Peter Kispert knows what makes a good story

Peter Kispert is a beloved editor who has worked with some of best writers publishing today. He is also is an accomplished writer himself, with work appearing or forthcoming in OUT, GQ, and Eqsuire. His writing, both fiction and non-fiction, explores identity, queerness, and culture.

His debut story collection I Know You Know Who I Am, features characters in their every day life, but also taps into something grander. Throughout the collection, his subtle characterizations and quiet moments propel the stories into the ‘must read now’ category.

I corresponded with the author via email to tap into what he feels is good writing and editing, how he crafted these collections, and who else he feels readers should be reading now.

You have a rich background in writing both fiction and non-fiction, as well as editing other terrific writers. What makes a work (yours or others) feel right?

It’s project-by-project, but the aim is always refining the articulation of a writers’ vision. So, that sense of what’s right—the author always gets the final say, because they’re the one who knows. You can only really edit if you’re trying to figure out what the author and work are trying to say and do, and ask yourself how you can best bring what’s on the page and what needs to be into alignment. Otherwise you’re just playing favorites, molding to your own taste. 

I’ll say that in my work, I have noticed certain patterns but I don’t feel very beholden to them. Ironic subversion of expectations, whiplash, queer characters struggling with persona, these show up a lot in my work. When I feel the import, though, I think I tend to know. That sense of completion.

Is there a piece you edited or worked on that stands out after all these years?

There are many standouts. You know, I can’t take much credit because it came to me (actually, it came to Trevor, the then-fiction editor at Indiana Review) already so solid, but I frequently think of my friend the gorgeous writer Catherine Carberry’s story “Campfire Singalongs for Opposite Orphans.” What a brilliant piece.

This collection features three sections titled “I Know,” “You Know,” and “Who I Am.” Why and how did these become apart of this collection?

What I figured out in drafting this book is that there actually is a presiding consciousness over these stories, and I wanted to make that available but not explicit. I wanted this book threaded, sort of, through this very ironic, very desperate title—and I wanted to order the stories by what I considered a movement into healing from compulsion, and to replicate the cycle of it, emotionally. The first and last stories, as well as various instances of image and gesture doubling, nod toward a larger, single story, which the end of the book sort of exposes.

As sweeping as some of the stories are, they also feature small everyday moments. What draws you to the ordinary in characters’ lives?

I tried to follow what would reveal character to move each story forward, as I tend always to do, and there’s so much—unsurprisingly!—that can be revealed over dinner. Or stepping out of the shower, the enormity of the shame in realizing you’ve habituated avoiding your reflection as you reach for a towel. Not everything has to, or even can, be game shows in which family members wager each other’s lives. Though, of course, that’s in the book too. In a way, the more grand the premise the more charge is put on not necessarily quotidian moments but in detail, which serves the essential function of doing whatever it can do, revealing whatever it can reveal, but also proving the world.

Then there are stories that completely turn the collection on its head like “How to Live Your Best Life.” I always like to ask a writer of a collection to go in depth and walk readers through the creation and process of one particular story. What’s the story behind this story?

No lie, I was in a Barnes & Noble in Bloomington, IN (which I’ve heard has since sadly closed) and I really, really didn’t want to go home for Thanksgiving break. I remember it was a particularly tense time for me. Just coming up on the winter of my first year of the MFA. Anyway, I walked past this holiday sign over a shelf that was like “do you know what your [blank] wants for the holidays?” And I was like, hell no. Wow, this sounds fake. But it’s true! And I was a few months out from writing “Rorschach” and really wanted to go back into that space, dystopia and spectacle, which felt rich to me even at the time for the ways it was helping to articulate a liar’s fear of exposure, and this greater idea of coming clean, or being oneself, as requiring a kind of death of self, which is the emotional weight of that loss of persona, that movement back into self, into ownership, which is not pretty, or easy.

Looking forward, are there certain topics you’d like to write about but never have for one reason or another? Both in fiction or non.

I won’t say too much about it just yet, but right now in my work I’m exploring intersections of queerness, youth, intergenerational friendship, and class. It’s great to feel so invested, and to feel I know my characters so intimately.

As someone who edits great writers, I’m sure you read a lot of terrific work. Are there books on the horizon you’d recommend readers dig into?

Very happily! If you’re reading this, please go buy the following books immediately: Here For It by R. Eric Thomas, You Will Never Be Forgotten by Mary South, Temporary by Hilary Leichter, Boys of Alabama by Genevieve Hudson, This is Major by Shayla Lawson, Kimberly King Parsons’s novel, and Danielle Lazarin’s, too—whenever she blesses the world with it!

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Adam Vitcavage is the founder of Debutiful. His interviews and criticism have also appeared in Electric Literature, The Millions, Paste Magazine, and more.

Visit Peter Kispert at his website and follow him on Twitter and Instagram.

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