Constellate and Create: A Conversation by Peter Kispert, Nicolette Polek & Mary South

The writers on their debut short story collections, artifice as truth, and how music can teach you to write a sentence.

Peter Kispert Nicollete  Polek Mary South

BOMB recently asked three of our favorite short story writers to meet and discuss their debut collections. Peter Kispert’s I Know You Know Who I Am (Penguin Books), Nicolette Polek’s Imaginary Museums (Soft Skull Press), and Mary South’s You Will Never Be Forgotten (FSG) all excited us with their formal inventiveness and probing explorations of everything from the psychology of a lie, to the hierarchy of technology, to the surreal whimsy of animals. In this conversation, they spoke about how they structured their collections, the thematic mirroring across their stories, bad acting, grief, fake farms, tap dancing, and more.

—Raluca Albu

Mary SouthPeter, your collection is about characters who lie. Nicolette, I was fascinated to learn that one of the reasons you started to write fiction was because you told lies as a child. I’m wondering if you could talk about the function of deceit in your stories. 

Nicolette Polek Our stories also have to do with invention, which is a kind of deceit. I wrote something down on my piece of paper about staging and illusion. The reason I connect lying and having been a liar to becoming a storyteller is because it was all about illusion and crafting reality. 

Peter Kispert That’s such a great point. I also think, just on the level of craft, it’s about internalizing detail as proof. Whenever you are presenting the charge of a lie to the world, you always have to construct it and be aware of what other people know in ways that require hyper-awareness.

NP Lying doesn’t work out well. It’s like an infection, and the body’s job is to fight it and get it to the surface. But in fiction, the lie can truly exist without being threatened. The way I used to lie was often to construct a better version of a life I wanted to have—the real world doesn’t allow for you to keep that going forever. 

MS I love what you say about it being pure. One of the things I enjoyed about your book, Peter, was that lying really works out for your characters for a while. There’s the character who says, “I’m an accomplished hunter” and they go hunting and he kills this buck—this amazing, multiple-pointed buck on his first try. It’s fun to see them get away with it, really beautifully. But then, it does catch up with these characters and the deceit is exposed. It’s really emotional when it does.

NP Do you like Patricia Highsmith?

PK Yes. The Talented Mr. Ripley? Of course. 

NP I thought of her when reading your book. How long a lie can last and how it unfurls.

PK That became almost fully the charge of many of these stories. Once I understood what these people would want to lie about—to prove some sort of queer-related deficit, or at least perceived deficit, like not being masculine enough or gregarious enough—I was able draw lines out and find the perfect circumstances in which they would be able to prove those things to be real, to be true. The resulting turmoil of these lies’ successes is so devastating and rich to me, to know that even at your perceived best you’re not at home in yourself. 

Illusion and this incredible awareness is something that I see in both of your collections. I was looking at this relationship between tech and hierarchy and power dynamics and how it requires you to be sorted. Mary, I was wondering if that was something you were thinking about overtly, or if your own relationship with technology was in some way guiding you in these stories? 

MS I love that reading—that tech requires you to be sorted. You’re right. There are precarious and unpalatable gig-economy jobs in my stories, like the woman who works as a content moderator. That’s a really harrowing job, and you’re deliberately kept out of sight. Companies don’t want us to think about the real human beings performing those jobs. But then there’s a story about a woman who is a famous architect. She’s reliant upon technology, because her designs couldn’t be built without a computer—they’re parametric and form-breaking—but she’s at the top of the hierarchy, and thus she’s very visible. My stories are often preoccupied with being seen. There’s something protective about being invisible; once you become visible, you can no longer control how you’re seen. The famous architect has gotten herself a bit of an “art monster” reputation. The actress in my story about the toxic fandom of a sci-fi show also lives out her traumas and heartbreaks in public, which exacerbates their pain, since her fandom often punishes her for being visible. But being invisible is very lonely. I think we all yearn to be seen by someone.

Being seen is related to deception as well. While my characters aren’t necessarily lying to other people, there’s something they’re hiding from themselves. Like the mother in “Not Setsuko” who raises her second daughter exactly the same as the first, including remaking her memories. She wants to live in this illusion that she can have the same child back who died, and she absolutely can’t. At some point that has to break open. Same with the title story about the woman who is stalking her rapist; the whole enterprise is going to fall apart at some point. I’m interested in that moment, and what the characters do in that moment. 

PK In your title story (with the “screaming panel”) there is the sense that these characters come in at a low level to provide the illusion of moderation, which powerfully spoke to our own sort of societal self-deception, that this is something we even can moderate. I saw that not exactly replicated, but thematically present in different ways in each of your stories. It was really so powerful. 

MS Thank you. I definitely wanted what is happening on the individual level to be reflected on the societal level. Perhaps my favorite story in that respect is “Keith Prime,” with how the rich get to have clones, all named Keith, raised in comas and harvested for parts. The people who are lower, like you said, in the hierarchy, can’t afford a Keith to save their life. And, of course, lowest on the hierarchy are the Keiths themselves. We’ve always dealt with capitalism, the idea that people are expendable; that’s not new. But how tech twists that is new and worth examining closely.

Nicolette, I was particularly intrigued by your story “The Dance,” about the couple who can’t really communicate their true wants. Each of them wants the other person to be so happy that they lie and say they don’t want something even though they do, because they think that’s what the other person wants. It’s a kind of beautiful O. Henry story for liars. And I was also delighted by the Ezra Pound story, where no one contradicts the character who asserts that Ezra Pound was a woman. There’s something really interesting happening in your work about the ability to confront others.

NP There’s a lot of self-monitoring and anxiety and taking cues from other characters in order to figure out how to be. When you look to others to signal how to communicate, it becomes a spiral where no one ends up communicating because everyone is taking cues from everyone else. And what’s at the core of that kind of communication is the wanting so badly to appear put-together, or to have the perfect conversation that will suit everyone’s needs—to the extent that it’s in pursuit of an outcome, with everyone as a moderator. That’s interesting to me, to think of how people engineer conversations before they happen, or how people use language to build something else invisible. I don’t know if you’ve ever written out talking points before going to casually meet up with someone? And sometimes, as a result, you can’t have a conversation at all, or you’re stunting what the conversation could have organically been. It’s like imposing a fictive dynamic.

PK I love how the title story is so representative of that, in this museum that does not exist, and feeling like we know how to counsel anyone or that we know any reliable way through grief, really, even just for ourselves. I love, too, in your stories, Nicolette, this feeling of placing your hand on something that you feel is solid and then realizing that it’s actually not. The stories give in this very beautiful way. It’s such a refined style and sensibility. Sometimes when I read stories like this, I come to a line and I’m shocked by it—and that’s kind of what the author wants—but in your hands I felt like I was really just meant to be led through. There’s a porousness, and I was wondering how you learned to manage that or how that grew to become something that you valued.

NP Yeah, there’s a constant juggle and oscillation between two worlds. Decisions hold a possibility to do “good,” or to not, and through each choice there’s a movement towards a certain way of being. I want to represent that, the juggling, or the porousness of circumstances. I live outside of DC, close to the USDA, and love that I can take two right turns from my street and suddenly be looking at fake-seeming farms and research labs, because that proximity of a sudden shift in landscape is comforting to me. 

On the level of craft, presenting that involves juxtaposition and collapsing space… showing the reader that something can hold two very different potentials at once. A room can be grey like a pearl or jail. And that things can go either way, and it’s often a gamble.

PK I saw that articulated again and again in both of your collections. A collection has this almost unfair charge of articulating a worldview in this way. Taken together, they provide some meaning that’s greater than the sum of their parts. I was wondering about how you organized your collections. 

MSYou both have very structured groupings of stories. Peter, you have them grouped in three: “I Know” then “You Know,” and lastly, “Who I Am.” And yours, Nicolette, is grouped in four: “Miniature Catastrophes,” “American interiors,” “Slovak Sceneries” and, finally, “Library of Lost Things.” How did you arrive at them?

NP I started seeing the stories thematically—patterns that were emerging like loss, missed opportunities, disappearances, home improvement—and it was like organizing objects in rooms. The sections felt important to break up the book and force the reader to pause. But if I could, I would put diversions between every story. Tell readers to get up and go on a walk to a large body of water before moving on to the next story. I do want to be able to slow the reader down since these stories are so brief and packed, so they can sit with uncertainty and ambiguity if it comes up.

I Know You Know

MS Peter, you also have flash pieces in between the longer stories, sort of like a transition in forms.

PK Something I really value in collections is to see image and gesture doubling and feeling the echo in that. It’s so subtle, there’s no attention really drawn to it.

In your title story, Nicolette, there’s a line, “She’d always loved even the shimmer of an out, a trapdoor from her heart.” And then for that story to be followed, of course, by “Your Shining Trap Door”; it’s like the stories are acknowledging each other emotionally.

NP Echoes are a good way to think about it.

PK Not to put this on all liars, or former liars, but one of the tools of a liar, I think, is image and gesture doubling in narrative, to constellate and create. There were a lot of times where I wanted  in one story for an older man to put his hand on a younger man’s thigh and then in another for that to be felt from the other body. If you were to read it the whole way through, I think you’d be aware of a certain amount of artifice or maybe even risk in this kind of repetition. 

I have always liked the title. “I know you know” reflects a liar’s kind of hyper-suspicion. And then there’s “You know who I am,” which is such a deeply comforted sentiment. The collection is constantly feeling that tension between those two phrases, that tug of war that exists in its own way for each of these characters.

MS I love the title because you can say it in different ways. You can say in a sort of flippant way or a very serious way, and it has totally different resonances depending on which way it’s said. 

NP I wanted to ask you a form question, Mary. I know that you worked for Diane Williams at NOON, so you’re used to attention on the sentence level. But you also have so much structural invention, like the story that takes the form of a FAQ page about brain surgery or utilizing footnotes. Did you set out to have a collection that experimented in these ways? 

MS It’s definitely something that I approached first just out of curiosity, then I started to adopt different forms intentionally. One of the things that interests me about form is how we’re surrounded by so many kinds now. You can perform a Google search for medical ailment, and you’ll get pages and pages of results—from WebMD, hospital websites, internet forums discussing the ailment, etc. And I always wonder: How can I meet the consciousness behind these forms or turn them into a story? Maybe part of the reason for that is I was a freelance SEO copywriter. That’s Search Engine Optimization—writing in order to make particular site rank higher in Google. And it’s the opposite of writing for the beauty of it, to make art. It’s writing for an algorithm. But I was a person doing that. Or I don’t know if you’ve worked an office job with clashing personalities—and you get looped into an email chain, with one passive-aggressive email after passive-aggressive email that gets more and more absurd, and perhaps less passive-aggressive and just outright cutting or aggressive-aggressive as time goes on and you’re just observing this, like, what is happening?—there’s a story in that. I’m constantly seeing these forms emerge everywhere. Maybe perversely, I thought, I can do this very slow thing—make art—out of this very rapid, fast thing, these constantly recycled forms.

PK I can see that too, in your stories. 

NP The veil is lifted—the details and answers are so beautiful and compelling. For example, after the question, “What will my brain be like after my craniotomy?” there’s the list,The joy of sunlight, the decency in rain…”  

MS Thank you. I really wanted that story to slowly unravel from the beginning—and then quickly unravel—similar to how grief unravels you. For a while, you’ll be sobbing, then you’ll be spacing out, staring at a jar of pickles in your fridge for no reason for several minutes. When you realize you’ve really been having a moment with the pickles, then it can become very funny. Grief can be funny or relieving, which sometimes feels like a betrayal. But that’s how we also start to heal and move on. I wondered if I could get a story to mimic that formally.

PK While we’re on the topic about organizing a collection, Mary, you don’t have a delineation where we have opted for a kind of demarcation between stories or in parts. Could you talk about structuring and creating the collection? 

MS One of the things that was important to me was not having tech be the dominant force in the stories. That is, I didn’t want it to be like, “Here’s a story about how social media is bad” and “Here’s a story about how ordering products from Amazon is bad.” There’s always a strong element of that, but I didn’t want the stories to be all-premise; I wanted it to be about the feelings these characters are grappling with via tech. So sometimes tech is just mentioned in passing. A fun observation that was recently pointed out to me is that there’s a mix of new and more outdated technology in the stories—for example the elderly men dialing phone sex hotlines. It’s from a different sort of time, and I did want to have a range of experiences and a range of interactions with technology. I wanted the stories to talk to each other. And I wanted to have a more tender, humorous story after a story that is maybe difficult to take so that the reader does have a breath. For example, after the title story about the woman who is stalking her rapist you have “Camp Jabberwocky,” about a summer camp for internet trolls. It’s much more joyful and funny; it’s not as intense. Because if it’s just intense-intense-intense, it would be hard to read.

PK That juice of premise that I found in so many of your stories so easily could have been leaned on and you never do. In the title story—how easy it would have been to not implicate that character; I admire you made it as challenging as you did and also how you added levity into the book. 

MS It’s a frequently used comp, but despite us having access to very advanced technology and all of us owning smartphones, everybody interacts with technology in an idiosyncratic way. It’s not uniform between generations or even within generations.

It was fun to have certain internal organizational things, too. For example, the first story has doubling in it—doubled people—as does the last story. I wanted to build structural mirrors into the collection.

NP Originally, I wanted “Sabbatical” to open my book because it was a tour of a house and I’d be giving the reader a tour, and teaching them the logic of the world to come. I like thinking of a book as a house. I’m guiding the reader between rooms. That’s why a lot of the stories end with windows and doors opening and closing. Instead, the collection opens with a rope barrier that the character cuts. It’s like a ribbon-cutting ceremony, which is the beginning of something, and an entrance.

PK There’s a lot of opening and closing of spaces in your stories, all the elements of a trapdoor. I love thinking about the logic of bad actors and bad acting—not someone who means harm or does harm, but someone who is truly untalented. Not just because I was a terrible actor onstage. I love thinking about all of the different perceptions and allowances—like, someone believes they’re pulling something off and they’re being allowed to, and then there’s this additional artifice of the audience pretending they did well. It’s a really strange, very vulnerable thing to watch a terrible actor play out a show. I love people announcing their deceptions like that, implicitly in their desires to be actors, but totally failing in the pursuit.

NP I think everyone has the capability of being a bad actor, to lie or do worse. The less aware that people are of that part of themselves, the more damage can happen when it comes out.

MS I’m interested in bad actors in the “doing harm” sense because we want people to be all moral or all immoral, and that’s not true to life.

Maybe we can segue into talking about realism in stories. You both have stories that are more grounded in reality versus others that diverge into dreaminess or dystopia. I do this, myself. How do you decide where a story should be on the reality spectrum, so to speak?

PK The two more dystopian stories—though they feel troublingly just two steps left of where we are at present—felt at home in the book because a liar’s fear of exposure is a sort of death of self. Persona becomes a kind of replacement limb, or something it feels necessary to survive inside of. There’s this incredibly frenetic mind that is so fearful of exposure, even if that’s not dangerous—to be exposed as who you are. So these two stories are specifically public execution stories, to have all this witness for you while you go down for your failures. Then I really wanted to implicate the people of these stories. Behind every premise there had to be some deeply human inner conflict.  

One of my favorite stories in your collection, Nicolette, is the last story. The language stays with me—the “hurry of wind” down an airplane aisle, these people just departing the open exits. It was almost as if I was waking up from a nap on that same plane. I’d love to hear how the surreal or dystopian presents in your work.

Imaginary Museums

NP I like unsettling escalation in stories, speeding things up and messing with time. I also like subtle reversals. When you experience turbulence on a plane, everything outside is terrifying and everything inside the plane is safe. But in “Love Language,” the plane is very unsafe. The passengers look out the windows, which display a normal, natural landscape, and still they ignite fear in each other. Their panic makes the seemingly intact world suddenly fall apart. Anxiety and perception has the ability to dismantle and morph reality. For me, dystopia is filled with crowds and misinformation and losing a sense of the center, of what is true and what is real and what things mean. 

I do have a question for you, Mary. You have a rich bank of references, especially of visual art. I was wondering if you both have other mediums that inform your writing or preceded you being a writer. For me, it’s film. That was kind of my first love of storytelling, and I briefly thought I’d be a filmmaker, but I was far too shy. So, I stuck with writing stories. 

MS You’re a musician too, right? 

NP Both film and music taught me about atmosphere and mood, which I was able to translate to writing very easily. My fiction for a while was so inspired by movies like Black Moon, The Color of Pomegranates, or The Sun in a Net, and until I added movement, they were super abstract. My former piano teacher told me that the way I carry out a musical line is similar to how I carry a sentence, but I’m unsure how exactly.

MS I love films, I love visual art. But writing always felt like my medium. The medium I am good at. That said, another thing I am good at, which feeds the writing, is research. I will accumulate facts and put them in huge document—I’ll fill a Word document with facts and artists and paintings and films that inform whatever I’m working on. Maybe it’s a way to hide and not do the actual writing while also still feeling productive. But there’s a great pleasure in that for me of getting all these ideas together, of building a story inside of me filled with references and sources of inspiration. Yet sometimes it amounts to nothing! I have a document that’s 100 pages long, filled with notes about aviation. Failed inventions. Fatal accidents.

A great book, The Prehistory of Flight, that has an appendix that lists failed inventions: “So-and-so in the 1600s built this flight machine made out of tulle and chicken wire and attempted to fly it by jumping off a cliff. He broke his leg.” It goes on and on with these. I saw a story in that; I took notes, too, about the history of flight. From the lighter-than-air ballooning to the Wright Brothers and Howard Hughes and Yeager and et cetera. I wanted to write a story about the history of aviation from the beginning and into the future, emotionally centered around a woman who has lost her husband in a plane crash. But I could never get the story right. It was a lot of labor that as of yet hasn’t turned into anything. I love finding things though. Cataloguing.

NP So many of your stories have pockets of miniature catalogues. The book The Missing Pieces by Henri Lefebvre is a big catalogue of things that have been lost, missing, unfinished, one after the other. You might like it.

You Will Never Be Forgotten

MS I love fragmentation, which is having a moment right now. You have these little gleaming things, which you can kind of hold in your hand. It sort of feels like that. How about you, Peter? Other art forms?

PK I played the violin for fifteen years. I really liked it. It contributed to understanding there was a voice that was trying to communicate the sentence I was putting down and either I was resisting it or writing into it. Also, I tap danced for a while.

NP I did, too! We could put together a routine.

PK I am so down. And that’s amazing. How long? 

NP From age five to twelve I did tap dancing and jazz and ballet.

PK I really like tap dancing. One thing a lot of people don’t know is that tap dance is the one form of dance you can reliably get better at. Instead of practicing yourself into bad habits, you can hear whether you’re doing it right. If you want to do something right, you do it big, you exaggerate the movement. And if you want to do it fast, you do it small, tightening the sound and its movement. I loved that; there’s a certain particularity and noise I can’t directly attribute to any sort of success in voice or tone or style, but it felt like it had some bearing in the beginning, maybe. 

MS It must be relieving to express yourself with your body because writing is so internal. With music, you must almost be able to have a feeling, first, that you’re doing it right, as opposed to the analytical thought that you’re doing it right. Can a writer have that experience, I wonder? 

NP I focused so much on emotion, then I accompanied ballet classes or choirs, and I had to learn how to reprioritize feeling in a way… in order to keep time. I was able to see what certain practicing habits looked like on other peoples’ movements. I remember a ballet class that became a mess because they kept tripping over my rhythm, because I wanted to play the piece with feeling, and linger and swell in places. After that happened I had to relearn some things and I became a better musician from it.

PK I remember how deeply comforted I felt in the act of coming back into my body and how that was in tandem with the accompaniment of an orchestra or going across the floor in dance. I was comforted by other bodies doing the same thing my body was doing. There is this sort of in-the-zoneness, and this import that I felt with a few of these stories, near the end, where I know I’ve articulated something, in true concert with myself.  

NP I thought about this recently when I was on a walk and came across a long stretch of rocks and boulders, and how effortlessly my steps knew where to go. My body felt like it was continuing one uninterrupted stroke or feeling, and I had a brief moment of deja vu to when I’d dance or do something well. 

MS There is something, when you get a voice right, that feels sort of effortless. When you figure out how a character sounds. Maybe that’s a similar feeling to going across the floor and really doing well on your routine. 

NP I was interested in how you both use a range of environments, and how a character’s identity is in flux depending on where they are situated.

PK I think knowing which spaces are more populated by queer people made the problems interact with that population. For example, there’s this insecurity about San Francisco in one of the stories because this character regards it as this place where everyone just dates each other’s boyfriends. That’s why, when he’s living in Maine and he’s so isolated and he finds someone he’s so attracted to, there’s this desperate quality underneath of, “Well, we have to make this work.” Then when lying is inserted into that, it feels almost like this ultra-devastation, like a landscape being razed around you. 

MS I think about place and solitude a lot. I grew up in a borderline rural area in Minnesota. It’s a long drive to get anywhere, and there’s a deep meditativeness about the setting that gets into your body. 

NP I have two main places: The Midwest, where I grew up, which often appears as interiors and insides of houses, and then there’s Slovakia, which is present as a fuller landscape. My parents both emigrated from there and I grew up around their sense of loss and longing for a country, so when I write about America or the Midwest, I always think about it being sedentary and trapped and looking across the ocean or out the window at something very far. But when I write about Slovakia, it’s freer because that’s the object of longing I had grown up with, and a country that lives so actively in my imagination, all the time.

(Pause) 

MS …I’m trying to think of a good way to wrap up the conversation.

NP Both of you write about death.

(Laughter) 

MS There’s a lot of loss there. I think when you have characters who are trying to avoid looking at their feelings, that’s because they’re trying to avoid looking at a devastation that’s too big to hold. I meant to ask you, Peter, about the feelings underneath the lies—there’s a lot of loneliness in your stories that’s maybe lacquered over with deception so they don’t feel it so much. I think my characters are often trying to avoid feeling extremely lonely or grief-stricken.

NP Or so absorbed in their understanding of what they’re trying to navigate that everything else is just leaving or repelled from them.

PKLying tends to reinforce a sense of loneliness. It becomes a self-isolating coping mechanism that gives the illusion of escape from the feelings of loneliness when really, it’s just exacerbating those feelings. We often suggest that the persona created from habituated lying is some kind of shell, but it has all of the nerve endings. It feels everything just as deeply when we’re inside of it and holding so tightly to it. But just as I mentioned the hand on a thigh, in another story there’s a human rib cage on a sand bar, and in another a skull rolls up under a pier. I wanted to work with division and fracture of the body, of bodies, throughout the book as well.

MS It occurs to me too when you experience loss—through death or trauma—it has a way of messing with your identity, at least for a little while, which is also related to deception and artifice. The artifice of an identity. It reveals how fragile our sense of self can be, when what we love is taken away.

NP I was going to ask you what is the “true thing” in a collection about lies? It does seem that mortality and death is the true thing.

PK The first and the last story are kind of foils, and the last story contains a detail from each of the previous stories. I wanted the “You” of the title to be a particular character and to play with having them evaporate through the rest of the book. But death and loss feel so present in all of our stories. I was struck by a tone that had a certain remove. And now want to ask an impossible question about how deaths function in our work…

NP Maybe in all the trap doors.

(Pause) 

MS So how do we really end the conversation? Maybe there’s not a natural way. We can come up with one later. The fake ending to this interview—that can be our lie.

The story collections featured in this conversation are available for purchase here.

Peter Kispert is the author of the debut story collection I Know You Know Who I Am (Penguin Books, February 2020). His fiction and nonfiction has appeared or is forthcoming in OUT magazine, GQ, Esquire, Playboy, Electric Literature‘s Recommended Reading, The Carolina Quarterly, Slice magazine, and elsewhere.

Nicolette Polek is the author of the short story collection Imaginary Museums (Soft Skull, 2020). She is the recipient of a 2019 Rona Jaffe Writers Award, and is working on a novel.

Mary South is the author of the debut short story collection You Will Never Be Forgotten (FSG Originals, March 2020). Her writing has appeared in The New Yorker, American Short Fiction, Conjunctions, Guernica, LARB Quarterly, NOON, and The White Review, among others.

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