An Interview With Author Paul Lisicky

Editor Staff, Interview, December 30th, 2011


John W. Barrios conducted this interview over several rounds of email with author Paul Lisicky, who is located in New York.

PAUL LISICKY is the author of Lawnboy, Famous Builder, The Burning House (2011)  and the forthcoming book Unbuilt Projects (2012). His work has appeared in Ploughshares, The Iowa Review, StoryQuarterly, The Seattle Review, Five Points, Subtropics, Gulf Coast, and 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. He lives in New York City and Springs, New York, and has taught in the graduate writing programs at Cornell University, Rutgers-Newark, and Sarah Lawrence College. He currently teaches at NYU.

Paul Lisicky

John Barrios: Where do you write? Is there a structure to your writing time?

Paul Lisicky: I used to sit at a desk for a set numbers of hours most days, and I’d pin myself to that chair whether anything was coming or not. A routine like that works for some people, but for me it was probably tied up with certain anxieties about legitimacy. In other words, taking on my father’s work ethic. I still write most days, but I’m much more likely to write when I’m not planning to do it, when I’m not trying. Writing might happen when I’m on the train. It might happen when I’m walking down the sidewalk, and I have to stop and thumb a paragraph into my phone.

JB: Do you think technology has helped you in finding your rhythm as a writer in this way? 5 -10 years ago you wouldn’t have had the luxury. Do you carry a notebook or do you use technology exclusively?

PL: I’ve always tried to find a new portal for my writing whenever I’ve felt too settled on any one device. My thinking and sentence-making tend to shift whenever I’m confronted with a wider (or smaller) field between the margins. Like most people, I tend to type a lot faster than I hand-write, so that must certainly effect how a paragraph comes into being. Back in my twenties, when I first started writing, I’d wake up at six in the morning, scrawl on a legal pad for an hour or two, then transfer the work into my laptop later. Technology helps, sure, but I think of my phone as just a sibling to that old legal pad. It’s certainly easier to carry around.

JB: Do you rely more on technology when drafting your work, or do you still write things down. I tend to caught up writing directly to my netbook then I edit right off the page without having those early drafts saved (which is my misuse of technology I suppose). I do still write all of my first drafts in a notebook, but after that, changes are lost as I edit.

PL: I do edit off the page for the most part. The drafts I keep are usually written months, maybe years, apart. I think I’d become an insane person if I kept too many versions around. I want to assimilate all those versions; I hope all those considerations and deletions inform the page that you read, but I wouldn’t want to refer to all those drafts when I’m putting that version together.

JB: Paul, you said:

I used to sit at a desk for a set numbers of hours most days, and I’d pin myself to that chair whether anything was coming or not. A routine like that works for some people, but for me it was probably tied up with certain anxieties about legitimacy. In other words, taking on my father’s work ethic.

Can you explain what anxieties you are referring to? What do you mean by legitimacy? Do you just mean because that is how it has been done by previous generations of writers? Perhaps technology has given writers like yourself more legitimacy because you can write in the way that best suits your modern lifestyle.

PL: Well, I grew up in a family in which my brothers and I were given permission to be artists, but if we did so, we were expected to be good. Not just good, but successful. My father grew up poor, so a high value was placed on achievement. I’m sure he and my mother probably would have been happier

if I’d decided to go med school or law school, so in the early days I think did whatever I could to make the practice of my writing look as arduous as possible, especially in those years when I was still living at home.

JB: I am also piqued by your mentioning your father’s work ethic. Perhaps you are meaning legitimacy with his ethic versus your personal style?

PL: Honestly, I think I’m much more like my father than it might appear. I get terrifically bored when I’m sitting still, when I’m not making something, or challenging myself. We certainly look like we come from different worlds–we have radically different politics, different ways of thinking about the world–but sometimes I worry about the fact that we might be versions of the same person.

JB: The Burning House is very poetic. As I read it, I immediately wanted to break it down into verse. I also really loved reading passages aloud, which i don’t always do with fiction (Ondaatje also carries that gift with me). I could almost argue that this is a long form prose poem. Was there a point where this was, in some part, poetry first? Can you discuss any difference between your approach to writing poetry and your writing fiction?

Lawnboy, Paul LisickyPL: Thanks, John. I think I started to make use of my musical background in The Burning House, or at least my interest in vocal phrasing. My previous books were pretty dependent on sensory description for their effects. I was probably under-utilizing my ear without knowing it at the time. I started giving many more public readings after Famous Builder came out, and that might have helped too. I wanted my work to have some sonic energy when I stood up there at the podium.

JB: Perhaps I didn’t do my homework well, but I didn’t realize you had a musical background. Were you a singer? Did you write your own music? Knowing that now speaks a lot to me as to why I find a certain flow in The Burning House and why I like to read passages aloud.

PL: I was a singer, but not an especially gifted one. I certainly know what inventive phrasing is when I hear it, but it’s not something I could ever transfer to my own singing. I don’t really like the timbre of my voice; it’s not as textured or as complex as I’d like it to be. It’s all one color, and I’ve never been able to do anything about that without punishing my voice–and/or sounding false. For whatever reason, many of these worries fell away when I started to write, even though I still think of my writing as a kind of singing.

I wrote my own music for years. I have been on hiatus for longer than I want to admit. For years, I told myself I’d left that world behind, but who knows what’s coming?

JB: Burning House reads very differently than your previous novel Lawnboy. I found myself reading it slowly, taking in the subtleties and impact of each line, much as I do when I read Henry James. The writing almost insists that you slow down. Was this intentional in your approach to writing it?

PL: I probably got better at doing what I wanted to do in Lawnboy. Sometimes you get better chops over time, through practice. Some readers seem to think that The Burning House speeds along, which is just fine, but I’m glad to hear that it slowed you down. I honestly don’t want there to be any wasted words in the work. I don’t want it to feel mannered; I don’t want it to feel too worked, but I want the writing to capture the cadence of a very particular state of mind.

JB: I think cadence can work differently for different readers as well as different reading styles. I have seen Vanessa Veselka (Zazen on Red Lemonade Press) read twice, both very different readings and both made me see something in her work I missed on my own reading the first time around. For instance, I didn’t recognize the humor so prominent in her work, as I read it more seriously at first. Her different interpretations of her own cadences stretched the narrative for me in different directions, opening new readings. Sort of like different actors interpreting the same monologue. Do you find that in your work as you read it aloud to an audience?

PL: The interpretation does sort of shift depending on the emotional temperature of the room, whether I’m comfortable, whether I feel people are with me or not. I never want to over-perform. I was just at a reading the other night when I heard any number of readers pushing too hard, but I like the experience of hearing someone’s work shift each time she reads it. That might happen through speed of delivery, variation of volume, pauses between sentences and paragraphs.

JB: The Burning House brings to the surface a lot of emotions some men tend to bury. I suppose I am referring to naturally being aroused or at least sexually curious about other women,specifically his wife’s sister. Is there an intentional connection between these internal struggles and the use of architecture in the novel? Does architecture as a subtext speak to the emotional building, confusion and potential destruction of the main character?

PL: No, I can’t say that was intentional, but I do like the connection you’re making. I always try to write toward a space that’s smarter and more knowing than I am, where I feel the *possibilities* of connections in the atmosphere without actually naming them. Then I sort of trust that the reader will be able to make the links himself. Every time I’ve tried to will those connections, it hasn’t served the work. It’s seemed deliberate.

JB: I’d like to turn our discussion to your upcoming book, Unbuilt Projects. 25 pages in and I have tears. My heart is broken. This collection reads as a collection of emotions rather than straight narrative, which is really what I love about it. Perhaps this gets back to what you said regarding allowing the reader to make their own connections. I suppose that is more my impression rather than a question, but I’d still like to know what you think when I say that.

PL: I do think that some readers will probably not read the book linearly. It’s designed so you can read it like a book of poems. So my guess is that some are going to leap around in the book, and in doing that make their own meaning. That’s perfectly fine with me. And I love the description of it as a collection of emotions. Thank you.

JB: How do you categorize this book? Is this a memoir? A short story collection? A novel? The approach feels very much like Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son, which is to my understanding, is based on Johnson’s early experience’s.

PL: A good deal of that work has autobiographical roots, but some of it takes little liberties with the facts. Most of the pieces are in first person, but some are in third, one is in second. Because of all that, it wouldn’t have been honest to say memoir. We’re calling it fiction, even though some of the pieces have been published as poems, a couple as lyric essays. Fiction is more capacious than the other two categories; and by that, I’m not at all suggesting fiction is better or more evolved than the other forms, but fiction doesn’t seem to come with expectations, conventions, and so on. In all honesty, I’d prefer it not to have any genre label–I don’t think Lydia Davis’s Varieties of Disturbance has a label on the front cover. I think of my own book as a hybrid.

Regarding Denis Johnson… Jesus’ Son is incredibly important to me. I know a lot of people say that, but I love the fact that that voice sounds like it’s just come into being. It’s half plain, half heightened and sensory. It’s as close to music as any book I’ve ever read, and I’ve never tired of it, even though I’ve taught from it dozens of times.

The Burning House, Paul LisickyJB: Can you speak to any style change from The Burning House to Unbuilt Projects? Both forms feel appropriate to the subject matter. With Unbuilt Projects, the short chapters give immediate emotional resonance. Did you know what form you wanted when you began, or do you just let it flow and let the material tell you how it wants to be shaped?

PL: I never really know what I want when I begin anything. I write and write and I’m usually not even vaguely interested until the work takes me in a different direction from the original plan. I think at a certain point I tried to write The Burning House with very short chapters. For a while, I was really taken with D.J. Waldie’s Holy Land. I love the spareness of that work, that repetitions in the language, the emotional understatement of the speaker. But Isidore refused to be hemmed in like that. The Burning House is a spare book, but the narrator needs a little more space to roam. It just wasn’t in his character to be strict; he needed some expressive range and the chapters and scenes needed to accommodate that.

Unbuilt Projects is a little different in that it’s essentially about language, or what happens to us when someone we care about loses her language, memory, identity. Every word needs to count, because so much is at stake behind speech itself. Each of those pieces is probably more concentrated than any of the chapters in the novel. The reader needs breaks, places for the mind to breathe. Unlike the novel, they were also written at various points in time over a 2-year period. The last few were written just a couple of weeks after my mother’s death, and then they stopped coming. There seemed to be a reason for that. Then I looked at what I had, put one piece next to another, tried to think of how one piece made an argument with the next. The book started to take on a shape.

JB: Lastly, totally off topic, can you tell me what inspires you to almost wholly tweet fascinating articles on animals on twitter?

PL: That was pure accident. I joined Twitter early in its life when there weren’t that many other writers on board. How to make use of its weird forum? It took me a while to get it. I started casually going through newspapers on-line, and the stories that interested me were inevitably the stories of animals–especially the incursion of animals into human life. So I started posting links. Gradually my project took on a life of its own. Along the way, I came to learn more about animals and why they mean so much to me. And found others who were interested as well. Now my writing is full of animals!

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