The Rumpus Book Club chats with Paul Lisicky about his new memoir, Later: My Life at the Edge of the World (Graywolf Press, March 2020), letting a book decide the genre it wants to be, revisiting old memories, literary community, and more.
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 become a member of the Rumpus Book Club, click here. Upcoming writers include Chelsea Bieker, Tracy O’Neill, Alysia Sawchyn, Lauren J. Sharkey, Matthew Salesses, Alison Stine, Beth Alvarado, Jenny Hval, Mattilda B. Sycamore, and more.
This Rumpus Book Club interview was edited by Marisa Siegel.
Marisa: Hi, and welcome to The Rumpus Book Club chat with Paul Lisicky about Later: My Life at the Edge of the World! Paul, thanks so much for joining us tonight!
Paul Lisicky: Thanks so much. I’m happy to be here. And thanks, all, for reading Later.
Marisa: I won’t be offended if you don’t remember this, but at AWP Tampa in 2018, I heard you read from a draft of Later at an offsite event. I came over afterward to gush about how much I loved the reading, and promised I’d be in touch to try and get the finished book for Rumpus Book Club when it had a publication date. And here we are!
Paul Lisicky: I remember you coming up—the work was still fairly new, and your kindness and enthusiasm meant a lot. And here we are!
Marisa: To that point, when did you start writing Later? How long did that process take, start to finish?
Paul Lisicky: I started writing a version of this material, as a novel, all the way back in 1988. I’d accumulated about seventy-five pages and while parts of it had some energy, it just didn’t work—maybe it’s impossible to fictionalize a place like Provincetown. I started other versions over the years, and again I had doubts about perspective, voice, emotional range.
This the first draft of this particular version came into being in 2015, a few weeks after my father died when I was at a residency. I wasn’t able to write about him, but the last difficult months of his final illness summoned up an earlier time for me. So I wrote a draft quickly, in past tense, fairly conventional in its storytelling. Put it aside. Went back almost a year later and started pulling it apart, deconstructing it, putting it in the present tense and introducing short bits in poetic time. So the book you’re holding took approximately four years to write but I wasn’t writing consistently during that span of time.
Marisa: Wow! That’s a long journey to the finished book. I was going to ask whether you know at a project’s start what genre you’re writing into, or whether the writing lead you where it needs to go—I think you sort of just answered that by noting this began as a novel, but as a writer who moves between genres (memoir, novel, poetry), can you speak a little to your thoughts on “genre” and how you approach that?
Paul Lisicky: I usually don’t know very much, and I try not to know very much. And I’m using intuition, sentence by sentence, to tell me what the book wants to be. Often this involves bearing up with long periods of uncertainty, a suspicion that what I’m doing could possibly fail. But I’ve come to feel more friendly with that feeling over years, whereas I used to feel defeated by it.
Genre. I think of my own work as such a hybrid. This book and The Narrow Door are described as memoir but I think of my work drawing from multiple sources at once, the narrative energy of fiction, the investigative turns of essay writing, the concentration and cadence of poetry. God, that sounds pretentious when I see it typed. I’ll just say I’m not very good at staying in one lane. I started as a songwriter, moved to poetry, got my MFA in fiction, started writing nonfiction, so all those elements have a home (I hope!) in my work.
Marisa: Well, if you have any secret tricks to becoming more friendly with that feeling of possible failure rather than letting it defeat you, do let me know. I’ve been stymied in my own writing for a long while because of it.
I do think that in general, writers are moving toward hybrid genre work, and I love that. And yes, I feel the elements of each of those pieces of your background in your writing, definitely. Did the writing process for Later feel different than your 2016 memoir which you mentioned, The Narrow Door?
Paul Lisicky: Ha! I think it just comes from staying with certain projects long enough through this-might-be-awful period and then seeing the project turn around, find patterns, and become its own animal.
The process did feel different because The Narrow Door, even though it slides around in time, was essentially written chronologically. The final book is very faithful to how it appeared to me. I wanted to write a year-long record of grieving, even though the book doesn’t foreground that. A lot of that book plays out as I was writing it. My long-term relationship fell apart as I was writing the book, and it’s in the book as it happened. With Later, I was writing about time that was twenty-some years in the past, and the trick was to bring immediacy to the work. I didn’t want it to feel too processed or too distant, with that engineered sort of “wisdom” that could have been so easy to rely on. I wanted it to capture the on-spot-ness of those days when we certainly had no idea if our friends were going to be around tomorrow.
Marisa: This segues perfectly into my next question!
The specificity and detail you imbue the memories shared in Later with fully immerses us readers in Provincetown as you experienced. How did you, so many years later, capture these memories and all their accompanying sensory details? It almost felt like you went back and re-lived it through the writing, the details were so rich. It’s true I wouldn’t know whether these details are accurate, but they feel accurate.
Paul Lisicky: Those particular years have continued to be so vivid in my imagination—I don’t think I ever felt more alert and alive, and I think a lot of that has to do with living in such proximity to death. Death wasn’t abstract, or an idea. It was in the house you walked past on the way to the gym, or on someone’s face as they left a good friend’s memorial service. I’ve said it elsewhere, but I felt like a sharpened pencil point.
Interestingly, the memory of my perception is far less precise from the years 1995-onward and my theory is that there’s some connection between that and the fact that people stopped dying in alarming numbers in town. Protease inhibitors were extending peoples lives and you could actually pick up the town newspaper and there wouldn’t be an obituary page! Whereas just a year or so before, there would be announcements of four deaths, all of men somewhere in their late twenties or thirties.
I think the book is organized around these incisive memories—the guy standing up in the theater when he couldn’t bear looking at Philadelphia any longer, or my friend Billy losing his mind to mild form of dementia as he was hosting a fundraiser for people with AIDS, or even the silly party where my friends from the Fine Arts Work Center all decided to rent porn and evaluate each one as if we were workshopping them. So the accuracy you’re talking about comes from simply leaning into those moments. I remembered a hell of a lot more than I thought I did, but I wouldn’t have known that unless I started writing them.
Marisa: That’s encouraging, as a writer who has been trying to write about a certain time in my own life that I worry I can’t remember well enough because of the trauma I’d experienced (before in childhood and again in the time period I’ve been trying to approach), that perhaps just starting to write might bring the memories back to life.
Paul Lisicky: I’m convinced that that’s possible, especially if you approach those memories through the senses rather than through the conscious, interpreting mind. Of course, if you don’t remember things, it can be interesting to talk about that in the actual text. What did it feel like to sit in a particular room, what were the sounds outside? What did a shoe sound like it moved across the floor?—I think that’s the way in to this complicated material.
Marisa: Regarding death, for me, it felt like death had such presence in Later that it is a character itself. As is Provincetown. I don’t mean to suggest they aren’t real-seeming; rather, they are so real-seeming they become palpable.
And, while death does feel terrifying in the book, it also makes everything alive feel more alive, if that makes sense?
Paul Lisicky: That’s so interesting—I hadn’t been conscious of that but that makes sense to me. Both “death” and “Town” having lives of their own that both nourish and (sometimes) deplete the actual humans in the book.
Marisa: What is your relationship with Provincetown like now, today?
Paul Lisicky: I go back fairly frequently. My good friend, the painter Polly Burnell, who appears in the book, always has a place for me on her living room sofa, and that feels so lucky. It certainly isn’t the boho Provincetown of the early 90s—it’s as you probably know a pretty wealthy place, and I do miss the atmosphere in which so many different groups and social classes—not to mention queer and straight people—freely mixed. It’s all a lot more divided now, groups cordoned off from other groups. even though it’s still a beloved place to so many. Every time I catch myself missing the old days, however, I stop—the community I wrote about was forged bu an awful, ongoing health emergency, and it would be reprehensible to idealize those days without recognizing that central fact. The harbor is still there, the whales out by Herring Cove, so many old friends who have managed to eke out lives in a place that’s very difficult to live in over the long term unless you have real money.
I wish it weren’t so damn hard to get to. I sort of enjoy griping about that in real life, and in the book. But it wouldn’t be Provincetown if it didn’t take some work to get there.
Marisa: I was hoping to take a workshop there this summer, and so yes, I did look into how hard it is to get to! But unfortunately the two workshops I most wanted are both the one week I can’t be away from home (hashtag #momlife).
Paul Lisicky: Aw that’s too bad. Those workshops are pretty amazing. Rigorous but also very down-to-earth, and you’re not over-scheduled the way you might be in other circumstances. Classes are usually over by noon, and then you get the chance to be in Provincetown, or go on a whale watch, or just walk up and down Commercial Street, puzzling at people.
Marisa: Yes, I will definitely try again next summer. A dear friend told me it’s a space I’d really enjoy and where I could get writing done.
Paul Lisicky: I think you would have a wonderful time.
Marisa: Did you speak with, or share sections of the manuscript with, those people who are living and who appear in the book? How do you approach that aspect of writing memoir?
Paul Lisicky: I did. Some of those people have read the manuscript and seem to like how they’re represented. A few haven’t but I’ve been in contact with them, at least to give them a head’s up. Those conversations have been real occasions for reconnection and affection—that’s been kind of sweet and surprising. Of course they might see the book in two weeks and go, WTF!!!!!
Marisa: What are you reading now/what’s in your TBR pile? Any new and forthcoming books you’re especially excited for?
Paul Lisicky: It’s at the middle point of the semester and a lot of my reading has been for teaching. I just taught Renee Gladman’s Calamaties to an MFA craft class called Innovative Forms in Prose. Next week we’re talking about Claudia Rankine’s Don’t Let Me Be Lonely… Oh! I have done some extracurricular reading. I just finished my friend Elizabeth McCracken’s new collection of stories in manuscript, and they’re brilliant—they gave me tremendous joy for their bravado and risk and emotional complexity. I think that that book will be out in 2021.
I’m looking forward to my other friend Deb Olin Unferth’s novel Barn 8, which should be out any day. And Lisa Olstein’s Pain Studies, also out any day, which is a book-length meditation on negotiating chronic pain. We’re going to do some events together on our respective book tours.
Marisa: That is very exciting news!! I just met Elizabeth for the first time at the Portland Book Festival in November, and she is somehow just as wonderful as her writing.
Paul Lisicky: She is! She and her family are family to me. We went to grad school together and I’ve (this is going to date us!) known her since 1988. She’s such a big part of my life and I have loved seeing her writing evolve over the years.
Marisa: You seem to have a very supportive (and talented!) writing community. Is that something you’ve intentionally fostered through your career?
Paul Lisicky: I don’t know how much of that his been willed exactly. I love all creative people, but I especially feel a kinship with other writers—their minds, their ways of seeing, their sense of humor. That might just be from having come up with musicians, and I love musicians when they’re performing, but they’re often not that much fun otherwise. (I can imagine some grumbling.) When I finally started meeting writers in grad school, I didn’t take those connections for granted—I’d spent so many years feeling isolated and out-of-sync and all of a sudden I’d found my tribe.
Marisa: One quick last question, and then I’ll let you go! Do you still play music?
Paul Lisicky: Sometimes. I’m teaching an undergraduate course called The Singer-Songwriter this term, and there’s a piano in the classroom, and last Thursday, before class, I played the first verse of Joni Mitchell’s “Banquet” and I remembered every harmonic change. This past summer I went out with somebody who picked up my guitar, which had been functioning as decor in my bedroom, and he retuned it, and I started playing, and there it was again: those old chordal shapes. I do think about music all the time, in terms of how I phrase a sentence or “shift keys” in my writing, or speed or slow down—I’m still taking direction from Leonard Cohen and Björk and Kate Bush if I’m going to be honest with myself.
Marisa: My son (who is five) is very interested in playing music, and as someone who loves music but has no natural musical abilities (I tried! oh, how I tried), I’m excited to see him take joy in learning piano—though he’s also VERY interested in the drums, and I am less excited about that.
Paul, thank you so much for your time tonight, and for this gorgeous book!
Paul Lisicky: That must be so wonderful to see and hear. I’d love to hear that piano and those drums.
It’s been wonderful talking to you too, Marisa. Thank you so much for everything.
Photograph of Paul Lisicky by Beowulf Sheehan.