Interview: Paul Lisicky
Written by Rafe Posey
Cobalt: Over the last year or so I’ve read Lawnboy, The Burning House, and now Unbuilt Projects. Your work seems to be getting shorter – or happening in shorter increments – which I find interesting. Also, though, I noticed that your language has changed, sometimes quite dramatically. Lawnboy has moments of lyricism, but for the most part it’s pretty straightforward. The Burning House, though, has a completely different tone, and the words move differently. Unbuilt Projects has that slightly modernist (ish) resonance also, to some extent, and also keeps coming back to Virginia Woolf. Has this shift been a deliberate writing choice, or has it evolved more organically?
Paul Lisicky: It’s very cool to have that noticed. I like the challenge of working in smaller, tighter spaces, and I want to write work that operates on several levels at once, like a poem. It’s harder to get that several-level feeling in a long, long narrative. I think the work might just be getting closer to how I am in the world. I’ve always chosen my words carefully. I didn’t talk much from grades four through eleven. I was pretty interior, painfully shy, as they say. If you’d asked me how I felt about things, I would have much preferred playing it on the piano than speaking it aloud.
I haven’t exactly willed these changes. I can’t imagine what it would be like to do one signature thing and do it again and again until you bore yourself to death. I’d rather tear it all down with each project and become an amateur all over again – that’s where the energy is for me. My own changes probably have a lot to do with what I’m reading and teaching. I’m always coming under the influence of something new. Part of it, too, is that the world changes so drastically from moment to moment. 2012 is far away from 2002, if not in clock time, than in emotional time, and I don’t know how not to let those changes into the work, at least in terms of surface.
Cobalt: The duck in “The Boy and his Mother are Stuck!” reminded me of the ducks in Catcher in the Rye, in that now I wonder if your stories are where the ducks in Central Park go in the winter. I guess this isn’t exactly a question.
Lisicky: I haven’t reread Salinger in years but that book was incredibly important to me. I’m going to sound like a geek, but it was the first novel that I loved in high school. (That and The Valley of the Dolls, honestly.) Forget Gatsby, or any of the books we were supposed to like. I wonder if on some level I assimilated Holden’s ducks, but then again a lot of that piece is pretty autobiographical, and my brother Bobby really did want a duck when my mother was pregnant. He wept bitterly when a baby came out instead.
I guess Holden’s ducks only vanish temporarily; they come back every spring. My own work is full of vanishings, but creatures seem to find their way back home, or at least they’re never fully lost. I’m thinking about that sentence near the beginning of The Burning House. The narrator tests out a notion, a feeling: “The world was made exactly for us, and we’d never have to leave it.” I’m not sure he knows what that means. I’m not sure I do either, and I’m okay with leaving it at that. There are also moments like that in the final pages of Unbuilt Projects.
Cobalt: You mentioned Valley of the Dolls, which is also one of my long-ago favorites (my high school girlfriend used to pick books to read to me on the school’s lawn, and that was one of them). Your books strike me as “literature,” whether or not that is your plan, and not “fiction.” In publishing/bookselling/criticism right now, there is a lot of discourse about good vs. bad, or more important vs. less important, novels. Do you think there are bad books? Or types of books that have more or less merit than other books?
Lisicky: It’s hard to talk about any of this without sounding like a total jerk, but I’m stirred up by a book that tends to feel impelled, which is a fancy way of saying: a book that feels like it needed to be written. The writer is trying to work out some problem: emotional, intellectual, whatever. Not even to solve anything, but just to see something through. Sometimes it’s an I’m-not-going-to-be-able-to-live-with-myself-if-I-don’t-write-this sort of feeling. A book like this can be awkward in spots. It can be messy. But it’s often playful. You sense the writer is having some fun, entertaining himself, even if the content is grave. It’s the kind of the thing that’s often dismissed by a prize committee. It has a mind of its own, and it isn’t interested in good taste or good manners. I hope this doesn’t sound like I’m not interested in craft, because language and structure are crucial. Idiosyncrasy too; it often doesn’t sound like anything else. I mean, pick up Jane Bowles’ Two Serious Ladies and it’s Jane. A vision is captured in that syntax, the flat and anxious dialogue, the mesh of description.
As for The Valley of the Dolls – Well, the adult me might say it doesn’t live up to anything I’ve said above, but I was into it as a teenager. Maybe I just sensed that Jacqueline Susann was having some fun, getting off on writing smutty things.
Cobalt: In one of the pieces in Unbuilt Projects, the narrator speaks of “the big red forgetting machine.” Do you think that stories offer that salvation – if one puts The Thing, whatever The Thing is, into a story, can one then let it go? I wondered because stories seem like a record of action, thought, memory, but maybe they’re not. Maybe they are more like the warehouse in Raiders of the Lost Ark.
Lisicky: I don’t think you ever let The Thing go. I think you might be able to let one iteration of The Thing go. But there are so many different ways to tell a story. Memory mutates all the time, and I think you’re right about the warehouse. The story is scaffolding, windows, a floor, a roof, but The Thing demands many houses, and The Thing is probably a city, built over decades. And The Thing never gets fully finished.
Cobalt: Speaking of memory, Famous Builder. Do you still want to be a builder? When you talk about places like Rotonda West you seem both at one with the notion of planning and determined that planners should do better with the world around them (sawgrasses and animals, for example). Do you feel that your writing performs a similar function to planning and building?
Lisicky: At some point as a teenager, I must have sensed that I was interested in the poetry of building rather than in dealing with planning boards, contractors, mobsters, payoffs. I probably would have been an abysmal businessman. I would have cared much more about the names I gave to my streets and model houses than the bottom line. I would have cared too more about making space for trees and animals and creeks. I would have gone bankrupt in six months, but I would have left behind some vacant streets with friendly, peculiar names.
This is probably not the most attractive thing to say, but one of the things I love about writing is that you can pretty much be the boss of it. It’s not collaborative until the editor and copy editor get in on it. You don’t have to be too concerned with compromise or concessions. It’s a vision, just the way a city is a vision. I guess I am building a new city with each book, and that’s probably why I keep coming back to the architectural-planning metaphors over and over.
Cobalt: I was going to ask you whether or not you find being categorized as a Gay Writer is liberating or constricting, or whether you even think that you are categorized thusly, but then I started thinking about geography and I wondered instead if you think of yourself more as a New Jersey writer or a Florida writer. Both places happen all the time in your writing, and you never sound like you’re just a visitor in either.
Lisicky: My work is lucky enough to be in many overlapping worlds at once: literary fiction, creative nonfiction, gay literature, poetry, etc. etc. etc. I keep thinking of that Fiona Apple line: “I just want to feel everything,” which she repeats as a kind of mantra (creed?). I think it’s actually a statement against the constraints of any kind of categorization, whether we’re talking about emotional policing or the branding of artists. Both New Jersey and Florida are present in my work, but so is the Bay Area, Long Island, Provincetown, North Carolina, South Carolina. I guess I just want to write everything.
Cobalt: You seem to have an affinity for smaller, more independent presses as homes for your books. Do you find that working with these publishers creates a space for you, the writer, to have more ownership of your book, or is there some other attraction?
Lisicky: I’ve always had a say in how my books looked. I don’t think that’s always the case when you’re working with a trade house. In the past I had very close brushes with trade house deals, all of which fell through in the last hour. I thought that was something I was supposed to want. At a certain point I thought, no. I’d rather my book stay around, I’d rather it be published by someone who was really into it, who cared about it as much as I did. There was a time not so long ago when every literary novel had to present like a potential commercial hit in order to be considered by a trade house. I couldn’t write that kind of thing even if I wanted to. Luckily I think we’re past that era; we’re a lot more like poets these days. Poor, but we can pretty much do what we want.
Cobalt: Back to Unbuilt Projects – in “Two Tales,” you describe Mike’s “screwy smile, barely concealing his secret animal.” Your blog is called Mystery Beast. These things may or may not be related, but they made me curious. What does someone’s “secret animal” mean to you? What does yours mean to you? I’m not asking what yours is – it’s a secret, after all – but where it comes from, or where it leads you.
Lisicky: It’s probably not wise to try to explain one’s metaphors, but here’s a stab at it. Sexuality, music, the wordless, the nonlinear, the lyric – I think it’s all of those things. God? Him/Her too.
Cobalt: Your work tends to include all of those, “Sexuality, music, the wordless, the nonlinear, the lyric,” at every turn. Which of your books, stories, essays, etc., do you think best exemplifies the search for the secret animal? Not your secret animal, precisely, but the archetypal search itself.
Lisicky: I guess I’d vote for The Narrow Door, which is the memoir that’s coming out in two years. It’s about my long friendship with the writer Denise Gess, who died back in 2009. In some ways the book is really about learning to see, in memory, a person who was very dear to me, but whose choices bewildered me at times. The traits I mentioned above – sexuality, the lyric, the nonlinear – that was Denise. Or at least an important aspect of who she was. So I think the book in part wants to be open to darkness, not just to the darkness in her, but to the darkness in myself, and to the people I’m close to. And maybe to find some grace within the mess.
About Paul: Paul Lisicky is the author of Lawnboy, Famous Builder, and The Burning House. His work has appeared in Fence, Gulf Coast, The Iowa Review,
Ploughshares, The Rumpus, Story Quarterly, Tin House, and many other magazines and anthologies. Unbuilt Projects is forthcoming from Four Way Books this October. A memoir, The Narrow Door, is forthcoming from Graywolf Press in 2014. He is the New Voices Professor in the MFA Program