick. “We were the lacrosse team that had raped that girl.”
But had they? Fifteen years later, Alice, Haley, Nick, and another of the boys remain haunted by that night, desperate to determine what really happened. But the result is nothing like what they—or we—expect. In a stunning, genre-bending tour de force, Petty gives us a thriller, a horror story, a memoir, a noir; the story told in multiple narratives in multiple points of view, as well as through transcripts, emails, essays, and film scripts, the voices tumbling on top of one another, as the author peels back the mysteries—only to reveal more mysteries.
It is a breathtaking accomplishment, deeply and compulsively readable, while at the same time exploding preconceptions of gender, power, and the nature of truth. What really happened? You’ll find out—but you’ll have to wait until the final page to be sure: “We’ll have to call it fiction, of course (we both know the danger in presenting a woman’s story as truth). But I’m trusting you to see this is true.”
“Most of my writing is about the politics of storytelling,” says Petty. That writing includes a great deal of short stories, as well as multiple grants and scholarships, and a Narrative magazine 30 Below Award. “I’m interested in how humans shape our personal stories into public narratives, especially in the context of different social expectations, genres, and modes of writing.
“As a feminist, I’ve also been drawn to writing that exposes the absurdities and offenses of rape culture. There have been a series of infuriating high-profile sexual assault scandals throughout my lifetime, and I am always deeply frustrated by those bystanders who inevitably come out to discredit victims, to downplay the seriousness of the assault, or otherwise bully society into injustice. When I was writing TRUE STORY, I was thinking about the challenge of changing people’s minds—especially those who would never pick up a feminist book.
“I started working on this book in 2015, and over the past five years, any time I have told people what it’s about, they always say, ‘That’s so timely!’
It’s a depressingly evergreen issue. There was a moment during #MeToo when I felt like maybe my book would become obsolete, or a relic of an earlier era. But that was clearly wishful thinking. The Kavanaugh hearings in 2018 really put a point on it. I was riveted watching Christine Blasey Ford delivering her incredibly poised and well-grounded testimony in front of Congress; I was disgusted watching Brett Kavanaugh rant about beer. It was such a pointed example of how powerful people—often men—are still given a wide range to control not just the facts of a story, but how the story is told. I think one of the big projects facing society in our post-#MeToo era is: how do we create real freedom for the un-powerful to speak and to be believed?”
How did she come to such a striking style, however?
“I’ve always loved the ‘M.S. Found in a Bottle’ style of storytelling—where you feel like the book you’re reading is some artifact you uncovered in a dusty attic. In TRUE STORY, I was trying to write the kind of book that I would want to read. But it was also a way of thinking about how different kinds of cultural narratives influence the way we all tell our own life stories, especially cultural narratives about gender. And writing the book in different voices and formats mirrored the way that stories about sexual assault get pieced together from multiple testimonies.
“Voice and plot are usually inseparable for me, and I wrote each section of the book in a specific voice—voices which came not only from the characters, but also from what other books or movies that character might think were cool and would influence the way they speak to themselves in their own head.
“The voice in the ‘Old Friends’ section did change—I rewrote Nick’s voice from first person to second. It was a time near the end of the editing process, when I was sick of the book, and that section in particular was feeling stale to me; I started playing around with the second person because it felt like a risk, because a lot of readers hate second person, so it made editing kind of thrilling. But the more I worked in that perspective, it felt right—second person matches Nick’s mindset at that point of the book because he is trying to be a good person and the only way he knows how to do that is by constantly beating himself up. It’s also a nice development from Nick’s voice in ‘Lax World,’ which is self-centered and self-conscious, i.e., first person.
“Nick surprised me! I was really shocked when I found myself writing in his voice in high school, and to be honest I was surprised at how easy it was. Although, to paraphrase something Alice says in the book, it maybe shouldn’t be a surprise because we’ve all spent our lives listening to stories from men like him. I found myself developing a lot of affection for Nick, but at the same time I didn’t want to let him off the hook; the difficult part was figuring out how to make him likeable without forgiving him totally for his serious faults.”
Like Alice, Petty has herself spent many years as a ghostwriter, a communications consultant working with nonprofit organizations to tell their stories in one format or another. That helped her find her style as well: “My freelance writing work, which paid my bills for more than a decade, is a huge part of who I am as a fiction writer. TRUE STORY is a ventriloquist’s book. The ghostwriting and consulting I’ve done has made me more flexible as a writer, developed my confidence in mimicking different voices and formats. I spent a lot of time interviewing people and then writing content that preserved their unique voices but polished them up—I was basically an Instagram filter for white papers and think pieces.
“Actually, the ‘Instagram filter’ metaphor is also apt because my freelance work fed my interest in the ways people shape and polish their own stories for public presentation. That space between what a character thinks and feels, and what they believe is appropriate to tell other people, is Technicolor.”
Speaking of Technicolor, horror movies play a dominant role in the book: “I love horror movies, but I’m the kind of fan who watches with her fingers interlaced over her eyes, peeking through the cracks. Some of my favorite movies are horror (recent loves include It Follows, The Babadook, obviously Get Out), and if I’m feeling lonely or sad I generally find that a smart horror movie is a really reliable escape for me, kind of an emotional shower.
“The home movies that Haley and Alice make together in TRUE STORY are inspired by the homemade horror movies my older brother made when we were kids. We would make monsters out of old toys or craft projects; there was an Alf doll (from the television show) that showed up a lot. We’d hang the monster from a pole using fishing wire, and then JT would chase me around the house with it while I screamed my head off. It was some of the most fun I’ve ever had. I included those home movies in the book in part because I wanted to conjure some of the fun and joy of creation—I wanted to include artifacts of Haley’s and Alice’s innate creative lives, because this is a story about a character learning to speak up and reclaim that innate voice. (Also, my brother, JT Petty, is still a filmmaker.)
“In recent years, I have made a few art projects that I’ve called ‘short films,’ and they have screened at film festivals, but they’re technically a hybrid form somewhere between short story and animation—I record them entirely on computer desktops, and the story unfolds through what the character types (and edits). For example, in one called Belated, a woman is writing and rewriting drafts of an email she’s trying to send to an old boyfriend.
“Those aren’t connected to TRUE STORY directly, but they reflect my larger interest in how the act of storytelling shapes our lives and identities.”
Other influences Petty lists include Grace Paley, Clarice Lispector, Mario Vargas Llosa, and Vladimir Nabokov. “I started out writing because I wanted to imitate their work, which often broke the fourth wall in some way, while still telling super-intelligent and emotional, character-driven stories. I was also galvanized by an anthology that McSweeney’s published, edited by Michael Chabon, called Thrilling Tales that explicitly challenged how the literary world thinks about genre stories.
“Later, as I was writing TRUE STORY, it became clear that the book was going to take a shape that felt insane. I took courage from Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad and David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, which gave me a kind of permission to keep writing this crazy book.
“I spent the whole time I was writing it telling myself I was crazy,” she’s noted elsewhere. “I didn’t think anyone would ever want to read such a crazy book. I kept writing at first because I was enjoying it so much; later on, when I got to the point where I worried I’d had too much fun and there were too many different voices and twists, I kept writing because I wanted to prove to myself that I could pull it off. My plan was always to finish the book, put it away, and then write a normal book that I could publish.”
That wasn’t the way it worked out, however, although her publishing path was “definitely an odyssey fraught with pitfalls.”
“The short happy ending is that I met my agent, Emily Forland, at the Sewanee Writers’ Conference. Emily is the best; from the start it was clear that she was a true ally, and she gave me some really sharp feedback on the first draft of the book, which I took to heart and edited a second draft that was much stronger.
“The week Emily sent the manuscript out to editors, I arrived for a month-long residency at Bloedel Reserve, on Bainbridge Island. It’s this incredible, 150-acre nature preserve and botanic garden, and I got a little cabin entirely to myself to stay in and write for a month, which was totally magic. Everything in publishing takes so long, and there are always so many rejections, so I was determined to live off the grid in this little cabin and not think too much about the novel being out on submission. Then Lindsey Schwoeri at Viking read the book in about two days (she is an incredibly high-functioning person), and wanted to talk. Because I was in this cabin on an island, I kept losing cell service during our first call; at one point I got in the car and drove out to the highway to try and catch her. I was so embarrassed. Yet it was still such a good conversation! It was clear that Lindsey understood and believed in the book, and I’m so lucky that TRUE STORY ended up in her hands.”
Actually, to be precise, it was a book called Women’s Fiction that ended up in her editor’s hands: “I love the title Women’s Fiction, because it’s so wry—it’s playing on the myth about women lying, and also the idea of the genre, and also because the book is literally about women writing. It was a great title! But while some people loved it, some readers put it bluntly: ‘I would never, ever pick up a book with that title.’ The contrarian part of me wanted to keep Women’s Fiction explicitly to thumb my nose at the cultural biases that stigmatize stories about women, or makes some books seem less serious.
“But luckily, one of my editors at my UK publisher, riverrun, came up with TRUE STORY, which I love. It’s a wink of a title in the same way that Women’s Fiction was a wink, but it’s got a juicy noir tone. Also, you can imagine Nick saying, ‘True story, bro!’ And Women’s Fiction is still in the book, as the title of a documentary film that plays a significant role.”
As for the future, “I’m working on my second novel, which…is a secret. The closer I get to finishing, the more superstitious I get about sharing the details. But I can’t wait until it’s done and I can tell you everything.”
Once you’ve finished TRUE STORY, you won’t be able to wait, either.
Neil Nyren retired at the end of 2017 as the executive VP, associate publisher and editor in chief of G. P. Putnam’s Sons. He is the winner of the 2017 Ellery Queen Award from the Mystery Writers of America. Among his authors of crime and suspense were Clive Cussler, Ken Follett, C. J. Box, John Sandford, Robert Crais, Jack Higgins, W. E. B. Griffin, Frederick Forsyth, Randy Wayne White, Alex Berenson, Ace Atkins, and Carol O’Connell. He also worked with such writers as Tom Clancy, Patricia Cornwell, Daniel Silva, Martha Grimes, Ed McBain, Carl Hiaasen, and Jonathan Kellerman.
He is currently writing a monthly publishing column for the MWA newsletter The Third Degree, as well as a regular ITW-sponsored series on debut thriller authors for BookTrib.com, and is an editor at large for CrimeReads.
This column originally ran on Booktrib, where writers and readers meet: