In Stevens’s debut, The Exhibition of Persephone Q (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, Mar.), a woman named Percy discovers that photographs of her are part of an exhibition.
We get very little backstory about Percy until two-thirds of the way through the novel—why make that structural decision?
There actually is an exhibition at the heart of the book. Percy sees a revealing picture that she believes to be her. But no one else believes her when she says, “I’m the woman in the picture.” I was thinking about the negotiations we make in our declarations of identity, and who has the authority to ratify who we are. She seems to have no backstory in the first part of the book. And then the structure emphasizes a turning point where she begins to think about herself more historically.
“It should not take so long to identify oneself,” she thinks, after she sees the photos. Why is it more important for Percy to be believed than to have the photos taken down?
I was deeply interested in the idea of self-recognition. This exhibition arrives at a moment when Percy has been avoiding certain questions: she’s about to become a mother, she’s recently married. When she doesn’t recognize herself, it’s deeply disturbing on a personal level—she is not self-aware about who she’s been, who she is, or what she wants. I think we can be enamored of the idea that we are the ones who determine who we are, but is it possible that you can’t know yourself until you make connections with others?
All the photos are digitally manipulated—did you want the reader to feel uncertain about the evidence?
Today, identity is determined algorithmically. I would say that the manipulation of the photographs speaks more to ex post-facto grooming of our identity. How can we manipulate truth, how can we manipulate narrative? Percys’s husband Mischa’s role as someone deeply involved in early stage instant advertising is enmeshed in questions of heuristically determining what people want and who they are through metadata.
Why choose to set the book right after 9/11?
I don’t see it as a book about 9/11, but I think as a novelist you’re looking for a setting that best frames the questions that you’re interested in. And I was preoccupied with self-recognition and disruption to narratives. 9/11 is an incredibly disruptive event in the American narrative, and attendant to that conversation is the paranoia and doubt and confusion that echoes up through today.
I wanted to ask about that strange moment when the plot shifts into a neighbor’s story for a few pages. Can you talk about that passage?
I was thinking about doubling. The idea that you could wake up one day and think: I’m not sure if I love the person that I have loved for years. But that’s actually one of the most normal things that can happen. Privately, we’re extremely contingent, we aren’t constant, and we have the capacity to do things that would surprise us.