Paul Lisicky – The Narrow Door
Paul Lisicky’s second memoir The Narrow Door: A Memoir of Friendship (Graywolf Press) follows two relationships coming to an end: the death of his friend, the novelist Denise Gess, and the dissolution of his marriage to a poet, identified as M. in the book. The memoir weaves these two losses together, exploring friendship, love, loss, jealousy, art, and more.
Written in the present tense and moving back and forth through time, The Narrow Door is a beautiful and heartbreaking portrayal of a complex friendship, one often marked by competition and falling-outs, but also by compassion and love.
SHASTA GRANT: One of my favorite passages is when you say goodbye to a new friend at the end of a writing conference. “On the day of our departure, Julie and I fall into each other’s arms and weep. We weep and weep, though our weeping is soundless. We don’t shake. Hot tears soak into the shoulders of our T-shirts. Everyone around is loading up their cars, standing outside them with folded arms: all these people we’ll never see again.” I went to two writing conferences last summer and I wept when I left both of them. I was completely caught off-guard by the intensity of saying goodbye both times. Can you talk more about fleeting friendships, and perhaps the connection between art and friendship? I’m also interested in knowing, as you’ve gone from student to teacher at these types of workshops, whether you still feel that same connection and sadness.
PAUL LISICKY: The passage is set in 1986, years before the internet. Now you’d friend or follow that person and that person remains in your life in some form, but in a less intense way. Maybe now that goodbye would have hurt a little less?
I’m just thinking about Conference Time, how layered and spacious and pure it usually is. The bar is high for everyone, whether you’re a student or a teacher. Possibility is in the air, and if you’re lucky, your possibility is seen, and you see it in someone else. In the exhausted final hours of a conference, we sense that that rarified sense of hope is about to crash against the usual everyday realities: money, relationship tensions, parenting tensions, apartness from community, limited time. That passing thought: maybe I just don’t have what it takes. No wonder people break down.
I think I might feel a little less of that intensity because many of my students continue to be a part of my life in some way. Some former students are among my best friends. And I happen to run into others at readings and events all the time. That would be harder if I were living in a more remote place.
SG: You write about heartbreaking moments with such precision that never veers into sentimentality. When you’re standing at Denise’s bed, waiting for her to die, you write: “But I have come too late. She’s not even the person I knew. I look at her sleeping face, grab her big warm toe poking out from beneath the sheet: monkey feet.” And then a little later, shortly before you leave her bedside for the last time, “I hold on to her toe a little while longer.” The toe acts as anchor, both anchoring you to Denise and anchoring the scene itself. Can you talk about the choices you made in selecting details like this?
PL: That scene attempts to be in dialogue with all the deathbed scenes you’ve ever read or seen in a movie. In Denise’s last hours, I remember feeling the duty to perform my role properly, even when she was already under, and her family had stepped out of the room. The pressure to be respectful was overwhelming to the point where it was getting in the way of my being present with her. When I finally sat down to write, it seemed important to get the full range of emotion down on the page, the weird combination of intensity, numbness, joy, boredom, brokenness, absurdity, coincidence, dumb jokes. And the waiting, the almost unbearable waiting. I guess the received notion of that experience suggests that it’s all orderly and meaningful and beautiful, and we learn something in the face of our human plight. I wouldn’t say that we don’t feel weirdly alive and in awe, but so much else goes on too.
SG: The book is comprised of small sections that move back and forth through time—primarily between your relationship with Denise and your relationship with your then-husband, M. You use year markers at the beginning of each section to ground readers. I’d love to know more about the process of structuring the memoir. Was there a lot of shuffling and reorganizing along the way? Did it always have this form?
PL: The form is pretty close to the original form with a few exceptions. The book was always associative, and from sentence one I tried to cultivate patterns in sound and image—I think of them as the book’s solder. After Denise’s death, I didn’t have the attention span to write scenes of long duration and the project was all about finding a way to make art out of my state of mind, which was probably diminished and expanded all at once. Certain sections were folded in after I had a whole draft, and other sections were deleted. There were actually two different versions of the deathbed scene, one close to the beginning and the other near the end. My friend Karen thought the first one could go—and I went along with that suggestion because the intellectual notion of multiple truths isn’t quite news. It seemed to me more important to listen to the emotional current of the material.
SG: One of the themes in the book is jealousy, something most writers are overly familiar with. It can be hard to watch friends’ careers flourish while one’s own work remains on a hard drive. At the beginning of your relationship with Denise, she is the bright young writer whose career is taking off and over the course of your friendship, your roles shift. Can you talk more about your own experience with jealousy and success?
PL: That’s always an uncomfortable subject and all I can say is that envy has ended up being an undercurrent in a number of relationships and friendships—at times. I completely get it. I’m definitely not above having that oh crap! kind of feeling whenever I’ve given a reading and my co-reader gets the long signing line afterward, and I’m just standing off to the side attempting to look cheerful and tearless. But luckily that feeling rolls off pretty quickly. To hang on to that kind of feeling? That seems to me a horrible way to live. It might even end up destroying the work. If the project of our writing is to write the best out of our unique abilities (and weaknesses), then the notion of competition—it doesn’t really make sense. Competition is all about external recognition versus—what?— self-attunement? The former is wonderful when it comes, but awards and good reviews and sales don’t sustain you over the long haul. And besides, those thing don’t keep coming.
SG: I’m curious how you think Denise would have received this memoir, both the book itself and also the tremendous buzz it is receiving in the literary world (two New York Times reviews and already on its second printing). Also, can you tell us whether her imagined reaction was something you thought about as you wrote the memoir?
PL: I don’t doubt Denise would have been happy to be at the center of a book. She had all the genetic material of famous person—someone who was used to being watched, someone who stirred up the molecules in the air as she entered a room. As to everything that ended up on the page? Who knows. I think she’d love being a character in people’s imaginations—I’m just thinking about the Denise of Part III. All that light and generosity in those letters of hers. Her sane bravery in the face of death. But a memoir can only ever be partial — it’s certainly not meant to be Denise’s biography; it’s all refracted through a particular set of concerns. You had to put that in? You jerk! I can just hear her, really annoyed and laughing.
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Paul Lisicky is the author of The Narrow Door, as well as Lawnboy, Famous Builder, and The Burning House. His work has appeared in Tin House, Fence,Ploughshares, The Iowa Review, Story Quarterly,Gulf Coast, and in many other magazines and anthologies. A graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, his awards include fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the James Michener/Copernicus Society, and the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, where he was twice a fellow. He has taught in the writing programs at Cornell University, New York University, Rutgers-Newark, Sarah Lawrence College, the University of North Carolina-Wilmington, and elsewhere. He is currently the New Voices Professor in the MFA Program at Rutgers-Camden. He divides his time between New York City and Philadelphia. Photo credit: Star Black
Shasta Grant is the 2016 SmokeLong Quarterly Kathy Fish Fellow. She is also the winner of the 2015 Kenyon Review Short Fiction Contest. Her story, “Most Likely To,” was selected by final judge, Ann Patchett. She has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and her stories and essays are forthcoming or have appeared in The Kenyon Review, Epiphany, Gargoyle, cream city review, Jelly Bucket, Wigleaf, The Journal of Compressed Creative Arts, WhiskeyPaper, and elsewhere. She is Managing Editor of Storyscape Journal. Shasta received her MFA in Writing from Sarah Lawrence College in 2005 and was a 2007 Writer-in-Residence at Hedgebrook.