In conversation with Zoey Leigh Peterson
I’ve been a huge fan of Zoey Leigh Peterson’s short fiction for some time now, and was delighted (but not surprised) when her stellar short story “Sleep World” was chosen for this year’s Journey Prize anthology.
Zoey’s work is a case study in precision. In her stories, no word is wasted, and she has the seemingly effortless ability to reveal the complexities of character, mood, and the emotional stakes at work in a piece in just a few crisp, gorgeous lines.
It was a pleasure to have the chance to talk to her more about “Sleep World”, her literary influences, and her writing process.
Zoey Leigh Peterson lives in Vancouver and writes fiction in the early morning hours before the library opens. She is the recipient of the Far Horizons Award for Short Fiction (The Malahat Review) and the Peter Hinchcliffe Fiction Award (The New Quarterly). Her work has also appeared in Grain, The Walrus, and PRISM international and been anthologized in The Journey Prize Stories and Best Canadian Stories. She is at work on a novel.
I’m one of those geeks fascinated by process, how we approach the physical task of writing. Can you tell us about your writing process? Do you have any talismanic objects near you when you write—or any superstitions? Has your process changed at all over time, or across projects?
I’m quite prone to magical thinking, but whenever I find myself forming a ritual around writing, I actively try to thwart it. If I start getting attached to a particular brand of pen, I switch to another. Right now, I write on thick evidence pads, which I love because they have these big juicy margins, but already I’m thinking that my next project will have to be written on something else. Scrap paper, maybe. Anything to disrupt the fetish.
I know some writers draw real power from their materials and their rituals, but for me it quickly turns into an excuse not to write: “I don’t have the right notebook.” “My favourite pen is missing.” I already have too many reasons not to write. I can’t afford to cultivate more.
That said, there’s nothing I enjoy more than geeking out about process. My own process is fairly physical. I write standing up or flat on my back, but almost never sitting down. There’s a lot of walking around. I talk to myself.
Also, I need a big blank wall to stare at and tack things to. I make these detailed storyboards mapping out the narrative—that’s ostensibly the reason for the wall—but even more importantly, the wall is part of my cognition. I can’t think sometimes without a wall to look at. I don’t know—is a blank wall a kind of talismanic object? I might have to work on that.
In addition to writing, I think I read that you were also a musician. Can you talk about the influence of music and other arts on your writing life? Do these creative outlets or projects ever intersect for you, or do you keep things separate?
I don’t do much songwriting these days, but music definitely informs my writing at every stage in the process. When I’m writing a story, I often think about the soundtrack as if I’m making a film. Later I’ll find song titles written in the margins with notes about when the song should fade in or out.
I also make mixtapes that my characters would give each other. I learn a lot about my characters just walking around with my iPod, listening to the mixes they make for one another.
Sadly, one thing I can’t manage to do is listen to music when I’m actually writing. But I’ll often take a break to listen to a specific song, sometimes 2-3 times in a row, then go back to writing. The right song is like a tonic for sagging prose. Dancing and singing along helps, too.
Your Journey-Prize longlisted story “Sleep World” has rightfully received rave reviews, and won The Peter Hinchcliffe Fiction Contest with the New Quarterly. It’s a polished, lovely, understated piece of work, evoking so much in very efficient, seemingly effortless prose. Can you talk about how the story was born, and what your revision process was like for this piece?
Thank you so much for that. “Sleep World” was born out of an earlier story titled “Next Year, For Sure” (The Malahat Review, Fall 2011). That story was about a relationship between two people, but because of the limited third-person narration, we only get insight into one of those people. “Sleep World” was a chance to flip the point-of-view and see what was going on inside the other person. Basically it’s the thing I’m always wishing I could do in real life.
In terms of revision, “Sleep World” was a turning point for me. It’s the story in which I learned how to really revise, as opposed to just polishing. In the past, I tended to labour over the first-and-only draft, trying to perfect each sentence before moving on. It’s not the worst approach, but it’s time-consuming.
With “Sleep World,” though, I was feeling very crunched for time and ended up writing the thing very quickly—maybe a week. It was dreadful, that first draft. Easily the worst thing I’d ever written. I nearly gave up in despair. But when I started revising, I realized I had all this freedom and latitude to rework things.
When you try to perfect everything as you write the first draft, it gets very hard to make changes later. Everything feels carved in place. But when your draft is full holes and stop-gaps, you can really get in there and work on the substance.
I should’ve known. They tell you this in every writing book out there. But when you’ve been writing one way your whole life, it’s hard to believe what some stranger in a book says about how you should be doing it differently.
The story’s narrator, Kathryn, is a compelling character—full of quiet skepticism, grim wit, complicated longing. We meet her at a moment in life when she and her friend Sharon seem to be moving in opposite directions. There’s a real sense of loss, of potentially becoming unmoored, within the story, that struck me as perfectly authentic when we approach periods of life transition. What drew you to this story? Were you influenced by other writers (or other creative artists) as you worked?
I wasn’t aware of it at the time, but looking back I think that story was deeply influenced by Virginia Woolf, and Mrs. Dalloway in particular. Like I said before, “Sleep World” takes two characters from a previous story and reverses the point-of-view. Of course writers have been doing this kind of thing since Ryunosuke Akutagawa’s “Rashomon”/“In A Grove”—taking a single interaction and showing it through the eyes of one character, and then through the contradictory eyes of another.
What I love about Virginia Woolf and the way she uses this device is that the characters seem largely divorced from each other, almost on their own planets. With other writers, when you see this Rashomon-style device, most of the basic details stay the same from one point-of-view to the next—what varies is the characters’ interpretations and motivations or some key pivotal fact.
In Mrs. Dalloway, though, you have characters sitting right next to each other, maybe having a conversation, but when you’re inside their respective heads, it feels like they’re barely in the same scene. They’re each in their own world and only the randomest details unite them in a shared reality. That feels so right to me. That’s what I wanted for these two stories, “Next Year” and “Sleep World.”
The first story is about a guy with an all-consuming crush who’s trying not to let it destroy his long-term relationship. I was determined not to make the second story be about a woman whose partner has an all-consuming crush on someone. The crush is there in the background, but it’s not the main thing going on for Kathryn. She’s more concerned about her imploding relationship with her friend Sharon, which is in the background of the first story.
Anyway, credit where credit is due—I’m pretty sure I stole that from Virginia Woolf.
More generally speaking, who have been some of the notable influences in your creative life?
Growing up, Laurie Anderson was a huge influence on my writing. She’s usually billed as a performance artist/musician, but her storytelling and her use of language were so inspiring during my formative years. I’m always finding phrasing in my own writing that I can trace back to Laurie Anderson.
I’m influenced by filmmakers, too, like Andrea Dorfman and Todd Haynes. Visual storytelling doesn’t come naturally to me—I see the world in words and sentences—but I’m so inspired by people who can tell a story cinematically. Watching their films opens up space in my head.
And graphic artists like Alison Bechdel. I came up reading weekly installments of Dykes to Watch Out For and one of the things that inspired me is how she has this huge cast of characters and they’re all protagonists. I don’t know how you do that. I’m still trying to figure it out.
How did it feel to learn that the story was to be included in this year’s Journey Prize anthology?
Intoxicating. I had cultivated a very deliberate equanimity about ever getting into the Journey Prize anthology. If it happens, it happens, I told myself, but it’s probably wise not to put too much stock in awards and prizes and anthologies. Lots of great writers do important work without ever being recognized, etc., etc.
But when I got word that “Sleep World” had been selected, all that good sense flew out of my ears. I was drunk with joy. And it’s so addictive. Almost the first thing I thought was how can I make this happen again? What stories do I have in the pipeline? What stories do I have almost ready? It’s so exhilarating, it just makes you want more and more.
Now, of course, I’m in the process of building up that equanimity again. Because you don’t know if the stars will ever align again, and it’s best not to put too much stock in awards and prizes, etc., etc.
If you had the chance to spend a day with any writer, living or dead, who would it be, and how would you spend your time?
I’m actually quite wary of meeting my heroes. As a rule, I’d rather just keep re-reading their books over and over than know too much about them as real people. I once made the mistake of reading a couple biographies of Tolstoy, an early hero of mine, and I haven’t been able to enjoy his work in the same way since. The guy was kind of insufferable.
But okay, this is a once-in-a-lifetime type of deal, so I’m going to say Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. I think she’s amazing, and also I have an idea I want to pitch her. It’s a pretty good idea, I think. Seriously, can we make this happen? Do you have the power to grant this wish, Trevor? Or are you just tantalizing me?
I’m working on my wish-granting powers! I understand you’re currently working on a novel. How is that going? Can you tell us anything about it?
The novel grew out of these two stories we’ve been talking about—“Next Year” is Chapter 1 and “Sleep World” is Chapter 2.
I’ve been trying for years to figure out how to describe this novel. Because people expect that if you’re competent enough with words to write a 300 page book, you should be able to muster a basic sentence describing the thing. I think that’s a reasonable expectation, but so far it has eluded me.
For a while, I was telling people that it’s about a couple who make a new friend. Then I started saying it’s about three people trying to be happy at the same time. These days, I’m just telling people that it’ll be done soon. I figure I’ll have a final draft by August. Then people can tell me what it’s about.
Any final words of advice for those new to or considering joining the ranks of the writing?
If you’re just starting out, everyone is going to tell you to read, read, read and write, write, write. And that’s fantastic advice. You should do those things. I guess the little piece of caution I would add is this: Don’t disappear into reading and writing. Don’t forget to have your own life in the real world. Because your lived experience is where you find the thing you need to say as a writer.
Also, disregard any advice that doesn’t work for you, including this.