The Chat with Zoey Leigh Peterson

Peterson, Zoey Leigh -- credit Vivienne McMaster
TREVOR CORKUM cropped

It’s a pleasure to be in conversation this week with Vancouver writer Zoey Leigh Peterson. Her sublime first novel, Next Year, For Sure, is out this month with Doubleday Canada.

Kirkus Reviews calls the book “a crisp, exciting exploration of love, friendship, and everything in between” and says “Peterson’s one to watch”.

Zoey Leigh Peterson was born in England, grew up all over the United States, and now lives in Canada. Her fiction has appeared in The Walrus, EVENT, Grain, and PRISM international and has been anthologized in The Journey Prize Stories and Best Canadian Stories. She is the recipient of the Far Horizons Award for Short Fiction (The Malahat Review) and the Peter Hinchcliffe Fiction Award (The New Quarterly). Next Year, For Sure is her first novel.

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The CHAT WITH ZOEY LEIGH PETERSON

Trevor Corkum: Your novel Next Year, For Sure explores the deepening relationship between Chris and Kathryn’s relationship, a couple of nine years. Specifically, you follow their lives as they tentatively begin to open their relationship to other people. How was the novel born? How did it evolve as you wrote?

Zoey Leigh Peterson: I’m so glad to hear you say deepening. The novel really grew out of questions about how relationships grow and change. I’d been thinking for years about what allows some relationships to evolve and transform over time, while other relationships resist that kind of change, or implode in the face of it.

It’s still an open question for me. I’ve been in long-term relationships that have evolved with incredible grace and enduring love—relationships that have evolved from open to closed, from straight to queer, from lovers to best friends and back. So I know that it’s possible to navigate these changes in such a way that the underlying love endures. But I’ve also had relationships shattered by change, and people who once loved each other now unable to even speak to each other.

I’ve been in long-term relationships that have evolved with incredible grace and enduring love—relationships that have evolved from open to closed, from straight to queer, from lovers to best friends and back.

TC: So what’s behind that difference?

ZLP: Why does one relationship manage to evolve so harmoniously, while another one explodes into bitterness and estrangement?

As best I can tell, this is how novels are born: You take a question that has haunted you all your life, and you turn it over and over in your mind for ten or twenty years. You think about it from every possible angle. You think about how the outcome might have been different if one thing had happened differently, if two things had happened differently, if everything had happened differently. You get further and further from what actually happened. And then one day you’re washing the dishes and the novel comes to you out of the blue.

As best I can tell, this is how novels are born: You take a question that has haunted you all your life, and you turn it over and over in your mind for ten or twenty years.

TC: Polyamory, in mainstream literature, is still a relatively new topic. Your write with freshness, honesty, and precision, eschewing simple binaries or moral judgement. Did you have any trepidations as you approached your material?

ZLP: I didn’t have any trepidations, but I probably should have. I know it sounds naive, but it simply didn’t occur to me that there weren’t that many novels about polyamory.

For me, polyamory is just one way of being in a relationship. I’ve been in poly relationships. I’ve been in monogamous relationships. At this point, both seem pretty ordinary to me. So why wouldn’t I include both in a novel?

It wasn’t until the book was written and people started to react that I realized that for some people my book was going to be the first time they’d encountered this kind of relationship.

I think if I had realized that there’d be people basing their entire opinion of polyamory on this one novel, I probably would’ve felt obliged to write a very different book. I would’ve been tempted to make the characters better role models, better exemplars of “poly done right.”
But because I didn’t realize, I was free to write the book I actually wanted to write.

TC: One of the things I admire most about the book is the exacting command of your prose. This is crisp, superb, impeccable writing; no word feels wasted or extraneous. Can you talk more about your writing process? What particular challenges did you face with this project?

ZLP: Thank you. That means so much to me. I think part of that economical style comes from being such a slow writer. I know that the last time we spoke, I was all excited because I thought I’d finally figured out how to write a rough draft, but I may have spoken too soon. I still tend to agonize over each word as I write, which makes for painfully slow first drafts.

On a good day, I’m lucky to write 500 words. That’s about three sentences per hour. And with any given sentence, I’d guess half my time is spent trying to find the right shape for the sentence, and the other half is spent asking, “Do I really have to write this damn sentence? Is there any way to avoid this sentence altogether and just move on to the next one?” Often it turns out I just don’t need it.

On a good day, I’m lucky to write 500 words. That’s about three sentences per hour. And with any given sentence, I’d guess half my time is spent trying to find the right shape for the sentence, and the other half is spent asking, “Do I really have to write this damn sentence?

So when you say it feels like there’s “no word wasted,” I think that’s why. I mean, it’s also what I prefer, aesthetically. I like lean, concise prose. But in my own writing, at least some of it comes from being so slow, so miserably slow, that I’m basically unwilling to write a single sentence I don’t have to.
This slowness was also what created one of the biggest challenges with this book. It took me five years to write the first draft, and by the time I got halfway through, I wasn’t the same person I was when I conceived the book. I still believed in the book completely, I still felt utterly compelled to see it through, but I was no longer the person who’d needed to write this book in the first place.

So for two years, I basically had to channel my former self. I would wake up every morning and tunnel down into the three-years-ago version of myself—the person who needed to tell this story—and I would inhabit that person all day. Then at the end of the day, I would try to dig myself out again.

It worked, as far as the book is concerned. But it took its toll on me. For the next book, I really have to find another way.

TC: Imagine you’re in a van, heading down the west coast on a long, ambling road trip with Chris, Kathryn, and Emily, early on in their relationship. What do you talk or argue about en route? What do you listen to? What do you learn? What do they learn from you?

ZLP: What a delightful and terrifying proposition.

I think the biggest challenge for me would be trying not to overwhelm them with all the things I want to tell them. I mean, there’d be this urge to pull each one of them aside and give them advice, tell them all the things that I know about them that they don’t even know about themselves.

But think how disturbing that would be for them. You’re on a road trip and some stranger climbs in your van and says, “I know every unspoken thought that has ever gone through your brain. I know all your insecurities, all your secrets, and I’ve spent literally thousands of hours alone in my room thinking about you and what you must do to find happiness.”

No, I’d have to find something completely neutral to discuss. And since we’re already in a van, I think I’d try to convince the three of them to start a band with me. We’d listen to the first two Talking Heads albums and argue about whether we wanted to sound more like Talking Heads ‘77 or like More Songs About Buildings and Food.

TC: 49thShelf.com is a website built by and for great fans of Canadian literature. What CanLit authors are you reading these days? Any recommendations for our readers?  

There are so many amazing books coming out these days. Even limiting myself to the last year or so, there’s Katherena Vermette’s The Break, Rhonda Douglas’s Welcome to the Circus, Wayde Compton’s The Outer Harbour, Zoe Whittall’s The Best Kind of People, Yasuko Thanh's Mysterious Fragrance of the Yellow Mountains, and Clea Young’s sublime new story collection Teardown, which contains some of my favourite Canadian short stories of all time. I already know it’s going to be one of those books I read over and over for the rest of my life.

This is a great time to be a reader—a hard time to be a human, but a great time to be a reader.

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Excerpt from Next Year, For Sure

Tandoori Oven

I have another rule, Kathryn says. She is sitting on their bed, watching Chris get ready. He is wearing his magic sweater, and no pants.
Kathryn says, Don’t tell her things about me.

What things? Chris says. He is pacing. He can’t decide which pants to wear.

I mean, don’t not talk about me. I want to exist, she says. Just not private things.

I think that goes without saying, K.

It should all go without saying, Chris, but here we are.

She isn’t being exactly fair, she knows, snapping at him like this. The date was Kathryn’s idea. And she wasn’t going to be this way. She was going to be cool and evolved, like a Joni Mitchell song. She was going to be magnanimous.

Chris sits down beside her on the bed. Of course you’re going to exist, he says. He holds her. He says he loves her. Most of the time Kathryn knows that. He’s her person. He’s not going anywhere.

I can cancel, Chris says. And he could. It’s still an hour before their date.

I don’t want you to cancel, Kathryn says.

She has watched him planning for it all week. He has made notes in a little book that fits in his pocket. Things to talk about. Questions he might ask. Places they could go afterwards to just sit and talk. Kathryn has read these notes. They’re sweet.

And Kathryn has her own plans. The house to herself and too much wine, a dumb movie, and a pint of strawberry ice cream. Chris is allergic to strawberries.
I’m just saying there are rules, Kathryn says. Rules have been dribbling out all week. Has Chris written those in his little book?

He is pulling on his grey pants when the doorbell rings. Why is the doorbell ringing?

I’m early, Emily says. Am I too early?

No, this is great, Chris assures her, though he is barely in his pants.

I’m terrible, Emily says. It’s just I hate being late. She is beaming at Chris, and then at Kathryn, like a searchlight. You must be Kathryn, Emily says, and she steps in her sock feet across the room. Can I give you a hug? she says.

Of course, says Kathryn, unable to think of an alternative. They embrace like friends.

Kathryn wasn’t going to be here for this. She was going to be at the video store picking out a movie too stupid for Chris. Now she is hugging this woman, her boyfriend’s date. She’s a nice hugger, though, Emily is. Solid and living and real.

Kathryn can feel the heat rising from Emily’s neck.

So you’re coming to dinner with us? Emily says. I can’t, Kathryn says.

Oh no! says Emily. Why not? She looks genuinely disappointed. I rented a movie, says Kathryn. A lie. That was one of the rules. No lying.

Oh please come, Emily says.

Kathryn doesn’t know what to say. She looks to Chris for help. He has spent all week thinking up smart things to say.

You should come, Chris says. It’ll be fun.

He’s smiling. Emily is smiling. Already they are teaming up against her.

Excerpted from Next Year, For Sure by Zoey Leigh Peterson. Copyright © 2017 Zoey Leigh Peterson. Reprinted by permission of Doubleday Canada, a division of Penguin Random House Canada Limited.

February 7, 2017
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