Paul Lisicky: On His New Memoir and Writing Elegies for the Dead
Author: Michael Carroll
January 7, 2016
“Iʼm not sure that we as writers actually owe our dead anything other than to make them interesting—not necessarily friendly or nice but interesting.”
Paul Lisicky has had one of the most interesting writing careers that I know of. He’s been allowed to write precisely as he knows and sees it. He is uncompromising, telling the story that he so obviously wants to tell. Paul Lisicky, in other words, is the natural writer, a naturalist of the modern self. As the poet Jason Schneiderman recently said, introducing Lisicky at a reading:
Paul Lisicky’s work is marked by a deep attention to the difference between what a life looks like from the outside and what it feels like to live it. In his first novel Lawnboy, the protagonist seems charmed: handsome and desired, but he finds himself confused, adrift, and kept. It may sound nice to have someone paying your rent, but from the inside, it can be a catastrophe. In his new memoir, The Narrow Door, Lisicky tracks two losses that reverberate across his life: the death of his friend, the novelist Denise Gess, and the end of his fifteen-year relationship with a highly visible writer (who goes unnamed in the text, but as they are breaking up, says, you can write about this!). In recounting these losses, Lisicky examines the glamor of a literary life that is lived in solitude at the writing desks and in competition in conferences, readings (like this one), retreats and bookstores. Lisicky pays close attention to the process of loss—of what we live with and how we carry it.”
I’ve found myself fascinated by Paul Lisicky’s newest work because he never seems committed wholly to any form: fiction, essay, or autobiography. In The Narrow Door (Graywolf Press), he’s reached a new height of feverish literary disorientation that demands a lot of us as readers in terms of what we expect out of literature. In other words, he’s already rewriting the terms of what writing is.
Iʼm fascinated by this book and largely for personal reasons. You talk frankly and interestingly about things Iʼve been trying to put into some shape or form for a while. Yet hereʼs one of the most interesting parts: your shuffled structure, in which you go back and forth among the events of your personal narrative, using only dates indicated in a header for each section to mark the chronological shifts back and forth, to create suspense about your friendship with a progressively ill best friend, Denise, the dissolution of your marriage with a famous poet, and your own development as a writer.
Your narrative structures have been equally unorthodox in the past. Thatʼs not a question, I realize, but can you tell us about the writing of this book in terms of this technique and your themes?
I wasnʼt worrying about technique when I started this book. My friend was dead. My mother was dead–those two events had happened within weeks of each other. I was numb from both losses, but I felt a special urgency to get Deniseʼs name and story down. I was her first reader for years: a mentor who became my best friend. She never said it directly to me, but my gut sense is that she expected me to write about her. She was a huge fan of my exʼs [the poet Mark Doty] memoir Heavenʼs Coast; she taught it all the time. Did she want me to write my own Heavenʼs Coast with her at the center? In retrospect it sort of feels like that.
The book took months to get going. I didnʼt have the ability to focus for very long. Iʼd write a memory in the form of a scene, stop. Iʼd need some relief and find myself writing about…volcanoes. It wasnʼt as if I was initially aware of volcanoes as being a figure for cancer, or Deniseʼs explosiveness…. I didnʼt want to know too much. I kept writing before I returned to another memory. That was pretty much the process. The book is set at multiple points at time, as all my books are, but I wrote this one chronologically. I wanted to track a year in a life after these losses. A long, long song for the dead.
As I wrote, I took note of repetitions. Not just in image and sound but actual sentences. It occurred to me that I could just about go anywhere, in time and subject and theme, if I kept developing those patterns. Theyʼre the glue of the book. And I hope they lead the reader toward experiences of simultaneity. I want a memory from 1988 to ring and resonate through a memory from 2009. The work wants to make chords, harmonies. It wants to have more layers than a single melodic line.
Thereʼs a lot in the book about reclamation, reconciliation, returning to the past. I always want to scramble clock time. I donʼt experience consciousness as being all that linear–weʼre probably more likely to be in the past or in the future at any given moment, and the book was a way to enact that.
Your first book, the novel Lawnboy, was maybe your most traditionally crafted and structured, and was well-acclaimed. Then more and more you did something interesting and Iʼd say counterintuitive for someone coming from that more traditional place. You became a more meditative and complex narrator, hewing closely to the events of your own experience while surrounding the facts with observations, memories, and thoughts directly or more peripherally related to the “happenings.” Would you call this an associational style?
At the time, the structure of Lawnboy felt like a risk. Again and again, the linear narrative is interrupted by scenes set in the past, without much in the way of transition. Iʼd come out of a writing program that put a high value on linearity, clarity of movement, connective tissue, and the material was too stubborn to behave so conventionally.
I donʼt think I was reaching for anything different in Lawnboy than I was in The Narrow Door–maybe my chops got better. Not just through being exposed to so much poetry, but probably through my reading of Virginia Woolf. Iʼd come to Woolf through Michael Cunninghamʼs The Hours, and her emphasis on interiority–the hidden life–felt compelling and rich to me. The associativeness youʼre talking about is just central to thinking, to perception. You look at an image for a while, that image signals another image, and so on.
What do you like to “happen” when youʼre writing something?
What do I like to happen when Iʼm writing? Well, I like work that makes connections. But I also like work that does the opposite, that disrupts and jolts. I like when it drops into a different register or moves in an unexpected direction. A juxtaposition. A hard edge. The kind of jolt you feel when a song changes keys. Suddenly youʼre in another landscape. Youʼre alive again.
Another door has been thrown open.
Given your highly figurative turns at certain junctures in this and earlier books, was there ever a moment when you said to yourself, You know, maybe Iʼm a poet…?
Well, I always hung out with the poets even though I got my MFA in fiction. I lived sixteen years with a poet, thinking about his work, serving as his first reader–all that. I guess I do secretly think of what I do as poetry–a number of the short prose pieces in Unbuilt Projects were first published as poems in journals. And yet I donʼt lineate. I donʼt make stanzas–or maybe I make my own kind of stanza in a section break. I like the energy that comes from some hybridish place where I can draw from multiple sources, not just poetry, but music and film and visual art.
In terms mainly of memoir but also (why not?) of fiction, what do we owe our living or deceased subjects besides the truth? I ask because you deal very toughly, yet I would never say unfairly or cheaply, with your friend Denise, who is sick and gets worse and is at times difficult, almost desperate for attention. And yet toward the end there is a sweetened version of herself emerging.
When youʼre writing an elegy itʼs hard not to turn the lost one into a mythical figure, a projection screen….I donʼt think thatʼs necessarily a failing–thereʼs plenty of mythmaking throughout the book. Think about the comparison between Denise and the rings of a redwood in the penultimate section. But I also wanted her to breathe and swell. I wanted her to be singular, unforgettable, agile. How could the reader feel for her on their own terms, not just because she was someone the speaker lost?
In the book, thereʼs a letter in which Denise talks about being “not [herself], too brittle, perhaps shrill, demanding.” She was aware of her volatility; it would have been a lie to sweeten her character, to elide that side of her out of the book. Iʼm sure I was initially drawn to her because of her volatility. She wasnʼt boring! She could feel things that I couldnʼt possibly feel. But she also had a terrific capacity for joy; joy for a good song, joy for animals, joy for sex. Iʼm not sure that we as writers actually owe our dead anything other than to make them interesting–not necessarily friendly or nice but interesting.
Part of your portrait of Deniseʼs poignancy and power comes in your frankness about her emotional neediness, that of a woman who despite her earlier successes feels maybe left behind. The complexity of your grappling with all this in straightforward passages:
Maybe she thinks I donʼt like her writing. But I love it, especially when sheʼs having fun on the page, especially when sheʼs not trying too hard to impress, to be literary, to sound like someone else. Oh, there I go. A lot of her writing lately has begun to sound like someone else, and it wouldnʼt hurt to write in that Good Deeds voice again, if she hasnʼt totally lost it.
So was writing passages like this something of a release for you? Did it make you nervous?
Well, it made me nervous then, it makes me nervous to read it now. I donʼt know how you can write about any person, living or death, without having major questions or reservations about invading someoneʼs privacy. Especially if youʼre writing about someoneʼs vulnerabilities. But I donʼt think her neediness was especially out of the ordinary. Who doesnʼt go through life worrying that sheʼs going to be left behind? Some people are just better at hiding it than others.
Now we get to the other-other hard part, and this I think you handle with equal facility and the cool-eyed backward gaze (though youʼre writing in present tense) that you use on the Denise parts. Itʼs about the unraveling of your marriage taken in scenes. One of the first passages that opens out and takes in a lot, naturally and human-naturally, reads:
We walk into the house. Texts come into his phone with a frequency I find unnerving, because he never says what they are, who theyʼre from. I wish heʼd turn off the sound. Not that I expect him to tell me who it is. One thing weʼve tried to do in our fifteen years together is to give each other space, but the combination of secrecy and right-in-my-faceness is enough to make the hairs on my arms stand on end. I constrict from inside. His freneticism is making me frenetic, and to center myself, I go to the side yard to clean out the birdbath. Thereʼs a scum inside the dish. Itʼs the color of raisins, but itʼs ugly and foul, and I donʼt like to think of the birds dipping their wings in that water. The week has been hot, brutally so. The air is still. It hasnʼt rained in so long and the birds really need to drink and clean themselves. There are no pools or puddles of standing water anywhere.
Breathlessly you pan down, give closeups, and angle around your environment in a sweep. You really seem to enjoy making these interior/exterior, scene-sweeping paragraphs.
Itʼs interesting that youʼre using film metaphors to talk about that pivotal scene. I actually think I experienced that moment as if it were a scene in a movie: this is too extreme to be my little life. That couldnʼt help but affect the representation of it. I was director, actor, cameraman. By standing in those multiple positions, I could have some agency. Or at least trick myself into thinking I had some. Iʼm always fascinated and unsettled by how film narrative shapes our experience of trouble. I remember being a passenger in a plane that was about to make an emergency landing and experiencing it as if it were part of movie. Maybe those templates give us two things: an opportunity to be immersed, an opportunity to stand back and watch–so harm doesnʼt do us in.
You go back and forth deftly between internal collations of thoughts and actions and emotions and suddenly open out into the buddings of a full-fledged scene:
Then M comes up to me from behind. He puts his arm around me. Itʼs part loving, part holding me in place, as if by executing that gesture, heʼs holding himself in place. I feel a little locked down, as if Iʼm being gently punished for some infraction. I wonder what Iʼve done. “What?” he says.
“What do you mean, what?” I say. I look out at the garden. Though itʼs the height of summer, the plants look brown to me.
“What?” he says again, this time with more emphasis.
“Honey?” I want to turn around. It seems to me that if I could see his face just now, I wouldnʼt feel like falling down into his arms.
“I think youʼre mad at me,” he says. And just the sound of those words. Oh, deep chasm: I feel the grass underneath my feet about to open up a trapdoor.
“I donʼt know. Youʼre acting—youʼre not acting like yourself. I donʼt—” Full sentences are impossible. They are houses I donʼt have it in me to build. “Whatʼs going on? Are you seeing someone?”
You do like a good house metaphor. Itʼs in all your other books and in some form or another your titles.
From the ages of 9 to 13 I wanted to be a builder. I didnʼt just want to build houses but I wanted to build whole communities. I spent hours and hours drawing these communities on posterboard. I didnʼt care at all about the business world, or construction, making money. I think I must have been interested in making another life—not necessarily a better life, but another option. José Muñoz writes about utopias through a queer lens in Cruising Utopia. Maybe this other option was the only version of utopia I could come up with as a boy.
The house titles in my books? It could just be one way to extend the work of the kid I was. Or to give a throughline to the project of my work, especially when the books have been pretty various in terms of form and genre.
I donʼt want to spoil the readerʼs suspense by talking about the rest of this scene, but itʼs a doozy of a set-up. Starting the book I thought this has a hell of a lot of pieces, but as I was approaching the end I perceived a vase-like structure: you begin in a tightly related, prologue-like scene, develop out from there spreading your thematic focus, then bring the whole thing–Denise, marriage, writing and aspiring, environmental crisis–together all at about the same time. How much did you actually think about structure or a plan?
I’m sure I’d caution a student out of working with all those braids. If I hadn’t been such a wreck at the time, I’m sure I would have talked myself out of it too. They were alternate, figurative routes. And maybe they’d suggest something about the everyday narratives that press on personal experience.
I don’t think I begin any project without having some idea of a shape in my head. For me it’s often a building. I’m not excited until that initial shape is disrupted or violated–the work has to do something I don’t expect it to do. At that point, it’s about writing into some middle place: I try to shape the work as I try to pay attention to what it wants to do. I don’t want to tame or over-control it.
I certainly didn’t expect my relationship to begin falling apart when I began The Narrow Door. I’d written about 2/3 of the manuscript when I was in the middle of what felt like an emergency–I couldn’t keep it out of the book, though I was scared as hell to put it in for all the obvious reasons. Oddly the book already seemed to be anticipating the breakup. Maybe the work always knew more than I could possibly know. Of course I had to go back and expand my ex’s role in the earlier sections. My fear was that the structure was too intricate to be disturbed, but I was wrong. It felt like that material had always wanted to be there.
Another thing we donʼt really get is a sense of philosophy or wide-angle point of view about life till later, after weʼve taken in scenes from all these peopleʼs lives. And in a very breathtakingly succinct and effortlessly dark moment you write, starting from the ongoing news item about the Gulf oil spill:
I wonder how many people read past the headlines; the narrative certainly doesnʼt promise an involving story. Maybe we simply donʼt have it in us to say that things donʼt get better. Maybe, in America at least, we have a hard time living with the notion that anything might stay the same, or get worse, for that matter, no matter how many cynical statements we might use to protect ourselves.
It doesnʼt come out of nowhere, it just sort of comes in the nick of time. It helps us gather those strands and anticipate a climax, for lack of a better word, that isnʼt just “closure.”
I’m so glad you pointed to that passage. I don’t know how you write a memoir of grief without feeling the constraints of the stories that have preceded you. I think that quote comes as a signal–the book’s already worrying about the pressures of consolation and hope. At the same time, I didn’t want to write pure devastation either. That wouldn’t have been true to the spirit of the book. There’s a certain kind of stylized literary despair that strikes me as sentimentality’s twin–it’s too one-dimensional to feel like life, with all of its textures and levels within each individual second. So you get something else: joy and its opposite, with more than a little bewilderment, all at the same time.