Rumors, assault, trauma, and misogyny are swirling around the pages fo True Story by Kate Reed Petty. In 2015, Alice is a reclusive writer haunted by her own story. Over 15 years prior, in the confines of an elite high school, a rumor is started and no one is quite sure what to make of it.
Told in multiple voices and through various genres – including screenplays and college admission essays – Kate Reed Petty tackles some of our current society’s most sensitive topics. Her groundbreaking exploration is another step in how sexual assault is portrayed in media. Of course, with any true story, there is more than meets the eye in this book.
I talked to the author about the voices and genres in her book and what it was like to write toxic men. There are some spoilers for plot points in True Story.
The book is a kaleidoscope of different voices, genres, and styles. Did you always intend for True Story to be that way?
It evolved organically into the shape it had been in now. I didn’t sit down saying I wanted these five parts to be written this way. The earliest idea was the Lax World 1999 section. I was originally thinking about this toxic, masculine, in-crown voice. The first idea I was playing with was alternating between Nick and Alice’s voice to have a male and female voice talking about this same rumor.
The different genres came in shortly after. As I was thinking about these characters’ lives, the story came out in these genre voices. I’m interested in how we think about our lives through the lens of the books and the movies we read and watch.
So, it was partly by design and partly by feel. I feel like the structure is kind of bananas and not an orthodox way to write a book. It was a leap of faith that it would work for readers.
There is a rumor at the center of the novel’s plot. Was that specific rumor always going to drive these characters specifically?
There was the idea that there would be this world of young men and boys that are so isolated from the real world and the repercussions of their actions. I was thinking about rape culture and sexual assaults on campuses of colleges and high schools.
With the rumor, it was about what would happen if a perpetrator made up a false rape accusation. The idea that young men could brag about a “conquest” and not realize what they were describing was an assault and a crime felt like it could be a painful piece of the way our society deals with sexual assault.
I find how sexual assault is portrayed in media is coming closer to how victims and perpetrators actually act. I was recently re-watching The Newsroom and a very small subplot in the third season is a producer pre-interviewing a college student who was raped but the campus didn’t do anything about it. Anyway, that’s just to say I feel like we might slowly be moving away from the glorification of these crimes.
Did you pay attention to how campus assaults were covered and how the #metoo movement re-shaped the narrative?
This book was finished before #metoo. At least the first draft. I was editing it during the movement. It’s so interesting to go back in time and look at previous discussions and coverage of assault.
There was a string of assaults on my college campus my senior year. None of them were related but they became part of a larger conversation. I recently looked back through local and campus newspapers and it was so interesting to find names of people I know and still friends with and to see how in 2006 they talked about that sort of crime. It was shocking how much things have changed.
What was it like going inside these men’s minds?
I think I started out with that section with a putative impulse. I wanted to make fun of Nick and poke a hole in this worldview. I ultimately wanted to punish him. I didn’t want to go into Richard’s head or the voice of a perpetrator. It felt too far and counterproductive for what I wanted readers to take away from this book. Emotionally, that was not something I was willing to go to.
Nick, it was not only an interesting way to get into that story, but it was also interesting to get into the head of a bystander and what the people around a rumor go through. Nick is almost a scapegoat but he is a very important role. Writing Nick started out as a bitter impulse. Eventually, I had sympathy for this character that was created almost as a caricature of a real villain.
I would be remiss if I didn’t say how much of a memorable character Alice is. Especially how she copes with trauma. How did Alice develop as a character from inception to finished product?
From the beginning, I wanted to make her a full human and respect her experience completely even though it’s a surreal and fragmented reality. The thing for me that is important for Alice is creative energy and drive to make things and express herself in some way. The first time we meet her is the college application section where she can’t quite tell her story and she is being actively censored by a teacher. That’s what I love about Alice: her creativity and her need to speak.
I feel like it was easy to bill True Story as a mystery or a thriller, but it is so much more than that. I’m not sure if people wanting one of those things will expect how you deal with trauma and misogyny.
I know it’s often categorized as a thriller, but I don’t think of it as a thriller at all. There is a certain kind of pleasure that comes with a thriller that I love as well. However, if you’re reading the Lax World section, you’re not sure where you land. There are sections that are horror and others that draw heavily from psychological thrillers.
I think there is a primal fear, nervousness, or fear that we all have as humans and that’s why we’re drawn to horror movies. There’s this fascination with dark stuff in life and the urge to reach out and touch it. That’s the book’s relationship with thrillers. It’s about how human beings use those sometimes grotesque or exaggerated stories to process our feelings.
Your book plays with form a lot in the different sections. It reminded me of Take Me Apart by Sara Sligar that uses archived documents as chapters to help propel the plot. How did you land on the different forms that came into the book?
The earliest sections I wrote were more traditional narratives. But the found documents are just something I love. I like books that play with themselves. Pale Fire [by Vladimir Nabokov] is one of my favorites of all time. It blew my mind the first time how a manuscript is taken hostage within the frame of another manuscript.It puts the reader in an active role with the story and makes you aware of your own act of interpretation.
With this, the college application essay section was the first I wrote that broke form. I wanted to tell her story through multiple drafts and seeing a character shape what they are going to say about themself.
The other pieces that came in a layer on top of that, like the movie scripts written by Alice and Haley when they were preteen girls were a way to share a piece of Alice before her life was blown up by this rumor. I wanted to see what her original voice was.
I don’t think I’ve ever thought about that idea of an original voice before trauma. I know voice can change, but – and this is very privileged of me to say – I don’t think I’ve ever had a before and after like Alice has had.
It’s really interesting, too, because I think there are a lot of stories about that for women. It happens at puberty for girls when there is this intense sexualization. We’re taught to cover up and be quiet to be safe. People respond in all different ways. I feel like a lot of men in my life have been through pretty intense socialization that I think is restrictive but I don’t think it is acceptable to talk about.
Maybe this is part of why I have such affection for Nick. I feel like he is unable to see the ways he has been limited by the group that he thinks is taking care of him.
I feel like it is one of the privileges as a woman in this age that there is access to narratives about how socialization has constrained women.
I said this earlier with The Newsroom, but throughout this conversation, I have been thinking about all of the narratives about assault and how they have changed over the years. Laurie Halse Anderson’s YA book Speak and then the Netflix miniseries Unbelievable pop into mind. In addition to reading articles about assault, did you consume media to see how it was portrayed?
It’s something I have paid a lot of attention to over time. The ProPublica article “An Unbelievable Story of Rape” came out when I was writing this and it’s now the miniseries Unbelievable. I think from 2010 to 2015, there were big and soul searching news articles about rape and how the criminal justice system lets people down.
There is a book that I read that was influential with a very intense name. It’s by Peggy Reeves Sanday and it’s called Fraternity Gang Rape. You can’t really read it on the subway. I love ethnographies and they are some of my favorite non-fiction to read. They’re filled with human stories and thoughtful examinations about how culture works. That book was really influential when I was writing Nick and how his group reacts to what’s happening.
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