Writing into Crisis: An Interview with Paul Lisicky

Nina St. Pierre speaks with author Paul Lisicky in this interview about his sixth book, the memoir Later: My Life at the Edge of the World. Set in the early ’90s, Later is a prismatic rendering of life in Provincetown, Massachusetts, at the height of the HIV and AIDs epidemic. In Later, Lisicky renders it a one-word mythology: “Town”—a location both in and out of time, where the synthesis between death, sex, and community, is nuanced, contradictory, and ultimately, life-affirming.  

Paul Lisicky is the author of six books including Later, The Narrow Door, Unbuilt Projects, The Burning House, Famous Builder, and Lawnboy. His work has appeared in The Atlantic, BuzzFeed, Conjunctions, Fence, The New York Times, The Offing, Ploughshares, and elsewhere. His awards include fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, The National Endowment for the Arts, and the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, where he has served on the Writing Committee since 2000. He teaches in the MFA Program at Rutgers University-Camden, and is the editor of StoryQuarterly. He lives in Brooklyn. 

Can you talk a bit about the pressures and/or gifts of writing into the mythology of a storied place and time? Was this a book you knew you always would write someday? What needed to happen before you could?

In the first draft I felt a responsibility to lay out a Provincetown of facts: this building here and that building there in 1991. And what was the name of that street between Winthrop and Atlantic? The literal Provincetown didn’t seem all that magnetizing to me, finally. If anything, the book told me it was impossible to represent. It loosened up considerably once I took in the idea of Provincetown as a myth, that there’s never just one Provincetown but everyone creates a different idea of it. There’s always a gap between the Provincetown you want it to be and the actual streets and buildings.

I’d tried to write versions of the book for over twenty years. I tried it as fiction, tried it as nonfiction, and I couldn’t get it right. It seemed necessary to capture the gravity of those years in the first half of the 1990s, when the place was a haven for people with HIV and AIDS. But I also wanted to capture the life force of the place, the vitality of the community, the humor people summoned up when things went bad. I’ve always been interested in community, in writing about people who believe in it and want it to work, who keep going forward even when their ideals fail. I started this version of the book back in 2015, and there was enough turmoil in the air to imply all of our current emergencies. So many emergencies: COVID-19. Where do you stop? I must have felt some compulsion to see how we managed day to day through an earlier crisis, before treatments for HIV and AIDS actually worked.

How does the fundamental desire for male sex—written as animal, as father, as ‘protein-rich drops full of the possibility of care’—form the central poetics of this book?

Such an interesting question. On a deep level I felt the need to write about sex, especially sex between men, as sustaining and nourishing. I’ve certainly written plenty about sex before, but I wonder whether those representations have focused on awkwardness, failures of communication, discrepancies of power, discrepancies between the inner and outer life. I think all of that is tremendously interesting on the dramatic level, but frankly, it’s probably easier to write than what?—mutual engagement. How to write mutual engagement without sounding sentimental or brainless? That desire seemed to me rebellious, and I did my best on those occasions to resist that urge to throw in a little trouble. Interestingly, the one reviewer who seemed to be bothered by the book complained about “hook ups in the dunes,” completely ignoring the fact that that kind of sex happened in response to a breakup, to deep grief. The problem was that having a threeway could be life-giving, an experience of connection and comfort. Queer sex wasn’t allowed to be affirmative in that person’s book of the world.

“The instance of transmission as voluptuous.” When I read lines like that, I kept thinking about how the erotics of the book, of your time in Town, were so entrenched with danger and death, and how confusingly sensual and exciting that was (as a reader). What taboos did you have to break for yourself in the writing of Later?

Man, taboos all over the place. Interestingly, there’s a whole porn industry that exists to eroticize seroconversion; think of the sites that use words like “raw” in their names. Interestingly, the weird frisson of that persists in the era of Truvada and other drugs. If there’s something to fetishize, humans will find a way to go about doing it. But I’d never seen that written about in literature. Same goes for so many aspects of queer life. Open relationships, non-monogamy—where does one start? Open relationships shouldn’t be remotely controversial in 2020 and yet they’re mostly elided, not only from our art, but from how we talk about ourselves in everyday conversations, and I just wanted to make the hidden visible. Not to use a fake, salacious tone, but to be down-to-earth about our lives, back then and now. I honestly don’t know if I’ve succeeded in any of that, but I do hope the book is useful to some, if only on that level.

“Town a lyric bubble outside past and future. Town a dream that rips up all your intuitions about narrative and goes its own way every time I think the arc of a story is here.” To me, ‘Town as lyric bubble’ feels like a thread that strings the book together. So, in a sense, Place as both Structure and Story? Was this a guiding principle of the book?

I’ve never thought about this until you said it like that, but it occurs to me that every passage in the book might be rooted in some aspect of place. Even when the people are inside houses or rooms, there’s always the sound of life going on outside, whether it’s an old man pushing a wheelbarrow down the street in the dark, or animals signaling to each other in the woods. The safety of Town makes bodies and buildings permeable, and I suppose that’s the ethos of the book. How do you live when you don’t have the usual borders, even when it comes to down to time? The lyric bubble is just another conception of time; it isn’t rooted in the clock and calendar. It swells and contracts and sometimes stalls. It doesn’t move in 4/4 meter. So the project of the book was to write something out of those conditions. How does everyday life change when the grid we use to organize the day isn’t quite trusted, or feels obsolete?

I just wrote a piece about queer video game designers and have been reading a lot of Jose Munoz! As a writer, what freedom does queering time provide that linear chronology cannot? As a lover?

What a brilliant mind—I’m so glad you’ve been reading Muñoz. It seemed impossible to write this book without nodding to his influence. As to what queering time can do to a book, to anything? It can certainly give you other maps for thinking. In fact, you can make up the map! And that can certainly force you into a state of alertness, the way you’d have to be alert if you were walking through the woods at night. What map syncs up with what you see and what you feel? Where do you see patterns emerging? What can you do with those patterns?

In your nonfiction, which is often lyrical, woven, or fragmentary, what sort of stylistic tools help you maintain tension throughout a work?

Repetition itself creates tension. To use one widely known example: Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking. The compulsion to create order again and again, the ongoing work of laying down tropes: that’s tension-making. But if urgency is going to be sustained over the course of an extended prose work, it also requires attention to underlying, ongoing questions. Why am I writing this? Why does this need to be written? What does my speaker want? I know that that sounds absurdly abstract—and it’s weird to say this aloud because I’m a firm believer in starting from the senses. Doesn’t Flannery O’Connor tell us “The beginning of human knowledge is the senses?” And yet some awareness of those questions needs to be in the air at every point if you’re going to maintain that tautness, whether the material is fragmentary or more straightforward in design. To be clear, I don’t think those questions are necessary answerable, or should be, but it can help to draw from their energy.

The precarity of emotion—of performance versus unbridled feeling—was so palpable and nuanced throughout the text. In many ways, I felt that was the central tension. How many drafts did it take you to reach that balance? Did it evolve holistically from draft to draft or were certain sections fully formed right away? 

It’s so hard to know where one draft begins and ends because I tend to pick at my sentences over and over in a desire to sound spontaneous—how’s that for a paradox? In the early stages, I don’t seal off drafts in separate documents, which is probably true for a lot of writers. I do know that every passage was added to, subtracted to, multiple times between 2015 and 2019, but the shapes of many sections are faithful to their original form—at least I think they are. One of these days I’ll have to hold up a finished section against an early section to see how they line up. I might be surprised.

There’s so much dark humor in Later and I love it. It also feels rightly protected, protective. Like if you weren’t there, you simply don’t know. How did humor help you in the living and the writing of this book? 

I’m so glad to hear you say that. So this has been my fear: If you think a book with AIDS in it shouldn’t be funny, then the humor’s not going to land. You’re not going to hear it. Silliness and play—all of that ended up in the book because that was in the texture of everyday life back then. Maybe it was gut release from anxiety, maybe it was a way to make energy between people, or take care of each other—who knows? I’m just thinking about how people behave in times of angst and uncertainty. Just in the last couple of days, my brother and I have exchanged plenty of texts about the Coronavirus, most of which have involved lots of gallows humor. I’m talking about emojis of coffins and skulls, jokes about leaking blood, and collapsing in public places.

Yes! In terms of how we are surviving, a couple weeks ago, I went to Lidia Yuknavitch’s reading for her new book, Verge. She talked about turning to, or even into, animals, in ‘times like these.’ Your work—and your Instagram—has always been a window into the animal world. Is there a certain level of emotionality you can access via animals that’s missing in the human world? A tenderness? What can nature teach us about binaries?

I love knowing that Lidia said that—and you’re right: I’ve been tweeting about animals for over ten years, which started almost accidentally and became a kind of self-education. I started doing it around the time I stopped eating meat, so what you’re seeing is a record of developing consciousness, a world view in progress. I was just reading an essay that Deb Olin Unferth wrote about her novel Barn 8, and she says: “Our error is not anthropomorphism, but the opposite. We refuse to believe, to the point of absurdity that we and they are first animals, that there is no us and them in this regard, only us, all of us.” That explains so much to me. We don’t even know how to see our fellow humans accurately. We might look at a stranger and see him fling his lit cigarette out into the gutter or how he hasn’t covered his mouth with his sleeve when he coughs. In other words, all the everyday human fallibility, complacency, thoughtlessness. But when we look at an animal’s face or flanks, it’s hard not to feel awe. About what? Creation? I think your “tenderness” is exactly the right word: bold and true. I don’t have any answers, honestly. Maybe that awe for animals is something we could carry over to other facets of our lives, not only to how we interact with plants, air, and water, but with ourselves and other humans.

Finally, on p. 203, you write: “I had failed my largest assignment: the management of feeling.” It felt like there was a rupture in that moment between the rendering not only of your interior life, but your awareness of its performativity and what that had cost you. What did you learn as a writer going back to recreate that unveiling?  

I remember my editor pointing out that trope in one draft. In the margin she wrote: which, you could say, is what this book is about. It took awhile for that to sink in, but I remember trying to lean into that idea in subsequent drafts—her acknowledgement gave me permission and a spark. As to what I learned? Well, I think there might be more unprocessed emotion in this book than in any other book of mine. I felt less of a duty to process it out of myself, and if I felt pissed off about something, it was going to end up on the page like that. Queer people—especially gay men—are often told to buck up, butch up. We tell that to each other, or at least give each other signals to do so. This is how homophobia plays out in our lives. And I believe there’s a deep cost to all of that, a cost that affects how we love, not just our partners but our friends and family. Stoicism and sarcasm definitely have their uses as tools—I don’t mean to sound like some absolutist here. But what happens when you’ve created a social self that bears little relationship to your emotional life? That’s what makes people break. So I decided to let some of that rage into the book, and if someone out there thinks it’s operatic at times? Well? I’d say, think hard about that.

About the author

Nina St. Pierre is a Brooklyn-based queer culture writer and essayist. Her work has been (or is soon to be) published in Nylon, Gossamer, Bitch, Victory Journal, InStyle, Catapult, Narratively, Electric Literature, GOOD, Flaunt, and Brooklyn Magazine.

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