Interview: Kate Reed Petty

Ever try to find an email in an unorganized inbox? What if finding it could give you the peace of mind you’ve been chasing since that fateful message appeared on your screen? What if finding it meant righting a wrong that has stuck with you for years? What if finding it could save someone else?

In Kate Reed Petty’s Fish Jokes, a woman searches for an email that pinpoints the inappropriate actions of her boss, so that she can advise her friend not to hire him. The story uses a fresh technological lense to explore the scenario with which our society is becoming increasingly familiar- workplace harassment. The Mire interviewed Kate Reed Petty to discover more about this story—one that deepened my understanding of a huge social and political movement in a way that is not only relatable but thought-provoking.

Peyton Miller: You handle the controversial subject matter surrounding the “Me Too” movement with grace thanks to the ingenious way you tell Anna’s story. What made you want to tell the story in this manor? Was it always intended to be political in nature?

Kate Reed Petty: Thank you for the kind words! This story started with twin ideas: First, I wanted to write a story about searching an email inbox—I’m often interested in the emotional experience of new technology. I feel like we have many more experiences on the internet than our literature has figured out how to represent, and so I always get excited when I have an idea to tell a story about those experiences. The idea was the perfect vehicle for an older character sketch I’d written about a woman who deals with sexual harassment by pushing it aside, helping to hide it; searching her emails became a way for her to wrestle with her own decision to protect herself.

I believe all stories are political. I’m a feminist, anti-racist, and environmentalist, and so I think about the political implications of every story I write. I don’t always succeed, but I always try. Because the way we tell stories shapes our culture, shapes the way we make choices and understand those choices, shapes the way future stories are allowed to be told. #MeToo is the perfect example—that movement is literally just a flood of women telling stories, who previously weren’t able to tell those stories, or if they were able they weren’t listened to. I wrote “Fish Jokes” long before #MeToo (I submitted it to American Short Fiction a year before it was accepted), and I think these kinds of stories are unfortunately perennially relevant. When something feels “timely” or “urgent” I find it’s often just our culture’s chronic amnesia.

Peyton: I was intrigued by the way you show Anna’s perspective on speaking out, “She was glad she had kept quiet and kept her reputation intact,” while showing that the scarring memories still linger with her to this day:

“For weeks, she’d waited for the elevator in the late blue light of the lobby fish tank, leaving after she was sure he had gone. She was always getting up out of bed at night. Her jaw was always aching from the way she had to smile.”

What was your thinking on conveying these contrasting feelings, which I feel as though are misunderstood in the portrayal of this scenario in the media?

Kate: I agree with you that contrasting feelings are often misinterpreted through the media; you make a very astute point. That scene in this story is an amalgamation of a lot of stories I’ve heard from friends and others. The experience of keeping silent is very common, and I think it’s a deeply human thing to feel pain even while doing something that you think is keeping you safe.    

Peyton: Did you have any reservations writing about this topic? Also, do you generally enjoy taking some conceptual risks in your work?

Kate: I love taking conceptual risks in my work! I also find that these tend to be the most successful with audiences. My only reservation is that the concept will come across like a gimmick, and I personally hate gimmicky writing; I’m glad that this story works, for example, but I could see it getting really irritating if it was even just three pages longer.

I don’t have reservations writing about sexual harassment and other feminist issues; I do it carefully, but I think it’s important that more people speak about these topics. I recently sold my first novel, which will be published by Viking in 2020; that novel begins with a rumor of a sexual assault at a high school lacrosse game, so I have been thinking a lot about the responsibility that a writer has when tackling this topics. That responsibility is to tell these stories in ways that open people’s minds to a wide diversity of perspectives and experiences; stories should break through the myths and stereotypes (like “boys will be boys”) that too often allow or excuse abusive and villainous behavior.  

Peyton: What do you think your younger self would’ve had to say about this piece?

Kate: Oh this is such a great question! Hmm…. I remember being 19 years old and reading Grace Paley’s “A Conversation With My Father” for the first time, and feeling really excited about seeing how the boundaries of a story could be expanded. So I hope that my younger self would enjoy this piece. Although I also think she would be pretty angry about the ending, because she’d want Anna to rip her old boss to shreds.  

Kate: I saw in your interview with American Short Fiction that you are working on a novel about climate change, yet another pressing issue. Please, give us a little taste of what it’s about, or if you’d rather share what inspired this novel We’re all ears either way.

Peyton: It’s true, I’ve been working on this novel (my second) for about a year now. I was inspired by a trip I took to Palm Springs a few years ago—California was in a major drought, and yet there were all of these swimming pools and sparkling green lawns in the desert. That dissonance in our modern American lives, where we keep enjoying incredible comforts even as more and more serious climate disasters are happening in our own backyards, was my first inspiration. As my novel has evolved I’ve been thinking much more about grief. It seems to me that we need to grieve for a lot of things that we’re going to lose to climate change, and that grief is part of the acceptance process we need in order to make real change. I hope the book is a way for people to grieve and think about environmental disaster in a cathartic way—it’s still in-progress, but that’s my hope, anyway!