AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
What makes a person tell a lie about themselves? That question is at the heart of a debut collection of stories by Peter Kispert.
PETER KISPERT, BYLINE: I think that sometimes when we lie, what we're doing is kicking the truth deeper into us. And it makes them more unforgettable, the experiences that we have, the truths we know that we're unwilling to share, it steels them inside of us.
CORNISH: The collection is full of characters who fudge a detail, construct a slightly alternate reality, push the snowball down the hill until it develops its own momentum, like this story in which the narrator tries to impress the man he's dating by inventing a friend, a friend named Finn.
KISPERT: (Reading) It wasn't that I'd never lied before or even that my lies weren't frequent; they were. The problem was that I'd made this person, this ghost who could walk through the walls of my life, disorienting and rearranging, forcing me to recalculate every time Luke asked about him, which was often. And even more of a problem - it was working. Luke believed me. If I wanted him to think I was generous, I could work in a conversation that Finn had been in some trouble with his landlord and I bailed him out. If I wanted him to think I had self-control, I explained that there had been another incident and Finn needed to learn I couldn't do everything for him. After a few months, I had given Finn his own terrifying breath.
CORNISH: Peter Kispert's collection is called "I Know You Know Who I Am." He spoke about it with my co-host Ari Shapiro.
ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: So when you sat down to write this collection, did you say, I'm going to write a bunch of stories with queer people who lie? Or did you pull out stories you'd written and say, huh, these all have something in common? Or was there a moment that you thought, oh, I'm onto something with a theme here? How did this take shape?
KISPERT: I was writing a lot of bad stories.
KISPERT: I was - they didn't mean anything to me, Ari. I mean, they really didn't.
KISPERT: And it was - I was going through the motions. I was - you know, here's the arc. I've hit all the marks and, you know, sort of, like, playing all the notes and realizing that you don't have a song. And then, you know, I was at a really low point, I remember, and the title story just came out of me almost with, like, the reflex of sickness.
KISPERT: It just came out of me.
SHAPIRO: This title story about a character who basically hires a stranger to pretend to be the friend he claims to have had.
KISPERT: Yeah. I was incredibly lonely. And I remember it was Thanksgiving break, my first semester of graduate school, and I just - I felt so alone. And then, you know, there it was. And, you know, it needed some tweaking. There was a - there are a few, you know, comic elements introduced to add some much-needed levity to what is, I think, a pretty sort of grave story. But from there, there was - I did see a pattern emerging in the work. Particularly, I loved offering my characters, you know, one lie to prove what they need, who they need it proved to and then to give them everything, and that became almost fully the charge of each story.
SHAPIRO: Give me one of your favorite examples of that in this book.
KISPERT: I really love the story "Breathing Underwater," in which a man lies about having been a professional swimmer, avoids all bodies of water, you know, really...
KISPERT: ...And then one day, when he's on a picnic with his partner, sees a young boy struggling in the water, goes out and saves him, and while he's doing so, his partner reveals to a reporter on the beach that he was once a professional swimmer. And, you know, this lie...
SHAPIRO: Which is totally false, right.
KISPERT: Oh, completely wrong, yeah. And what I love about that story is it's an example of, you know, the character, he's doing a good thing. He's saving a boy from drowning. And still, you know, he can't live with himself. He's just wasting his time. I think that's what you do when you're lying, is you're just - you're wasting time when you're aware of it like that. And, you know, later in the story, there's a very ironic sort of comeuppance for him, and I love that there's an element of deliciousness to that that I love in these stories and I think is sort of reflected in its own way in each of them.
SHAPIRO: Because so many of these characters lie and so many characters are queer in these stories, it made me think about the fact that pretty much all queer people at some point in their life have had to lie to themselves or to others about who they are before they've come out of the closet.
KISPERT: Yeah. And I'm interested, specifically, how we talk about the closet and addressing, I think, what's a pretty sort of treacherous gulf of - I sort of think of it as dark water between coming out, which is just a willingness to be seen as gay, a tolerance of that publicly and self-love and self-acceptance of that queerness. And I think that - I mean, to speak very frankly, a lot of people sort of very unfortunately lose their lives trying to navigate those spaces or are not aware that that's sort of where they are.
SHAPIRO: Explain what you mean by that.
KISPERT: You have to be willing to be who you are. You have to know that and have a real belief in yourself when, I think, the outside world, just the world at large, isn't very interested in accommodating queer people as they are.
SHAPIRO: You're obviously writing fiction, but as a queer person yourself, you have certain things in common with the characters that you're writing.
SHAPIRO: Is this a journey that you yourself have been on?
KISPERT: It is. I definitely struggled with feeling at home in myself and feeling like I was worthy, and it was for a lot of these reasons sort of drawn out into these different stories. You know, there are lies of masculinity here, lies of loneliness, lies of superiority. And I've definitely struggled with those things. I'll never forget, you know, some of the lies I really remember are making up friends I didn't have. And I remember the particular shame of that in young adulthood, saying that I had friends that I just didn't. And that came almost on reflex, to be frank. So I think that there is an element of compulsion to that.
SHAPIRO: Given the way that you relate to these characters in their experience of lying to create something that they lack, did writing these stories feel cathartic or give you a sense of dread or what - I mean, what was that experience like?
KISPERT: At the time, I just wanted to write good stories and I didn't feel like I had really any other stories in me than this one. But I think it was a cathartic experience to get this on the page.
SHAPIRO: Was there any - this is a good story, but am I ready and willing to share this with the world?
KISPERT: Sort of incredibly, no, you know. I just wanted to have it out in the world. I wanted this to be something that people could, you know, see themselves in or maybe just, you know, to help people understand the really frenetic mind of a liar, a mind that sort of can't shut off because it's aware of two realities.
SHAPIRO: Do you feel like you've now purged that from yourself?
KISPERT: I would love for there to be this one confession, for it to have healed something. And I think, you know, a lot of times we think of healing as final, but - especially when it comes to compulsion. I think a lot of times we have to be very vigilant. And I'm very aware of my own values and my own truths and now am very - you know, I have a real respect for myself and for honoring my life and the people in it. And I think that's so essential.
SHAPIRO: Peter Kispert's debut collection of short stories is called "I Know You Know Who I Am." Thank you for talking with us about it.
KISPERT: Thanks so much for having me.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.