Paul Lisicky on the Writing Life (Including Practical Suggestions)
Valerie Fox: In reading your books, I definitely become rather attached to your characters, I care about what happens to them. In The Burning House, your narrator even invites a connection (mentioning “you” and “us”) as if we as readers are confidantes. I felt involved in the story and fascinated by all three of the main characters (narrator, Joan, Laura). When you write, do you think in such terms (of caring, connection)? If so, how does it influence choices you make about them, about how they act, what they do, etc.
Paul Lisicky: Thanks, that’s a fascinating question. I think the relationship to the reader really shifts from book to book depending upon the characters and the situation. Isidore has some charisma, but there’s something disturbing about what he’s unable to acknowledge to himself, this entire-region of fenced-off feelings. At the same time, he’s compelled to let you in on his secret life. My guess is that it’s intimacy that he wants, not his sister-in-law, who’s a kind of placeholder for him anyway. I’m not even sure he’s able to see her outside of the myth he’s beamed onto her. And yet I like him as a character, I’m swayed by him, have a crush on him–it’s confusing!
I guess that’s a long way of saying that the relationship to the reader is organic rather than engineered. It would stand that a guy like Isidore would be afraid of being judged if you were chatting with him in a bar, and he’d probably unconsciously work to be extra charming. The speaker of the more recent book, Unbuilt Projects, is much more guarded. At times, he’s even anticipating the reader’s wariness. Again, I think that has to do with the material: the frequent narrator of the book is in crisis over his mother’s loss of mind. Everything he thought he knew about time, character, cause and effect, and language is up for grabs. Sometimes I think of that Unbuilt Projects speaker as this newly vulnerable guy standing in front of a group of strangers, pretending to fold his arms, even though he’s actually hugging himself. He’s talking because he has to, but he’d never presume to make a connection with those strangers. How could he if he has no idea what people are anymore?
VF: As you become more and more experienced and successful as a writer, are there some parts of the endeavor that change, that perhaps become easier, tougher? (I am reading now Nabokov’s poignant Speak, Memory, and that has me thinking about matters like that.)
PL: Oh, I am sorry to say it all gets tougher–probably! You can feel more like an amateur the more you write. Amateurism can be a good place to write from, just as long as it doesn’t disable you. I think a serious writer is wary of his usual moves, cadences, and solutions, and dismantles his own cliches on a sentence by sentence level. That’s not exactly a recipe for self-confidence, but it may be the only way to make art over the long haul.
What people read, how people read–I think that that’s shifting all the time given the digital transformation. How do you write in a moment in which people are so shaped by social media: clicking links, moving past links, choosing what’s relevant vs. what’s not. I don’t think we experience much in the way of linearity anymore–it’s all chock-o-block. Not that that’s necessarily a bad thing, but how does that shape how we tell stories? Do we write work that wants to mimic the short bursts we land on in a news feed? Or do we give the reader an immersive experience, something long and continuous, that calms him away from that constant need to leap off into some cloud?
VF: What have you been reading lately? What would you recommend?
PL: I keep coming back to Joy Williams’ 99 Stories of God, which came out back in April. It’s a collage of 99 very short stories that ask questions about animal life, God, loneliness, language, relationships. They’re in this weird territory between the horrible and the charming–and some are unexpectedly touching. And always funny. The work doesn’t sound like anyone else, not even early Joy Williams.
Other things I read this summer? I read more than usual and here are a few of the more recent: Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be? Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers. Rebecca Solnit’s The Faraway Nearby. Plus lots and lots of stuff for school. I’m teaching an undergraduate workshop called The Literature of the Animals this semester. I like everything I picked for the syllabus, but my two favorites are stories I hadn’t known before: “Flounder” from Ted Sanders’ No Animals We Could Name and “What to Do With Henry” from Tania James’ Aerogrammes.
VF: Do you think it is important for new writers to imitate other writers? If so, do you have some particular strategies or exercises that might be useful to the newer writers?
PL: I don’t know how anyone becomes a writer without imitating other writers. A little bit from x, a little bit from y, and so on. I think it would be naive to think you spin yourself out of nothing, or your own genius. I think one of the writer’s jobs is to read widely and deeply, not just when you’re starting out, but throughout your writing life. We write for the reader obviously, but writing is also a conversation with the writers who have preceded us–or those who are writing now. It feels like solitary work, but it’s also a big collaborative act.
If you’re starting out, it’s probably a good idea to imitate widely–I think that can do a lot to lessen those anxieties of stealing. When I say widely, I mean writers who write in a variety of styles, voices. I’ve taught craft classes where I’ve asked people to take a representative paragraph from a writer and to substitute their own noun for the writer’s noun, their own verb for the writer’s verb…. It sounds like Mad Libs, but you can learn so much about syntax, cause and effect, description.
Sometimes the writers who end up influencing us aren’t necessarily our favorite writers–I’ve found that to be true in my own experience. It can be hard to have enough distance from the writers you’re really crazy about in order to see their work on the nuts and bolts level.
VF: Are your approaches to writing in different genres similar, or related? In what ways? Do you consciously choose certain themes/ideas to explore in particular genres? Are there some things you can do in short fiction that you can’t in a novel, or the inverse? What do you try to learn from one that you can apply to the other?
PL: The material always seems to choose its genre. I’m now in the middle of writing a memoir about two mentors to me: my late best friend, and my ex-partner. I can’t imagine writing that story through the lenses of invented characters and situations–at least not right now. It seems to require a kind of closeness to the reader that’s of a piece with truth telling. Maybe I’ll think differently about all this twenty years from now and fictionalize just to see what I wasn’t able to say in a more direct approach.
I do think my memoir work has informed the fiction, which has become much more interior–and essayistic–over the years. It’s interest has been in subjectivity over the stuff of plot and narrative, but that might be coming to an end, who knows? I’ve also been working on a little series of parables and fables which I might read at the reading. If you’re in this long enough, you can’t stop from becoming a new creature over and over and over.
VF: Thanks for taking the time for this and offering your insights!