The Ways We Try to Erase Each Other: An Interview With Paul Lisicky

February 4, 2016 § 8 Comments

An interview conducted by Jill Talbot:

Paul Lisicky (photo by Star Black)

Paul Lisicky (photo by Star Black)

In a recent essay, Paul Lisicky writes, “It seems like that’s all I write about these days, these people, these places I’ve lost.”  His new memoir, The Narrow Door: A Memoir of Friendship, traces his friendship with novelist Denise Gess and the loss of her to cancer in 2009 while unveiling the collapse of his sixteen year marriage to a writer identified as M.

According to The New York Times, Lisicky “tells his story by surfing back and forth in time, with memories heaving to the surface and then sinking again into the murk. Yet his structure is hardly random. He tends to pair losses with losses.” Indeed, in a collage of exquisite, aching, and lyric fragments, Lisicky weaves not only these two narratives through the threads of memory and the art of writing, but also through disasters, natural and man-made, to invoke the fragility of the world around us and the world within us.  In one section, Lisicky follows a paragraph about the effects of the 2010 eruption of Iceland’s Eyjafjallajökull volcano with the Gulf of Mexico oil spill.  Later, he wonders, “How much work goes into reining ourselves in at every moment when all we want to do is spill, spill?”

Such restraint contributes to the power of Lisicky’s memoir, as in his quiet urgings to himself (“There must be a good reason I keep my grandeur to myself, but I don’t know it yet.”), the months of silence between him and Gess, and the abbreviation of identity—M. Even the moment he watches a YouTube video of the demolition of Atlantic City’s Sands Hotel and Casino reminds us that what was once there can come crumbling down in minutes, but we will always be able to hear Sinatra sing.

While reading Lisicky’s new work, my blue pen spilled across lines, entire paragraphs, and for one fragment comprised of a heartbreaking list, all the way down the side of one page and onto the next.  I finished the book wanting to sit down and talk with Paul Lisicky for a very long time, so I did what I could—I wrote him a letter. Then I e-mailed him some questions, one at a time.

Since we’re here on the Brevity stage, I thought readers might be interested in hearing about your essay, “The Pillory,” from Brevity 32. The essay includes a moment from your childhood when your father spanked you “Once, twice: who can remember such things?” 

In The Narrow Door, one of the segments dated 2010 begins, “Why is my memory so patchy? Why can’t I remember better from those times? It infuriates me. All I have are fragments, bursts of sound and taste and color.” What do you see as the relationship between memory and the short prose form? 

It’s so interesting to pair those two references. I think the speaker in “The Pillory” might not know how many times he was spanked exactly, but he knows there was an emotional cost to those spankings. He was humiliated, probably more so than he’s been willing to admit to himself. It’s probably more important to him to maintain some kind of equilibrium than it is to confront the fact that he’s been wounded by his father. And maybe that erasure worries him. What is he willing to give up for the sake of reconciliation and order?

I think the erasure in The Narrow Door might be even more complicated than that. Those questions have to do with a different kind of trauma: a kind of repression that’s ongoing, and bleeds through years. It’s the kind of trauma that doesn’t know it’s trauma. The soul believes it’s happy and engaged even though it’s not recording anything. It’s not living deeply enough. I tend to think it’s harder to write about this kind of amnesia in the short prose form. More context is necessary, which asks for duration, length.

And now I’m reminded of Virginia Woolf’s “A Sketch of the Past,” which thinks so acutely about the relationship between memory and what she calls “moments of being.” I haven’t revisited that long essay in years, but I remember it being really important to me around the stuff of erasure and inhabitation and the whole bewildering terrain of memory, which never sits still.

Oh, yes. I love that Woolf essay: “The things one does not remember are as important; perhaps they are more important.”

For readers who aren’t aware: “The Pillory” appears in your fourth book, Unbuilt Projects (Four Way, 2012), which is a collection of short prose. I think we need more of those, collections of single-author flash essays.  

In a way, The Narrow Door offers readers this kind of collection as the book consists of fragments prefaced by a year (1988, 2010, 1985, 2009), and while the subtitle is A Memoir of Friendship, I read it as a book-length essay, a collage of flashes.  How do you view it, and how did you choose (or discover) this form? 

I have another collection of pieces underway. I probably have enough for another Unbuilt Projects, but I’m trying to take my time with it. I would like to have a big body of those pieces from which to pick and choose. Like Unbuilt Projects, they go back and forth between nonfiction (short lyric essays?) and what you might call fables or parables: little stories with invented characters and situations. I’m not sure why I tend to write like this. I think it would be a hell of a lot easier to put out a book we could simply call “brief nonfiction” or “flash fiction” but my own imagination is so restless and disobedient, and I think I like the idea of those two kinds of pieces sitting side by side. On one level, I suppose such a book invites a reader to ask questions about genre. But I think I might be more interested finally in different harmonies hitting up against each other, making my own oddball kind of music.

I like your formal take on A Narrow Door a lot. This book takes direction from Nick Flynn’s The Ticking is the Bomb and Maggie Nelson’s Bluets, both book-length essays spoken in little explosions of text. The original draft had a terrific amount of white space throughout. During the editing process the individual sections were collected into chapters, and as a result there’s much more actual writing on the page. Design-wise, the original project probably resembled a longer Unbuilt Projects. That version probably looked more difficult, less reader-friendly, than the finished book, which emphasizes the associations and connections between sections. I wonder if that earlier version might have felt, well, fractioned. Emotionally. Not necessarily a lesser book but a different book.

I always feel at home within the tight contained space of the short form, maybe because so much of my writing thinks about boundaries, how our identities are wired into others’, and vice versa. So the prospect of an ending makes for what—a counterpoint? In structure? It helps me to shape and pressurize ideas that might tend to sprawl without that border, which always must be reckoned with.

I, too, am enthralled by asking questions about genre, inciting them through my work, particularly through the role of imagining in the essay.  If I imagine what might have happened or what will happen or is happening in a place I cannot be, how much of that is attached to experience and context and emotional truth and how much of it dissolves into fiction? 

Well, emotional accuracy always compels me before anything else, but that doesn’t mean I don’t think the facts are important. Somehow, as we’ve tried to manage and process and (perhaps over-emphasize) this binary, we’ve lost respect for freedom. Artistic freedom—shouldn’t that be of the highest value? Why shouldn’t a writer be able to go anywhere—imaginative flights, speculations, etc.— just as long as she gives us signposts, clues that she’s doing exactly that? “I imagine…” Etc.

I’m so glad you mentioned the process and the evolution of these fragments because I wondered about the how of the book, how you came to position and intersect these two narratives. I want to keep focusing on the flash form for now because we’re here in the Brevity-sphere. I’ll return to Woolf’s essay, in which she explains:

“This wholeness means that it has lost its power to hurt me; it gives me, perhaps because by doing so I take away the pain, a great delight to put the severed parts together.”

Wholeness from severed parts. In “The Ways We Tried to Erase Each Other,” you write, “It seems like that’s all I write about these days, these people, these places I’ve lost.”  Do you think that loss, the severed part of ourselves, lend themselves to severed writing?  In other words, how much were you thinking about form and content in The Narrow Door?

Oh, good question. I thought about it a lot, primarily because I wanted to give space to the reader and space to the subject. The Denise story isn’t exactly a linear narrative—there are intended gaps in time throughout. The book is primarily an assembly of emblematic moments; it isn’t the Authorized Narrative (capital letters intended) of a conventional biography. I couldn’t live with the Authorized Narrative—the idea of it seems too sturdy and rigid. I actually have an abandoned linear version of the book somewhere on an external drive. Too much connective tissue, too much engineered causality: the poetry of it isn’t on the page. I wouldn’t want to live in a world where every artistic work was required to be a fragment, but I identify and connect with the fragment. It gives us imaginative space, it gives us room to dream and breathe and wonder. It doesn’t want to eat up our own thinking. Listen to any of the songs on Laura Nyro’s New York Tendaberry—she gets it.

I hope readers are as fascinated as I am about the different versions of The Narrow Door that exist—it shows how art emerges, how long that process takes, how careful we must be when considering the conversation between form and content.  You even have a paragraph about it that begins: “I see how a book becomes a house. But soon you are just a function of your house. The house tells you what you want, how you should live.”

Jill Talbot

Jill Talbot

As the editor of Metawritings, my pen chases every line that makes a metamove such as that one. There are others, too: “I’m in the middle of writing the previous paragraph . . . when the news come in.”; “The TV is soundless as I write this morning.”; and “By the time you read this you’ll have a better sense of things.”  I’m interested in the relationship you develop between yourself and the reader in The Narrow Door. How important was that to you, to include the reader in the telling and in the process of that telling?

A couple of weeks ago I was asked to record a passage of The Narrow Door. I was in a perfectly lovely space, leaning in before a microphone, looking out the window over Crown Heights. I wondered why I was listening to the sound of my voice as I read, as if the reading and listening were done by two different people. I like how that recording turned out finally, but something become clearer to me as I stood before an audience a couple of nights later. It seems to me that the voice needs the physical presence of a listener (or listeners) in order to conjure up the physical presence of Denise. It needs faces. It’s almost liturgical. The single voice into space isn’t enough; it requires a group of collaborators (concelebrants?) or else the book isn’t fully there.

You’ve been so incredibly generous as we’ve e-mailed back and forth over the past couple of weeks. Thank you. For the final question, I want to turn to the book’s second narrative, The M. Story. In Barrie Jean Borich’s “The Craft of Writing Queer,” from Brevity 40 (Fall 2012), she wonders:

What if all nonfiction writers imagined a queer aesthetic at the center of our discourse? By queer aesthetic I mean not just the work of queer authors but all voices and forms that are equally open to pleasure and injury, that are not afraid of the body, that are both sex-positive and self-critical, that are as interested in intersections and critique as they are in the personal politics of memory . . . . work that breaks rather than maintains codes, doesnt keep secrets to retain power, is eager to pay debts and reveal the means and archives of its own production.

You brilliantly achieve all of these in The Narrow Door, and Im interested in hearing not only how you view the intersection between being a queer author and embracing the queerness of the essay, but also how you see your work within the context of other recently published queer works, whether in authorship or artistry? 

I love that passage from Barrie, so smart and nuanced and compassionate. And thanks for saying everything you say here. It’s such an incredible moment and I’m not even sure I have the distance to see it yet, to name what’s going on. This probably sounds corny and overly enthusiastic, but I’m so lucky to be writing at this moment. A gorgeous, devastating novel like Garth Greenwell’s What Belongs to You? It might not have been possible two years ago. I mean Garth could have written it, but his agent probably would have had a harder time finding a respected trade house to take it on, as wondrous as the book is.  A queer writer would have assumed he wouldn’t be allowed to explore that kind of material with such directness. The route would have to be convoluted, sneaky. Maybe he’d have to subordinate it within a narrative in which heterosexual characters were the focus. It makes me sick when I think about it now. What a waste of time. What crap. Crowd-pleasing! That probably explains some of the resistance to crowd-pleasing in a piece of mine like “The Boy and His Mother are Stuck!”

About ten years ago a pal, who happens to be an esteemed gay writer, and I were cracking each other up about the subject of manners in bathhouse culture, and he happened to say, casually, it’s too bad we can’t ever write about this stuff, and I instantly felt a deep pang because I didn’t know that we couldn’t, or I didn’t want to believe that we couldn’t. Now it feels like we can begin all over again. And what a relief to think that the reader, any reader, regardless of orientation or gender, could identify with our stories. The world is in horrendous shape right now, but this is one area in which I feel hope, big hope.

Paul Lisicky is the author of The Narrow Door, Unbuilt Projects, The Burning House, Famous Builder, and Lawnboy. His work has appeared in The Atlantic, BuzzFeed, Conjunctions, Fence, The Offing, Ploughshares, Tin House, and elsewhere. He teaches in the MFA Program at Rutgers University, Camden and serves on the Writing Committee of the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown.

Jill Talbot is the author of The Way We Weren’t: A Memoir (Soft Skull Press, 2015) and the editor of Metawritings: Toward a Theory of Nonfiction (Iowa, 2012).


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