Elmaz Abinader: Looking Inward

Elmaz Abinader’s books, Children of the Roojme, a Family’s Journey from Lebanon, and In the Country of my Dreams, as well as her play, Country of Origin, all illustrate personal lives negotiating hostile terrain.  

Elmaz recently performed Country of Origin at the Kennedy Center; Oregon Drama Critics cited Country of Origin for its excellence by awarding two Drammies to the play and to the composer of the music, Tony Khalife. Other awards include a PEN Award for In the Country of My Dreams and a Goldies Award for Literature. Elmaz has also been a Fulbright Senior Fellow to Egypt and a winner of several residencies.

Now a professor at Mills College, Elmaz’s primary concern is giving voice to other writers of color. Her participation in VONA (Voices of Our Nations Arts Foundation) allows her the opportunity to make a difference in the growth of the cannon of literature of color.

Her upcoming work, The Water Cycle, is at memoir that draws from the author’s childhood experiences growing up in a all-white Appalachian coal mining community and her subsequent journeys around the world. Each story describes an encounter with the shaky concept of identity and cultural relationship.

In addition, Elmaz is a fitness instructor at the YMCA in Oakland CA where she lives with her husband Anthony Byers.

The author was interviewed by M.J. Fievre for Sliver of Stone Magazine.

MJ: Elmaz, you write in every genre. Your first book was a memoir—Children of the Roojme—and you later published a collection of poems—The Country of my Dreams—and several plays. When did you know you had stories you wanted to tell and when did you get up the courage to tell them?

“If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.”
― Toni Morrison

EA: Like many writers of color, as I was coming up, I scavenged books for an experience that matched mine. I wasn’t the typical young American girl that showed up in YA novels, or the boy learning about the world in James Joyce or Faulkner. My experience was not represented: a life of merging cultures, an identity that resisted assimilation but had to find a way to co-exist with the dominant culture. These disparities had no place in American literature yet and that absence fermented a loneliness that many can relate to. Poetry was the way I responded to this. Poetry allows the story and the emotion equal presence inside of it—I could fill a poem with the picture, pull the thread of culture and honor through it.

When I allowed myself to look inward, I recognized how I was the product of these two cultures which formed a third one that aligned me with other members of a Diaspora. The story of my life begins with the travels of my parents and when I listened to them, the history of my family–the encounters with unrest, famine, loss, civil war, and ultimately immigration–impressed me as something heroic. I realized that many people around me had similar stories—the other immigrant shopkeepers, the field workers, cab drivers—the fabric of our culture is woven with these stories. Arab-Americans had no representation in the genre in a big way.  I wanted to share the stories much like Maxine Hong Kingston did.

MJ: For the past few years, you have hosted summer writing workshops on memoir and creative non-fiction at the University of San Francisco’s Voices of Our Nations Arts Foundation (VONA). The foundation is dedicated to nurturing writers of color and, when I attended the first VONA residency in Miami, my fellow residents and I discussed the struggle with being an ethnic writer—one from a distinctive culture, language, or religion—and we examined the pressure that comes from representing a specific group. Is this a struggle for you?

EA: Our people pin our hopes on the one writer or actor or artist who gets attention to be the one to tell their story. Because we are all complex and individual, we can’t possible represent the race; we can only open the door on it. The pressure is not on me to represent, it’s on me to help other Arab-American stories and the voices of other writers-of-color be present—not just one Junot Diaz or one David Mura, but the many Junots and Davids. The frustration is the industry’s satisfaction of having a small collection or a single author from an identity is enough. This was the impulse behind VONA/Voices—to push our work so hard, develop our voices so elegantly, they cannot be ignored and we can populate the shelves.

MJ: Some of my stories have been accused of not being “ethnic” enough. Evidently, it didn’t suffice that the core of my writing was about the human experiences of family, love, longing and disappointment, and individuals negotiating a life amidst the pressure of society. I felt that readers wanted me to write about specifically identifiable ethnic experiences. As far as publishing goes, do you think that a writer of color who sets himself apart from the easily recognizable cultural typecasting may find his or her work rejected or ignored because it is “not ethnic enough”?

EA: Here’s my response to this and to other worries about industry or audience: write first, write true, write with commitment and write with conscious. Don’t write to or for anyone, to be or appear to be anyone—put those thoughts away. Know that people, publishers, industry all are loaded with their own assumptions and need to the familiar. That’s not your responsibility. Your responsibility is to grow that image, not engender it.

MJ: You are a professor at Mills College. Do you think it is possible for creative writing pedagogy to take a colorblind approach?

EA: I don’t think pedagogy should be colorblind. When we interact with writing and the writer, all that is part of the work is present.  What really needs to happen is pedagogues need to learn to read and teach everyone in their room—not neutralize the responses. This means that your book would have the same elements as a mainstream book , but that’s impossible. Your education wasn’t the only contribution to your literary talent, so  were your songs, your food, your family culture, your spirituality, your languages, your relationships, your body’s geography—

MJ: As a writer of color, how do you fight the racialized assumptions, such as: writers of color are political and white writers focus on artistic quality; race exists only as political correctness; a writer’s ethnicity defines that writer’s audience.

EA: As a writer of color, I ignore ignorance and write as honestly as possible.

MJ: Growing up in Pennsylvania, your home life was very much rooted in Lebanese tradition. Can you talk about popular depictions of Lebanese women and girls, and where they fit in our popular imaginations, and if or how you see your work as a response to that?

EA: The connection between my work and identity as an Arab-American has less to do with Lebanese (in Lebanon) than it does with other writers of color. The Lebanese women are in a homogenous culture that has its own set of complexities which are quite different than the merged identities of immigrants, African Americans and American Indians and other native peoples. Lebanese women (Christian, mostly) are beauty icons of the Middle East.

In the US, most women of color who are in the public realm do have to respond to particular stereotypes and expectations about their behavior. I don’t find it a struggle; I find it boring and had hoped by now the exoticization might have dissipated. When Rima Fakih became Miss America in 2010, the anti-Muslim factions in the US did their usual smear campaigns. Simultaneously some Islamic communities took issue with her being in the pageant at all.

We are all in the unfortunate process of growing the perspective about our people through our work.

MJ: What are some writers who have influenced you?

EA: I am often tempted not to answer this question because I honor most of the writers I read by learning something from them. All the VONA/Voices faculty have been great influences, as are the program’s participants.  When I was young, Maxine Hong Kingston, Toni Morrison, Isabelle Allende, Louise Erdrich, James Baldwin,  signed their names to the permission slip that encouraged me. I am moved by poets, magic realists, modern American short story, and true stories. I write to jazz, Omar Sosa, Miles Davis, Marcus Miller, Roy Hargrove, Regina Carter, Simon Shaheen and Marcel Khalife.  I love movies. I am influenced by silence and stillness too.

MJ: Tell us a little bit about your upcoming work The Water Cycle.

EA: The Water Cycle is a collection of memoir stories that take place in my two hometowns in Pennsylvania and in various countries in the Middle East.

Dorianne Laux: Poet of Compassion

Dorianne Laux’s most recent collections are The Book of Men and Facts about the Moon.
A finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, and winner of the Oregon Book Award and The Roanoke-Chowan Award for Poetry, Laux is also author of Awake, What We Carry, and Smoke from BOA Editions. She teaches poetry in the MFA Program at North Carolina State University and is founding faculty at Pacific University’s Low Residency MFA Program.

Dorianne Laux was interviewed by Marina Pruna for Sliver of Stone Magazine.

Marina Pruna: I believe that whether attached to age or not, there comes a time when we see who we are and come to embrace this self.  I think that this is true for poets too.   I’m a poet who is trying to “figure out” the world.  I might become a different poet at some point in my life, but today, I have to accept that I am this kind of poet.

Have you had a similar experience in that your poetry has shown you something about yourself as a person or artist or woman that you just can’t deny?  How has your poetry defined you?

Dorianne Laux: I guess I’ve been defined by the fact that I’ve chosen to write in the narrative mode, which many see as easy or self- involved or passé.  And I’ve chosen to write as a woman, which can have its downside as well.  Men are the dominant voice in every field: art, history, politics, literature.  One’s tendency might be to lean in that direction, to develop a sort of genderless poetic landscape and voice, non-domestic, unspecific, one that could easily be mistaken for male. I guess I’ve chosen not to do that.  I could have also chosen to be more ironic, a bit tougher, darker, critical, cynical and less hopeful.   But maybe that hasn’t been a choice.  It’s just not who I am.

MP: I’m always surprised and impressed by your selection of occasion in a poem.  For example, in Facts About the Moon, the poem “Superglue” is as much about the speaker gluing her fingers together as it is a realization that she is alive in this world and in love in this world.  There’s a real sense of fear and awe in the poem.  I find that your poems often do this: talk about something huge like consciousness or love through a very tangible vehicle like superglue or elk crossing the road.  Can you speak to how you make those decisions of occasion when writing?

DL: It seems to me it’s the other way around; the occasion of the poem brings up issues deeply embedded in the subconscious, fear and awe being two overwhelming emotions that if we were to feel them all the time would crush us.  So, they make subtle appearances to give us a portal into that subliminal world.  I’m fairly unaware of the implications of a specific occasion when I choose to write about it.  The experience occurs, I have a human response in the sense that it might seem strange or funny, memorable or striking in some way, and then [I] sit down to reexamine it in a poem.  Both the poems you refer to are humorous situations, and as far as I knew, I merely wanted to capture that humor in image and language.  What arose as I wrote was metaphor, and the truer aspects of awe and fear that were hidden behind the humor, or beneath it.  It seems as we move through life, life also moves through us.  A poem is an attempt to capture and arrest those two movements in time and space, or rather allow them to collide and interpenetrate each other. 

MP: I find that image making has a lot to do with observation.  The keener the observer, the more insightful the image, it seems to me.  I’d like to go back to your first book.  In Awake, you have many poems that have a powerful image followed by an admission or realization from the speaker.  In “Quarter to Six,” for example, there’s the jump from bread to a scar: “Tearing open my bread, I see / the scar, stitches laced up the root of your arm, the flesh messy / where you grabbed at it with the broken glass of an ashtray” (17).  Or in “Bird,” the three lines at the end: “I’m alone with dead roses in a jam jar. / What do I have that she could want enough / to risk such failure, again and again?” (34).  Aside from using images to concretize a moment for the reader, how do you decide to opt for an image, instead of narration, let’s say?  What do you gain and what do you lose by making this choice?

DL: I would most often prefer to opt for an image instead of narration. It’s so clear that the image is the more powerful of the two.  On the other hand, images alone cannot tell the story, and I am nothing if not a teller of stories.  But I’m not sure I consciously “opt” for one over another as I write.  The story itself, as I mentioned earlier, often engenders metaphor quite organically and I simply follow the poem’s lead in that respect.  In revision though, if I see a lax line, I might try to make that line into an image.  This is especially true of last lines in a poem.  I’ll have the urge to sum things up in a statement which is almost always less powerful than the image that often precedes it.  I’m a great fan of lopping off the endings of poems and leaving the reader with an image, trusting it to do the work.  I guess I would say that for me, the success of a narrative poem is in the right balance of narration to image.  What that balance is varies from poem to poem.  I also don’t see the narration as merely a way of getting from one place to another.  An image can do that as well, or a cascade of images.  For me, narration is a complex web that should hold everything in a poem together with an almost invisible and tensile strength. I think of a narrative master such as Larry Levis.  Look at the opening of his poem ADOLESCENCE.

The narration begins simply enough in the first line, a narrator, a character, a setting, but by the second line, we find ourselves contemplating the inner realms of the human mystery. The third line is, again, a simple setting: character, action and place, but by the fourth, we are taken into the past, into death, mystery.  And then the trees appear, as they will in various forms throughout this poem, and we watch them become intermediary or liaison, uniting the past with the present, the heavens with the earth.  So that, when Levis leaps backwards in the next stanza to the age of fifteen, speaking of death in the same breath as the event of a carnival and its silly games of chance, of Laredo, Texas and a stranger, of the girl’s gambler father weeping as the narrator looks off into the trees and makes that absurd and unbearably tender statement, we don’t feel battered around in time and space.  Rather we feel events are “unfolding” as they should, even though we have been wrenched from one set of characters to another, one time and place to another, one way of thinking and feeling to another, and all at lightning speed.  And because of the authority of voice, the meandering style, the slow, thoughtful, intimate tone, we believe that all these oddly disparate details and images will be held together in the shimmering web of the narrative.  This is what I think all poetic narratives seek to do, create stories within stories, layer upon layer of feeling and meaning, spinning it out like a spider, weaving this delicate net that holds time and space, image and language, clarity and mystery.  

MP: I’ve been a fan of your poetry for a very long time, and in preparing for this interview, I reread all of your books in chronological order.  I found that, with your first book, your eye was mostly pointed inward toward self (like creating a personal tapestry), and with each subsequent book, the eye did a couple of things.  First, thematically, the eye seems to have shifted to point more outwardly.  But, also, when looking in, the eye seems to look further in.  In essence, I found that the voice in your work from book to book has expanded both inwardly and outwardly.  How do you sit down to a poem now?  Or does the poem come to you?  (a line? an image?)  Has this act of coming to a poem changed for you fundamentally since you started writing?

DL: I think the fundamental change for me has been in my awareness of myself as a writer, a poet.  When I first began, I was a child who understood very little of the world around me or inside of me.  That was the whole point of writing it down, so I could see it again, study it, contemplate it.  As I grew in experience and knowledge, I came to the page with more formed and formal questions, while at the same time, allowing myself much more freedom of exploration.  Also, the more I read and admired the writing of masters, the more I felt compelled to consciously imitate and experiment.  Even so, the inspired poems come to me on the wings of yes, an image, a line, a snippet of conversation, a look or gesture, a feeling.  There are so many ways into a poem and each poem has its own unique genesis.  I also think what you describe in the arc of my writing is not unique to me. All writers begin with an investigation of the self and move to an examination of the other.  Again, this could be a definition of the act of writing which is first and foremost an exploration, moving from the inner world to the outer world, and back again, each time moving deeper, reaching higher, including more, stripping it down, searching out essence and eternity, the smallest detail that can illuminate, dipping into the darkness.

MP: You did an interview a while back with Willow Springs where, in talking about authors you read habitually and who inspire you, you said, “I love poetry that feels as it thinks.”  What did you mean by that?

DL: In some ways, this is what we’ve been talking about all along, the image that says something more powerful than words, the one word that can join every image.  When that happens, feeling engenders thinking, or thinking links up with feeling, and produces something we don’t know with the mind or heart alone. 

MP: I read in several different interviews with you that your husband, Joseph Millar, is an early reader of your work.  In those same interviews, I remember reading that you have a kind of community of readers, close friends and colleagues, that also have a chance to look at and comment on your work (editing, revision, ordering) before it heads out to a publisher.  This made me wonder how you view community with respect to your writing.  What do these readers point out that you can’t see?  Of what they say, what do you listen to?  Can you write without them at the finish line?

DL: I love and cherish my readers.  They see what I might be too caught up to see.  When one writes with passion and abandon, one can say some fairly silly things or make some pretty ridiculous comparisons.  Of course I could finish a poem without them, but it might take longer.  They save me time, as I hope I save them time.  And more importantly, they ask questions I might not have asked myself, or again, that might have taken me more time to come to. I listen to everything, with gratitude.  Whatever makes sense or feels right, I use.   

MP: During revision and editing, when “tightening up” a poem, what do you do?  What do you ask yourself?  What do you ask the poem?

DL: There’s a great list by Jane Hirshfield, in The Poet’s Companion, of questions to ask of a poem in revision.  A few of my favorites are:  “Is there joy, depth, muscle in the music of its saying?”, “Does it follow its own deepest impulses, not necessarily the initial idea?”, “Does it know more than you did when you started it?”, “Is it self-satisfied, predictable?”, “Does it allow strangeness?”.  Hirshfield asks more practical questions as well, but these are, I think, some of the more important and enduring questions.  But mostly I ask the poem what it wants.  Do you really want to go down that road, I ask.  Yes, it says.  I know that road makes you uncomfortable, and it will be a bumpy ride with few stops along he way, and maybe a wrong turn or two, but yes, I want to take that road.  The poem always knows better and more than I do.

MP: Your latest book is The Book of Men.  In rereading this last book side by side with your previous work, I was particularly taken with the confidence in the writing.  Where the confidence of Awake and What We Carry seems an undercurrent with courage as the star, in this book, as well as in Facts About the Moon, I feel like you are in a groove, writing with the ease of an artist who knows her toolbox well and can just sit back and enjoy the process.  Is this observation accurate?  Are you able to sit back and let the poetry come freely and through you?  Or are there still pockets of unexpressed emotion that keep you up at night?  Or, do you do both?

DL: Writing poems is easy.  Writing good poems is difficult.  Writing a great poem is almost impossible.  This is why I try not to think about it.  If I contemplated how many actual great poems there are in the world, and how hard it is to write one, I would give up.  I just go, as Frank O’Hara says, on my nerve.   I think poets, and artists in general, have to have this combination of audacity and humbleness.  On the one hand, you have to have this grand and supreme faith in yourself that what you see, hear, touch, taste, think and feel, has importance, and will be meaningful to another human being.  On the other hand, you have to know deep down that what you are trying to do is impossible, unattainable, unfeasible, impractical, out of the question, and completely hopeless.  And then you try anyway. 

MP: In an interview with Benjamin Alire Saenz for Birds on a Wire, you said that it was your husband who, in backing up and organizing your computer, ordered and sectioned poems that became The Book of Men.  How did his vision affect the way you saw those poems?

DL: Oh, it affected me completely!  I had no real idea I had written that many poems about men, or that I was so obsessed with my various visions of men.  I would have thought, if you’d asked me, that I was writing more poems about women and family, about myself.  But when Joe brought me the manuscript as he saw it, it rearranged my idea of what I had been doing quite unconsciously.  And I was delighted!  Maybe it took a man to see that I was writing about men.  I also liked the way he put the book in two sections, with the women in the second section playing off the men in the first.  It was truly brilliant.  I’m a lucky woman.

MP: I found out that your new book was out at roughly the same time that I was given an eReader as a gift.  So, I decided to purchase The Book of Men on my eReader to see how the experience of reading poetry there differed.  With the ability to adjust font size, see only one page at a time, and make “marginal” notes as inserts, I quickly found myself really missing the paper-glue artifact and a pen.  How do you feel about poetry on eReaders?  Do they impact your writing?

DL: I love my Kindle and iPad, mostly for travel and for novels or memoir, prose.  The fact that you can choose from thousands of novels on a plane trip without having to haul them all with you is a relief, and the backlighting of the iPad is also great when you want to read and your mate is asleep.   But yes, for poetry, I prefer the paper and glue.  Poetry books are relatively cheap and easy to carry with you in almost any circumstance.   And they’ve become such beautiful works of art.  There’s absolutely no excuse these days for a poetry book cover that isn’t downright gorgeous, or for a font that isn’t exquisite, or paper that isn’t luscious.  It also goes without saying that the intimacy of poetry seems to ask for the slim delicacy of the hand held book.

MP: Of your books, do you have a favorite?  A least favorite?  Why?

DL: Not really.  After five books I have actually begun to forget poems I’ve written- not in a did-I-write-that way, but in a long ago, far away way, as in how-many-eons-have-passed-since-that-poem.

MP: Who are you reading these days that really turns on and stretches your mind?

DL: I remember really liking the unbridled energy of Richard Siken’s Crush when it came out. I always love Lucia Perillo.  Luck is Luck is a good book. But all her books are good.  She is so damn strange.  I just can’t get enough of her skewed visions and quirky way of saying a thing.   Eleanor Lerman’s Our Post-Soviet History Unfolds.  Catie Rosemurgy’s My Favorite Apocalypse.

MP: In today’s world where we’re at once over-stimulated and never fully engaged in one thing at a time, poetry asks us to stop for a minute and just breathe . . .  with our eyes, our fingers, our tongues, our ears and our emotional lungs.  Dorianne Laux, what is your job as a poet?

DL: To keep breathing as long as I can! And to keep writing.

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.