The 2016 Guggenheim Fellow discusses his memoir The Narrow Door.
Photo by Star Black.
Blessedly against convention, Paul has never been a writer of perspective and distance. He believes in fearlessly writing in the moment. In doing so, he captures the raw beauty of the daily friction between moments of pleasure and challenge. The immediacy of his work allows for joy as well as gravity. Writing about The Narrow Door in Slate, Katy Waldman declares it to be “a work of bleeding boundaries.” Alexander Chee, writing for the New York Times Book Review, calls it “an elegy, an apologia and a triumph.”
When we met in January over coffee, we couldn’t stop talking about music and contemporary literature, often talking over one another. We followed up later this spring over email while he was on his book tour. His immediate warmth and generous spirit speaks to the depth of his friendships and writing. The Narrow Door chronicles the power of lasting friendship in the face of loss. Lisicky’s longtime friendship with the novelist Denise Gess is the memoir’s touchstone. As Gess struggles with cancer and Lisicky’s marriage falters, the profound importance of friendship serves as a grounding force. Despite the ebb and flow of any manner of relationships, Lisicky pays witness to the connections that sustain us both in life and after death. I feel as though I owe Paul a long letter and mixtape—analog, rather than digital—to speak to his compassionate presence.
—Lauren LeBlanc for Guernica
Guernica: In your book, you say that “Maybe the harder thing is to recognize that growth might not happen without a little damage first. I say that from the position of someone who would do anything not to do damage, even though some of that might be entirely out of my hands.” What does it mean to live with a damaged world? A damaged self? A damaged friendship or relationship?
Paul Lisicky: Damage is just life. The growth marks on a tree trunk. The messy knot where the wind knocked off a limb. You can’t avoid it if you want to stick around.
The book is structured according to my emotional weather.
Guernica: It would have been conventional for you to approach your memoir in a linear fashion. Why did you apply a more episodic structure to your work? Would you say this speaks to the fact that no relationship tracks along a straight path? We start out with passion that defies the amount of time we’ve known one another and often we steer off track only to return to a place we’ve always occupied. Could you talk about the way that we romanticize romantic and platonic relationships instead of chronicling the messy way that we actually inhabit them over time?
Paul Lisicky: The book is structured according to my emotional weather—it wants to think about the year following Denise’s death. The thing about grief is that it doesn’t move straight ahead. It doesn’t move in 4/4 time. It changes keys, it drops beats from the measure, which explains all those structural tangents, the mediations about disaster, the parables about Joni, Leika the dog, Van Gogh, Franny and Zooey, Marvin Gaye, and Tammi Terrell. I wanted to evoke the feeling of being lost, but didn’t want it to be opaque to a reader. So the book is bound by images. Each section is organized around an image. One image is meant to talk to the next image, a conversation not unlike an extended book of poems.
I’m thinking about your previous question here and one thing I wanted the book to do was to resist the romanticizing you’re talking about, but not entirely dismiss it. It would be a little cold, maybe even a little inhuman, to legislate legend-making away from our narratives, but, as we know, that kind of thinking can obscure and erase. A template can also be a kind of straitjacket, it can prevent us from seeing the nuances and contradictions in each other.
A straightforward narrative would have determined the story in the most heavy-handed way. I would have felt the narrative churning toward the end right from the get go and that did not feel to me like the state of grief with all of its distractions, interruptions, and spots of silence. I was thinking a lot about how we overvalue or privilege darkness as seriousness. It’s always seemed important to me to write moments in time that manage to capture all the layers that we feel at any given moment. There’s a notion out there that if you’re not saying the darkest thing, you’re not telling the truth. That you’re participating in evasion, you’re white-washing, you’re curating yourself, or that you want to appear likeable. But tenderness and joy are braided into those darker emotions, always.
Joy was about awe, wonder. It was linked to mystery, the unexpected, the unexplainable.
Guernica: “Joy is what we want to inhabit after so much pain.” I love your emphasis on joy. Could you talk about the importance that joy plays in your life and work? In Denise’s work?
Paul Lisicky: Joy was never slight to Denise. It was always active, it was in resistance to despair, boredom, routine. It was rare. It wasn’t the same thing as happiness, which might not be completely separate from complacency or erasure. Joy was about awe, wonder. It was linked to mystery, the unexpected, the unexplainable.
Guernica: So often friendship depends on who we are and what we need. It’s a miracle any friendships survive. How does it happen? Do we forgive them? Do we forgive ourselves? Does anyone really change?
Paul Lisicky: I think people change all the time. There are certainly constants, but if we understand ourselves according to what we like then we’re probably all over the place. Our tastes in food, place, people, sex—doesn’t all that shift with time? I’m in Seattle right now, and as I was walking along the waterfront yesterday I was thinking, actually, This is paradise. This is the most beautiful place I’ve ever seen. The mountains in the distance, the color of the water, the smell of vegetation. But at another time in my life I would have thought it was too cold—I was drawn to places that were warm and jungle-y with crazy tropical plants of an almost science fiction-y sort.
So we all want to tell a coherent narrative about ourselves. And problems start when you think of your own identity as wired into another’s—“She’s the light one and I’m the dark one”—and outside circumstances change that other person: a death, some kind of trauma. Or, conversely, good fortune. So who are we when our “twin” changes? That can be hard to navigate, and no wonder relationships have a hard time surviving it.
Guernica: Also, you talk about these friendships where you talk and talk on the phone. I remember those as well. How has technology changed friendship? Relationships?
Paul Lisicky: I know I have a lot more people in my daily life than I did before social media. I might not actually see my friends on the street, or at the gym, but I’m watching them, they’re watching me, even though it’s most likely through Instagram. Occasionally we’re sending each other messages. There’s nothing very unusual about any of that, but not very long ago, our closest relationships were most likely with people living nearby. I think it would be simplistic to say social media destroys the possibility of close friendships. It’s just different—that’s all.
Guernica: At a party Denise dismissively refers to herself as one of the Eighties Girls. What was she saying about that moment and those writers? What place do they occupy today? I love Laurie Colwin and her work. I love Renata Adler and Ann Beattie. Could you talk about their work and Denise’s? Could you also talk about the way that a writer’s legacy changes over time?
Paul Lisicky: Oh, I love those writers too—and it is great to see their work being taken in by younger people who are coming to that work freshly. (Speedboat, for instance. Talk about a prescient work, so ahead of its time.) Reputations and popularity—they’re always in flux. Some of the people who were literary stars when I was in my 20s have sort of disappeared from the scene now, but that doesn’t mean readers won’t come back to their work, even after we’re all gone. In that instance in the book, Denise is so hungry for a category or designation that she reaches for the one that might not actually suit her. I never thought of her as out of step or unseen but she had a different standard.
Guernica: Could you talk about what Denise was writing about and what that meant to you? Where she falls into a specific space in her writing?
Paul Lisicky: She was always interested in writing about unwieldy characters in the domestic world and inevitably there’s a sane person at the center of her novel who’s managing a chaotic family, doing what she can to both take care of the family and establish a life on her own. That’s the pull in her novels.
I was just thinking last night that her first book, Good Deeds, the book that got a lot of attention, was really refracted through J.D. Salinger’s Glass family. I had forgotten that after several years because I guess I read a review that mentioned this and I thought, Of course, Denise was trying to do her own version of her voice with that material. That zany, Vaudevillian chaos. Damaged but joyous. Joy to her was of the highest value. It was not slight. Joy was about animation, about participating in life. Even the deepest pain was manageable as long as joy could be recognized, out there, the possibility was nearby.
It would have been so interesting to see where her work went. She was at work, I believe, on a series of essays about being a cancer patient during the last year of her life, and I assume that work is in storage somewhere. But maybe, it would be really lovely if this book was able to get her work back out again. There’s been some talk of that.
Music will always be my first vocabulary.
Guernica: Throughout your book, music serves to fill the gaps between what you feel and what you can say to the people you love. Your book acknowledges the ways that language fails us. In the silence that we can’t help but live with, how does music salvage our shortcomings? Could you talk about the way music bound you to Denise and M? How did it help you preserve your relationships? By that same token, how did music help you say goodbye?
Paul Lisicky: Music will always be my first vocabulary. I learned to play songs by ear on the piano long before I started taking lessons. Music always seemed to me the ideal conduit for all the nuances and complications of the interior life; it’s where I go when language falls short. Music lives outside logic, causality. I’m not sure it exactly preserved my relationships, but it was certainly part of the atmosphere, as necessary as food and water.
Guernica: Throughout your book, you talk about the work of Joni Mitchell. How do you feel Mitchell’s work and life as an artist echoes the manner in which you engage with those you love and with your writing?
Paul Lisicky: I’ve always been drawn to Joni’s idiosyncrasy—her steady cultivation of it. It all goes back to her guitar, her open tunings, which set up her own harmonic vocabulary. The songs don’t sound like anyone else’s. It seems to me incredibly brave to respect one’s own particularity when there are so many forces out there that want you to conform, conform. Can you imagine what it was like to stand up to all those men—major jazz players who didn’t know what to do with someone who didn’t read music, who steadfastly refused to learn it? She not only stood up to them, but managed to convince them she was up to something extraordinary. It’s just human nature to want to be part of the pack, to follow someone else’s lead, but Joni’s too smart and self-attuned to care about all that. I can’t think of anyone who’s influenced me more, as an artist, as a human. My own books, not to sound grandiose, I know I’ve taken direction from her in terms of trying to reinvent my concerns, my voice, and sound from book to book.
Guernica: I think that’s how things survive, by allowing yourself to change.
Paul Lisicky: And it’s wonderful to be an amateur again. It’s a relief. We can let all of our terms and tropes and patterns do the work for us because that’s sort of what people expect once you get an identifiable voice or sound…
Guernica: A persona.
Paul Lisicky: A persona. It’s really hard for people who get widely known. And when money is involved, it’s hard to nurture that fresh original impulse.
Guernica: Beyond Joni Mitchell, I was wondering if you could talk about the effect that another musician, Laura Nyro, had on your work and life. Building from this, could you talk about the relationship between writers and musicians, artists and enthusiasts or fans? How do they inspire and challenge us across disciplines?
Paul Lisicky: Laura is such a genius as a hybridist—who else could take Motown, Broadway, folk songs, and make her own seamless language of it? And everything she does comes with such depth of feeling. She isn’t afraid of emotion. So many artists’ works are enervated by that fear of sentimentality, and Laura knows that the way out of that trap is through an attention to craft, a resistance to borrowed moves. In other words, depth of feeling does not equal sentimentality. She’s not terribly afraid of bad taste either—think of the ending of the original recording of “The Confession” which I think of as pretty wonderful (“Love my lovething”), but that one is probably a Laura litmus test. It occurs to me that I’m much more likely to think about the similarities between disparate artists than I am in their differences. I can’t ever imagine composing a sentence without thinking of its contour and cadence, the shape it might make in the air if it were sung.
Guernica: Could you talk about how your work in this memoir differs from elegy? In what ways is your book an elegy to your late friend and your ex?
Paul Lisicky: I think of the book as an elegy to Denise, a long, long song for the dead. It’s more complicated to use that word in regard to my relationship with my ex, which has morphed into friendship, not so unusual when it comes to exes these days. I just wonder whether it would be impossible to keep the tone and stance of elegy out of anything I write given when I came into adulthood, which was during the height of the AIDS epidemic. My sensibility couldn’t help but be shaped by that catastrophe, and all the poems and narratives that came out of those years. Gay men are pretty well versed when it comes to saying goodbye; it must be in our DNA. And I think that’s true even for much younger men, who might not know what it’s like to lose friend after friend after friend.
Guernica: Also, how do you know what should go into a eulogy so soon after someone dies?
Paul Lisicky: Well, exactly. And how do you package someone for a group of disparate people. You have to imagine their faces and how to say something that manages to touch all those faces but still have some coherence. Part of that is leaving some space for interpretation because not everyone in that particular church would have identified with every one of those tropes. There were people in that space who would have thought of her completely differently, and I really thought that was important to preserve in the book. I wanted to make sure that this wasn’t written as the authoritative version of her; just one version of her written at one point in time. I think there will be multiple ways to think about this material. If I wrote this book now, I’m sure I’d have different things to say.
Guernica: If you could send Denise a mixtape today to let her know about the place she occupies in your life now, what would it include?
Paul Lisicky: Actually, there is already a mixtape embedded in the book, compiled of songs that would have been new to Denise, from Feist to Bat for Lashes to Joan as Police Woman. I love all that music, but it already feels like the work of a particular time and place, so I ended up coming up with a playlist for Largehearted Boy that talks to the finished book. Stevie Wonder’s “Golden Lady” is on it. Joni’s “Don Juan Reckless Daughter.” More recent songs like Sufjan Stevens’ “Death with Dignity” and Bowie’s “Dollar Days” alongside the Diana Ross and the Supremes cover of “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough.” The songs are all so charismatic and vital and all-the-way-alive; they remind me a lot of Denise’s own character, which was never afraid of a little wattage.
Lauren LeBlanc is a freelance book editor and writer, as well as a senior nonfiction editor at Guernica. She is a member of the Brooklyn Book Festival’s nonfiction committee, the National Book Critics Circle, and PEN America’s membership committee. A native New Orleanian, she lives in Brooklyn.
Paul Lisicky is an American writer whose new memoir, The Narrow Door, was published to great acclaim in January by Graywolf Press. He is also the author of the novels Lawnboy and The Burning House, the memoir Famous Builder, and the story collection Unbuilt Projects. He also contributed to the essay collection Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers on the Decision Not to Have Kids, which was edited by Meghan Daum. He currently teaches at Rutgers University-Camden, and was recently named a 2016 Guggenheim Fellow.