Kate Petersen, author of the story “After, Before,” speaks with NER nonfiction editor J.M. Tyree about the “modes of the times in which we are living, an envelope of upsetting news convey[ed] through a digital media muddle.” Timing is everything. Read on.
JMT: “After, Before” is a story of great observational intelligence about the ambient moods of the times in which we are living, an envelope of upsetting news conveying through a digital media muddle. It almost has the feel of an essay, but I think it’s important to the story that it self-defines as fiction. Rather than asking you which parts are true and which are made up, could I ask you instead to comment on the artistic reasons regarding why it felt important to write this as a work of fiction?
KP: Well, first, thank you. A short answer is ineptitude; I don’t know what an essay is supposed to do, other than make an attempt. In that sense, I suppose this is a kind of essay. But essays often take on descriptive duties, don’t they? And I was less interested in naming the times some of us are living in than getting under the skin of somebody trying to live in them. And in choosing to draw a mind and body into that “muddle,” it seemed important to me to engage ones apart from my own. Freedom, sure, but also because slipping the limits of one’s own mind and struggling into another’s seems pretty essential to the fictional enterprise. Have I borrowed a broken refrigerator light from a kitchen I have known? Yes. Possibly a bell pepper. But where does knowing that get you? The question dead-ends before it’s asked. On a practical level, I fear writing a nonfiction version of this story would feel like transcription, and boring in the way transcription can be. As a writer, I want to get into unknown territory, and quick. And yet I want some bleed. I want fiction to draft off something in the writer’s own life because I think that’s when there’s skin in the game. Whether it’s an emotional snag, ethical question, or just a room the writer can’t quite get over, that shaded part of the Venn diagram between artist and character has to be there for me as a reader—I have to feel it—and when I don’t, I feel the writer has forgone some vulnerability, and thus some chance to humble themselves before the work. Accordingly, I try to humble myself early and often.
JMT: “Skin in the game”—what a great way to put it. Yes, it seems to me that fiction writers are always being asked to field questions about their own life. That’s fine but it leaves out the element of imagination, doesn’t it?
KP: Right. Fine is such a good word here. I mean, from the reader’s chair, the curiosity is understandable. I know many writers get frustrated with this line of questioning because it isn’t necessarily interesting to us, or because it seems to shortchange whatever imaginative maneuvers we worked so hard to learn, perfect. Fine. But the imaginative apparatus is mysterious, and resists easy articulation (though I’m sure there are a few TED talks out there to suggest otherwise). The problem is probably structural: the question-and-answer is a pedagogical and commercial phenomenon, and when applied to artists, can veer toward justification or explanation (of which biography is a strain). The story, a writer hopes, is self-illumining. If we knew exactly how or why we’d written it, we might not have made the thing at all, worried it as we did.
JMT: Your story strikes me as unconventional in one specific sense, which is its approach to what might normally called “plot.” I found it very liberating to read fiction that followed the shape or rather the shapelessness of life as it’s lived now. Yet there is certainly tension and an unfolding internal journey . . . how did you approach striking that balance?
KP: In his introduction to the Anchor Book of New American Short Stories, Ben Marcus proposes that plot is what a story is hiding, and also the reader’s hide, or body, the space in which the story occurs. This constellatory sense of plot thrills me; to my mind it speaks more closely than a triangle both to fiction’s fueling mystery and its ambition to shape-shift, in moments, into lived life. Maybe having this notion of plot on board permitted the motor of this story to stay submerged, and somatic. “Shapelessness” is such an interesting word here, and I do think the narrative ghost in “After, Before” is struggling with something like that. How ought one orient themself along the world when contact points are so diffuse, mediated, ever-changing, when a primary one has gone missing? What skeleton then pins together a life? What if the things that most demand your attention and grief can be turned off with a button, and never are? I’m answering questions with questions. Bad interview etiquette!
JMT: Not at all. As I see it, this story takes risks on the present and feels very timely, especially in its approach to its use of digital culture as our current method of marking time as we progress through the hours of the day. Do you see this as a fundamental modification of the human condition, or is it all only more of the same, with different external accessories?
KP: I really love that idea, taking a risk on the present! I crave that risk in art, now. Require it even. Perhaps that’s an aspect of my own reading that has changed as I’ve gotten older: I have less patience for the kind of ahistorical three-acts I was given as early models. Were those fictional hearts beating too? Absolutely. But there’s a cleanness to scrubbing a story of its “external accessories,” as you call them, and I’m less and less interested in clean. You’re pickling it for future consumption, in some way, and while I admire the preservative impulse, it tastes different. Surely all art, by virtue of its being set down by the artist and finally let go, is time-stamped. Some works try harder to conceal their stamp than others. I was warned in more than one writing workshop: beware of including technology, music, slang, cultural flotsam, anything that could date your pages, and maybe you were, too. And, of course, you hope the voice you speak with carries down the years. But lately I’ve grown suspicious of such advice, at least when it comes to my own work. Ephemera may last only for a day, a season, but then we’re made of days, aren’t we? As to the second part of your question, the human condition and its trajectory are far above my pay grade. I suspect it’s the latter—just different accessories. But isn’t that question one certain stories are asking us, too: What if this is the very last time it’s like this? What then? What now?