In The Field: Conversations With Our Contributors—Kasey Payette
“We’re Not Weird About It” in Volume 24 is about a young person exploring their sexuality in the space of attending church events. What was the inspiration behind this story? How did it come to be?
“We’re Not Weird About It” is a fictional narrative based on my own experiences with Evangelical and Pentecostal Christianity as a teen. In adulthood, through my writing, I keep returning to those settings because I’m fascinated with the general sense of longing that was so present in those spaces. I have written quite a bit of fiction involving church youth groups, including an in-progress novel manuscript, and I wrote this piece of flash fiction at a time when I was desperate to cut right to the core of what I was trying to say.
Is religion a theme you explore a lot in your writing? Does it show up in work that you like to read?
Absolutely. As a Virgo (hello, astrology-heads!) I often say I have a religious personality, although I am not necessarily a religious person. I am endlessly interested in the systems and narratives we lean on to make sense of our mind-boggling mortality, and the communities and subcultures that form around these narratives. Christianity and its intersections with empire and capitalism is a major factor in our cultural landscape, and as a person who is at least culturally Christian, I feel a huge amount of responsibility to engage with it. In my literary writing, I intentionally try to break religious experiences down to their most sensual, corporeal elements, and let that be the gateway to a broader commentary. As a reader, I definitely seek out religious themes as well. Recently, I particularly enjoyed the cult sub-plot in Louise Erdrich’s novel Plague of Doves. I also like to listen to theology stuff on audiobook (please hit me up with recommendations!) and have been listening to Cynthia Bourgeault’s The Meaning of Mary Magdalene.
So many readers shared with us how they loved that you used collective first-person POV, and yet the quiet distillation of meaning reveals that the speaker uses that as a safety mechanism. Did you try this story in a different POV? What made you decide this one was the right fit?
Great question! I have written other fictional pieces with a similar theme and setting to “We’re Not Weird About It” but using a close third-person POV. When I tried doing flash fiction on this subject matter using the collective first-person, I was delighted by the sudden sense of momentum and breathlessness it offered. In my fiction, I am very interested in exploring ecstatic group experiences—the simultaneous delight and danger in operating as a collective—and in this case, the first-person collective voice (and the switch to first-person singular near the end) was able to do a lot of the heavy lifting to illustrate the layers of safety, meaning, and delusion that group identity can provide.
I’m curious about the use of subtle irony. What made you decide that irony worked and that the point the story is making wasn’t lost for readers?
I tend to use quite a bit of humor and irony in my writing, and I’m now at a point where I trust myself with it. It’s my natural tone, but it still feels risky at times. As with everything I write with the intent to publish, I ran several drafts of this piece past my writing group to make sure it was coming across as I intended.
I was really struck by the line, “Pretty makes sin come easy; pretty saves you, then gives you away.” That line is really telling in what this young speaker is grappling with. I’m wondering if you would be willing to expand on it and fancy us with what your intention was with it.
For people socialized as women, particularly within certain Christian contexts, there’s always this tension between desirability and modesty. As a Christian youth, I remember sometimes wishing I was more conventionally pretty (read: thinner and more feminine—traits I somehow equated with being a better Christian), but also feeling a strange superiority at not having the right body, not having the right clothes. Certain “sins”— partying, drinking, having sex with boys—seemed so out of reach for me at the time that they simply were not a temptation. I could see the risk and danger in being perceived as attractive, and was not sure I wanted that.
How might stories like “We Not Weird About It” help us to explore who we are and the parts of ourselves that we keep hidden? How might more stories like this help readers, maybe even young readers, learn and shape healthy and safe perspectives on sexuality, autonomy, personal rights and freedoms?
This is a big question! I think what I’ll say, as a writer and teacher of writing, is that I think “We’re Not Weird About It” could be used as the basis for a writing prompt: Write a narrative using the first-person collective from the perspective of a group you’ve been a part of where you felt you both fit in and didn’t fit in. Somewhere in the narrative, switch to using first-person singular to say or confess something purely as yourself, possibly using the construction, “Between you and me, I…”
Something I love about this story is that it feels like it could be an essay. There is a grave truth in this story. We were fortunate to publish your essay “Preserves” in Vol. 21. Are you attracted to writing that blends genres or could be considered hybrid?
Especially with flash pieces, the designation of “fiction” or “nonfiction” seems less important to me than the overall impression the narrative has on the reader. I’ve written a few pieces, including “We’re Not Weird About It,” that come close enough to examining my lived experience to count as a personal essay, but are inventive and story-like enough to count as fiction. I honestly haven’t thought much about whether to label my work “hybrid” or “genre-bending,” but I’d like to mull that over more, especially as I approach a point where publishing an essay collection or short story collection might be a real possibility for me.
What do you think a good piece of flash writing needs? Is this a form you write in a lot? Do you have favorite pieces or writers that you love?
I love the short form. I think good flash pieces require urgency, even to the point of desperation. The reader should feel that the author has something to say, and that they need to say it right now. Some of my major influences for flash fiction are Lydia Davis, Amy Hempel, and Lindsay Hunter.
The title of Vol. 24, “Ghost(s) Still Living” comes out of a line from a poem included by Heather A. Warren. Given all that’s occurred in our world in the past few years, what does the idea of “ghosts still living” mean to you?
Oof. I found Heather’s poem deeply affecting, especially in this moment in history. I’m sure I’m not alone in saying I feel like so many parts of my life and identity have died in the past couple of years. Both as a direct result of and set against the backdrop of the global pandemic, racial reckoning sparked by the murder of George Floyd, escalating climate crisis, and on and on, I am not the same person I was in 2019, and I’ll never be that person again. In some ways I feel like a more faded and more tired person waiting to come back to life, like a ghost. It seems like we’re all wandering around as compromised versions of ourselves—ghosts still living. I wish I had something more eloquent to say about this. I wish I had something more hopeful to say about this.
What projects are you working on now?
In theory I am working on my novel manuscript (working title: This Is My Body) which is similar to “We’re Not Weird About It” in setting and theme, but in reality I’ve mostly been writing essays these past couple of years. I’m realizing I’m probably much closer to having an essay collection than I am to having a finished novel.
Kasey Payette is a fiction writer and essayist based in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Her work has appeared in CALYX, Gulf Coast, Juked, Revolver, and Water~Stone Review. Her writing has been supported by the Loft Literary Center’s Mentor Series program and the Minnesota State Arts Board. She is currently at work on her first novel. You can follow her on Instagram @kaseypayette.