An Interview with Paul Lisicky
Paul Lisicky is the author of Lawnboy, Famous Builder, The Burning House, and two upcoming books: Unbuilt Projects (Four Way Books, 2012) and The Narrow Door (Graywolf Press, 2014). His work has also appeared in Fence, The Iowa Review, Ploughshares, The Rumpus, Story Quarterly, Tin House, Unstuck, and elsewhere. He has taught in the writing programs at Cornell, New York University, Rutgers-Newark, Sarah Lawrence, The University of North Carolina-Wilmington, and elsewhere. He teaches in the MFA program at Rutgers-Camden and in the low residency MFA program at Sierra Nevada College. Lisicky will be at American University on October 17, 2012 as part of the Visiting Writers Series.
CA: Since Unbuilt Projects has not been released as of the time of this interview, I haven’t had an opportunity to read it yet. Can you tell us about one story that particularly stands out for you?
PL: I keep coming back to “The Boy and His Mother are Stuck.” It’s based on an early experience of looking at houses with my mom when I was a kid, and the car getting stuck in the mud, in the snow. I remember her freaking out about getting stuck. Her worry was so intense that I wanted to get out of the car. I remember thinking I didn’t have to freak out myself, and that seemed to be a defining experience. It was a realization that I wasn’t her anymore, but a separate being, which made me both feel relieved and terribly alone. The piece, I think, is both funny and very sad. I hope its tone sets the tone of the book.
CA: How did you go about writing Unbuilt Projects?
PL: All of the 40 pieces were written during the final years of my mother’s life, when she was struggling with dementia. Her illness changed everything I knew about narrative, identity, linearity, coherence. Many of the pieces are not directly about that experience, but they’re interested in evoking a state of mind under siege, where one’s perceptions might shift from moment to moment. Who are we if we lose our histories, our old reliable sense of cause and effect? Is that always an awful thing?
CA: Your work includes novels, essays, and short stories. Is one of these forms a better medium for you than the others?
PL: I usually don’t start out with an external notion of genre. I start out with sound and image–there’s usually a connection between the two in my mind–and sometimes the work ends up adhering to facts, sometimes it goes its way and sweeps itself up into invented characters. It’s all emotionally autobiographical, whatever form it ends up taking.
CA: You are very active on Twitter (@Paul_Lisicky). Has this instant contact with your readers affected your writing or your way of thinking about your audience?
PL: Actually, I think all that contact with readers has taken some sociological pressure off the writing. I can be political on Twitter or on my blog, but my fiction doesn’t have to bear that burden so much. I can focus on life and death stuff, the drama of desire, how it nourishes us and does us in, all those human concerns that cut across time and place and culture.
CA: Most of your tweets are about news stories related to animals. Do these stories have an effect on your work? What sorts of stories do you find the most captivating and inspiring?
PL: I wasn’t conscious of caring so much about the plight of animals until I starting tweeting about them. When I first signed onto Twitter five years ago, I wasn’t terribly interested in putting much of my autobiography out there, so I started looking through newspapers. The stories that ended up interesting me were the stories of animals, especially animals out of their natural element. If that’s not a metaphor for all of us at this point in time, then I don’t know what is.
CA: You’ve said in the past that you are lucky to have your work fit into a wide variety of categories: “literary fiction, creative nonfiction, gay literature, poetry, etc. etc. etc.” How would you respond to writers who reject the label of “gay author” because they find it limiting?
PL: Any single label is limiting. In an ideal world we could be many identities, simultaneously. Why not give ourselves the permission to think ourselves through multiple lenses? We’re living in a time when marketing categories want to limit us. I’ve always wanted to write work that’s true to my own experience but also available to anyone, regardless of how they know themselves. Wouldn’t it be depressing if only Dominican Americans read Junot Diaz? I think one of the projects of literature is to make us feel less alone–less alone in our suffering, in our isolation. I love reading work about a character who’s different from me in terms of type, especially when our common humanity is palpable.
Photo: Star Black