Paul Lisicky’s Stories Are Built to Last

The titles of Paul Lisicky’s books reveal a writer concerned with the process of building and demolition—of the self. Whether he’s writing fiction, memoir, poetry, or, more recently, blurring the lines between all those genres, Lisicky explores the process and power of identity. He and his characters struggle to erect and maintain the narratives which help them define and understand their world, only to see the wrecking ball of desire and chaos bring them down. Robert Olen Butler said of Lisicky, “(he is) one of the select writers who continues to teach me about the complexities of the human heart.” Lisicky is the author of the novels Lawnboy (1999) and The Burning House (2011); the memoir, Famous Builder (2002); and the forthcoming collection of prose pieces, Unbuilt Projects; and the memoir, The Narrow Door.

His work has appeared in Tin House, Fence, Ploughshares, The Iowa Review, Story Quarterly, and in many other anthologies and magazines. A graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, he’s the recipient of awards from the National Endowment for the Arts, the James Michener/Copernicus Society, the Henfield Foundation, and the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, where he was twice a fellow. Lisicky has taught in the writing programs at Cornell University, New York University, Rutgers-Newark, and Sarah Lawrence College. He is currently the New Voices Professor in the MFA Program at Rutgers-Camden.

Paul was interviewed by Nicholas Garnett for Sliver of Stone.

NG: One theme that runs strongly through your work is the mutability of identity and the ability to redefine ourselves. Reinvention seems so closely linked to the American experience and the American Dream, where upward mobility and success meant one could wipe the slate clean, often at the expense of heritage and tradition. In your memoir, Famous Builder, you describe your family’s relocation to a new suburban housing development in the 60s, and the way that new house helped define your family’s sense of identity. How do you think that reinvention and the search for identity have shaped you and your writing?

PL: I grew up with the sense that you could make up your life. If you wanted to be, say, a trumpet player, you could do it if you had some talent, but you had to want it, and terribly. A lot of the kids I grew up with ended up doing extraordinary things in the arts when they were still young. We didn’t think there was anything unusual about that. But we also knew that aspirations could be dangerous. How would we support ourselves? In that way we were different from kids who came from money, who took their privilege for granted, who had something to fall back on, as they say. They were more sophisticated than we were. They were more likely to know the limits of what they could do. So–a long way of saying that our naiveté had some use. A certain kind of naiveté about your potential isn’t always a bad thing. I don’t know if you could be good at any art without believing, at some unspoken level, that you had the capacity to do something amazing.

NG: Since Famous Builder was published back in 2002, the foundations of the American Dream have taken a hit: First, the attacks of 9/11, the targets of which were iconic structures. Then, the great recession and subsequent housing market crash, which ruined the value of people’s homes and the identity they had placed in them. These days, the world seems a far less optimistic place than the one in which you dreamed to be, literally, a famous builder. That book explored the power of reinvention in an essentially positive way—the building of self. In your forthcoming memoir, The Narrow Door, you portray a slow dismantling of self: Your friend’s death from cancer. Your mother’s dementia. How do you think your more recent writing has been shaped by changes to the American psyche?

PL: I actually think Famous Builder has a really dark current inside all its brightness. The speaker’s role models fail as much as they win. The father is hunted by the possibility of being poor again; the stylish next door neighbor thinks about suicide; Bill Levitt goes broke, loses his mansion and yacht, and on and on. I’m not sure the speaker is able to make links between these situations; he sort of assumes that their struggles are character-based, rather than about something larger. He gets it, finally, after that embarrassment in the recording studio. Achievement and failure are interdependent. Is there something American about that? Maybe.

You’re right that the world is a much less optimistic place than it was when I started that book. When was that–the late 90′s? As I was writing, I did have this gut feeling that the book was becoming an elegy for a world that was about to pass on. You could just feel it in the atmosphere: the sense of a world about to change hugely. As for my more recent work? There’s no question that a lot of it’s darker than it was. Part of that is the state of things, the state of the world. Part of that is going through life stuff–the kind of life stuff we all go through at some point. I couldn’t possibly write another Famous Builder now. Even if I were to write about the same situations, I’m sure the focus wouldn’t be self-reinvention.

All that said, I think it would be cheap and false to say that darkness is something that necessarily comes with getting older. I feel as optimistic as I feel desolate, and I feel both of those states simultaneously, all the time. I hope that that simultaneous-ness is on every page of my work.

NG: Your stories often explore the power of labels and the naming of things, yet your recent work obliterates the traditional notions of genre. Stories from the forthcoming Unbuilt Projects have been published as poetry, fiction, and memoir. Are you making a conscious effort to subvert genre?

PL: I love lists and labels in general, while I’m also really, really wary of the power of classifications. I know how they limit us, keep us in our space. An artist needs to roam, and I think my mind feels most at home when it’s in some in-between place. There’s something fertile about the edges. They’re not so tramped on. The edges haven’t already been interpreted. I get excited by the compression of poetry, the questioning that moves an essay along, the attempt to represent the inner life, which I associate with the project of fiction. I want to make something that borrows from the three worlds. I’m certainly not the first one to do that–think of Amy Hempel, who’s been doing that for years, longer than anyone was able to see it. But I do think I might be getting bolder as a hybridist.

NG: In stories such as “The Boy and His Mother Are Stuck!” you defy traditional storytelling by making us conscious of it, undermining the “vivid, continuous dream”—the fantasy world many of us are taught to create and maintain by writing teachers. Are you getting even with your instructors, or trying to make a larger point regarding the artifice of story?

PL: I think a story like that is really conscious of writing against the reader’s expectations. By that I mean, credibility, sympathy, linearity, coherence–all the characteristics we often assume make a story. I wasn’t so much getting back at my teachers or students or workshops in general (I teach workshops) but felt the need to lampoon the need for narrative. The story incorporates the ghost of a workshop experience, as if the speaker is imagining the workshopping of the story as he’s telling it. “The Boy and His Mother Are Stuck” was written at a time when I felt absolutely changed by my mother’s dementia all the way down to my cells. Linear storytelling seemed artificial to me then. Language was breaking down. Communication was gap, disjunction. Cause and effect? Meaningless. I was just trying to find a container for all that confusion, which is how Unbuilt Projects came to be.

The irony is that I’m now writing a series of mostly linear short shorts, often in the form of fables, parables, and little myths. The mind must be impatient for some kind of order again. Or at least a one-foot-in-front-of-the-next kind of order in which plot is predominant.

NG: Your writing is beautifully lyrical. It is also characterized by exactness in the language and a powerful, almost sermon-like quality to the prose. Perhaps that’s not so surprising, given two of your earliest passions were diagramming entire housing developments (right down to the street names) and singing and composing liturgical music, both of which require precision and great attention to detail. I imagine your house is spotless and meticulously organized! Seriously, is your writing process similarly structured and ordered?

PL: You’re making me laugh, because I just realized I won’t leave my apartment until everything is straightened up. I don’t like coming back to a mess. Evan in Lawnboy cleans motel rooms; Isidore in The Burning House cleans houses. I’ve been revealed, my God!

Seriously, I think I have to subvert my inclination toward neatness when I write. I used to be one of those people who sat at his desk, in his study, for a set number of hours a day. That’s not true anymore. Here’s an example. I was trying to write a few days ago; nothing was happening. I was feeling weighted so I started distracting myself with Twitter. I decided I’d feel a little less pressure if I went out to get something to eat. I went out to get something to eat. I don’t know what it was that made me take out my phone at the restaurant. I wasn’t trying to write. People were chatting to my left and right, there was music on, someone knocking into the leaves of the plant in the corner, and within a minute I was thumbing sentences into the notebook on my phone. The commas seemed to be coming at all the right places; the meaning was in sync with the sound. I did as much as I could until I could feel myself about to force the next sentence, a kind of closure to the paragraph. I stopped. I emailed the paragraph to myself. When I got home, I looked at the paragraph, copied it into an email, changed the font to 18-point so that every word mattered more than it would in another format. That night I went back to the story again. By writing it in an email, I was tricking myself into thinking I wasn’t actually working. I was having fun, playing, or hoping to. By the time the story got further along, I started working on it in the usual way, in a document on my laptop. But as you can see my way into all that was pretty sneaky. And far from orderly.

NG: Many writers struggle with how to reveal character, especially through detail and description. You have mastered that technique. In your novel, The Burning House, your narrator describes his wife’s younger sister, with whom he is falling in love: “Same sweet crooked mouth, same moist hair falling down her back, same tendency to keep her shoulders raised, as if she had to correct what her posture really wanted to do.” And, on the next page: “The corners of her mouth turned up as if she were about to smile, the kind of half-smile you learn to make when you’re used to getting news you’re not exactly able to hear.”

These descriptions are so specific and telling. How do you come up with them? Do they come naturally to you, or is this an element of craft you’ve consciously had to develop?

PL: I’m sure I learned that from studying other writers. When I was working on The Burning House, I was teaching the stories of Mary Gaitskill, Alice Munro, and Lorrie Moore, who are all masters when it comes to getting their characters’ physicality on the page. They’re interested in bodies, facial reactions, gestures, and how these might reveal their characters’ inner lives. In other words, what they withhold, what they might not be able to disguise, what they might not even know about themselves. In those two quotes, it seems clear that the narrator is seeing his sister-in-law’s attempts to hold herself together in the face of disappointment. I’m always compelled by the tension between the spoken and the unspoken. Not a small percentage of our daily exchanges are dedicated to maintaining agreeableness, a kind of social equilibrium. We’re terrified of awkwardness, at least overtly. I don’t think that that’s necessarily a bad thing. What kind of world would it be if no one had a filter, if everyone spoke exactly how they felt at any given moment? As much as we might prize honesty, it would be unbearable. We wouldn’t be able to stand it! So there’s always another layer of communication that’s revealed by the body. And I try to do my best to make use of all that.

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