The Rumpus Book Club chats with Paul Lisicky about his new book The Narrow Door, how much of your story you own, Joni Mitchell, friendship and loss, and the importance of reading your own work aloud.
This is an edited transcript of the book club discussion. Every month The Rumpus Book Club hosts a discussion online with the book club members and the author, and we post an edited version online as an interview. To learn how you can become a member of the Rumpus Book Club, click here.
This Rumpus Book Club interview was edited by Brian Spears.
Frances: Heart-rending book
Paul Lisicky: Oh, thanks so much.
Frances: I was enthralled reading it but you had to live it. Ouch!
Paul Lisicky: Now that the book is coming out, it feels like I’m living it all over again, by talking about it. A little disconcerting!
Brian S: This may be an odd question to begin with but why did you decide to use initials for some people in the narrative instead of their names?
Paul Lisicky: For a while, as it went through editing, it felt like a “made thing.” And now it feels sort of like a lung, with a life of its own.
Paul Lisicky: Complete intuition, Brian. I think in part I wanted to use that as a device to emphasize artifice. In other words, I wanted the book to seem orchestrated.
Frances: And maybe distance yourself from some of the pain?
Paul Lisicky: But I also was aware that some players would be more willing to be known than not. Exactly, Frances. I couldn’t really use my ex’s name for that very reason. For a while he was known as Adam, and that felt false.
N: I also found the use of initials a fun similarity to Kafka, especially with the quote from The Metamorphosis at the beginning.
Paul Lisicky: I seem to be using initials more frequently in my nonfiction work. I used them throughout my piece “The New Rhoda,” which appeared in Meghan Daum’s Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed.
Brian S: It struck me again today because of a piece I saw today in Brevity by Laurie Hertzel about writing memoir and dealing with the fact that your story is also someone else’s story and they might not want it told.
Paul Lisicky: Yes, I guess I was thinking about Kafka too.
Frances: In the book you were talking with someone about M and said you couldn’t let the person make M a monster. I saw M as a creep, not a monster. But a really badly behaved, selfish person.
Paul Lisicky: I definitely am aware that Denise would have a different version of these events. My ex would as well. And I might certainly tell the story differently ten years from now if I felt compelled to do it. Any version is informed by what’s going on in your life, in the world around you.
Lynda: The love and devotion that you and Denise had for each other as your relationship ebbed and flowed over time was truly beautiful.
Paul Lisicky: And as someone who’s having a really really hard time. Which was difficult to see, because he’d certainly been loving and loyal throughout so much of our relationship.
Paul Lisicky: Thanks, Lynda. It seemed to be that that year of our hiatus—the test of it—actually strengthened our bond after we got back together.
N: Is that one of the reasons you continually referenced external events (disasters, other people’s lives, etc.)? To help emphasize that ambiguity or relative interpretation of events?
Paul Lisicky: I wanted to dissolve the boundary between the outside world and the world of the relationships. Those events, with exception of the Mt. Saint Helens explosion, were happening in the real time of the book, as I was writing.
Frances: What about Joni Mitchell? That was not concurrent. In the beginning I thought you were saying that Denise was the daughter she gave up. I never saw how she fit in.
Paul Lisicky: Denise and I got to know each other through our mutual love of Joni’s music. Of course lots of people love Joni’s music but we believed that we were the only two who got it. Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter, Hejira. We just talked about that music, those lyrics, her persona, all the time. And in a lot of ways she was a role model for Denise. Her toughness, her belief in sexual freedom.
Frances: Oh! You never said that and I was mystified every time Joni Mitchell was mentioned.
Paul Lisicky: I wanted to leave it up to the reader to make that connection.
Frances: Didn’t work for me.
Paul Lisicky: I think my methods are more suggestive than assertive. Check out those passages again and see what you think.
Lynda: It did for me. I understood that Joni’s music was one of the bonds that you shared.
Frances: Hmm… in life or just in writing?
Paul Lisicky: I really couldn’t elide Joni from the book because she was so central, even in Denise’s last night in the hospice. Music was always central to our bond.
Frances: But the snowstorm in the beginning?
Paul Lisicky: Life and writing.
Lynda: Are you still in touch with Denise’s family? What do they think of the book?
Paul Lisicky: The snowstorm—is that in Joni’s first scene?
Frances: Yes—she watches out the window as a little girl.
Paul Lisicky: I am in touch with Denise’s sister-in-law Nancy and she’s heard me read from The Volcano chapter. She loved it—and she’s planning to come to a reading next month. One of Denise’s nephews happened to be at a reading I gave in Maryland three years ago and that was really wonderful.
Lynda: Will you be doing readings in California? San Francisco area?
Paul Lisicky: Yes, at Booksmith in San Francisco in late February. Then a Graywolf Press reading at AWP in Los Angeles at the end of March. Full schedule here.
Lynda: If I’m in town I’ll be there with one of my dear friends. We have a relationship similar to you and Denise minus the cancer part.
Brian S: This is another process-related question. Have you kept journals/diaries that you referred to when putting this together, or did you rely on memory a lot? There’s a piece about a third of the way through the book where you mention the mid-80s being a sort of blank space.
Paul Lisicky: It would be great to meet you, Lynda.
Paul Lisicky: I don’t keep journals or diaries—the closest I’ve come to that is a blog, which I maintained for five years.
Brian S: I blogged for about that long. Sometimes I think about going back to look at it but I’m terrified of what I’ll find.
Paul Lisicky: What I remembered—that’s what went in the book. And that’s why it’s organized as a string of emblematic moments. There really are lots of gaps in my memory.
N: What was it like writing the passages from the early relationship with Denise without diaries or any other written reference? Did you go through numerous drafts of passages that changed based on what you remembered at the time of (re)writing/(re)editing?
Paul Lisicky: It felt like coming into our friendship all over again. I’d remember one thing, and that would signal another thing, and it felt like assembling a small building, with each scene. The process of it felt very intimate and alive, but it was a piece by piece kind of thing. Those memories certainly didn’t come fully formed.
Brian S: What was the impetus for this book? Or did you even think of it as a book at first?
Paul Lisicky: I wanted to preserve the feeling of remembering her just months after her death—the raw immediacy of it, so the drafts were really about getting the language right, getting the pitch right, keeping the voice austere and plainspoken.
N: And there were really so many gems in the language!
Paul Lisicky: Brian, I just wanted to keep her in the world a while longer. I don’t write anything without some imaginary reader in mind, but primarily it was for myself first. After I finished the first draft some time in late 2010, I just put it away for a long time. Or: it was in a file on my hard drive. After I year I showed it to a few friends: is this a book? I wasn’t sure I wanted to publish it.
Paul Lisicky: Thanks so much, N! That voice is probably plainer than any voice I’ve ever written so your words mean a lot to me.
Brian S: Does it feel like a departure in style? I mean, you’re primarily known as a poet, right?
Paul Lisicky: I’m not sure what I’m known as these days—maybe someone who works in multiple forms. I think of myself as primarily a poet who writes all the way to the right margin, who doesn’t lineate. But my MFA is in fiction and my first book, Lawnboy, was a novel.
Brian S: You contain multitudes, in other words. 🙂
Paul Lisicky: You’re being kind! But back to departure in style—I think each of my books attempts to create its own voice so I’m not even sure I have a signature style, other than certain descriptive tendencies, an interest in the sound of language. Maybe an immersion in place.
Brian S: You make the pages easy to turn, that’s for sure.
Paul Lisicky: Thanks, Brian. I think the last book might have had more density in each paragraph, those being shorter pieces. The forward motion of this book—at least the latter sections—felt like a different animal to me.
Brian S: So because when you write poetry, you don’t lineate, does that blur genre for you when you’re writing? Or do you have a sense of what you’re working in from the beginning of a piece?
Paul Lisicky: I start with voice, maybe a sentence. That sentence might embody an image, and I go from there. One sentence to the next. Sound drives the work these days—sound before description.
N: In terms of the process, did each passage/episode start separately before you started connecting them into a narrative? This was my first introduction to your work and the language, which at times was almost melodic, definitely drew me in 🙂
Paul Lisicky: I wrote the book consecutively, even though it’s a nonlinear structure. It was the first time I ever tried that. I’ve written other books that were organized as collages but they were largely put together through cutting and pasting. Not this one. I wanted the book’s associations from moment to moment to be strong.
Frances: I didn’t find the pages easy to turn because I was often gasping for breath, needing to recover. On page 203, the short paragraph starting to think you could love someone so well—and ending with make the hillsides green. Soaring. Powerful and painful. Amazing.
Paul Lisicky: Thanks, N. I was initially a musician—and sound and phrasing and repetition are really important to me. The dream of making harmony through language! That’s part of the reason behind all those repetitions. That hillsides moment was a bit of an arrival. I think about it a lot.
N: It is also something that seems to be missed when I hear people talk about the process of writing narratives.
Paul Lisicky: Do you mean music being missed?
N: Exactly! I was just typing out a clarification.
Paul Lisicky: I talk about it a lot to my students. Musicality never came up in any of own writing education, and I can see why—we don’t have the vocabulary for it. Phrasing is intuitive, and its difficult to articulate when it’s on and when it’s not.
N: Do you listen to music while you write? If so, does that seep into your phrasing, mimicking the melodies from the songs?
Paul Lisicky: One way to be aware of it, to teach to yourself, is simply to read work aloud. I love reading the endings of books aloud when I start nearing the end.
Paul Lisicky: Sometimes I can listen to music—sometimes there’s no choice, especially if I’m out writing at a coffee place. But sometimes it’s too distracting. If I’m listening to something I really love—I have to stop and give everything over to it. I’m listening to its structures, its melodic lines, the bass. It takes up too much of my head—in a good way.
Brian S: Yes, I did my MFA at a fairly formal poetry program—a good bit of emphasis on scansion and metrical construction, etc.—and there were some people who really struggled with that aspect. But it made their work more intriguing to me because they were using something else as the backbone of their poems. I think you’re right that it’s hard to articulate and teach.
Paul Lisicky: I think the most reliable way to teach it is through reading work aloud over and over. Many prose writers been encouraged to do that, but that might be changing. Denise was the one who taught me to develop my ear. I never knew how to listen to writing until she started reading her work to me.
Brian S: I can’t have music on when I’m trying to write. I need silence or white noise at this point. I get too easily distracted.
Paul Lisicky: Sometimes I need silence; sometimes I need voices around—but not too loud or distinctive. I guess it depends on the piece in question, what stage I’m in. I think some voices can help me not to try too hard—especially at the beginning stages. Does that make sense? By some voice I mean, low chatter in the room. When there’s low chatter in the room, I’m a little more relaxed, my mind might be a little more open.
Lynda: Reading out loud is helpful in so many aspects of life. I read emails out loud all the time before hitting send. I tell my nieces to read their papers out loud before turning them in to their teachers. Things sound different when you say them.
Brian S: Absolutely. I hate to plug my ears up because I’m always mining passersby for potential moments in poems. But when I really have to do the work, I have to have silence.
Paul Lisicky: I have to follow your email guideline, Lynda. That’s one form that I don’t proofread so well. But you’re right: things sound different when you say them. And if they feel false coming out of your mouth, they’re going to feel false to your reader.
When I stumble through a sentence of my own, when I stutter—that’s a sign that the line isn’t in sync with my palate, my breathing patterns. So I have to rewrite till I get it right.
N: Could you expand a bit on how Denise helped you develop your inner ear? Was she one of the big impetuses to start reading your writing aloud?
Completely agree with the point about needing to rewrite when you stumble through your own sentences.
Paul Lisicky: She read her novel-in-progress to me on the phone every night. I could tell when she believed in a passage, and I could tell when she was trying too hard. I never gave her that kind of feedback directly but she could tell through my listening. I think she was really attuned to my breathing, my attention. It was the first time I thought of language making a shape in the air. In that way, it was music. Not just symbols printed on paper. She expected me to read my work back to her, as well. I would have been a different kind of writer if I hadn’t had that call, that invitation from her.
N: Do you think younger and future readers will have difficulty understanding some of the power and closeness in yours and Denise’s relationship because they don’t understand the act of listening to a phone call?
Paul Lisicky: That’s a great question. I’ve completely lost my phone muscle myself—I rarely talk on the phone myself these days—and this is a person who used to be on the phone two to three hours several nights a week.
N: The connection you described about attuned to your breathing on the phone is really amazing and a nice example of how close you two were.
Lynda: That’s a great point, N. I am worried for future generations who lack the act of listening and communicating with their mouths.
Paul Lisicky: My students really love to read their work aloud, Lynda. They expect that being a reader of one’s material is necessary to being a writer.
Brian S: Who are you reading these days? Any new writers or books we should be on the lookout for?
Paul Lisicky: What am I reading—mostly MFA submissions. I finished Mary Gaitskill’s The Mare not long ago and loved it.
Brian S: Ah, it is that time of year I suppose. Where are you teaching these days?
Paul Lisicky: I teach in the MFA Program at Rutgers University in Camden. Our campus is just across the river from Philadelphia. And of course I loved Joy Williams‘s The Visiting Privilege. I’m going to be kicking myself for not remembering so many good books once this chat is finished!
Brian S: Ha! That’s always the way.
Paul Lisicky: I’m still thinking and I’ve launched myself into a fugue state!
Brian S: Thanks for joining us tonight and for sharing this intensely personal relationship with us.
Paul Lisicky: Thanks so much, Brian—and everyone. My pleasure. Have a good night!
N: Thank you very much! I enjoyed your memoir and this chat a lot 🙂
Brian S: Good night everyone. Thanks for joining us.