Books A Conversation With PEN America Best Debut Short Stories 2019 Author Kelsey Peterson
“I think, in pursuit of truth, science and religion still have to wrestle with the strictures of human knowledge, error, pride.”
PEN America Best Debut Short Stories 2019 is the third edition of an anthology celebrating outstanding new fiction writers published by literary magazines around the world. In the upcoming weeks, we’ll feature Q&As with the contributors, whose stories were selected for PEN’s Robert J. Dau Short Story Prize for Emerging Writers and for the anthology by judges Danielle Evans, Alice Sola Kim, and Carmen Maria Machado . Submissions for the 2020 awards are open now .
Kelsey Peterson is assistant teaching professor of English at Pennsylvania State University. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Conjunctions , West Branch , and Meridian , and she was a finalist for the 2019 Chautauqua Janus Prize. She holds an MFA from Washington University in St. Louis, where she was an Olin Fellow. She lives in Boalsburg, Pennsylvania, with her husband.
“The Unsent Letters of Blaise and Jacqueline Pascal” was originally published in Conjunctions.
Blaise Pascal was a French mathematician and Christian apologist born in 1623. He was very close with his younger sister, Jacqueline, born in 1625, a poet who became a nun. Both were considered prodigies.
I saw a perfect circle today. The yellow disk at the center of an anemone bloomed early and whose white petals had curled back in the wind. I marveled at its humble perfection, springing forth from some superabundance of the unrelenting spring. I am curious if there is an equation for such a flower, the formula to project its arcs and angles, its radii and planes. But I think: What an excessive, joyful thing. Let us smell it and give glory to God.
Printed in the Gazette today there was a poem of some merit, and I wondered if you still write. To harness the imagination to your whimsy—it’s a dangerous, even dangerously useless gift, but you had have it.
Where did you find the idea for this story?
I heard someone on a podcast quote Blaise Pascal, and his words stuck with me. I checked out a copy of his Pensées from the library, which I worked through slowly, thinking it might lead to a project, but it fizzled out in the busyness of the semester. Pascal came to mind again several months later, but this time, after some research, I discovered that he was very close with his sister, Jacqueline, who was initially considered the greater mind of the two for her poetry. I thought their connection was rather unusual and moving. I was also interested in how their faith contributed to their relationship, and how it might have influenced how they conceived of their attachment, of their unique gifts, and of their contributions to the world.
How long did it take you to write this story?
It took me much longer to research for the story than to write it. I poked through a little stack of books on Blaise and as much as I could find on Jacqueline for a good six or so months until I sat down to write. It maybe took me a week or two to draft the piece. It was the research that was pretty torturous, mostly because I felt that I could research forever (when is ever the right point to stop researching?). Research, for me, at least, works on a bell curve in relation to feeding the writing: For a while, it’s inspirational and necessary, but, after a certain point, it’s counterproductive. Eventually I told myself to stop so I could write the story as I envisioned it (it being historical fiction , after all) before the research squashed the creative joy of the project.
The story spaces out the letter fragments between the Pascal siblings in ways that create haunting resonances between two seemingly unrelated lines of thought while maintaining the structural integrity of each letter. What was the writing process for this story like? Did you write the letters from both siblings in tandem?
Yes, I wrote the letters simultaneously, rather than writing them separately and then splicing them together. I was trying to capture a moment in time when Blaise and Jacqueline were estranged (after Jacqueline suddenly joined the convent), imagining that, out of sheer habit, they still wrote to each other, but, out of stubbornness, they did not actually send the letters. I had a quasi-cinematic, quasi-musical effect in mind; I wanted to show that their rhythms of thought complemented each other, even if—in reality—their letters could never have achieved such synchronicity. It was actually delightful fun to write, although it did demand a lot of editing and finagling with formatting to make it readable.
Jacqueline asks her brother, “Are you still trying to measure the air? Are you still perfecting your triangle of chance?” and Blaise asks her about God, “Do you ask Him questions? Does He answer you?” The siblings seem to be searching for a similar idea of truth, but going about it in very different ways. What initially interested you about Blaise and Jacqueline’s relationship, and can you speak a bit about the relationship between Blaise’s world of numbers and Jacqueline’s faith in God?
I was struck by how similar they were—strange, brilliant, devout in their own ways (at different times in their lives)—and how much they relied on each other. Neither of them ever married. They lived together with their father until he passed away, and then continued living together until Jacqueline left for the convent (although Blaise desperately wanted her to stay). I think both were fascinated by what cannot be seen: You cannot see the formula for density (although we have symbols for it), and you cannot see God. Science and faith boast explanatory power and profound mystery. I was also interested in the missteps in Blaise and Jacqueline’s methods to seek out truth: Blaise and his contemporaries skewed their theories (of vacuums, for example) to fit their own preconceptions; Jacqueline’s convent had tendencies toward philistinism and self-righteous asceticism. I think, in pursuit of truth, science and religion still have to wrestle with the strictures of human knowledge, error, pride, etc.
How has the Robert J. Dau Prize affected you?
It’s encouraged me to be unafraid to pursue subjects that I would worry might come off as uninteresting or uncool. So, in that sense, it’s given me more freedom in my writing. I’m incredibly grateful for it.
What are you working on now?
I’m eternally revising a short story about Charles de Gaulle and his daughter Anne, who had Down syndrome. Other than that, I’m working on a summery novel set in a lake town—love triangles, family feuds, the works. It’s like the indulgent summer beach read I’ve never actually read this summer.
Finally, where do you discover new writing?
Bookstores! I’ve found so many new writers in wonderful bookstores that I wish existed right around the corner from me (Chicago’s Seminary Co-op, St. Louis’s Left Bank Books, Harrisburg’s Midtown Scholar). But, on a more regular basis, I come across new voices by perusing journals online.