Books·How I Wrote It

How Zoey Leigh Peterson wrote a novel about an open relationship that's not really about an open relationship

Zoey Leigh Peterson reveals how she wrote her compelling debut novel, Next Year, For Sure.
Zoey Leigh Peterson is the author of the novel Next Year, For Sure. (Doubleday Canada/Vivienne McMaster)

In Next Year, For Sure, Zoey Leigh Peterson paints a picture of a perfect couple. Chris and Kathryn live a quietly satisfying life. But when Chris gets a crush on a neighbour — who reciprocates these feelings — Kathryn encourages him to pursue this new relationship, and their world gets turned upside down.

Zoey Leigh Peterson reveals how she wrote her compelling debut novel, which is longlisted for the 2017 Scotiabank Giller Prize.

Soapy beginnings

"I was interested in the couple that is, for all intents and purposes, a perfect couple. They're very happy together, but they have this shared sadness and this shared loneliness. It isn't because they're not compatible, it isn't because they aren't in love, it's just some feature of their dynamic. 

"I'd been thinking about these characters, and about the situation they were in, for a long time but I wasn't writing about it. I was just trying to find a way into it. One day, I was washing dishes. That's when all the really good ideas come to me because my hands are covered in latex gloves and soapy water and I have to find a scrap of paper to write the idea down. It crystallised as a novel right there."

He said, she said

"I started writing the first chapter from Chris's perspective. I wanted Chris's point of view to be really, really limited. He doesn't have access to Kathryn's inner thoughts and inner experience. It's the essential nature of human loneliness that we're trapped in our own experience. I wrote the first chapter, but I was dying to know what was going on for Kathryn. It was painful to be trapped in just one point of view. When it came time to start the second chapter, I jumped to Kathryn. But Kathryn, too, is very trapped in her own point of view. After I had done the first two chapters, it immediately seemed obvious: I need to go back to Chris and continue back and forth, where they are experiencing the same events, but they never really have access to each other's experience."

Open the relationship to open the narrative

"I feel like my book is about polyamory the way Moby-Dick is about a whale. What I was really drawn to is identifying that something isn't working and being willing to experiment and invent. I feel like we're given these ideas about what a romantic relationship is or what a partnership is and what it's supposed to look like. Sometimes those things are helpful or aspirational or informative. But sometimes they're just limiting and result in people going through the motions, rather than identifying how they want to organize their life and their family and their love. That's what really appealed to me. Not so much the open relationship, but the being willing to throw out the blueprint that they've been given and try something."

Not a poster child

"I am happy to talk about polyamory. I'm happy to talk about open relationships. I've been in open relationships. I've seen them done successfully, but it's not my number one cause in life. My advocacy is: 'If you want to do that, do that. If you don't want to do that, do something else.' I'm not really an advocate for any one thing other than looking for an authentic way to express your love that works for you and works for the people that you're involved with."

Zoey Leigh Peterson's comments have been edited and condensed.