When All Else Fails, Use Telepathy: An Interview with Atticus Lish

Article by annalia

Secrets are a writer’s currency. With their laptops and legal pads, they harvest and trade stories that require coaxing. And yes, it’s true: some writers, in their enthusiasm, might come at you with the rusty shovel from Aunt Bertha’s barn, hacking off your leg at the knee. Else, they’re all eyelashes, like elegant modern-day snake oil salesmen. They are determined to make you sing, regardless.

To avoid these extremes, I try to know as little about my subject as possible when going into an interview. The hope here is that my subject will understand why I’m there, or seemingly there, but also never feel like they are the Breathing Jesus at the fair—here is my quarter; now dance. For the record, though, when I call Atticus Lish, I do not expect any secrets. In truth, I am not even sure what to ask. Lish’s debut, PREPARATION FOR THE NEXT LIFE, has already been out for a year. The angles have been done.

Searching for a direction—what about this book spoke to me?—I ask Lish whether or not he considers NEXT LIFE a love story. See, Chinese immigrant Zou Lei and Iraq War veteran Skinner are not a “traditional” pairing and do not embody the typical romantic relationship, which makes me wonder: are they truly his main focus?

In a “yes” that becomes a tangent, Lish says, “I never told anybody this except for [my wife] Beth.” From there, he spins the secret: since he was young, he has carried this memory of a scene from a kung-fu movie he saw once on television. The stars, Angela Mao and “an Australian actor whose name I’ve forgotten,” are a duo but not a couple—they’re teammates, Lish insists. Until, during one scene, “they get separated, and it looks like the man is going to be overwhelmed by his assailants, and the woman, she turns and yells out his name.”

“I remembered that my whole life,” Lish says, and it makes sense to me, how that deep but unadorned connection can stay with you, be something you explore in your own writing. Giancarlo DiTrapano of Tyrant Books, NEXT LIFE’s publisher, can also say a thing or two about movies and movie-inspired epiphanies. When I ask him where the name came from, DiTrapano tells me over email that “it came from a dream.” During a nap “between bales of hay in a barn where I had sought shelter from a storm while walking through the [Italian] countryside, I saw NEW YORK TYRANT in bright neon bulbs that exploded just like in Boogie Nights when Dirk Diggler finds his stage name. Just like that.”

It infects me, too. I write DiTrapano back, saying I’ve been circling director Paul Thomas Anderson’s work since seeing There Will Be Blood earlier this year. DiTrapano sends me a virtual nod back: “Punch Drunk Love knocks me out every time I watch it.”

Despite its name, Tyrant Books seems nothing but modest. When I ask DiTrapano what makes his independent publisher shimmer, he writes, “I’m not sure if Tyrant is any more unique than any other press.” Still, it must mean something because DiTrapano “started Tyrant simply because I knew of a lot of good writers that weren’t getting the attention that I thought they deserved.” Inspired by Open City (“the only lit may that I thought was doing anything interesting”), he launched New York Tyrant Magazine during his internship at Farrar, Straus, and Giroux “as something that was supposed to be fun: launch an issue, have a party, get some writers to be read by some more writers.”

I know, I know—isn’t that what every independent publisher says? Perhaps we’re looking at the situation the wrong way. What if the issue is not that there are “too many writers” but instead too few places that actually allow those voices to be heard? And what, exactly, are the voices DiTrapano wants to showcase? He confesses that it’s hard to say, which might also be part of the “problem.”

“The best answer I can come up with about what I like,” DiTrapano tells me, “is similar to what people say about how they know if something is pornography or not: ‘You know it when you see it.’” Lish, though, describes his partnership with Tyrant “like a good occult” or “white magic.” He tells me that “I didn’t really shop the book around; I didn’t really know anybody in the publishing industry,” despite his famous editor wizard father Gordon Lish. Instead, “I received a call from [DiTrapano] and he asked me if I had a book.”

DiTrapano confirms, adding that he “probably hadn’t spoken to [Lish] in maybe a year” the day he called. Not that it was anything personal—the two had been friends for years and even completed a funny little project together called LIFE IS WITH PEOPLE, a collection of “these illustrations [Lish] does with captions.” Back then, DiTrapano asked Lish if he was writing anything “and he would tell me that he wasn’t or that he couldn’t.”

Now, he knows that NEXT LIFE was the cave that Lish was carving. “He didn’t want to talk about what he was working on until it was done,” DiTrapano writes. “I think that more writers could benefit from not talking about what they are writing, because I think talking about it can suck the steam out of the project.” Even with just that first manuscript, DiTrapano “tore through it in a weekend and called him to make the deal as soon as I finished. I have never experienced kismet like [that] before in my life, and I doubt I ever will again.”

To recap: DiTrapano moved to NYC, got an internship with the aforementioned Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, started what would become New York Tyrant Magazine, and “[wrote] a lot...and most always for money,” whereas Lish, who didn’t even catch the writing bug until 2004 (“I took a writing course over the summer—I needed to make up the credit and I thought, What the hell?”), went on to write a debut novel that won a smattering of awards and accolades, including but not limited the 2015 PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction, the New York City Book Award for Fiction, and the 2014 Carla Furstenberg Cohen Prize for Fiction. An odd pair, no? Lish, though, is so unconcerned with fame game that, when I ask him what he does when he’s not writing, he says, “The main thing, I go to the gym, go on a bike, just back and forth. I go to the grocery store. That’s it.” As if it’s that simple. As if I could call, say, Jonathan Franzen, ask him what he did this weekend, and he might say, “Oh, you know. I watched a documentary on bird calls. The rare giant ibis…”

This is the takeaway here: if you want to write, do it. Talking about the inspiration for Zou Lei and Skinner (aside from the aforementioned ingrained movie memory), Lish says, “I was obsessed with the Iraq War. I was also equally obsessed with economic migrants, because I’d been to China. And it’s also because of the neighborhood here [in Brooklyn].” When he came to New York, he “just came with a backpack and a thousand dollars” and never forgot that idea, “the idea of somebody not having anything except their cell phone. That’s a story right there.”

Let’s imagine another story: you have everything except your cell phone. Now, what is that like? THE WATER KNIFE author Paolo Bacigalupi, at a recent presentation at Rice University, said that sci-fi has become such that it is easier to imagine the apocalypse, the actual end of the world, than it is to picture a world without capitalism. That is where we are. That is why forceful, unsentimental books like NEXT LIFE have a place.

Does DiTrapano worry about how to keep that momentum? Not really. “Sure, I had some feelings that it would be all downhill from [NEXT LIFE], but I have had those feelings about books before,” he writes. “I guess it’s a good sign that when I put out most of my books, I am thinking to myself, ‘Wow, this is as good as it gets.’ And then something comes around that surprises me, and I’m in love all over again.”

And Lish? Though he teased me about his next project at the beginning of our conversation by saying, “I’m eating, sleeping, and writing it; It’s a good thing,” he retreats when I ask for details. “I’m going to respectfully decline that question,” he says. “I’m going to let it get done and speak for itself.”

In other words: it’s a secret.

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