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Interview: Paul Lisicky

        

Paul Lisicky is the author of Unbuilt Projects (Four Way Books, 2012), The Burning House (Etruscan Press, 2011), Famous Builder (Graywolf Press, 2002), and Lawnboy (Turtle Point Press, 1999, reissued by Graywolf Press, 2006). His work has appeared in The Atlantic, Conjunctions, Fence, The New York Times, The Offing, Ploughshares, Tin House, and in many other magazines and anthologies. His awards include fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, the James Michener/Copernicus Society, and the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, where he was twice a Fellow. He teaches in the MFA Program at Rutgers University-Camden and lives in Brooklyn where he is also the editor of StoryQuarterly. In Fall 2018, he will be the visiting writer at University of Texas-Austin. We are also happy to share his story “Refrigerator Girl” this week on Aquifer: The Florida Review Online.

 

His most recent book, The Narrow Door: A Memoir of Friendship (Graywolf Press, 2016), has been named a New York Times Editors’ Choice, a Rumpus Book Club Selection, and one of Buzzfeed’s Most Exciting Books of 2016.

 

The Narrow Door tells the story of Lisicky’s long-term friendship with fellow writer Denise, alongside that of his relationship and marriage to a poet that ultimately unravels as his friend’s life is also ending from cancer. Lisicky unflinchingly, yet poetically, examines the ways in which both love and other emotional states—jealousy, competition, boredom, disaffection, distance—weave through our complicated personal lives within a fraught larger world. By including contemplative accounts of various world events from earthquakes and volcano eruptions to rocket experiments and oil spills, the book points out that both our relationships and our larger world are fragile and unpredictable.

 

Lisa Roney for The Florida Review:

I was so moved by this book. One of the things that has always impressed me about your work is its range and scope, and I enjoy seeing that your range and scope continues to enlarge. I still remember reading Famous Builder and just laughing out loud. In both Unbuilt Projects and now The Narrow Door, though there is still humor there, you have shifted to more somber tones. Do you think that’s just part of what happens as we mature and suffer losses in our lives, or might it also have to do with a growing acceptance of the complexity of gay authors?

 

Paul Lisicky:

I never wanted to be the funny gay guy, even though there’s a place for the funny gay guy. I think I can play that role around the dinner table when the occasion feels right, but I’ve always tried to work toward broadening the scope of my own sensibility in hopes that it encourages any reader, regardless of identity, to broaden his or her scope.

 

I might, however, be a little less afraid about putting darkness on the page than when I was first starting out. Maybe I felt some impulse or externally imposed directive to be charming, to be cheerful, to lure the reader in. I had to write harder to maintain a bright surface. I think there just came a point where I felt I don’t really have to do that anymore.

 

All that said I do miss a certain strain of humor in my work. Especially now in these dark times, I feel like dark gallows humor is really what we need. It can give a certain kind of dimension that that straight-ahead despair doesn’t. I’m hoping the next book, honestly, will be funnier. I want it to be sillier, but also really, really, really grave.

 

TFR:

Do you think we need a new era of satire right now?

 

Lisicky:

Yes. A kind of satire that is more personally directed. Sometimes when we think of satire we think of forms and shapes and voices that exist “out there,” but there are so many tones of satire that we might not have even explored. What is my satire? What is your satire? I don’t think my satire sounds like Jonathan Swift or George Saunders, even though those models are important to take in.

 

I don’t quite know what my own satire is yet, and I want to build that voice.

 

TFR:

The Narrow Door tells the story of a friendship and the death of that friend alongside the story of your long-term romantic relationship breaking up. One might expect a memoir about one or the other, but what made you also decide in this book to commit to telling them both at once?

 

Lisicky:

I started the book about six weeks after Denise died simply as a way to keep her in the world. I had very few artifacts of our friendship together—maybe three photographs, no written letters, just a handful of emails. Initially it was simply a project to keep her in the world, and I thought, well maybe this could be a book, but it wasn’t at the forefront of my consciousness. I had just finished reading Nick Flynn’s The Ticking Is the Bomb, which is a book that is about trying to be lost as a way toward new meaning, and the structure of that book gave me lots of permission to wander on the page. There was something about the associations holding that book together that I took direction from. I had just finished writing another book—Unbuilt Projects—at the time I started, so there wasn’t any internal or external pressure to start something new [for publication]. It just started in emotional necessity. I needed some kind of a vehicle to keep going, and it was something that I kept coming back to until it became a book.

 

TFR:

One of the things I really loved about it was this idea that it would weave together the story of a friendship with the story of a marriage. Very seldom do we see how they interact and how they affect each other. Was it a struggle to overcome the usual separation of those two kinds of subjects? Was anyone skeptical that you could combine them effectively? How did that dual focus, those perhaps opposing energies, work as the project developed?

 

Lisicky:

Honestly, I had two-thirds of the first draft of the book done and my relationship was in trouble. I literally folded that into the book, not knowing it was going to be there at first. I had written this kind of artifact of ongoing-ness so there was no way to keep it out even though I did not want to write that at all. It would have destroyed the book to keep it out. I was terrified. It still makes me nervous, but I learned so much from comparing, from holding those two relationships up against one another. It wasn’t a deliberate act—I couldn’t be so smart if I were trying to engineer something. It just made itself available to me and I kept with it. I just listened to what I needed to write.

 

TFR:

There were so many reverberations, like in the scene where Denise kind of loses it, and your partner is there. There’s this witnessing of something bad happening in the friendship, and he had more hostility toward it than you even had. I felt like it was insightful about how these relationships that we don’t usually think of as influencing each other in some ways actually do.

 

Lisicky:

I didn’t know it until I was writing the book. I was paying attention to repetitions, to patterns, to images, and those patterns and those repetitions were teaching me something. I didn’t know the echoes were there, so if the book has an energy it’s because discoveries were being made in the writing. I became aware that I was writing something that was much smarter emotionally than I was. We all, I think, want to write toward that place where our work knows more than we do.

 

I still feel—I hope this doesn’t sound grandiose—but I still feel that I’m learning things from this book. And maybe I always will be learning things from it. I think about that moment up against this other moment, and what instruction there is.

 

TFR:

One of the other brilliant strokes here is the use of world events to give both the texture of the times and to provide metaphors for the personal events going on. One of my favorites was the space dog.

 

Lisicky:

I’m so glad to hear that. People don’t talk about that space dog section much. Maybe it’s too painful—that dear dog.

 

TFR:

I was in tears. She never came back from space.

 

Lisicky:

She never came back, and nobody ever talks about that.

 

TFR:

And also the Gulf of Mexico oil spill. Those are just two examples but how did that method arise and develop for you, and how is it perhaps different from the way you work in fiction, in which you say that you always work from an image or metaphor rather than character? There is that kind of method here, but obviously you were working from Denise’s death, so you started with the subject matter and character, yet that technique of having these images and these social metaphors still continued in this work. Was it different working with it this time around or did it evolve pretty similarly to how that works in your fiction?

 

Lisicky:

I knew that there was some solace in dredging up particular memories, but that I could only be inside those memories for so long before it felt unbearable. I thought, well, maybe there’s a way to channel this energy in other directions and we can go back and forth. I ended up metabolizing the structure of Terry Tempest Williams’ Refuge, years after finishing it. I took permission from that. I became more attuned to all those disasters. I’ve said this before, but disasters are happening all the time, all around us, and I think that in that fresh scrubbed, raw state my antennae were out.

 

I felt them personally, so if I put one in I started feeling others. There is a progression in the book. The first image is of the volcano, and then we move to an earthquake. I think humans are increasingly culpable if we think of the progression, of moving from volcanoes to the oil spill. In the latter disasters humans are clearly culpable.

 

TFR:

It felt very much to me that there was this kind of acceptance that there are things beyond our individual control even when they are human-created things, and yet there’s always this question of our responsibility, and how we can engage with the larger sense of human culpability.

 

Lisicky:

Yes. How do we have sane and safe relationships when the world just outside the window is in chaos?

 

That’s a conversation stopper!

 

TFR:

Or an endless starter. So, change of subject—Joni Mitchell makes her way into yet another Paul Lisicky book. Can you tell me more about your psychic relationship to her and her music?

 

Lisicky:

I love the seventies. I love Blue, and I love The Hissing of Summer Lawns, Hejira, and even Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter.

 

I first came upon that work when I was ten or eleven or twelve. I was really young, and she wasn’t the music that my peers were listening to. She was the music, the musician of people in the generation just a little ahead, and so she felt like she was mine, she felt private, she felt really idiosyncratic. I was aware on an intuitive level that those songs did not move like other songs in their deep structure, that she was making something new. She was making something her own. I’ve always been taught by and grateful for that example out there. One thing I’ve mentioned in the past is that her guitar re-tunings are based on the fact that she doesn’t have strength in her left hand. So because she couldn’t play the standard shapes, she decided to re-tune the guitar, and she ended up turning what some would consider a liability or limitation to an asset. That’s not a new or fresh idea, but I try to be attuned to my own limitations and turn them in my work into something that works.

 

TFR:

You were already talking about yourself as someone who wanted to continually expand your own horizons as a writer, and she’s a great model.

 

Lisicky:

Exactly. She’s so restless, never stayed static, was always reinventing herself, and probably not afraid to be an amateur in any form. I think that’s crucial to the ongoing life of any artist. You have to tear it down for the next project or else you’re repeating your old moves and it’s not terribly interesting.

 

TFR:

Speaking of different approaches, how do you balance your writing with the role of being editor of StoryQuarterly?

 

Lisicky:

The struggle balancing that with my other projects is a day-to-day thing. The exciting part of it is getting to publish work that’s risky and weird, to publish the kind of work that that I think others need to see. I grew up in a world at a literary time when it felt like everything had to conform. It didn’t feel like we could shake people up structurally or in terms of thinking.

 

It’s great to be able to get fun, weird, dark, rich work out there. That’s my favorite part of it, but I think it’s hard as hell yet people assume that it’s a sidelight. It’s hard as hell.

 

TFR:

You referred earlier to new directions your work is going in especially in light of recent political developments? What can we do as writers? What is our responsibility and how are you working with that?  You talked about developing a different kind of humor in your own writing, but are there other things that you think about, other challenges that you want to put out to other writers and readers?

 

Lisicky:

I do think it is possible to write political work that is experienced by the body, that’s interior, that feels cellular, that that gives a reader an experience that’s different from the experience one gets in journalism. I’m devoted, and I feel that we should all be devoted to getting rid of that dualism. Politics isn’t “out there”; it’s pointing right at my chest. We have to continue to break across those lines.

Lisa Roney

Lisa Roney is the editor and director of The Florida Review and Aquifer: The Florida Review Online. She is associate professor of English at the University of Central Florida and the author of Sweet Invisible Body: A Memoir of Diabetes (Henry Holt), The Best Possible Bad Luck (Finishing Line Press), Serious Daring: Creative Writing in Four Genres (Oxford University Press), as well as short work in numerous journals and literary magazines.