To the edge and back: an interview with gay writer Paul Lisicky

Apr 14, 2020 | Culture | 0 comments

By Gregg Shapiro
April 2020

Editors Note – Paul Lisicky is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and was set to appear at this month’s Mission Creek Festival 2020 before the festival’s cancellation due to thCOVID-19 pandemic.

Paul Lisicky has a waywith words. Beginning with his 1999 debut novel Lawnboy and continuing with his other books, including the memoirs Famous Builder (2002) and The Narrow Door (2016), Lisicky draws readers into his world with prose that is as intimate as it is universal, regaling us with stories of family and friends and all the complications that those subjects entail. In his new memoir, Later: My Life at the Edge of the World (Graywolf, 2020), one of the most anticipated books of the new decade, he takes us back to the end of the previous decade, to a span of years in the early 1990s when he was a fellow at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown (Massachusetts) and soon after simply one of the people of “Town” (as he calls it). Like other places known for being settlements where gay people congregated and lived, Provincetown was devastated by AIDS and Lisicky does a remarkable job of capturing the time period. An educator as well as a writer, Lisicky was kind enough to answer a few questions in advance of the publication of Later.

Gregg Shapiro: Paul, because much of Later takes place 25 or more years ago, were you relying on journal entries, other kinds of notes and/or memory in writing the book?
Paul Lisicky: I wrote the first draft of the book in the weeks after my father’s death, five years ago. You’d be surprised by what you remember when you’re porous, when the membrane between present and past is thinned out. I never kept a journal back then; life felt too frenetic to stand back and reflect. It was a lot like living in a hospital. That’s not to imply that there wasn’t plenty of play and wit and dark humor in the air. I’ll just say my memory was never keener, before or since, and I think a lot of that had to do with living in such close proximity to death. Death wasn’t a theory. It was literally around the corner; in the house you were walking toward.

GS: Later is presented in titled sections of varying lengths within the chapters and some of the sections include epigraphs. Please say something about the decision to map the book in this way.
The initial draft was much more continuous, retrospective, written in a steady and consistent past tense. I felt the arc of it bending toward order, resolution, logic—wisdom. Those aren’t necessarily the wrong impulses, but I wanted to find a better form for all the chaos and disjunction of that era. So, fragmentation felt like the way to go. I didn’t want to write a book that was too neat and resolved, though I certainly wanted it to be artful. There’s a poet in me, an essayist in me, and a narrative writer in me, and I needed access to all those impulses in order to bring this material to life. And as for the epigraphs, some of which are quite long, I never wanted to be the only voice talking. I wanted the book to have a choral effect.

GS: In chapter nine, you write about your personal fashion transformation and Provincetown’s influence, which made me think of going to Provincetown in the early to mid-1980s when I was in college in Boston and how fashion forward it was then. Do you think Provincetown still has the same influence?
Provincetown will always be a beloved place, but it behaves more like the larger world these days. In other words, people bring the world to Provincetown. And back in the day, in the last days before the internet, the culture of the place, right down to how people dressed, was much more specific; it made itself up day after day. There wasn’t a world LGBTQ culture yet. That’s not to say Provincetown didn’t take cues from outside, especially from, say, the East Village of the time—bandanas and goatees and beat-up leather jackets—but there was always a Provincetown spin to it.

GS: In chapter 12, you make mention of your late writer friend Denise who figured prominently in your 2016 memoir The Narrow Door. Because of the book’s Fine Arts Work Center setting you also write about authors including Lucy Grealy, Elizabeth McCracken, Tim Seibles, and of course, Mark Doty. Are there specific challenges when if come to writing about writers?
It’s hard work to write about any living human, especially when they’re your friends. You want to capture them in all their complexity, not just as totems of your affection. You want them to be compelling characters in their own right—how else will the reader share in your connection? So, I fret with every sentence, and have to trust that I’m giving you enough tools—gestures, a facial expression, a style of walking—to bring them to life. I don’t think my work wants to put writers and artists on a separate plane from any of the other characters.

GS: You also write about your parents, specifically your mother, throughout the book. Has writing about them gotten easier or more difficult over time?
My books are an ongoing project. and the mother in one book isn’t exactly the same mother in another. She keeps turning, developing new facets. The stakes of her story get higher. Does writing about one’s parents get easier? Neither of my parents are around anymore, and I don’t have to worry about hurting them, but honestly? I think it gets harder. I miss them quite a lot, even in the ways they frustrated me and made my independence difficult. My mother, as she appears in Later, was having a rough time personally. Among other things, she didn’t want me to die of AIDS, and I get it: she’d already lost too many people. But I’m hoping her portrait manages to capture the connection between us. I think the book might look more closely at the darker sides of my parents than any of my other books do, and maybe that candor is a way back to loving them all over again.

GS: In chapter 13 you write about “David Sedarisness” which made me wonder if you have ever met David Sedaris and what do you think he would say about what you wrote about him?
I’ve never met David Sedaris, though I’ve taught plenty of his work over the years. I’m hoping he’d think that that passage was a hoot and largely agree with it. In my mind, it’s largely complimentary. I wonder if he’ll ever see it. He could certainly kick me if he didn’t like it [laughs].

GS: I want to thank you for the mention of Allen Barnett’s The Body and Its Dangers in chapter 29. Can you say something about the impact that book had on you and how we go about making more people aware of the book?
It’s been years since I picked it up, but I remember the clarity and precision of Barnett’s language, his refusal to pander, his respect for vulnerability, melancholy, ambivalence. He always upended easy answers. The book, as a whole, brings those charged years back to life again.

GS: Later is subtitled My Life at the Edge of the World, and the “edge of the world” appears in chapter nine, while “the end of the world” appears in chapter 30. Can you please say something about how those things are either different or the same to you in the setting of the book?
Literally those words have different meanings, but within the context of the book their difference is largely sonic. To me, the word edge feels like it has more conflict in it—will the subject go over, or not? It summons up a cliff. I want “edge” to have figurative associations, but I also want it to conjure up the physical extremity of the United States. It’s not in the middle of the country. You can’t go further east. What kind of community, what kind of mind flourishes on the margin?

GS: Later wouldn’t be a Paul Lisicky book without Joni references, including those on pages 14 and 129. Have you ever had the chance to present Joni with any of your books?
Yes, there are also references to her songs in a few of the subtitles: “California, I’m Coming Home” and “Mr. Mystery” from “Talk to Me” on Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter. Honestly, I haven’t. I wonder what she would think. The idea of it makes me shy. She might approve of the fact that I largely reference work from the second half of her career, but who knows?

GS: Rebecca Makkai, author of The Great Believers, is one of the writers who blurbed Later and it made me think of the way that AIDS has made a pop culture comeback in literature via Rebecca’s book as well as yours, and in movies (Yen Tan’s 1985) and on TV (Ryan Murphy’s Pose). What do you think that says about the current state of things?
We’re certainly aware that we’re now in a time of multiple crises: the crisis at our southern border, the opioid crisis, the political emergency, the climate emergency—where do we stop? Maybe it helps to look back at another fraught period to see how people survived it, to see what strategies we used to thrive and fight.

Honestly, I think it was really hard to represent the early epidemic for so long. The scope of it felt impossible, and maybe writers and producers felt the burden of having to write the “The Great AIDS novel or film”, and now we intuitively know that that was always a doomed idea, as it was bound to exclude too many voices. So many individual accounts haven’t yet been given form. And the story is ongoing, of course; we can’t forget that. Thirty-eight million in the world right now living with HIV. And only a little less than two thirds of that population are accessing antiretrovirals.

GS: Have you started thinking about or working on your next book project?
I’ve been writing a book about my father—or complicated fathers in general—for several years now. It’s still trying to find its parameters and I’m hoping I’ll wake up one morning, find its solution, and go, “a-ha!”. And the book will finally take wing. GG




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