Zoey Leigh Peterson welcomes diverse representations of intimacy. “I see a lot of TV and movies and novels that have relationships that are breaking down because of an affair,” she says. “I feel like saying to the screen or to the page, ‘There are other ways you could do this. You could talk to your partner about your desires and you could figure out a solution that would work for everyone.’
“It’s not a prescription that I would give to people in real life,” she continues. “But I wanted to explore a slightly different way of responding to a crush, other than having an affair or being deceitful.”
This wish for alternatives led in part to the writing of her terrific debut novel, Next Year, For Sure, a refreshing take on love and routes to happiness. Set in “a mildly parallel universe of Vancouver”, it sees introverts Chris and Kathryn starting to experiment with polyamory after nine years of comfortable companionship.
“They are trying to achieve their own happiness, but they also care deeply about their partner’s well-being,” Peterson says to the Straight at an East Van café. “I feel like that reflects a lot of the people that I know in my life—that they’re making decisions that are simultaneously taking into account what they need to be happy, and what their loved ones need to be happy.”
The spark to Chris and Kathryn’s tinder, so to speak, is Emily, a free spirit who catches Chris’s eye at the laundromat, and with Kathryn’s encouragement, the two begin dating. Soon, Chris and Kathryn experience further shifts in their dynamic after regular visits to the communal house Emily calls home.
As Peterson writes, “It’s hard to imagine Kathryn being with someone else, though that is part of the deal, theoretically anyway. It feels to Chris like a sleeper clause, because Kathryn says she can’t think who it would be. And Chris can’t either.”
The novel’s roots go back nearly a decade, to when Peterson had the idea for the plot but was ambivalent about tackling a novel. Creative writing, though, was not unfamiliar territory: Peterson grew up dedicated to writing fiction, and prior to moving to Vancouver in the ’90s, she was a songwriter and vocalist with Philadelphia-based punk band freemartin. “You have to get up on-stage night after night and say these lyrics out loud,” she says, “so you want to make sure that they’re exactly right.…It gave me a laser focus for every syllable.”
Breaking a long hiatus from writing fiction, Peterson was interested in working on short stories and subsequently published two acclaimed pieces that became the book’s opening chapters. “As soon as I finished the second story [“Sleep World”] I knew that I was going to write the novel,” she says. “Once I decided that, I should have been able to write it in about two years, but it ended up taking twice that.” (While employed as a librarian, Peterson returned to school full-time, and sometimes found herself toiling on the manuscript “on the 99 [bus line] while I was commuting back and forth to campus, or at 4 in the morning on a Saturday”.)
Powered by an offbeat sensibility and ingenious narrative technique, the novel is ideal for a premium-cable adaptation. Behind the humour, however, lies an exploration of “the kind of loneliness that you can find in some couples who seem really happy and perfectly paired.
“It’s not an unhappy relationship—they’re well-suited to each other, they love each other and like each other—but they’re still lonely,” Peterson says. “They’re not even lonely despite their relationship. They’re lonely together.”
Romance isn’t the only bond Peterson places under the microscope. Some of the sharpest observations here are in a thread featuring Kathryn and her best friend, Sharon, who is preparing for her upcoming wedding and unable “to entertain the possibility that someone could make a commitment to more than one person, and have that be something that everyone is okay with,” she says. “She doesn’t seem to accept that it’s valid or legitimate or possible.”
Peterson’s own views on the matter hew closer to her protagonists’. Commitment, to her, is about “connection, rather than the commitment being about that connection looking a particular way.
“Love and happiness is feeling like this other person wants the best for me and I want the best for them, and that we want the best for each other,” she adds. “And that might look different from year to year.”
Zoey Leigh Peterson will discuss Next Year, For Sure at the Orpheum Annex on Wednesday (February 1) as part of a Vancouver Writers Fest event, and at Book Warehouse (4118 Main Street) on February 7.