Flex, Space, Some Windows: An Interview with Paul Lisicky

Guest Article by: 
Lawrence Lenhart

In THE NARROW DOOR, a priest says, “The closer we get to someone, the more we must stand humbly before [their] freedom.” The sound byte, taken from a homily about hospitality, is a complicated imperative for those who, like Paul Lisicky, have ever found themselves in a captivating, if volatile, friendship. Through rich vignettes, Lisicky sensitively heeds the demanding logic of friendship without ever posing as a logician. Rather, he is an excavator and bricoleur, mining precious correspondences and memories, and aerating them with journalistic meditations on global grief. In this regard, THE NARROW DOOR resembles Julianna Spahr’s THIS CONNECTION OF EVERYONE WITH LUNGS—these vantages on grief are variable, but their momentum is singular. Lisicky’s primary companions in this novel are novelist Denise Gess and Lisicky’s ex-husband, M, two artists whom the author vows to protect, “especially against any version that wants to simplify [them].”

Rarely are relationships portrayed so honestly as they are here. The blame is so veraciously dispersive and so regularly parlayed, that it can only dissolve in the lava of friendship. Like Matias Viegener’s portrait of the late Kathy Acker (2500 RANDOM THINGS ABOUT ME TOO) and Abigail Thomas’s harrowing account of self-preservation when faced with unspeakable grief (THREE DOG LIFE), Lisicky’s THE NARROW DOOR is a memoir whose scope aims at the elbows’ creases, the linked arms of three inextricable lives.

A professor at Rutgers University-Camden, Lisicky recently took some time between semesters to answer questions via email about how one puts friends to the page.

BB: Late in the book, you reunite with Denise after her cancer has returned, progressed. In the scene, you’re taking pictures. Denise looks at the camera “as if nothing could be more pleasing than sheer documentation” while you look at it with “confused intensity.” In what ways does the page transform a friendship? Or does the page intend to memorialize it? Document it?

PL: My immediate impulse to write the book was to keep Denise in the world a little longer. I knew I was writing for a reader—I don’t think I know how to write anything without some imaginary reader in mind—but I was writing for myself first, because I couldn’t really say goodbye yet. Maybe it sounds strange to put it that way, but I wanted to be with her for a while, to hear her laughter, to think about how she walked through a room.

And at the same time, I felt some need to understand something about the character of our friendship—so the drive went beyond memorializing or mere documentation. If you’re asking questions about anything, it ends up transforming the experience. I knew there was something complicated and profound about our year and a half-long breakup; it was as if the test of that made our friendship stronger, more dedicated and affectionate. I needed to think about the friendship through the lens of the breakup as I wrote the book, but maybe that wouldn’t always be the case. I wanted to leave room for other accounts, maybe even contradictory accounts, that I could possibly tell, say, years in the future. That’s probably why I organized the book around emblematic moments, to give the story flex, space, some windows between points in time. It’s not exactly meant to be the Story of the Friendship, but one version of the friendship.

BB: You write that elegy is “love as perfection” because “the dead person can’t talk back.” What is the difference between an elegy for a late friend, and a memoir about a late friendship? Do you at all sense Denise talking back in the latter form, that it isn’t “late” after all?

PL: I love the idea of Denise talking back to me in those letters—I’ve never consciously thought of that, but you’re absolutely right. I reread that handful of letters more than I expect to, just to come into her personality again, her light, her kindness, her sense of play. They seem to float outside of time, and I hope they function like that within the narrative. As far as the difference between an elegy and memoir for a late friendship? I guess the book would have been the latter if I’d written it during the time of our hiatus, but even back then I’d probably sensed that that wasn’t the end of the story.

BB: Are there moments here that you think Denise would have remembered differently? For example, concerning her fraught visit to North Carolina, you write that she was “confusing volatility for authenticity.” Might she have seen it the other way around—you confusing her authenticity for volatility? How might you write through this kind of uncertainty?

PL: Oh, sure. I’m positive that Denise would have had a different reading of that night. And I don’t think any of us act without justifying ourselves to ourselves. It seems interesting to me now that that confrontation happened in the house of a couple who didn’t argue, who didn’t shout—maybe she was simply expressing all the emotion trapped in the house—who knows? But it’s finally my account that’s on the page — and I tried to leave my interpretation pretty open-ended. It was all I could do to keep asking why? Who are you? This is not the Denise who cares about me. I’m not even sure I like you! But the book is really about trying to live with the inscrutability in the people closest to us. You can spend your whole life with a lover or a friend, feel like you know all their gestures, all their tastes in books, films, and food, and still be unutterably baffled by them one day.

BB: Was this book always primarily about Denise and M? Was it ever just about one of them? Other friends make appearances in the book. Did you ever consider writing a third friend into this memoir in a central way?

The Narrow Door: A Memoir of Friendship Cover Image
ISBN: 9781555977283
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Published: Graywolf Press - January 19th, 2016

PL: Initially, the book was about Denise, just Denise. As I was gathering material, it became clear that it was [a] chronicle of grief—what it felt like to stand in the wake of losing my friend. So it was a day-to-day account, even though it moved around in time. A book written consecutively, but a nonlinear narrative. My relationship with my ex started to come apart well after I’d had about 120 pages of manuscript, and I pretty much wrote that material into the book because, well—I honestly didn’t know how to keep it out, as painful as it was. The end of the two relationships immediately talked to each other on the page. I tried not to be afraid of what the book was doing, I just kept going. The conversation between the two narratives seemed to have a life of its own. It felt a little like physics. After I had a complete draft I had to go back and write my ex into the earlier chapters. That initially felt like a hard thing to do on multiple levels. I didn’t want to destroy the structure I’d already built, but I was surprised by how much it opened up to admit that new material. Its architecture seemed to be stronger than I’d initially thought.

There actually is a third friend in the book—the woman who’s called Braunwyn. She doesn’t have as much space on the page as Denise or M, but I think of her presence as being emotionally important to the book.

BB: You write about Vincent van Gogh and Paul Gauguin, Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell. Do you think artistic friendships are, in some way, rarefied?

PL: That’s an interesting question. I suppose any two artists understand what it’s like to be pulled out of the present by the work: the vocation and distraction of it, the continual buzz in the ear. How to fix the piece you’re working on, how to transform its limitations? I think that that drive is hard for others to get and maybe that’s why artistic friendships might seem rarefied to outsiders. Two artists together have a mutual understanding—that heightened sense of time. I know my friends who aren’t artists are sometimes much more spontaneous about time than I am. They might not feel as worried about changing plans on the spur of the moment, whereas I have this vaguely insane compulsion to protect some openness in my schedule. I have to sit still with my work for a certain percentage of the day or I’m not quite right!

BB: There are a few recurring concerns in THE NARROW DOOR. I’m thinking about the micro essays on disasters (both natural and unnatural), Joni Mitchell’s career, and the deep ecology of animals. Can you talk about what role they play in the memoir? Were these written concurrently with the Denise and M vignettes? Or after?

PL: Yes, all that material was written concurrently. The disasters, with the exception of the Mt. Saint Helens explosion, were all happening during the real time of the writing. On one hand, they’re there to dissolve the border between the world outside and the world of the relationships. But more specifically I felt a need to suggest something about interconnection between forces. Certainly the Joni Mitchell story—the myth of it, as represented by the book—does a lot to shape how the players understand themselves as artists.

BB: Did you initially reconstruct the timeline linearly? How did you ultimately decide on the ordering of these vignettes?

PL: Each of these moments is intended to be organized around an image. Each image is meant to talk to the next image and so on. So though there’s plenty of narrative in the book, its structure is primarily associative. It’s built on patterns, not just of description, but of repeated phrases. Straightforward storytelling just felt too simple to me. There was a point, maybe a year into the editing of the book, that my editor asked me to consider rethinking the book as a linear narrative, though she didn’t use the “l word.” I tried it, made a valiant six-month go of it, and it ended up feeling false and diminished. It lost all the dimensions that the collage form seemed to offer. So we went back to the original plan.

BB: You had to keep many of your friends’ secrets as you wrote this memoir. What do you do with those secrets if not write with them?

PL: There’s a passage very late in the book when a well-meaning mutual friend wants to give me Denise’s diary from the year 2004, part of the sixteen months we didn’t talk to each other. I refuse it, without understanding why. I think I’d still refuse it to this day. Maybe the impulse is really to respect mystery. Besides, would the knowledge of a secret take us closer to the heart of a person? As frustrating as it can be, there’s something infinitely compelling and possibly beautiful about the unknowability of other people and maybe better just to rest with that—or at least try.

Lawrence Lenhart is the author of ISOLATING TRANSGRESSION: ESSAYS (forthcoming from Outpost 19 in Fall 2016). His work has appeared in Alaska Quarterly Review, Fourth Genre, Guernica, Gulf Coast, Passages North, Prairie Schooner, Terrain.org, Wag’s Revue, and elsewhere. He holds an MFA from the University of Arizona, teaches fiction and nonfiction at Northern Arizona University, and is a reviews editor and assistant fiction editor of DIAGRAM.

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