SLICE AND DICE

INTERVIEWS & PODCASTS

Interview

An Interview with Peter Kispert, by Meredith Talusan

I remember talking to a couple of new high school friends over lunch, my first month in America, about how a couple of other kids in my typing class were really impressed I was in honors chemistry as a sophomore; my precociousness was the only cachet I possessed back when I didn’t know it wasn’t something to flaunt. That was when this guy I’d only exchanged a few sentences with, thin with stringy blond hair covering part of one eye, who had never before struck me as mean or a bully, came over from the next table and said, “I sit next to you in that class. No one ever talks to you.” I couldn’t object, and starting the next day, those new friends found other people to sit with.

Getting caught in a lie is terrifying and shameful, yet so many of us do it anyway because lying is also exhilarating. It lets you dream up a self that doesn’t exist, one that you hope might in the future. That incident and others where I’ve been caught lying have stuck with me to this day, yet its implications are so cringeworthy that I’ve avoid thinking, let alone writing about them. Leave it to Peter Kispert to spend an entire story collection, I Know You Know Who I Am, getting to the heart of the human desire to lie, especially for queer people who out of necessity almost always need to withhold truth. Reading the book, I spent too many moments on the verge of running from the room out of sympathetic embarrassment, yet consistently returning to find myself gaining a keener understanding and even rooting for Kispert’s characters. Maybe it’s because at heart, we are all underdogs in some ways, and who can blame us for wanting to present ourselves as just a little bit better than we are?

Peter and I spent a few weeks corresponding about his book, which was a pleasant break from the harsh and painfully objective truth of our current pandemic.

MT

The NPR question would be something like, how does this collection that consists pretty much exclusively of queer people who lie, mostly gay men, relate to your own life? My question is what pivotal parts of the collection exceed the boundaries of your experience? What did you have to imagine and how did you imagine it?

PK

All here, in this book, to me, is honest—meaning these stories are transposed, emotionally—but nothing is factually true. I did not cast a friend; I did not pretend to be religious. I did not accidentally kill a buck or save a child from drowning. These narrators and protagonists share, though, a keen impulse for self-betrayal, which they have often habituated, to the point, as one bookseller very smartly and generously wrote, “that even their own desires, the most fundamental aspects of themselves become shrouded, bleary, or lost altogether.” It’s all in the boundaries of my experience, and it’s all outside of it. There are true flecks, character details, tells, little details snuck in from my life, but beyond that, this book is in service to the rendering of self-betrayal and its many high costs.

MT

To me it seems like many of your characters lie as a form of aspirational self-improvement, that there’s a sense that the lie might just turn into the truth if they work or wish hard enough. This is fascinating to me in part because social media doesn’t make any direct appearances in the book to my knowledge, yet that form of self- and other-deception seems so prevalent in that medium, especially on Instagram. What influenced your decisions around addressing concerns that simultaneously feel of the moment but seem to be rendered both outside of social media time but also, in some cases, in alternative realities?

PK

“If they work and wish hard enough”—I love that. Exactly that. There’s a sense with some characters that they’re sort of straddling this line of honesty, and that if only they work hard enough they will be worthy, and true. That maybe they had never lied at all; perhaps they’d just been late to catching some truth of themselves.

I had been sort of taught that references to technology, specific apps or phones, etc, dated a work. I don’t know how much I agree with that now, but I think I took it then to heart. The emotional heart of these stories felt for whatever reason best explored outside of a focus on social media, which brings its own hierarchies and statuses, absolutely.

MT

Do you think that complete honesty is a privilege and if so, do we as a society need to make more allowances for people who lie?

PK

This is tricky and hard to make generalizations about but deception is as human as breathing and we all participate in our ways. I suspect some people would bristle at that claim. It is easy to conflate truthfulness with virtue, and to see any breach from a factual truth as a deep and intractable moral failing.

In a way, to be honest, I’m not sure we have the language exactly to address this problem of lying as I’m trying to; I’ve heard from some people about this book, oh, lying is so of the moment, it’s so overdone. And I don’t really feel I’ve seen this discussion about lying as a means of queer wish fulfillment, and simultaneous self-betrayal, as I’ve tried to get it down here. More frequently I think we talk about lying when we mean to talk about greed, deception that comes with an easily pointed finger of blame. The conversation about lying can give us too easy an out, too quickly offer us the moral higher ground. The salaciousness, the ooh-aah gotcha: I could not be any less interested in that depiction of or conversation about lying.

MT

Your stories seem to involve a lot of jumps in time; it’s rare that events happen completely chronologically. What’s up with that and how does that element relate to the themes you’re exploring?

PK

Braided narrative does offer a kind of unfair versatility, especially in short form, to establish and sort of manipulate thematic and image systems under a more linear surface of present narrative, and I admit I love that as a device. A liar’s mind, a mind sort of chained to compulsion, also seems, to me, to be operating between two realities, and that sort of frenetic jumping also felt right, to me. But this braid is also the result of a fundamental charge of story, of a kind of extreme compression, and while not all the stories in this book vacillate in this way, many do for this reason. I don’t believe we process or live in time in this very linear way either, where we’re always looking forward. The mud sinks us with every step we take, if only for a moment, into the past.

MT

Tell me about the flash fiction pieces and how they work in the context of the collection, and how you envision them affecting the reader’s perception of time and space because of them being there?

PK

I had a hard time early on trying to write full-fledged, full-length stories. People say they’re short stories, but starting out, with the knowledge every word counts—they are or at least feel quite long. I was trying to become fluent in compression on every level, and I like what a short-short can do, its blunt valuing of economy—for many reasons, and in a lot of ways. Interrupting these long(er) stories felt right, and seemed to thematically enrich the book as I saw it. The mind of a liar jumps a lot, I feel, never at rest, so the distillation and concentration of everything, along with this sort of record-skipping—I was aware of and even wanted all of that.

MT

If these stories are emotional transpositions, and their major theme seems to be deception, how do you envision the whole book working together as a composition. What are some of the major elements of counterpoint, development, and rhythm that pervade the collection?

PK

The book’s title is split into three parts here—“I Know,” “You Know,” and “Who I Am.” Not that I’m relying on an element of surprise—there is an available reading of a presiding consciousness over their book, one single and “true” story. An explanation for one narrator’s compulsion. Otherwise, I loved considering how the stories acknowledge each other. In one story, a human rib cage is discovered on a sandbar. In another, a skull washes up under a pier. A man places his hand on his young lover’s thigh; in another, that hand is felt in the same place. I liked proving thematic and image systems throughout the book, in service of something, I hope the reader will agree, greater.

 

Peter Kispert is the author of the story collection I Know You Know Who I Am (Penguin Books, 2020). His writing has appeared in GQ, Esquire, Playboy, Electric Literature’s Recommended ReadingThe Carolina Quarterly, and elsewhere. www.peterkispert.com

Meredith Talusan is an award-winning journalist and author. She has written features, essays, and opinion pieces for many publications, including The New York Times, The Guardian, The Atlantic, The Nation, and Guernica. She has contributed to several books including the New York Times Bestselling Not That Bad: Dispatches from Rape Culture edited by Roxane Gay. Her memoir, Fairest, was published in May 2020 by Viking / Penguin Random House.

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