I corresponded with Paul Lisicky during the spring of 2020 as the pandemic caused everyone to stay at home. Each time I emailed him to schedule an interview, it was clear that we would not be able to meet in person in Brooklyn.
Nevertheless, I was still hopeful that we could still find a way for our minds to connect. I remembered our fruitful conversations from the time I spent as his student at the Tin House Summer Workshop in Portland, Oregon three years prior.
Therefore, the Zoom interview we conducted in June had a bittersweet quality to it.
Paul and I had a conversation that moved from one idea to the next. We hadn’t discussed my questions before, and Paul, a sixty-one year old, was reflecting on his youth in southern New Jersey, which is the basis of his 2002 book, Famous Builder.
Paul then shared stories of his visits to Provincetown, Massachusetts, during the AIDS crisis, which is the topic of his most recent book, Later: My Life at the Edge of the World.
He mentioned Lawnboy (1998), his debut novel, as well as The Narrow Door: A Memoir of Friendship (2016). In each of these works, Paul delved into the complexity, uncertainty, and unexpectedness of life.
He said that this conversation had given him the chance to think “across time,” and that it had been a joy.
Paul’s writings revolve around themes of death and desire, home and earth, freedom and silence, restlessness and consciousness–however, I believe that his main focus is time, or, more accurately, the individual’s experience of it.
As he states in Lawn Boy, “Time creates the illusion of propelling us forward, but it is actually like a spring, bringing us back to what we already know.”
Paul’s thoughts on identity are particularly insightful, as he grasps that “you don’t need to live the life you were born into… you can take ownership of yourself,” words from Famous Builder that I often reflect on.
Nevertheless, Later reveals that “it takes much effort to be myself.” It is an honour to observe Paul’s formation of self, which is inseparable from his attitude of making, creating, and constructing new realities for his readers.
— By Rajat Singh
The world has changed drastically in many ways and it is still transforming. It is clear that the developments have had an immense impact and will continue to do so. It is evident that these alterations have had an immense effect and will keep on having one.
A visual representation of Paul can be seen in a picture depicting him. It is a 2048×2048 resolution.
THE BELIEVER: In what way is the concept of “home” relevant to your writing?
Paul Lisicky has a strong belief that his books need to be situated in a distinct environment in order to capture the necessary vibrancy. For instance, the novel Lawn Boy was set in South Florida due to its unique atmosphere of lore, oddity and secretiveness.
The author is also drawn to Provincetown, Massachusetts, due to its close connection to the ocean and the wilderness just beyond the narrow Commercial Street.
My work never inhabits a single, consistent home; instead, it is always on the move, from book to book. When writing about Provincetown, I do not restrict myself to houses or rooms.
Rather, I consider the external environment, which is too vast and unmeasurable to be captured by human comprehension. Home is something volatile, requiring the narrator to be alert and to query their surroundings.
These places are often shrouded in mystery, maintaining the narrator’s curiosity and attentiveness. That is why I am so attracted to them.
BLVR: It could be that you are aiming to tap into a feeling of eerie familiarity associated with home.
PL: Where I’m from in South Jersey, the human influence was so pervasive that it was hard to find any natural environment that hadn’t been altered.
My hometown was tailored and groomed, to a suburban, middle-class aesthetic. Even forests were subject to trimming and pruning. Any open land had been cultivated.
BLVR: You express that “the longing for the ocean has taken precedence over all else.” Your writing often revisits the sea. What is it about the aquatic realm that stirs emotions within you?
PL:I found a special joy in being close to the sea, with its ever-changing tides and its profound sense of aliveness. It was only this morning that I read that only a fifth of the ocean floor has been charted.
This means that the undiscovered areas of the ocean cover twice the area of Mars. Even though humans have heavily exploited the oceans, despoiled them and dumped waste in them, they are still not in our control.
Whenever I am near the vast expanse of the sea, I can feel its resistance to human comprehension.
BLVR: Throughout your memoirs, you portray your formative creative experiences, such as composing sacred music and penning short stories on yellow legal pad sheets before the start of an average day, or when you first arrived at a writers’ residency in Provincetown.
Was there a certain point when you recognized that you would become an author?
PL: As a child, I never thought of writing literature as a career, but I was aware of the necessity of creating things in order to survive. At the age of four or five, I was already conscious that crafting something would be a major part of my life.
During that time, I was composing songs and inventing imaginary cities. Even though there was a certain degree of fun involved in it, I was also quite serious and devoted to it. It was my way of staying alive and expressing my emotions.
When I was a very young child, I experienced a unique kind of excitement which made me feel like I had to share what I was feeling with someone else. I felt that it was essential for the moment to have meaning. I had to let somebody else into that space.
Even as a kid, I didn’t create things with that kind of purpose in mind. However, this urgency has been a constant in my life. It is a way to be present and allow others to participate in something beyond my comprehension that feels almost sacred.
BLVR: In Lawnboy, Evan discovers his true identity by devoting himself to the task of tending to the environment. He is relieved to proclaim to himself, “I’d found a way to exist in the world.” How can you relate to him?
PL: In 1991, I started writing Lawnboy during the AIDS crisis. I believe that if I were to rewrite it now, I would approach it differently; I have a better understanding of how to structure a book.
Despite that, I still relate to the protagonist – he is constantly striving for more, desperate to be heard and to form meaningful connections with those around him. He is searching for purpose and value, and his only resources are what is within his reach; the internet does not exist yet.
The contrast between my understanding of myself and Evan’s is that he believes the only way to achieve transformation is through a romantic connection.
Later discusses the same kind of silence which can have a damaging impact on individuals as well as relationships between men and the culture of men in Provincetown. Ultimately, the book is about the narrator’s refusal to stay quiet when he is hurt.
With the passing of time, Later conveys less faith in a relationship continuing. This does not come from a cynical place–the speaker is aware that if the perfect partner doesn’t show up, then it’s alright.
There is potential to have a fulfilling queer life that doesn’t depend on just one person. This is the main message that can be taken from the two books, considering the years between 1995 and 2019 when Later was completed.
BLVR: I find the concept of your publications interacting with each other throughout the ages intriguing.
PL:I appreciate the concept of questioning myself with each book, instead of crafting a series of books that abide by the same pattern, just replacing the words.
Later serves as a conversation partner to The Narrow Door, a book that seeks to reach a point of order and convergence. I don’t want to underestimate that idea in the book, as it was an appropriate idea for the circumstances that drove the book.
On the other hand, I wanted to make sure Later didn’t come together too much; I wanted to emphasise the idea of fragmentation, because it seemed to reflect the experience of living during a pandemic.
Even though I’m portraying it in a very intentional way, when I found Later becoming too uniform, I had to go back and make sure it wasn’t like that. Each book should be scrutinising the one before it, whether in terms of its content, structure, or vision.
BLVR: As observers, it’s evident that you reject the concept of straightforward solutions or simplistic responses.
We can observe you or any of your characters debating with themselves and pondering, Is this really what I want? Have I thought through the results of my aspirations?
PL: I’m against having the speakers or narrators feel too comfortable. I know that sometimes this is the case. To experience a change, it almost feels like I have to live somewhere else to realise it isn’t my home.
There is an attractive quality to being sure of something, it’s incredibly persuasive. I should be aware of this but I’m still drawn to those people.
BLVR: Having confidence is incredibly attractive.
PL: I don’t consider that a sense of assurance likely springs from patriarchy and a militaristic perspective of the world in terms of right and wrong. Why might such an outlook be attractive?
Something I found amusing last night was that I was going through my Dropbox and I saw a photo of four gay men who I thought were really attractive from about fifteen years back. When I looked at each one of them, I realised that they were all jerks.
I was not able to see that back then. Now when I look upon them, I am able to recognize that they would have found a way to hurt me. Furthermore, there was something alluring about that. That is part of my learning experience.
I am highly responsive to certainty, so how do I challenge that and explore the unknown? What do I think about it?
BLVR: This is a trademark in your entire body of work, this consideration of the unpredictable.
I appreciate that our conversations can encompass multiple books. This is very freeing for me, as it allows me to imagine and contemplate over an extended period of time. I want to create a larger body of work and be able to look back and see growth.
Even though the tendency is to be remembered for a single thing, I’m viewing this as a project that will last for a while. It’s a bit of an antiquated outlook, but it keeps me motivated.
BLVR: You are unafraid of tackling the intricacies of life, or attempting to formulate a phrase that can contain two distinct facts simultaneously. Later further combines the concept of a queer paradise with the destruction of a collective.
PL: I’m not always conscious of attempting to balance opposing ideas in my writing, but I am aware of it as I craft my words, contemplate my thoughts and analyse my conclusions.
When I feel my writing is too one-sided, I become suspicious and distrustful. This leads me to ask myself, “What is wrong with this?”
In relation to Later, it would have been quite simple to portray Provincetown in a romanticised and idealised light, due to the fact that this sentiment is ingrained into its make-up.
It’s indisputably beautiful and provides a secure environment for members of the Lesbian and Gay community. Crafting a rhapsody about it would have been easy, yet it would not have been genuine.
It dawned on me while writing the book that some of the qualities I am attracted to in Provincetown are also the same things that can be bothersome.
Commercial Street, which from an outward perspective looks inviting and rural, is only a few feet wide, making it also a hazardous passage where one must be cautious about trucks and their extended mirrors, bicyclists, etc.
It is necessary to be highly aware in order to navigate the street without causing injury or being harmed.
The remoteness of Cape Cod is a large part of its character. It’s not easy to get to, and even if you have the funds to fly there, flights can be delayed or cancelled.
This can leave travellers with no other option than a hotel. Yet, while the gossipy small-town culture can be off-putting, it is also part of the experience of the place. It is these drawbacks that make it possible to take part in the full experience of Cape Cod.
BLVR: It provides an accurate representation of the location and period.
In 1991, I moved to Provincetown, not realising how different it would be by 1996. It was a unique and unstable place, which led me to think that it had always been around.
BLVR: Returning to a moment in the past, Famous Builder has a scene in which your dad inquires, “What would you like to give to the world?” You reply with, “…all at once I tell him about a box.” What would you put inside it?
I had the pleasure of hearing my brother play the oboe in a concert, which made me feel a mixture of admiration and sorrow as I considered that I was no longer the only artist in the family.
My father asked me how I wanted to make my mark in the world and live beyond my own mortality. In the past, I would have said writing physical books was the answer, but now I have a more complex view of what matters.
Kindness, attention, and listening to others, as well as my love for animals and other living creatures, are all essential to me, yet they are intangible and cannot be stored in a box. That realisation has come with age and the acknowledgement of the limits of what art can do.
After I’m gone, I hope that some people will take the time to go through my books. That’s why I wrote that scene. Like if somebody found a box of my things, I’d be content knowing that at least one person thought, Someone existed. This gives me a bit of comfort to see these items.
Anything might be able to act as a holder.
PL: Is that really the case? What would be considered a box?
BLVR: Going back to the people, characters, and recollections you experienced in the past allows you to gain a renewed understanding of them or to reconsider the role you played in their lives. Has the past changed what your relationship with them is now?
PL: I’m regularly reflecting upon those who have impacted me throughout the course of my life. I didn’t desire for that outlook, that outlook, to be static.
As I wrote both Later and Famous Builder, it dawned on me that I could depict my mother or father as a particular version of them, based on a specific moment in time. I was not expected to write a comprehensive portrayal of who they were.
When I realised this, it gave me the latitude to reinvent them in the context of multiple books. The amusing mom of some of the other memoirs is far more troubled in Later. I wrote a book that took her distress and dissatisfaction, as well as her passion, seriously.
I wouldn’t want the portrait of her in Later to be her only one, as she was also uproariously funny and so kind and the type of mother who wanted to be a kid at heart. Nothing made her happier than being around children.
She had a sense of humour that we shared. There was something really instructive about that. It occurred to me that when I go through life, I don’t have to act the “right” age. She wasn’t always that person, but she could be that person.
And I was aware of how liberating it was for her to tap into teenage humour. Our culture teaches us to repress or eliminate our younger selves. But we are fourteen-year-olds as much as forty-year-olds. We are all those ages simultaneously.
BLVR: Challenges arise in what is brought to the forefront and what is left out of the picture. These are everyday dilemmas that we must make choices about constantly.
PL: It is easy to become stuck in one trajectory of life, and to be confined by the expectations of one’s own generation. I, however, find myself drawn to people and music that are not from my own age group.
This does not mean I ignore the markers that are placed on us from the outside world, but that I recognize them and have the ability to resist them when necessary. Growth is only possible if we are willing to talk to, and learn from, those who are both younger and older than us.
BLVR: Feeling disconnected and unable to communicate is an isolating experience.
I wish for nobody to experience being alone. Our society has been created through isolation.
Question: Is there a distinction between loneliness, isolation, and solitude?
PL: Generally, we use all three together, but I don’t think isolation is a choice for us. It’s forced on us. Loneliness, which is a section of isolation, needs a sense of belonging and connection before it can be felt.
We don’t recognize our loneliness until we lose someone or there is the potential to meet someone again. In contrast, I find solitude to be an advantageous approach to situations when we are separated from others.
It requires effort and consideration in order to make the most of our time apart. To me, solitude feels more positive and requires hard work in every situation.
The sense of isolation I’m feeling right now is more than just passive; it’s a taxing mental activity.
I’m lucky enough to be a professor with a summer off and sabbatical in the fall; it’s a bit of a luxury, but I’m aware of the possibility of being idle and aimless, going from one website to another and not truly creating anything.
However, I’m currently feeling a lucidity that I haven’t experienced in a while, and it’s changed my perspective on people. Although I have had my dark moments, I now possess a different understanding.
BLVR: Could you explain your statement further?
PL: I am writing a book about my late father who passed away five years ago. I realised that I have not taken the time to properly grieve for him. I have been so busy distracting myself from dealing with the impact he had on my life.
Even though my life is not that public, it is public enough. When in the company of others, one can forget the extent to which their actions are based on the need to appear a certain way.
Solitude provides an opportunity to reflect on what one knows and to become aware of their shortcomings and blind spots.
It has made me realise how my love for certain people has kept me from seeing their traits. This is a humbling experience, something that I would not have been able to grasp without the presence of solitude.
Question: Shall we converse about joy?
PL: I greatly appreciate the happiness that queer individuals experience!
BLVR: Could you explain to me what queer joy is? Is it something you strive for?
I’m not really aware of the concept, but I can recognize it when it’s present. It’s usually very disarming and has an almost collective feeling. It’s not much to do with words, but more to do with acknowledging our own inner beasts.
I’m a little sceptical of Walt Whitman’s idea of merging, as I think boundaries are important, but I do like the idea of boundaries becoming more relaxed. I’m not sure if that occurs at the Pines Party or Bear Week, which now seem so far away in the past.
BLVR: In what ways can queer joy currently be found?
I get the feeling that LGBTQ+ individuals have been so tolerant. We have put up with the struggles and loneliness that come along with it.
But without the collective meetings that provide us with a sense of togetherness, where does that leave us?
I’m searching for another term to describe joy — solidarity seems too simple. There’s something wild and untamed to it.
Even though anarchy is a controversial phrase in the current political climate, joy isn’t something that has a formula or a precise definition. It appears between people. It makes you feel overwhelmed and understated. It’s fleeting, and that’s part of what makes it so beautiful.
BLVR: There’s a fleeting, Dionysian quality to desire that is both captivating and passing. How have you been educated by this experience?
In The Narrow Door, I have characterised desire as something which “nourishes as much as it depletes”. Although it is awkward to quote myself, I have always been conscious of desire as both a life-sustaining force and something that can cause harm.
It is easy for desire to go out of control. I have constantly been fascinated by the precarious balance between what makes us alive and what can bring us down, a concept that William Blake has discussed in depth.
I believe that not dealing with desire can be soul-destroying. When I refer to “dealing” with it, I am not implying that it has to be expressed sexually, but rather engaging with it.
Questions like “How do I feel?”, “Where is this feeling taking me?”, “Do I not like this?” and “When do I say, Stop?” ought to be asked and considered. In some way, all of my books have been about negotiating the complexity of desire.
BLVR: I was reminded of the epigraph from E. M. Forster’s Howards End, “Only connect…” Unfortunately, this is usually misinterpreted.
People usually think it means connecting with others, when the real meaning is for one to bridge the gap between their inner being and their sexuality. The author was implying that it’s a call to push through one’s personal boundaries.
PL: You are expressing a much deeper thought.
BLVR: As Forster pointed out, your work addresses the concept of perceiving oneself in a different light or allowing oneself to be seen differently. Would you say that this is an effective way of not just living but actually thriving? How does transformation contribute to this idea of survival?
PL: To start anew, I think it’s beneficial to look at the oppressive, burdensome aspects of our lives and simply proclaim, Enough! to them.
How can we stay youthful, energised and nourished while not being held back by all the ways we have been conditioned to view ourselves? How can we recapture the vigour of our youth?
BLVR: How has it been to compose about your involvement with an old flame who is also an accomplished author?
PL: No one had ever posed the query in that way before, and I am thankful for it, since the difficulty of that was a main factor in my life for quite a while. It’s complicated, since I was the first reader of Mark [Doty]’s pieces.
I provided him a great deal of feedback. I enjoyed the feeling of being able to listen to something right away. I enjoyed saying, “This is what I love, and perhaps you are not doing this here.”
It was a tremendous education to observe how someone’s work changed over time. That came along with the challenge of sustaining my own sense of self as a writer. I was aware that it would be really easy to get swept up into the role of sidekick, or accomplice, or unnamed collaborator.
I wanted to make certain I was creating a vision of my own, that I was developing my own line of thinking. And I sought to do that in a way that didn’t feel like I was rivaling his work.
In the later years of our relationship, we did many readings together and–we never discussed this–it was a kind of activism in the aughts, prior to any civil rights protections coming into play, such as marriage equality.
We were showing up as a working couple to college students frequently. And I simply didn’t want to be the kid or the subordinate. I wanted to do something valuable that was at par with his work.
I recall that as a day-to-day struggle, since I wanted it to be carried out with respect for his work, and I desired to keep myself alive. My own writing was partly an experience of self-creation.
My writing was how I matured and discovered how to associate with other people. I felt like I had a duty to respect all that, not just for myself, but also for the individuals who helped bring me to that point.
I am aware that many, especially younger, individuals have read Later and do not know of the relationship I shared with Mark or his work. Our time together was the product of years of effort, and after we parted ways, things changed.
We were together for 16 years and were close friends for four prior to that. Since then, we have kept in contact through text messages. I am no longer his first reader, which I find exciting.
Now, I can write for The New York Times without showing it to anyone, something that would have been incomprehensible to me a dozen years back as I always sought his comments and feedback.
But over time I have learned to rely on myself. I usually wait a long time before I show my manuscripts to my friends Elizabeth McCracken and Polly Burnell.
BLVR: Showing kindness and appreciation by attempting to understand the intricacies of another individual is an admirable act.
PL: In The Narrow Door, I wished for the “M.” to be distinct from the Mark of Later, somebody I understood long before we were an item. I longed for him to have a life of his own in the story.
I didn’t want my depiction of him to be solely determined by our unravelling, which was not the usual way things were between us. We had an incredibly strong bond, almost like two brothers.
BLVR: What is your approach to utilising sound?
PL: When I’m writing, I’m not satisfied until I can find the perfect rhythm and flow for each sentence. I need something that resonates with my emotions, even if it means repeating words or creating a phrase that reminds me of a song lyric.
I’m often reading my work aloud in a quiet mumble, allowing me to capture the sound of my words. Not only do I want it to make sense, but I want it to have a life of its own and to make an impact through the combination of words that it forms.
It’s the beauty of words clashing together that draws us in, just as we love music for its ability to breach walls and barriers.
When I give readings, I don’t just think about the meaning, but I also want it to have the same impact as a song would, so that it can reach out and touch your heart. My hope is that it will draw you in and keep you coming back.
BLVR: There is no better method to ensure a piece of work is unforgettable. That is what we keep coming back to, the sound. Even if the interpretation shifts, the words still penetrate the soul.
PL: After finishing a book, it can be difficult to put the emotions it evoked into words. Although I can recall certain visions from the novel or essay, I cannot verbalise the sound, yet the sound still influences me profoundly and on a physical level.
BLVR: What is the determining factor for when a piece of work has been completed to one’s satisfaction?
Answer:At times, I can’t discern any other alternative to my decisions at that moment. I’m always cautious of going overboard on something as I’m likely to exhaust myself attempting to make it too flawless.
I need to restrain myself and let some of the texture seem a bit frayed. I don’t want it to be overly processed.
Fiona McCrae was a great help with Later. She gave some heartfelt advice on how to improve the book, even when I was reluctant to take it on board. Her input was essential in helping the book reach its full potential.
She was perfectly in tune with what I wanted to achieve, and was able to see the things I had missed. Fiona has been a great supporter of mine since 2000, and it’s not often people get the chance to work with someone over such a long period. When I began, I was much younger.
BLVR: What measures do you need to take in order to keep producing artwork?
Answer:I’m not sure how to exist without doing something creative. It could be quite upsetting if I were to lack any involvement in this. Throughout the semester, I spend a lot of time with my students’ work, which can be a creative experience in its own right.
When I’m not in that situation, I need to continue to create things in order to remain in touch with reality. Without something to guide me, I feel like I’m lost and without a purpose as a person. I believe having a creative outlet is crucial in order to be a productive member of society.
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