Kate Folk Isn’t A Bot... Probably
In Folk’s new story collection, Out There, real and fake are virtually indistinguishable.
Kate Folk didn’t find success overnight. After completing an MFA in fiction at the University of San Francisco in 2011, she tried to publish a novel — “I mean, I thought it was a novel,” she tells Bustle; “It was actually I think fewer than 50,000 words” — to no avail. She wrote a couple more books, which didn’t get published, either. But in March of 2020, just when the pandemic was beginning, Folk’s dreams suddenly came true. In the span of only a few weeks, she had a short story published in The New Yorker, the holy grail of short fiction, and got a book deal for her debut short story collection, Out There. Months later, Hulu announced it was developing Out There for TV.
Now, after Out There’s long-awaited release in April, Folk is sanguine about her long road to publication. “I'm glad that it's worked out the way it has,” the 37-year-old author says. “It was always that process of things not happening the way I thought they should happen, but then something else happening that was actually better in the long run.”
Better for her, and better for her readers, who have the privilege of enjoying Folk at the top of her game. Her writing is informed by her early inspirations like R. L. Stine, The X-Files, and Quentin Tarantino: Insightful, sharply funny and a little bit pulpy. Out There includes tales of a man falling in love with a house, people battling a rare bone-melting disease, and women who can’t tell whether their dating app matches are real people or “blots” — “biomorphic humanoid” men that seduce women only to steal their personal information before dematerializing.
Below, Folk speaks to Bustle about online dating, body horror, and adapting her work for television.
The centerpiece of the book is these “blot” stories. Could you talk about the “blots” and how you developed that idea?
It’s all from my own experiences. I think I wasn’t really emotionally in a place where I actually wanted to date anyone, but I wanted to feel like I was putting in the legwork to make it happen. Because there’s this weird ethos of, you have to do all this labor in order to plant the seeds to find a partner, and almost blaming people if they aren’t willing to do online dating. That was just what I was absorbing, because it is just the way people date nowadays I guess. So I was just kind of mechanically swiping through.
And then the men on the apps just seemed… They didn’t quite seem real because they weren’t connected to me by any social ties. I think this is probably true even more now, but I would see men on there who did literally seem fake. I thought they were probably bots. And I know there are AI influencers now, on Instagram, [who are] literally a fake person. They look very real, but there’s just this slight uncanniness where you can question [it]. And real people will Facetune things or put all these filters on. So you don’t really know what anyone looks like anymore.
The real men on the apps all seemed interchangeable and bland in a way, or flattened. There were some [who were] just extremely handsome, but in a weirdly polished way that wasn’t actually attractive. I was like, “I don’t know if this is a real person or a bot.” And then also funny to inhabit the perspective of an actual blot in the second story [“Big Sur”].
How did you calibrate [“Big Sur”] so it felt kind of off?
Something about Roger [the blot character] just felt really right to me. I was thinking about if someone was going to try to engineer the perfect man to appeal to women in San Francisco, how would they program him? I downloaded some AI chatbot at some point to see what that was like. I think it was a wellness bot or something. You could text with this bot and they would give you suggestions for wellness. [It] would just text back immediately. It was really disconcerting because I realized how much of human communication is actually about uncertainty and not knowing when the other person will respond, and being aware that they have a full life on the other end of this conversation that they’re texting from, whereas the bot obviously exists solely to chat with me at any time. And that’s really unappealing somehow. After a few texts, I was just like, “They’re too eager. I can’t handle this energy.” And so I was thinking of Roger being similar.
Something about the way you described the physical experience of having a body, often in a gross way, really clicked with me. Did you set out to evoke that, or did it just happen when you were writing?
I think it just kind of happened. Maybe I just have kind of a fascination with the somewhat gross aspects of having a body and feeling trapped in a body. Being very attached to my body, but also afraid of it, and knowing that I’m not in control of what happens to it or what it does. I’m thinking of Kafka and The Metamorphosis, just how visceral that book is in describing the bug’s body and how terrible it is for him. I mean, it’s so heartbreaking.
It’s like the call is coming from inside the house. It’s like the horror of the body betraying you. I think [with] some of the conceptual stories, like “Heart Seeks Brain” and “The House’s Beating Heart,” I realized after [writing the book], “Wow. There’s a lot of organs and the heart stuff in this.” And I didn’t even realize that was happening. It was just kind of like, "Oh, wouldn’t it be funny if a house had huge human organs in it?”
You’re now working on adapting stories from this collection for television. How has that process been?
I’ve actually had a really good experience so far. I think I got lucky with the people I’m teamed with. My co-writer on it, Sharon Horgan, [is] really experienced and funny. I think she just got it right away, what the stories were about, and so she’s been great to work with.
When I started trying to translate [“Big Sur”] into a script, I made so many mistakes because I’m just so used to writing fiction and trying to be really subtle, but also having all these tools of interiority and description and all this nuance and subtext. In the script, it’s none of that. It has to move really fast and be really efficient, but also everything has to be visual.
It’s just been really cool, basically, to take this thing that I wrote by myself and that was just in my head, and now it’s being worked on by a group of people and it kind of belongs to all of us, at least in the show form. To have a team of people coming up with ideas for it and going back and forth and building out that world and having other people be really invested in this vision has been really cool. [It’s] not something that I think is possible really with writing fiction, because with fiction, everything is pretty much solitary until it’s time to work with an editor.
Part of what I liked so much about these stories was that you’re building a metaphor, but without getting to the point where the story is an allegory for something. Did you think about that when you were writing?
I think that for me, the story always comes first and whatever seemed interesting to me to begin with — which is usually in some way kind of weird and creepy but also funny — always comes first, before any thought about what this is saying about society. I guess those ideas just arise naturally, probably just because I’m a product of this culture and I’m steeped in the internet. So I try to have a gentle touch with it, because I feel like it could be easy for it to feel lecture-y or something. And at that point, I think the magic would be sucked out of it.
This interview has been edited and condensed.