She said: that’s the first line to something you should write. And she was right.
Kate Petersen, author of “This event occurs in the past: an aubade,” talks with NER editorial panel member Evgeniya Dame about form and character in fiction, the troubadour song that inspired her story, and the importance of “staying naïve to aspects of craft.”
Evgeniya Dame: Could we start by talking about this word, aubade? At what point did the word (and what it stands for) make it into “This event occurs in the past: an aubade” (NER 41.3), and its title?
Kate Petersen: I thought of this as an aubade fairly early. The aubade, or song to a lover departing at dawn, has a long poetic tradition stretching back to the troubadours of the Middle Ages. And while I, a mere fiction writer, must step into such a tradition with some winkingness (or at least a sense of humor), the story’s concerns align with many elements of aubades as I understand them: not just the ache of parting, but the sense that one has overstayed, missed or overslept a warning. I was interested in the narrative spark embedded in the form: that parting is always a decision, and morning requires it.
ED: A story that admits to traveling “in rough reverse” presents a challenge: was there a particular entry point? Did you play with the structure, reordering, as you went along?
KP: The door to this story was the first line, which I carried around until I said it to a friend; she deserves the credit. She said: that’s the first line to something you should write. And she was right.
To the rest of your question, yes: order and structure were paramount, and I revised toward them. Asking the reader to move across so many lanes of time in quick succession required a structure that would make this easy for them, or at least not too harrowing. Refrain is a kind of guardrail, I suppose.
ED: “No one wants to put their people in peril,” the protagonist comments, “but they must.” How do you define peril for your own characters? What are they most likely to suffer from?
KP: That’s an excellent question. I don’t know if I can generalize about all my characters. But certainly a large subset of female characters I have written suffer from taking a picture of the book instead of taking the book. They discover, too late, that they have been a polite observer to a chapter of their own life that required further action. This is not unrelated to a social conditioning I believe is gendered: the pressure to be “a good person with a second-hand coffee table”—often at the cost of one’s own desires.
The peril for these characters, and the rest of us, is that the clock is running down. We each hear or see the clock differently at different points in our life, and I think figuring out what clocks a character is attuned to—and which ones she’s not—is one of the central ways I come to understand what a character’s story is about.
ED: The fiction writing students are another sort of character here, their unspoken practices, habits, concerns forming a part of this story. Did your teaching experience affect your own writing, and if so, in what way?
KP: Yes. How could it not? Teaching young writers was such a big part of my life for such a long time, I can’t imagine it not getting in. And I’m grateful for that.
Teaching has probably affected me in all sorts of ways that I can’t recognize. But among those I can: teaching invited me to articulate why we believe the things we do about how stories operate, to try to shape those ideas into questions that are relevant and pressing to students who begin as strangers to me, and then to challenge those “rules” or customs together (“What if we’re wrong, and fiction doesn’t have to do this?”).
Away from the classroom, I’ve found myself engaging in this sequence alone, writing stories that could fairly be labeled “grumpy pedagogy” tales. This is one.
ED: Your fiction appears to alternate points of view, including working in third-person omniscient. Do you often write in first person? What are the rewards and considerations you usually think about when settling on a point of view in the story?
KP: As a teacher of fiction and a member of a writing workshop, I’m acutely aware of point of view strategy: how it’s shaping or torqueing the story, serving it or not. But when I’m writing, I try to stay naïve to aspects of craft. Then, I am just listening to my narrator’s voice, trying to stay close enough for long enough to channel them faithfully.
That doesn’t mean that I haven’t ever changed the point of view of a story in the course of a workshop or revision. But I think of such moves as etudes, lessons one undertakes to strengthen some muscle.
ED: The quarantine, and the general lack of stability people have experienced this year, have affected so many aspects of writing, reading, and publishing. Could you talk a little about your daily routine, your writing practice and whether it has been changed?
KP: Well, there’s what we came to call quarantine which, for many, is effectively over: movie theaters and restaurants near me in Arizona have re-opened, college football is being played against all public health recommendations. And then there’s the pandemic, which still rages on in the US and is worsening elsewhere in the world. The week I e-mailed this to you, the US hit a new record of reported COVID-19 infections: more than 83,000 new cases in one day. But to listen to the news, leading with clips of maskless blather from various stumps, one understands that science writer Ed Yong’s ninth error of intuition that will keep us locked in a pandemic loop—habituation to horror—has, in many places, come to pass. “The US might stop treating the pandemic as the emergency that it is,” he warned. “Daily tragedy might become ambient noise.” I worry that to put my writing practice up against this daily tragedy is to participate in that habituation.
I finished a book (of epidemiology fiction, oddly enough) that was sent out before the pandemic, so my writing practice this year has operated in various states of suspension—first, waiting to hear about the book, then, in the suspension of life-as-planned that occurred for many of us in the US in March. I manage communications and outreach for an ecosystem science research center, and I am grateful for work, and for work that feels urgent. The writing goes on, though it is not what the moment calls for.
Kate Petersen’s work has appeared in Tin House, Kenyon Review, Zyzzyva, Paris Review Daily, Epoch, LitHub, and elsewhere. A former Jones Lecturer at Stanford, she has been the recipient of a Wallace Stegner fellowship and a Pushcart Prize. She holds an MFA in fiction from the University of Minnesota and lives in Arizona, where she writes about the science of our changing climate for the Center for Ecosystem Science and Society at Northern Arizona University.
Evgeniya Dame is a Fulbright scholar and a 2020–2022 Wallace Stegner Fellow in Fiction at Stanford University. Her fiction appears in Southern Review and Joyland. Her nonfiction and interviews have been published in Electric Literature and New England Review online. She grew up in Samara, Russia, and currently lives in Northern California.