Paul Lisicky’s new memoir Later: My Life at the Edge of the World, published with Graywolf Press in March, is part elegy, part moving testimony, part poetic coming-of-age tale. Lisicky writes with startling vividness about finding himself as a young gay man in Provincetown in the early 1990s at the height of the AIDS epidemic.
As Lisicky navigates his new life by the ocean, leaving behind a painful past and finding new lovers and friends, he also reckons with loss. In Provincetown, a close-knit arts community, death is an ever-present specter. People disappear from the streets with the same regularity as the tides and sands that surround the community. Capturing both the confusion and odd clarity that death brings, Lisicky writes movingly of his search for identity and a sense of belonging in a world that often feels precarious, but is always beautiful.
I spoke with Lisicky, who is a Guggenheim and National Endowment for the Arts fellow and a teacher in the MFA Program at Rutgers, about how writing Later immersed him in a different time, beauty as a radical act, loss, nostalgia, the lure of place, and what it has been like releasing a book in the midst of a new global pandemic.
The Rumpus: I’d love to talk about the excavation work of writing memoir and what that process was like for you. Were you looking back at your writing from the time, or photographs? How did you go about it?
Paul Lisicky: I had written other versions of this book, first as fiction and then as essays. The novel I put aside was started in 1997, believe it or not. It was too close to that experience and I wasn’t able to get the complexity of Provincetown in that time and place I needed to capture. For some reason, the years of 1991 to about 1995 are more vivid to me than any other period of my life. I think, in part, that was because I found my tribe. I found my place and I was hyperaware and awake in a way that I never had been before. I wanted to read and learn and see as much as I could of this strange place that I had found myself in.
You know, death is a great intensifier. Interestingly, once people stopped dying in Provincetown after proteus inhibitors became available around 1995/96, my memories are far less vivid. That’s the point when people started to live. It’s not that I was conscious of starting to relax a little bit, but I had moved into a different consciousness. My friend Polly, who is in the book, and I still talk about this particular set of years, I can’t tell you how many times. It’s just part of our conversations. We don’t talk about it as old people talking about our youth. It feels near and present, as if it’s not even yesterday. It just feels like it’s saturated us.
Rumpus: What is it like, living through deadly times?
Lisicky: It’s complicated, because people shift in their stance from minute to minute. There’s a little bit of numbness. People become closed off, but there are moments of tenderness and connection. And there’s a lot of gallows humor. People use silliness and play in order to feel awake and in order to pass a sense of life back and forth, and maybe some of that is brute release. But I remember a lot of laughter from those times, even though it was probably often irreverent laughter, that just kept that community grounded.
Rumpus: You have a line about how making something beautiful is a radical act. Especially when you are faced with loss on a major, unimaginable scale, these small acts of art, beauty, friendship, or love do become radical.
Lisicky: Yeah. It’s interesting, a lot of the visual art I remember from that time wasn’t terribly interested in ugliness in the way that we’ve since become interested in ugliness. I think when times are really dire… the work that I cite in the book isn’t in any way sentimental, but a tremendous amount of work went into the order of the creation of those particular images. Order-making seemed more important when disorder wasn’t a theory, when everyone was living inside it.
Rumpus: Later is also about identity, and figuring out your own identity. You write about clothes doing that work of identity, and how in the era of AIDS, clothes became a kind of armor.
Lisicky: Part of the community’s interest in clothes had to do with making a recognizable persona. It felt important to have an idiosyncratic look. Which seems so foreign now. I think our stabs at idiosyncrasy in Brooklyn now are there, but they’re much more low-key. It comes down to how you trim your mustache or how long you let your beard grow. Your color palette here depends on the neighborhood, but it’s much more restricted. I felt that how you put yourself together back in that time had huge importance. It was important to find something that wasn’t readily available. You couldn’t go to the internet, to some website, and find something cool and have it sent to you. Back then, your clothing suggested you were conscious of putting yourself together in a way that felt important to you.
Rumpus: I love the use of the word “conscious,” and I wonder if this was a time where you felt really woken up?
Lisicky: Yes, definitely, on every level. I had this sense of not wanting to miss out on anything. That’s why it was sort of hard to sit at my desk during those times. Because I felt if I’m in here, there’s tremendous life happening out on the street. Not necessarily anything having to do with spectacle; there were just people to see. I think on a subconscious level or unconscious level, I knew some of those people wouldn’t be around in a while. So, it felt like chance meetings and saying hello and an attempt to make each other laugh were hugely significant and something not to be missed. It’s weird to say it that way, because I think everyone just assumed this was the way it was going to be for the here on out. It’s hard to go back to that mental space. I’m talking about it as a time with boundaries. And there was a boundary that shifted everything. But I think we had gotten to the point in the pandemic where it seemed there would never be a cure. The drugs would always be faulty and make people sick. All we could do at this point, if we weren’t involved in political action, was simply to take care of each other.
Rumpus: That’s intense. I can’t imagine feeling like this was never going to end.
Lisicky: Yeah. Who could have imagined that two years after where I stopped the book, before its coda, that these drugs would come upon the market? And even once there was that realization, people were still worried. It wasn’t like all of a sudden AIDS was over for this particular subculture, or for people who had the means to have access to these drugs. Because there was some wariness for about five years or so. But you would pick up the town newspaper and it wouldn’t be papered over with obituaries. I was so used to picking up The Advocate, which was the Provincetown newspaper of the day, and going right to the obituaries to see who died. You know that morbid way that we want to look at a car accident? Like there’s a horror, and I would think, thank God it wasn’t me, but it was still so sad.
Rumpus: There is a sense in that, too, of the importance of being a witness during times like what you experienced, and writing about it as testament. Do you feel like your book fits into that?
Lisicky: I hope so. I was only partially aware of that as I was writing, but I’m sure it was tremendously important deep down, because we have so few records of those times. Not that many movies, not that many books. And the books we have are usually organized around the story of the caregiver or the person struggling with illness. It feels like there have been restrictive narratives and they are often set in the big cities. They are often set in New York or San Francisco. My gut said, I know there are so many stories that haven’t been told.
I think for years, I might have felt that I had no right to even think about this material, as an HIV negative person. Things were not as dire for me as they were for others, so who am I to be a voice here? In the earliest draft of this book that my editor bought, I was pretty suppressed as a character in the book. And she felt it was necessary to develop who I was on the page. To be a rudder. Otherwise it just felt like this chorus of voices that didn’t have a shaping agent. I was wary of that permission, but I think she was right. I think it’s more enterable.
Rumpus: So much of the material is about finding one’s own voice in a chorus of push and pull. Whether it’s your family, like your mother has this pull on you, or your new friends, where sometimes you fit in with them right away, sometimes you don’t.
Lisicky: I’m glad you pointed that out. That’s definitely true.
Rumpus: Going back to place, there’s something quite interesting about the setting of Provincetown because you talk about sand, the dunes, the sea, and time. That permeates the book with a sense of impermanence and fragility.
Lisicky: Yeah, there’s nothing about Provincetown that’s stable. I think if there weren’t street sweepers to clean up that sand at the end of a long winter, or if people didn’t repaint their houses, it would be really scoured by that weather. It is an extreme place. The sun is super intense because it’s reflecting all of that water surrounding it. It’s really windy; there’s a lot of sand in the air. The storms are severe. There’s a quote from Henry David Thoreau at the start of the book where he talks about a schoolhouse being swallowed up by sand.
Rumpus: Do you feel that the writing of this book was something that helped with some of the generational trauma and loss you’ve experienced?
Lisicky: I think it is a way to sit with it. That’s probably as much as we can do. The book takes pains not to resolve anything. That was the danger of an early draft that had been written in past tense, and I felt it ending towards a kind of logic that didn’t seem true to the experience. It still feels disorderly and illogical and hurtful. I know too many people close to my age, younger, or older who are deeply wounded on so many levels. So, I didn’t want it to feel too sweet, or too neat, or tied-up. The trick was to suggest that there was movement or that there has been movement, but only so much.
Rumpus: What do you mean by that?
Lisicky: I mean movement in terms of emotional accommodation. I say that and I’m not even sure I like the way that sounds coming out of my mouth. I mean, I do know so many people who are really hurt. Very, very occasionally you’ll read an article about those people in the New York Times and they are often older and live alone and have lost all their friends and haven’t been able to resume from that period. That sounds melodramatic, and I don’t mean to simplify it. Of course, there are people who have experienced movement and continue to live full lives. But there’s a sense of ongoing pain.
Rumpus: No matter what past world we’ve all lived in, it’s hard when the world moves on. People forget and that forgetting is hard.
Lisicky: Yes, absolutely. I understand why people are determined to forget. Because if we didn’t work towards some sense of futurity—Virginia Woolf has a great quote about that where she says roads wouldn’t be built, etcetera etcetera. This is what human beings do, but we don’t want to simplify it.
Rumpus: What do you think about nostalgia? Do you think it’s important or do you think sometimes we can get lost in it?
Lisicky: I think sometimes we can get lost in it. I know people who are lost in it. Nostalgia to me inevitably signals—I might get myself in trouble for saying this—but nostalgia feels really connected with resentment and curmudgeonliness. It’s a perspective that gets really locked down in time. Like, oh the world was better once. How can we say that? There was so much loveliness in the community that I am writing about, but that loveliness happened alongside of, and because of, an unspeakable illness. So, I always had to keep that thought in mind whenever I felt myself writing too sweetly, if that’s the word to use. I think that nostalgia is dangerous at all levels.
Rumpus: What would the difference be between say nostalgia, which is maybe sentimental, and the important work of eulogy or testifying about experience that happens to be in the past?
Lisicky: I think of nostalgia as feeling like it’s rooted in one timeframe, or one era. It feels singular to me. Whereas I think elegy requires one to be awake. It is an ongoing act and it changes over the years. How we remember a lost person in 2010 is different from how we remember a lost person in 2020. The political atmosphere is so different, and we understand the self differently than we did. Now, in light of the novel coronavirus, I think a lot of us are going to have to think of ourselves as groups. Like, what do we do for the group to help the group stay alive? What personal decisions will we have to just rein in for the welfare of the group? I have been thinking a lot about that. You know, in terms of my book tour that is scheduled.
Rumpus: How do you feel about your book coming out at this time when we are facing a new global pandemic?
Lisicky: I mean, I don’t live with elderly people, I don’t live with immunocompromised people. I can say, oh, I’m not afraid of travel. But honestly, it now means something else to be in contact with people who are close to others in those situations. So, it’s causing me to think a lot. This situation requires an awake-ness and alertness.
Rumpus: I think the message of your book, too, in a way, is that death does highlight and bring us closer together as communities, as friends, as lovers, as human beings.
Lisicky: Definitely. It can take some work for us to admit to that. I don’t think that just happens. There’s some emotional education that is needed for that, that people need to become involved in. Which I think the book wants to enact, because I think my speaker is holding a lot of that at bay, because he needs to develop some kind of foundation in order to be an adult first. An adult in the deepest sense.
Rumpus: How has coronavirus impacted your book and conversations you have had about your writing and experiences related to the book?
Lisicky: This moment is so volatile that it’s hard for any of us to see it. The truth on Tuesday is up for grabs on Friday. And I have to say I’m wary of a too-easy comparison between the two pandemics. One has been around for forty years, ignored by people who thought it happened to people not like us, or, worse, people who did bad things—the other has had a history of five months and seems to cut across all levels of society. One has an incubation period of up to ten years, the other fourteen days. One has brought about the deaths of nearly thirty-eight million people. Etcetera.
I’m probably listing all these differences because I’m trying to protect myself from the feeling that this moment feels uncomfortably familiar. The distance between past and present has been crushed in all of a few weeks. The irony is that when I wrote the first draft of this book back in 2015, I put it aside for some months, thinking, no one’s going to read this, no one’s going to care. This isn’t going to speak to any of the complications of the present. So much for that intuition.
Photograph of Paul Lisicky by Beowulf Sheehan.