Jared Pappas-Kelley’s newest book Stalking America (Delere Press) bends the genres of fiction and memoir, piecing together a life through online platforms and information gleaned along the way. Structured as a novel, Stalking America builds on Pappas-Kelley’s previous nonfiction and theoretical books, like Solvent Form (Manchester University Press). Pappas-Kelley’s America is a place where very little is seen or spoken directly. Conversations and thoughts wander in from around a corner—a deleted browser history of experience—ripple into the cliché of coming-of-age. Life bleeds into the internet, flows in and out of states, and tries to rebuild or reconstruct time and space. The book questions our concepts of identity and how we navigate the pitfalls in this media-saturated world, with the aim to understand and grasp the now, as identities blur and change in a blink of an eye. Pappas-Kelley is America and America is Pappas-Kelley, or at least a version of it, all built on dreams. These blurred boundaries make this journey an intriguing ride and a puzzle to solve.
Over a series of emails, Pappas-Kelley and I discussed how the artist Gordon Matta-Clark informs his writing style, the unauthorized biographies written by his aunt, the unsettling blur of fiction and reality we exist within, and how we tread water in the post-truth era. We also considered the endless image-building and the various “us” that haunt online platforms, the absurdity of influencers, chatbots, the smorgasbord of Web 3 and AI issues facing us, all while we exalt the allure and mystique of train travel.
The Rumpus: I really loved Stalking America. You capture the feeling of “the now,” where we flow through information daily at our fingertips. Facts and fiction are blurring, especially when something is shouted loud enough. How do you think fiction can exist when we seem to be living in it?
Jared Pappas-Kelley: Maybe the only thing that can be written now is fiction. I’m a visual person by nature, so for me a lot of it was about trying to catch an aspect of experiencing the world. This way of inhabiting the now in a sort of mundane sense, when much is mediated or at a remove, an observation, information, as that is one of the things fiction can do and still give a sense of the truth in it.
One thing I was interested in with Stalking America was this apparent distinction between truths and fictions, not mutually exclusive in any capacity. If anything, the blurring has become more overt, and that was a starting point to tease out and observe. It was also something that I tried to consciously explore with how things were structured with details like the dialogue and layering or paralleling where in many ways everything was presented like conversation threads that aggregate from various sources and experience or blurring—without trying to be too heavy-handed as a thought experiment.
Rumpus: You return to cut building works of artist Gordon Matta-Clark throughout the book. These works open up the private in a very controlled way, giving you this curated view with just enough information to conjure an idea of the person but never the whole. Why are these works so important in this book?
Pappas-Kelley: Part of it is that I just like Matta-Clark as an artist, but also in the book there is a lot of identifying or over-identifying with public personas, and writing about him gave another way into this idea. Gordon Matta-Clark was an artist who went into old, abandoned houses and sliced them in half or cut them up as interventions so that we might consider them differently, but also there is just something appealing and immediate about taking these homes apart, an artist with a chainsaw and winches slicing across domestic spaces. He’s one of those people I keep coming back to.
In a more practical sense, Matta-Clark gave permission to make these sorts of interventions into the source material in the rest of the book: to make incisions into character, show how things are performative and stepping into these domestic or public personas and question intimacies of narrative or interior spaces and what is considered outside for public consumption and like you said relates to experiences of social media or even conventions of reality TV.
In that, what is taking place as I approached it isn’t directly about writing itself but something more writing adjacent as an approach or conjuring that visual art and popular culture also allow.
Rumpus: There’s a quote I’m going to paraphrase from Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity that has stayed with me: “It’s not what you’re like, it’s what you like that matters.” Delving into the subplot of the book, the TV show Stalking America, feels like you’re tackling some of these contemporary Black Mirror-esque dilemmas. Have we moved past the Warholian “fifteen minutes of fame” to a new paradigm, where Web 3 has made us all Truman, under endless surveillance to our own self-censorship?
Pappas-Kelley: It was there already, but with something as simple as the invention of the like button, or the heart, or upvote, it’s become foregrounded so that we are now the apex predators of liking but in an extremely passive or disengaged way.
We swim in feedback, baby sharks, and it’s about how do we live in that and make sense or are perhaps shaped by it. Could this be translated as an experience, the sort of bits that fall between the cracks when nothing specifically is happening or directly contradicts? That’s sort of how I approached it, and is it a satisfying experience or what might it put on display?
I have an aunt, or I guess she’s my mom’s cousin so whatever that makes her to me, and she wrote these high-profile unauthorised biographies about people like Nancy Reagan or Oprah and the royals that got a lot of attention. And I don’t really have any particular connection with her except as sort of a backdrop in family dynamics or as the tangential fabric of extended relatives when a new book came out. And she might have this lateral relationship to the subjects she writes about and their fame or notoriety, but in a very real sense I am not on her radar, but in writing this book I was interested in these oblique or tenuous connections like the main character here where they might or might not have grown up knowing this person who is now on television and this supposed connection takes on a disproportionate significance or projection. This kind of living through a perceived connection to someone else that is somehow noteworthy, trying to work it into conversations that are very tenuous or cringe is an attractive starting point and what is being noteworthy or being known in this more mundane sense.
With Warhol, you might commission a society portrait in Neiman Marcus or wherever, so for the price of admission you got the allure or appearance of being someone who is known. But it isn’t even about fifteen minutes anymore and perhaps about an ability or even desire to influence, an aggregation as the act of influencing. And with this book I wasn’t really interested in any of these big constellations but in only the most tangential of identifications through these other people and this might be the more duct-tape version of that.
Rumpus: I’m going to change tracks for a minute. Personally I find influencer culture a strange thing, I get the “we don’t believe big corporations” bit, but this “celebrity is trustworthy” shtick is crazy—it’s just another form of corporate advertising or that de-influencing trend, which was mostly humble brag mixed with lifestyle selling and cringe reverse psychology, it’s this weird desire hyper loop. I find it super sad that people talk like they’re brands too, as it really dehumanises us, we’re much more than a commodity, it’s this kind of thinking that feels like the future is more hopeless. Sorry for the doom spiral, do you have a better hope for how things will turn out or are we going to be in a hyper-stalking of everything soon?
Pappas-Kelley: I’m intrigued by jobs that emerge that our parents or their parents wouldn’t be able to conceive, like “influencer” is a genuine job or career choice, and what does that mean? What do you want to be when you grow up? A firefighter? An influencer? Do you score really high in influencing on some aptitude test or the Myers-Briggs? “I wanted to be an influencer, but my posts weren’t influence-y enough.”
Have you ever seen the forums on Reddit that are chatbots debating something, and each approaches their response from a specific point of view and finds a way to work those ideas into any conversation? And it’s unsettling to me how quickly the bots get racist as well after culling through all our cast-off material online, yet we wonder how that happens.
Rumpus: What and how we teach AI is going to be the event horizon of the future, and so far we’re not doing so great. You’re right about how jobs have changed, with the cycles of boom, bust, and bailout it seems to be having an effect on Gen Z’s approach to life and work. Things like long-term planning seem pointless when the world crashes and burns so fast before the phoenix rises again. Exploiting yourself seems like a better option than doing it for the man, I won’t even get into the politics and environment issues. So with a pull of the lever, we’re back on track.
As I was reading Stalking America, the specter of Sophie Calle, one of my favorite artists was all around me, and then she popped up and said boo. Her work feels like an important clue to deciphering your book’s puzzle and I feel she was way ahead of her time with the work she makes. Can you let us know how her art has impacted culture and your own ways of thinking?
Pappas-Kelley: Sophie Calle was definitely present in the material, following some guy around Venice and covertly documenting his movements with her camera, and I was doing this thing where I write sort of all-around something that is right there in the middle of it until it gets lost a bit and then after all that sidestepping just come out with it—and here is the piece that was missing and it deflates it, like the polar opposite of a jump scare, in a way that is curious to me and I also think that is something Sophie Calle does. I was intrigued in writing that sequence with how the other character was kind of cool-shaming or almost dismissing the kid’s own experience, like, “Oh all these things you’re interested in are the fake or poseur versions, somehow less, but this artist is like the real version.” And this happens a lot and sort of the way a music snob or someone like that would do it but in perhaps a more endearing way, and there was something more compelling rolled up in this exchange about authenticity or an inability, and in this case what was the real version or is there one.
Rumpus: She was like cookies before the Internet, stalking the mundane to get a better picture of the person. It’s really beautiful work I return to a lot. Going back to Matta-Clark, home, or the idea of it as part of our identity seems to reoccur, almost as if you’re taking his process and reconstructing within a fractured sense of identity, like you’re building a fictional you. Could you speak on this? You know I also love a good joke, like that “where are you from” line? Home. It’s why I own the perfume Rien from Etat Libre d’Orange, so when asked, what I’m wearing, I can say nothing.
Pappas-Kelley: Yes, I like the blurring where the writing appears to be more about me than it actually is and the process of constructing while cutting away. This idea of the process through which we construct ourselves or the way a narrator sees themself more clearly through someone else. I also appreciate a line like that where language sort of claps back with its flatness—what are you wearing, nothing or where are you going, home—the name of the fragrance or town is factually true but also a more general idea as it shuts the door and truth lies in a way.
Rumpus: You have these lovely little disruptive devices, “Lapso Mori,” which give you the sense of reading a book written right now, surrounded by distractions. Is the train also a device? A phone or a tablet and you’re on this scrolling journey through the time we’re in, where everything can nearly be instantly recalled by the internet and social media?
Pappas-Kelley: A bit like a push notification. Like the memento mori, a pocket that collects or lapses that are a withdrawal yet persist as an artifact, a slippage as reminder from another parallel that bleeds across and accumulates. I mapped out the beginnings of a follow-up book where this idea of the Lapso Mori becomes the foreground, so I guess we’ll just have to see if I ever sit down and write it.
I like thinking of the train ride as a device in that sense or a peripheral, that is sort of how I approached it, and in many ways, it is the least train-like train ride, and I wanted it to be this sort of engaged reverie space being constructed.
Rumpus: What’s your favorite mode of transport and least favorite? Does the “you” in the book share the same likes and dislikes?
Pappas-Kelley: Each platform has that specific aspect it brings to the foreground or highlights like image, brevity, or story, I guess, like how different forms of transportation might also do this, it’s like the way you show up.
Some of the initial inspiration came from taking a Greyhound bus cross-country in the U.S. years ago for many days, but a Greyhound felt a bit too honky-tonk in a way and I also didn’t want it to just be a story about highways which is something else. With a train there’s more of an inevitability that you will end up somewhere. It’s more automated and letting go, and the outside is out of your hands, so it disappears into a permeable bubble of the experience.
I live in the U.K. now and like travelling by train but feel like it’s really expensive and always breaking down or delayed. Maybe a train ride in someplace like Switzerland—do they have train delays or interruptions there, I feel like no, or that if they did, they’d have some mediated but posh Swiss solution in place.
Do I like the same things as the character in the book—in many ways I suppose I do, but I think I’m confused differently by things than that character, and it also allowed me to be a bit more naive in the responses which I also enjoyed. I feel like that character dislikes most things and is figuring it out, but maybe that’s just me?
Rumpus: I’ve spent a lot of my life commuting in various machines, from boats, buses, and trams, but my favorite is still the train, well, okay not in the U.K.—there’s always delays, but anywhere else it’s a great space to dream. Does America have a smell? If so, what is it?
Pappas-Kelley: When I first spent time in Southern California, the smell I remember sort of embodying the experience was a mix of fake orange and car exhaust. But for all of America? Maybe one of those air diffusers, so you have a scent profile of like four options that you put on to match your mood.
Rumpus: After Stalking America, can you describe that scent in one word?
Pappas-Kelley: Tenuous? This is a physical experience we are in, but so much of this is beyond just the physical, so thinking of it like that is a good way of giving it form. But for me it’s always how this physical grinds up against the idea or intangible aspect, and maybe through it there might be a lucidity to be examined, driven by these physical actions.
Author photo by Ikuko Tsuchiya