Paul Lisicky is the author of Lawnboy, Famous Builder, and two forthcoming books: The Burning House (novel, 2011) and Unbuilt Projects (short prose pieces, 2012). His work has appeared in Ploughshares, The Iowa Review, Five Points, The Seattle Review, Black Warrior Review, Brevity, Story Quarterly, Lo-Ball, and other magazines and anthologies. He's taught in the graduate writing programs at Cornell University, Rutgers-Newark, and Sarah Lawrence College. He currently teaches at NYU and in the low residency MFA Program at Fairfield University. He lives in New York City.
James Cihlar, an editor for Etruscan Press and the author of the poetry book Undoing(Little Pear Press, 2008), the chapbook Metaphysical Bailout (Pudding House Press, 2010), and the forthcoming volume Rancho Nostalgia (Dream Horse Press, 2013), conducted this interview with Paul Lisicky about the artist's role as commentator on issues as diverse as architecture, sex, and the economic downturn.
Jim Cihlar: In your new novel, The Burning House, a coastal New Jersey town battles encroaching development. Narrator Isidore Mirsky, an unemployed auto mechanic, knows the score: “But look, those ranch houses with their clerestories, open rooms, tongue-and-groove ceilings, and pocket doors were exactly what serious architects were aping these days, even as the dodos in our zone were tearing them down.” With your previous memoir titled Famous Builder and an upcoming collection of essays called Unbuilt Projects, architecture and civic planning appear to be abiding concerns in your writing. What fuels this?
Paul Lisicky: I wanted to be a developer, city planner, architect-all of that-when I was a kid. I was pretty passionate about it. I spent the better part of my pre-teenage years designing developments on posterboard, filling up notebooks with house plans, drawing advertisements.
It's probably impossible and ultimately futile to explain desire. I was sick a lot as a kid. I had one illness after the next, so I spent a lot of time at home, by myself, away from school. I knew, as early as I can remember, that I needed to make things or else I'd go crazy. Maybe I didn't feel in sync with the world I was in, so I needed to conjure up worlds of my own—that might explain a little of it. All of that replica-making also seems to me like an excuse to name things: project names, street names, model home names. Repositories of names: it was the beginning of my attachment to words. I learned that a name—or a cluster of names—could create an atmosphere or texture. So through these books, I'm furthering the unrealized dreams, the unbuilt projects, of that lost kid.
JC: Critics have praised the poetic quality of your prose style, calling it dreamy, lush, and evocative. The first chapter of The Burning House was first published as a poem in The Literary Review and on Verse Daily. You use techniques commonly associated with poetry: ellipsis, imagery, and compression. How do the two genres inform each other?
PL: I'm not very good at sticking to my category. My MFA is in fiction, but I mostly hung out with the poets back then. With a few exceptions, I still hang out with the poets. I love the attention that poetry asks of its readers—you can't read a poem with one eye on the Twitter feed. It asks for complete immersion. It's a bit of puzzle, a problem. You must work. You are implicated in that work. And I love the space it gives to the reader. A good poem doesn't tell you how to think and feel. It honors ambiguity, contradiction. I've always wanted to write prose that does those things.
JC: Your books honestly portray human sexuality wherever and whenever it occurs, even in unconventional instances. In The Burning House we see the sex-lives of former high-school sweethearts as they enter middle age. Isidore's attraction to his wife's sister may be a metaphor for nostalgia, but it is also an accurate snapshot of how the body thinks. Perhaps due to our Puritanical origins, American literature hasn't always deglamorized sex, and yet your characters' matter-of-fact attitudes makes desire normative, neither ignoring nor enhancing its relevance to other aspects of the human experience. Is this a conscious mission in your writing?
PL: I think we've all read the kind of fiction that pretends desire is a little less interesting than tying our shoes in the morning. A tasteful ellipses, an excuse to clear our throats, something hurried through, subordinate to the drama at hand. I do think most of us care about our sex lives more than we're willing to admit, and I want to make sure I make a space for all that. It would be dishonest not to do that. I don't have a particular agenda, but I am interested in the whole unwieldy, interior nature of it: theater of vulnerability and awe and trouble.
JC: Isidore Mirsky in The Burning House is openly heterosexual. The novel's take appears to be that masculinity is masculinity, period. I don't know if it is the remnants of identity politics that make me ask this question, in which case I find it suspicious myself, or if it is a genuine desire to understand how a fiction writer navigates issues of character identity versus an awareness that readers are used to generalizations, in which case I'll let myself off the hook—but, what was it like as a writer known for convincingly portraying gay characters to take on this challenge?
PL: I never set out to write Isidore. The novel was initially a much longer book; Joan, Isidore's sister-in-law, was the primary narrator. I put a lot of work into early drafts, and while I think there was probably some decent writing in those pages, it still read like work—a little too willed. It didn't sing. I must have been in an impatient mood when I thought, what if I give a section of the book to Isidore? Almost instantly the story had a cadence. I didn't know where the voice was going, and that's what brought me to the laptop every day; I wanted to hear what Isidore was going to say. It gradually became clear to me that Isidore had some of the same concerns as Evan in Lawnboy. Sex is locus for both trouble and sustenance for the two of them. How do you reconcile your streak of wildness with your desire for domestic life? Who are you if you don't fit into any established external category? Those are a few of their obsessions.
JC: Are there double standards for gay fiction writers with straight characters and straight fiction writers with gay characters?
PL: I'm probably not the best one to answer that question. If I took that kind of worry in too deeply, I'd probably never write. Still, I'd be lying if I didn't have some worry about all that during the submission process. Some of the initial responses from editors were enthusiastic but also vague-such as, this is your best writing, but . . . And the “but” was never followed up on! Maybe it was simply not the book some expected of me, but then again, Famous Builder was a lot different from Lawnboy. Anyway, that vagueness seems to have disappeared upon publication of the book.
It's hard to talk standards, because standards are elusive. They're changing all the time; that's just the nature of standards, whether we know it or not. I guess we can help to change standards, at least on a micro level, if all of us simply make a pact with ourselves to write what we want to write, regardless of what we think we should do.
JC: You've mentioned that contemporary writers as divergent in their aesthetics as Mary Gaitskill and Joy Williams inspire you. Going back a generation or two, whom would you describe as your literary ancestors? Your thorough investment in character and perception reminds me of, say, Virginia Woolf, or Christopher Isherwood, for instance. Do you share Mary Gaitskill's admiration for Vladimir Nabokov, and his ability to mine transgressive behavior for literary metaphor?
PL: I'm a huge Woolf fan; she continues to mean a lot to me. I feel like I'm being taught by her work all the time: its swing, its specificity, its attempt to capture the motion of thinking. In content, her work is about as far from transgression as you could get, with the exception of some of the work in Moments of Being or A Room of One's Own or Orlando. Her real rebellion expresses itself in form, through all the experiments from Mrs. Dalloway on.
Jane Bowles, too, is important, though her strategies feel a lot different from Woolf's-she might be not be so overtly interested in consciousness and perception, though her work suggests the inner life, with all of its disjunctions and non sequiturs and trailing offs.
As for Nabokov-I'm a Speak, Memory fan. I remember teaching that book when I was I writing Famous Builder, and I'm sure I took its example in. I was crazy about Lolita as an English major—my earliest stories are full of nods and winks to its characters and place names—but I haven't revisited it in a long time. Transgression is another one of those things that's fluid. This is an obvious thing to say, but as the culture changes, what's transgressive changes. Transgression is subjective too. The writing of Famous Builder felt transgressive, not because of its content exactly, but because it was turning out to be such a friendly book, and I'd never written a friendly book before. Where is the angst? I kept thinking. Where is the dread? And my worry over that ended up feeding the work. It felt like I was breaking some rule to myself. It always feels good to do that in my writing, in part because I'm usually so well behaved in life.
JC: Isidore Mirsky's behavior may seem questionable to some. He desires his wife's sister and has an affair with another woman in town. And yet the novel avoids imposing heavy-handed moral judgment. Is it perspective, stream-of-consciousness, that allows you to accomplish this?
PL: It's impossible for me to write a narrator-or speaker-from the position of judgment or certainty. I like Isidore, even though I know he's sometimes wreaking havoc on those he loves. I hope the reader likes him too. I suppose I wrote the book to understand someone like him, and to do that I had to step in his skin. I think it helps that he's fairly hard on himself. He might try to justify himself at certain points, but I think he knows deep down that all that's a cover for his own sense of pain and inadequacy.
JC: You have said your fear about The Burning House is that some readers would discover that the novel is one long prose poem, and you describe your next book, Unbuilt Projects, as short prose pieces. Although you've published poems in journals, am I right in sensing some hesitation about describing your work as poetry or presenting yourself as a poet?
PL: I think of myself as such a hybridist that even to say I'm a Novelist doesn't feel true to who I am. Same goes for Nonfiction Writer. I love poetry, I studied it in grad school before I went on for my MFA. I wrote papers about Blake and Dickinson and Shelley. I was much more comfortable writing about poetry than I was about, say, Faulkner or Joyce. Sometimes I'm even more comfortable teaching poetry-you have access to the whole text. It's all right there in front of you, the whole trajectory, the constellation of images. But identifying as a poet? I think I'd feel more authentic about doing that if I felt driven to lineate. I know what makes a poetic line; I'm very good when it comes to suggesting line breaks in the poems of others, but in my own work I seem to need that damn right margin. And maybe it simply comes down to that.
JC: The Burning House has love and lust, lies and truth, sex and politics. It includes climactic scenes of public testimony about a planned development on critical wetlands. In part, Isidore's attraction to Joan seems fueled by her activism. Particularly in an election year, do you believe sex is a subtext for politics in American life?
PL: Well, it's probably a subtext for anything involving change, power, money, anything desirable and/or endangered. I'm not sure Isidore is initially stirred by the object of Joan's activism as he is by her sense of belief-there's something enthralling about being a spectator to her passion, just the way he was audience to his wife's singing once upon a time. Of course, Isidore is swept over to anti-development side soon enough, but that probably wouldn't have happened without that old erotic pull, which is always stronger than abstraction. Flannery O'Connor says, “the beginning of human knowledge is through the senses.” She might not have been talking about sex exactly, but I think it applies.
JC: I see in The Burning House and perhaps in your other work the idea of architecture as a manifestation of history, a means by which past, present, and future are made tangible in the moment, laid out side-by-side before our eyes. For GLBT writers, the past few decades have been momentous: the Stonewall Riots of 1969, the AIDS pandemic, Harvey Milk's election in 1978, all the way up to the recent victory in New York. There is perhaps only one gay character in The Burning House although you accurately portray the homoeroticism and narcissism of hyper-masculinity. Heteronormative behavior exists in tandem with what could be transgressive, or at least unconventional, behavior (Isidore, for instance, gets pleasure from housework). Is there a sense in which this novel by a gay author about straight characters is a commentary on the history of gender roles in America since mid-century?
PL: Wow. I love your question. I'd never be able to start with a consciously grand plan, but I suppose the novel does want to de-center. I think the world around us is de-centered in so many ways. For instance, I don't think many of my younger straight male students feel any obligation to be hyper-masculine in terms of self-presentation. But there might be other sides of them that are in sync with old roles. That's just the way we are now. We're much more marbled than we used to be. We just haven't caught up to it yet in our literature.