On Lying: An Interview with Peter Kispert
“We tell lies to make ourselves believe the stories we have, to sink them deeper into us, so we don’t forget.” In his story “Mooring,” Peter Kispert repurposes Joan Didion’s famous words—“we tell ourselves stories in order to live”—to examine the pathos of the liar. This question of why we lie exists at the heart of Peter Kispert’s debut story collection I Know You Know Who I Am (Penguin Books, 2020). This is a book about liars: gay liars, people who tell lies to remember who they are and assert who they want to be.
Kispert’s narrators cling to their lies, to organize their lives in a heteronormative world. In her recommendation of Kispert’s story “In the Palm of His Hand,” published in Electric Literature earlier this year, Kristen Arnett writes, “as queer people, we often measure ourselves against others because we feel that we need to behave the right way in order to maintain our identities (something that many of us found precarious enough to deal with when we initially came out).” Mining the psychology of gay men who lie, Kispert assembles an investigation of their humanity, tuning into this need to lie, to obfuscate, to define ourselves relationally.
As a fellow queer New Englander, carrying the weight of a once-Catholicism, I devoured his collection, eager to see how these lies unfold for Kispert’s cast of queer characters. We met over Zoom to discuss his collection, queer literature, empathy, and lying.
Peter Kispert is the author of the debut story collection I Know You Know Who I Am (Penguin Books, 2020). His fiction and nonfiction has appeared in GQ, Esquire, Slice, Playboy, The Carolina Quarterly and many other journals. He is at work on his debut novel and lives in New York.
Michael Colbert: This is a collection exclusively about queer characters that inspects lying from different angles. I’m curious about how you see this entering the queer canon. How does this collection examine honesty and lying for queer people?
Peter Kispert: I find it interesting to say this is a book about liars, people who deceive, and not a book about self-betrayal because, in a way, that actually feels more true. I was in grad school and found myself orbiting in different ways characters who were deceiving one another, who were deceiving themselves, and just wasting their time doing this. I assembled it that way. I actually deluded myself into thinking I wasn’t writing a book but that I was writing these discreet stories. It wasn’t until quite late in the process that I gathered them into something that looked like a book.
How I see this book entering the queer canon: Carmen Machado spoke on the Granta podcast so beautifully about this. I was thinking over the weekend that my goal isn’t to interrupt some sort of signal from existing queer literature. I don’t want to complicate anyone else’s work, but I think there’s this issue right now where there aren’t enough queer stories, so I wanted to beam this up from me to contribute to the diversity and breadth of the experiences being shared. When there are so few experiences—and thankfully there are more that are taking form in queer books—I think we interrogate them with a harsher lens than we might mean to.
MC: On the podcast, Machado discussed some of the dangers of monolithic representation as it related to her book In the Dream House. She spoke about how people criticize stories for being not the stories we need right now, as opposed to taking issue with the structural problem of a general lack of stories. Do you see a particular power in writing characters that are in some way marginalized as an anti-hero or villain?
PK: I don't think there's a single takeaway exactly, and I do feel there's a popular discord: a kind of "be gay do crimes" attitude that's celebrated. Then, rendered in some fresh, hard-to-witness detail, there's this really almost visceral rejection of that transposed reality, of "be gay do crimes"-ing it on the page, moment to moment. What, you want a cartoon villain? Look at this character. Look at this person I mean, really look at him. What it means to be queer and human.
We need to elevate queer stories, but when do we even unconsciously designate what gets to be a queer story? The more we resist accepting stories of queer characters who act less morally or ethically than we want for them to, the more I feel we are articulating that we do not accept queer people as equal. That they must first earn our love to be valued. I want queer characters in all their complexity, all their human filth. Queer people are not cartoon people. Be gay do crimes? Light the match, run before the siren. Somehow, the answer to this question feels most like: Yes. We are still behind.
MC: You’ve previously said that you hit the bumpers when writing straight characters, and writing queer characters changed that for you. #OwnVoices has opened a dialogue on storytelling and publishing. I’m curious how your empathy manifests differently when you write about experiences outside of yourself.
PK: It’s sort of like propagating a plant. You take some small part of yourself and see it grow into an entirely different organism. I think that across any experience, writers are doing that. You’re taking some feeling and transposing it, creating character, and trying to deeply imagine them in their circumstance, even as you invent their world and manipulate it to your own ends. I don’t know that it manifests differently, but I do know that when I started out I presumed a cis-het white straightness in my New England college undergrad courses, and it was almost as if I’d blunted my characters because I didn't quite understand my desire to write them. Their attraction felt forced. It’s very odd. I’m not sure if I’d have that same experience now, but it’s something I noticed myself really leaving. Now I tend to write queer characters. Things really started to open up from making that choice.
MC: Your collection is about troublemakers, and you’ve said how karmic responses emerge from these mistakes. How does justice play into your fiction? How do you conceive of these responses and how do they fit into the arc of the characters?
PK: Each of these characters does receive a very tailored karmic punch. They end up becoming the men they pity or felt ashamed of or were repulsed by. And there’s something about that I just really love, not just for the sense of the finality and the kind of container it naturally offers a story, but because there’s something very arrogant about their lies and the problems that they encounter. The trouble that they find is often in the form of great luck. I really love that—this problem of excess or abundance. And then to find them spin out with their arrogance and jealousy inside of that golden mess. That feels emotionally true to me.
MC: One great example of that is “In the Palm of His Hand.” The ending of that story fractures, and the final lines convey this internal reckoning that he’ll have to deal with for a long time to come. I’m so interested in how you came to that story because it does feel like what’s going on is different from some of the others.
PK: That was the last one I’d written. It was after I sold the book and I did this massive overhaul, and it was mentioned that maybe I should write another one. This one was on the brain because I grew up Catholic as well, although I really struggle to say that, that doesn’t feel quite true. I was put through the motions of it–I was in Sunday school, I was not falling asleep during mass, which sort of feel like the two requirements to be “growing up Catholic.”
Sometimes I like to start out with a formal constraint and imposing a limitation. In “Aim for the Heart,” I knew I wanted two different guns to go off within the space of a page, and in this one I really wanted to structure it around a rosary, for there to be that replication of penance, structurally. It’s not something I expect readers to really get, but that last line feeds directly into the first. This is a sort of incantation of penance. And I think when I found that idea, I really sprinted on the page with it. It was at the end of the book because it was closest to this healed self or this sense of awareness that what you’re doing is wrong. Or maybe, more than wrong, not worth it, or sustainable.
MC: I heard one writer say a story should be about a character changing or ceding their last opportunity to change. I was thinking about that with the collection’s final story, “Mooring,” because we get to see the narrator from “I Know You Know Who I Am” again. He faces all these moments when he realizes he could say the truth but he goes deeper into his lies. I really wanted him to confess but he couldn’t and it’s heartbreaking.
PK: There’s always another door for the liar and then suddenly there isn’t. I think what I was trying to articulate with that story and the book as a collection was this idea that to heal from compulsion requires incredible vigilance. In a moment, you explode all of the progress. I was thinking of it in terms of that board game, Chutes and Ladders. You roll a five and you miss it narrowly and you roll a six and get farther in the game board and then, as it always seems to happen, there you land and you just slide back to the start, and that feels really true in talking about people who have habituated a certain compulsion of lying.
MC: We’ve talked a little about Catholicism, and I noticed that an upbringing in New England hovers over a lot of your stories. I’m interested in how growing up in what is one of the most liberal parts of the country means when you’re in small towns that are often very Catholic.
PK: There’s a built-in anxiety to being queer in a rural area, and I really enjoyed playing with that and also how that related to the stakes for each character and their desire. It feels like when you make that connection–and it’s so rare in one of these small towns–it can feel like the stakes are life or death. I think those life or death stakes are replicated thematically in a number of ways throughout the collection.
MC: In several of these stories there are these moments when at a baseball tryout or a school dance the narrator and one of his childhood friends have this connection, and there’s a real danger lurking. Thinking about growing up in denial in New England, and growing up Catholic in denial, it can sometimes feel like “why were you ever in denial” but then when you remember the reality, it’s a lot more complicated, and I think you capture that in your stories.
We’ve talked a lot about lying and the emotional depths of the book, but I’d be remiss not to ask you about humor. What role does humor play as you write? How does it inject itself into a piece you’re working on?
PK: I was always shocked to find people say they found my writing funny. There’s a humor to seeing anxiety on the page, actually, which I find very interesting. Watching someone overthink is such a weird kind of fun thing especially when they’re deep in their shit, as many of my characters are. I’d say sarcasm—which feels as close as my characters are willing to get to acknowledging truth—or irony—which feels wrapped up in this larger question of justice for these characters—are where I tend to find humor entering my work and the ways I consciously think about deploying it.
MC: “Human Resources” is entirely in the narrator’s head, and we see his thought process unspooling in this fraught minute in the checkout line.
PK: I think the last line is something like a guy looking at a broken photo booth camera and asking “does that thing even work?” which is a lot like the interaction he has with the cashier. It was applicable to something else, which is the timbre of a joke.
MC: You’re an editor at both HarperCollins and American Short Fiction. How do you balance that with your own writing? How do these two roles interact?
PK: It’s a lot of reading. I’ve always worked on a literary magazine. I was editor of Indiana Review and I loved that, so naturally I wanted to keep doing that. And initially a decade ago, when I started reading for literary magazines, I found it really helpful for getting a sense of what I valued on the page, especially in terms of story structure. I felt how people could use different shapes to tell different stories and a real intricacy required in short form.
MC: Thinking about what you’re working on now, are you still interested in liars or are there other topics on your mind?
PK: I think I’ll always be interested in liars and persona and how that intersects with questions of queerness and this idea of a true authentic self I think has been mainstreamed that I really bristle against. It feels so static and easily grabbed. I’m interested in intergenerational queer friendship and class in queerness, very broadly. That’s where I find myself right now with this novel-shaped thing.
Michael Colbert loves horror films and coffee. He’s an MFA candidate in fiction at UNC Wilmington, and his writing appears or is forthcoming in Atlas Obscura, Barrelhouse, The Japan Times, and Columbia Journal, among others.