PAUL LISICKY IS ONE of those authors to turn to when you need to remember what good writing is like, and when you need a hint as how to be a better person. “Perhaps what we love about a friendship is that it makes us look over our shoulders, stay on our toes. We watch our words,” he writes in The Narrow Door. (The Offing ran an excerpt here.)
In this book, his fifth, Lisicky explores the complexity of two long-term loves: his decades-long friendship with novelist Denise Gess, and his relationship with his ex-husband, a poet. He tracks the ways each relationship is tested by hardship — natural disasters and environmental catastrophes, as well as Denise’s cancer diagnosis — and how his love for each person informed how he navigated the world and his work. The work achieves something rare: the prose is stunningly beautiful on the sentence level, shot through with ache and loss, yet at the same time, it’s totally unsentimental. The Narrow Door is a poignant and straightforward contemplation of the fluidity of love and trust, and an investigation of what we give each other and why. Here, Lisicky, who was recently awarded a Guggenheim fellowship, answers questions about writing grief, structuring the book, and, of course, Joni Mitchell.
I’m always interested in the incubation period for any life event, the amount of time needed before a writer is ready to engage with a subject or person. What was that period like for you, after Denise died and after your marriage ended? Were you writing about other things?
I’d just finished the manuscript that became Unbuilt Projects in the summer of 2009. I didn’t expect to launch another project so soon, but I had all these feelings after Denise died, and to put it simply, I just wanted to stay with her a while longer. She seemed too vital to die, and though she’d had a rough year between her diagnosis and her death, I believed she’d be around for a long, long time. So I started writing about our friendship maybe six weeks after her death? It could have been sooner. I suppose I was writing a book for other readers, but that mattered to me less than giving some shape to my bafflement. I was doing it for myself first. The surprising thing is that remembering Denise brought me so much joy, and that kept me going back to the book.
I had about two-thirds of a manuscript when my relationship came to a crisis point. Up until that point the book had solely focused on Denise, but I couldn’t help but put that crisis on the page as well — the echoes between the two narratives were too strong. And I think I needed the device of the book — the project of making sentences — to give me perspective. Maybe I would have just gone into some muffled state if I hadn’t had the book, who knows? The process of remembering my reconciliation with Denise helped to carry me through some very tough life stuff. It brought a kind of kindness to my breakup, as devastating as it was.
The thing that’s not in the book: my ex and I got back together, and stayed together, for a full year after the breakup as portrayed in Nantucket. The book’s cut-off is the year after Denise died, almost exactly, almost to the day. Although its sense of time is fluid, all those memories transpire over the course of that year.
So did you feel you needed to keep the memories of the rekindled relationship separate?
No, probably the opposite. I wanted the two to infuse each other through their juxtaposition. Maybe I was just trying to say — or enact — the feeling that we’re never totally lost to one another. People go away, they decide they’re never going to see each other again, and then they come back. Maybe not literally, or bodily. But they come back. Maybe it’s in another form. This is one of those situations when language makes an intuition sound completely out to lunch. I wish I could just sing it.
You’re a devoted fan of Joni Mitchell, and you incorporated some of her stories alongside yours. What research did you do? How did processing Joni’s life help you investigate your own?
I’ve been a Joni fan since I was nine years old — that’s not an exaggeration. I still remember singing “Both Sides, Now” in my fourth grade choir and thinking, this is … amazing! So I got to know so many of the albums as they came out — and so much of how I understand myself is through her work, the example of her self-reinvention, her loyalty to idiosyncrasy, her dedication to craft. None of my high school friends listened to Joni Mitchell — hers was the music of the generation just ahead of me — and when I met Denise, it was a shock to find that there was someone else who was as crazy about her as I was. That sounds sort of ridiculous now, but my experience of the music had been so private. It felt like my inner life, “Amelia,” “Jericho,” “The Boho Dance” …
I never consciously researched Joni — didn’t have to. I always read everything about her — to this day — and the brain finds a place for it. I remember it when it feels like I’ve forgotten everything else, when I need to consult Google to remember a line from Elizabeth Bishop. (The damn little phone has become a unit of my brain! It’s practically a body part by now.)
This memoir seems so intricately constructed, carefully arranged. Did you toy with other ways to structure this book?
From the get-go I was after a structure that felt organic and musical — each image-based section talking to the next, and so on. I’ve already said this elsewhere: grief doesn’t obey the rules of forward time. It’s not four/four meter. It shifts time signature — I could keep going with that metaphor. But I didn’t want the book’s shape to be a mess — so I started paying attention to repetitions, the possibility of them. I didn’t want to force them, but tried to be aware of convergences, coincidences, echoes. They held the book together for me. The hope is that an image from 1988 rings through an image from 2008.
After I’d completed a draft of the book, I did try out a much more traditional structure of the book. There are about 100 pages in a file somewhere. It wasn’t terrible, and it did lead me to some insights that I couldn’t have come to in the collage form with all of its interruptions, but honestly I think that version’s a little boring and tame. It seemed to me important that the form of the book be able to accommodate the dual narratives as well as all the tangential material.
It’s so brave, tackling these two enormous losses in memoir. I find the hardest things I often make into fiction, to distance myself. Did the nonfiction form just feel right — more honest?
I never thought to write this as fiction. Maybe just because I couldn’t imagine making use of all the filters necessary to write a good novel. Novels are often built of composites, composites of real people, composites of places, of memories — and pure imagination of course. If I started inventing, where would I stop? It would just keep going and going, far from its sources. This material was already unwieldy, on the edge of disobedient — and just thinking of it in fictional form throws me into a fugue state. I needed to collapse the distance between myself and the material as a way to give it focus and emotional clarity.
What were you reading while you wrote this?
I was a visiting professor in Rutgers-Newark’s MFA Program at the time, so I read a lot of student work, of course. I wish I still had the syllabi from that term, but I remember some Junot Díaz, some Joy Williams, a fiery discussion of Mary Gaitskill’s story “Girl on a Plane.” I also led a seminar built around the program’s reading series. I taught Salvatore Scibona’s The End, Victor LaValle’s Big Machine, a section from Honor Moore’s The Bishop’s Daughter … I’m not sure any of those books influenced The Narrow Door, but I love all that work, and who knows what we metabolize along the way?
The reviews have been so laudatory. What is the best thing someone could tell you about your work? What would make you feel like this project had been a success?
The best thing? I try not to take in the reviews too deeply, even though I’m incredibly grateful for them. I received a lifetime’s worth of good reviews in a little more than a week and I’m still trying to process it all. I’ve been publishing books since 1999, and most of those books were not on any media outlet’s radar. I had reviews — but nothing like this. The good thing about that situation is that I learned to be self-attuned, learned to pay attention to what I needed to explore versus what was expected of me. In retrospect, it feels like a really lucky incubation, though it was often full of great pain and disappointment. I just want to keep writing work that surprises me, interests me — and I hope readers will come along.