“I Wanted to Capture That Aspect of Loneliness”: An Interview With Zoey Leigh Peterson


Zoey Leigh Peterson’s debut novel Next Year For Sure tells the story of longtime romantic partners Kathryn and Chris, who have what appears to be the ideal relationship. Chris brings Kathryn’s night guard for her when she’s gone to bed without it. They know one another’s flaws and understand how to navigate around and through them. They literally speak their own language, making up shorthand for different daily activities and sexual positions. Still, a sort of loneliness looms over their relationship—not because they don’t love one another, but because two lonely people create a lonely relationship, no matter how much love is there. When Chris confesses to Kathryn that he’s developed a crush on Emily, a girl he met at the laundromat, Kathryn encourages him to go out with Emily. Friends and friends of friends balk at this decision, but Kathryn shrugs it off, deciding that there are so many ways to be in a relationship and perhaps this is the best way for her and Chris. As time goes on, Kathryn develops her own relationship with Emily, and develops a real love for her. Next Year, For Sure tracks the intense, emotional year that Kathryn and Chris spend in an open relationship.

It would have been easy for Peterson to use this exact same plot to create a sensationalized, cliche story, one where Kathryn is deeply jealous of Emily or vice-versa, or one where Chris and Kathryn have a blow-up flight and he leaves her for Emily. Instead, Peterson offers a fiercely original, intelligent, and empathic novel about what keeps a relationship afloat. I’m grateful to Peterson for answering my questions about Next Year, For Sure via email.

Next Year, For Sure is the only book in recent memory to actually make me laugh and cry. I want to talk about the heartbreaking parts of the story later, but it should be noted that this is an incredibly funny book. There aren’t really “jokes” but there’s a tone that is often comical. When you were writing the book, did you consider humor to be a function in developing the characters and the voice?

I should’ve known that humor was going to be an essential element—all my favorite writers weave together light and dark, humor and heartache. But I honestly didn’t realize my book was going to be funny until people started laughing.

I published the first chapter as a short story in The Malahat Review, and they asked me to come read at their release party. When I stood up to read that night, I really thought I was reading a sad story. I mean, I knew there were lines in the story that brought me great pleasure—lines that got at the place inside me where joy and suffering bump up against each other. But it didn’t occur to me that it would touch that same place in other people. Almost from the first line, though, people in the audience started to laugh. And they laughed at all the right places, even though I hadn’t realized those were the right places.

That audience really shaped the rest of the book. I’d only written the first chapter at that point, but I left that night feeling like I had marching orders for how to write the rest.

I want to talk about style. The lack of quotation marks in the book is probably the most immediately noticeable thing. What brought you to the decision of no quotation marks?

It started instinctively, but I found it allowed me to sometimes blur the line between what the character is saying and what the narrator is saying. When there aren’t quotation marks demarcating the boundaries, the character’s words can bleed into the narrator’s voice. This became important to me, thematically, because what I really wanted to write about was loneliness.

One of the things about loneliness—for me, anyway—is that it’s hard to discern the difference between your subjective experience and objective reality. If you’re with other people, you get lots of feedback on how your own experience might compare to theirs, and you can sort of triangulate your way to objective reality. But when you’re alone, you’re cut off from that perspective.

I wanted to capture that aspect of loneliness. That lonely, disorienting feeling of not knowing where your inner experience stops and external reality begins. Also, quotation marks bug me. They’re like little eraser shavings all over the page. I just want to brush them off.

The opening line of the book is incredible. “If you put the religion books on one shelf, it makes god look like a phase you went through.” As soon as I read that, I knew this book would have a unique voice. Does voice come naturally to you? How did you settle on the voice of the narrator in Next Year, For Sure? In many ways, it’s what defines the book.

That opening line—the whole opening paragraph, really—that’s just the voice that is constantly chattering away in my head. That paragraph is pretty much a word-for-word transcription of a thought I had while rearranging my bookshelves. My brain just narrates everything I see in that voice.

But once I got to the second paragraph, I found that the character’s POV really started to bleed into the narrator’s voice. That’s when the voice got interesting to me. It’s about 60% my voice and 40% Chris’s voice, but fused together to create something new. And then in the alternate chapters, it’s my voice fused with Kathryn’s.

Someone once asked me who the narrator is in this book, and I think the narrator is actually the relationship itself. It’s partly Chris and it’s partly Kathryn, but it’s also distinct from them.

The novel will break narration to ask “Questions” or to provide “Answers.” We receive telephone calls as transcripts. How did you come to make these decisions regarding form?

At the time, it felt like pure invention. How innovative! But looking back, I can see a lot of obvious influences. For instance, those sections that are labeled “Questions” were almost certainly inspired by Donald Barthelme’s short story “Concerning the Bodyguard.” That entire story is written in questions, just one after another. There’s not a single declarative sentence in the whole story. But somehow the questions tell an entire story, with a narrative arc and a conclusion. It’s a breathtaking feat. I’ve read it over and over, marveling at how he does it. It made a huge impression on me.

But that’s the thing about influences. You read something genius and you think “I wish I’d thought of that,” and then later, when you steal it, you think you did think of it.

One of the many strengths of Next Year For Sure is that you did not make Kathryn hate Emily or Emily hate Kathryn. They have a curiosity about one another, but it doesn’t stem from a place of anger or malice. There seems to be a deficit in fiction of relationships like the one Kathryn and Emily have. What were your goals in writing about those two women and the love they share?

Yeah, I get frustrated by the cliché of two women bristling with jealousy and rivalry. I’m not saying it never happens, but come on, it’s not the only thing that happens. In my forty-some years, I’ve seen it happen exactly once. Most times, life is far more nuanced than that. So yeah, I knew I wanted to avoid them hating each other, both because it’s a cliché and because it doesn’t reflect my reality.

My bigger goal, though, was to explore a different kind of conflict. We all know that conflict is essential to stories. If you don’t have a conflict, you probably don’t have a story. Etc., etc. But I think too many stories frame that conflict as ‘Character X versus Character Y.’ Good guy versus bad guy. Protagonist versus antagonist. And I enjoy that sometimes. It’s fun.

But the conflict I’m more interested in these days is between characters who care about each other, who want the best for each other, who are good to each other, but who need fundamentally different things. So instead of you versus me, it’s you and me versus a finite universe of possibilities.

I very much felt as if I went through the same experiences with Emily that Kathryn does. First I was skeptical of her, then I wanted to dislike her but didn’t quite dislike her, then I was charmed by her, and then, ultimately, I loved her. There’s the line “Emily is puffy and creased with sleep and does not look like someone who would steal your boyfriend. She looks like a soft, guileless thing who honestly thinks this can work.” And that seems like what she is. She really believes all of this will turn out okay for everyone. What can you tell me about the character development work you did for Emily? I’m dying to know.

Emily was a challenge, because I’d made a decision right from the beginning that we’d never get to see the world through Emily’s eyes, only Chris’s and Kathryn’s. I kept longing to write a chapter from Emily’s POV—really delve into her inner life—but I wouldn’t let myself because I was writing about loneliness, and part of loneliness is that you don’t get to have access to other people’s inner lives.

So just like Chris and Kathryn, I was always on the outside looking in when it came to Emily. I had to piece her together from little clues that popped up when I was writing the other characters. I’d mention some incidental detail about Emily—that she unplugs Chris and Kathryn’s clock radio when she housesits for them—and then I’d tried to figure out what that detail meant. What’s going on in there?

One big influence on Emily is an interview I heard with John Waters while I was writing the book. He said that if you go home with someone you’re attracted to and they don’t have any books, you shouldn’t have sex with them. He says this a lot, apparently, in numerous interviews. Now as a writer and a librarian and a life-long book lover, my first thought when I heard that was “Yes, yes, yes. That is so true.” But I immediately started thinking about all the amazing people I know who aren’t into books for one reason or another. Some of the smartest, most interesting, most creative, most intellectually curious people I know aren’t into books. Some have dyslexia. Or their first language doesn’t have a written form, so they didn’t grow up reading. Some of them…who knows…they just don’t like books. But they like ideas and learning and art, and they find other ways to get those things. So I got kind of angry at this whole “don’t sleep with someone who doesn’t read” idea. And that’s how Emily became a smart, vibrant, lovable person who doesn’t care about books.

The break-up scene is the one that left me literally crying. When did you know that Kathryn and Chris had to break up?

I knew from the beginning that they would have to break up at some point. But I’m still not convinced that they have to stay broken up. As Kathryn says early on: There are a lot of ways to be in a relationship.

Another break-up we see is the break-up between long-time friends Sharon and Kathryn. What about female friendships were you interesting in examining thorough their relationship?

One of my greatest frustrations in life is the idea that friendship is somehow less than a romantic partnership—less important, less interesting, less essential. There are few things I hate more than the phrase “just friends.” The just part makes me spitting mad.

There are millions of novels and movies and songs about love and marriage, but how many about friendship? There are some, for sure, but not millions. Most of the ones I can think of are for kids, like Bridge to Terabithia, as if friendship is a childhood concern.

When I was conceiving the book, I felt like I could name a hundred novels about the breakdown of a marriage, but not one about the breakdown of a friendship, which can be every bit as devastating. I wanted to read a novel like that, for grown-ups.

I’ve been in polyamorous relationships before, and am so grateful for this book, for its honest and fresh depiction of the realities of a polyamorous relationship. One of the best responses I’ve heard to someone saying “That seems hard,” regarding polyamory is, “Yeah. But so is monogamy.” What interests you about polyamory? What did it allow you to tease out about the relationship between Kathryn and Chris?

Yeah, the thing about “that seems hard” is that almost everything worth doing is hard. Being a good person is hard. Standing up for justice is hard. Making art is hard. Finding meaning in life, facing the inevitability of death, it’s all hard. Or if not hard, it at least takes effort. Life takes effort.

With this novel, what interested me wasn’t polyamory, per se. What interested me was Chris and Kathryn being willing to invent the kind of relationship they wanted, even when they weren’t sure what that might look like. All they know at the beginning is that something is missing, that they are sad and somehow stuck. And everyone around them is telling them that they only have two choices—either break up if you’re unhappy, or learn to settle for what you have. And Chris and Kathryn are saying, “No. We don’t want to break up and we don’t want to just accept being stuck. We want to try something else.” That’s what really interests me.

But also, yes, we need more representations of poly in the world.

Let’s talk a bit about your writing habits. I’ve read that you write about 500 words a day, on a good day. How long did it take you to write this novel? How did the project change over that period of time?

It took five years. I should’ve been able to write it in half that time—even at my tortoise-like pace—but I ended up going back to school to become a librarian right in the middle of writing the first draft.

The project didn’t change a lot over that time, but I changed. By the time I was writing the second half of the novel, I was no longer the same person who’d started the novel. I had to subjugate myself to see it through. Maybe that’s always the case, but it felt particularly acute with this book.

What’s your writing process like? I know that you’re a “slow” writer, but do you write in the morning? At night? For this particular book, what did the process look like? I’m fascinated hearing about the work process of writers, so anything you’re willing to tell me, I will gobble right up.

I do better in the morning, but with this book I was juggling it around grad school and four part-time jobs, so I wrote whenever and wherever I could. My ideal is to wake up and write from about six until noon, and then head to my job at the library. I like the balance.

I write in a very linear way, from the first line to the last, with almost nothing thrown away or moved around. My first draft looks remarkably like my last. That’s why I’m so slow. Or at least that’s what I tell myself.

Because of the weird way I write, I have to do a lot of thinking and planning in advance. When I started this book, I did that thinking and planning in my head. I wrote the first couples of chapters that way. But by the time I got to the third chapter, I had to start mapping it out on my bedroom wall. My bedroom wall looks like one of those movie scenes where the detective finds the serial killer’s lair and it’s covered in scraps of paper and clippings and the whole deranged scheme. Except instead of killing people it’s about helping made-up characters become their best selves.

The title appears early in the book, in reference to what Sharon and Kyle will say when they learn Kathryn and Chris see the other side of the island. Why did this title feel right for this book?

Part of what felt right was the false certainty in that expression. In life, we really have no idea what is going to happen tomorrow, much less next year. But part of being a grown-up is making plans and commitments as if we do know what’s going to happen. There’s a tension there. We learn to accept it, but I think we still feel the tension. I know I do.

The title also captured the stuckness that the characters are experiencing at the very beginning of the novel. I’m thinking of people who say “next time will be different” over and over, without ever taking the steps to make things different. That’s what Chris and Kathryn are shaking off at the beginning of the novel, that sense of stuckness. They aren’t just saying things will be different, they’re plunging in.

Towards the end of the book the question of “What are they trying to accomplish?” is asked. I have my own ideas about what each of the characters in the poly relationship are trying to accomplish, but I’m very curious to know your answer.

Good question! I think all the characters have different motivations. In Kathryn’s case, I think she wants something that is bigger than a couple. She wants the kind of till-death-do-us-part commitment that she associates with a couple, but she wants it between three or four or five people.

Of course, there’s this pervasive stereotype about how people who are interested in poly must be “afraid of commitment.” But Kathryn’s situation is the complete opposite of that. She realizes at one point that she wanted to be married to Chris and Sharon and Kyle—the four of them together—but she doesn’t have a available model for making that kind of commitment.

With Chris, he doesn’t know what he’s trying to accomplish yet. I’m not sure that poly is what he needs in the long run. I think part of what is happening with Chris is that when he meets someone who inspires him, someone who sparks him to grow and change as a person, he gets excited about that person. And there’s this a heteronormative assumption that when a man is excited about a woman, he must want to date her. I think Chris keeps getting shunted into romantic relationships because other people don’t know how to make sense of his true feelings. I hope he’s going to figure that out eventually.

I want to ask you about something I found on your website. In the “press” section of your website you’ve included some excerpts from the very positive reviews your book has received. And then, as the very last quote, you included a quote from Publishers Weekly review (that I totally disagree with, though I’m sure that’s obvious): “Almost entirely lacking in either humor or sexiness.” You are 100% the first author I’ve ever seen to include a negative review in their praise section. I laughed out loud when I saw that. I think it’s uproariously funny—especially given the quote you selected—and I’m wondering if you could tell me why you chose to do that. You even link to the review!

I remember being a kid and having a teacher explain to me that when you see a movie poster covered in blurbs like “Jaw-dropping!” or “Spectacular!” it’s possible that the actual reviews said something like “jaw-droppingly bad” or “a spectacular mess.” Or that you could take a book that got universally panned and just dig up the one or two good reviews and use them to make your book seem like a critical favorite. I remember feeling very betrayed by that as kid, and I guess I still do. It just seems like blurbs become meaningless if we all know that the negative stuff is hidden away.

So that’s the high-minded reason. But there’s another reason: I felt really embarrassed when that review first came out. Actually, ashamed might not be too strong a word. And when I thought about why I felt that way, I realized it wasn’t because someone disliked my book. I knew all along my book wasn’t for everybody. No book is for everybody. The thing that made me feel ashamed was the thought of someone finding the review somewhere and thinking that I didn’t know about it, or that I was pretending it didn’t exist, hiding it like a shameful secret. As soon as I put it on my website with all the other reviews, I felt completely at peace. I felt like, “Yeah, I know. Not everyone likes my book. That’s how art works.”


Photo: Vivienne McMaster

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