It feels forever ago: when we could greet each other in person; hug, exclaim, share sips from the same water bottle. Hold each other’s phones. But it’s only been a year, not quite, which barely registers in geologic time. I’m sitting in Florida next to a calcite fossilized clam that the nice man at the farmers’ flea market said is unique to Fort Drum, Florida. It is as big as my hand, its surface layered with minerals, textures, amber crystals bowling into the clam’s pearlish shell. And there are holes, too, that I can put my finger in. An object thousands of years in the making. I didn’t imagine myself living in Florida over twenty years ago when I first read Paul Lisicky’s novel Lawnboy, set in the lush, shifting world of South Florida. Paul’s most recent book, Later: My Life at the Edge of the World, came out last year, as did my first full-length novel, The Reconception of Marie. In both, there is a deep consideration of time, from the ever-present haunt of our mortality to the specificity of cultural moments. Paul writes about Provincetown in the early 90s, a community steeped in the AIDS crisis, while nearly 1000 miles away, in Western Michigan, my closeted narrator, Marie, learns about the “homosexual agenda” from Christian radio. Compound the elements, apply pressure, and here you are: two books and an animal turned mineral.
Paul and I had this conversation over the span of several weeks in November and December 2020. A world ago and just yesterday. We talk about how we write and why and artistic disobedience and queer forms. Changing gods and shaping genres. We hope you enjoy the conversation as much as we enjoyed having it.
– Teresa Carmody
Teresa Carmody: It’s such an honor to have this conversation with you. I’ve deeply admired your writing for the past twenty years—that’s how long it’s been since I worked with you in Antioch’s MFA program. I was studying creative nonfiction; you’d recently published your first novel, but it wasn’t strange to be working on nonfiction with you. Because you write both genres, and various prose forms within: novels, short forms, memoir, essays. I’d love to hear more about your experience working with form and genre. In your most recent memoir, Later, there’s this stunning entry (one among many) where you write about being dressed by Hollis, a new lover. He’s instructing you on the fashion of the Provincetown, yes, and also on queer embodiment. You write: “I become a different person inside these clothes, and for the first time in my life, I understand costuming not as a falsehood but as a way to bring the inner life out in the open.” There’s such beautiful intimacy here; your description makes me think of Butler (gender is a performance) and RuPaul (“We’re all born naked and the rest is drag”), and about form and genre in writing—how various embodied experiences need to be “costumed,” if I may, in order to best express that inner life. How does genre emerge for you?
Paul Lisicky: How does that happen, Teresa? Twenty years. It’s both five minutes ago and almost prehistoric. It’s a joy to talk to you about The Reconception of Marie, especially in that it had its origins in our work together. You gave it the chance to steep and deepen and become itself, and I’m in awe of your loyalty to a very specific vision.
Your questions are great, and I imagine I probably talk about writing differently from when we worked together. In so many ways I’ve gone back to my origins as a songwriter and poet, at least in terms of how I think of my own process. And rather than thinking genre from the onset, I work from pure sound and description. I often read aloud as I write—does this sentence capture some cadence that sounds like me, thinks like me? Do these five descriptions conjure up an atmosphere? There’s a lot of mistake-making until it’s close to right, until I can put a passage aside and move on. The question of genre comes to me much later. At that point I’m thinking: how do I unsettle the expectations of what a memoir is supposed to do structurally? How can my little act of disobedience crack open some light?
Form is more complicated than that for me. I recently had an insight: I seem to need constraint (and maybe constraint is analogous to the idea of a costume above) in order to make a piece come alive for me. I need to decide the book is about this particular two-year period, or this particular subject. Imaginative energy can start when constraint comes into the play, but before that it’s just a pile of feelings and inchoate ideas. And where I land—I’m talking about the final passage, which is usually image-based—determines the organizing principle of the preceding material. My awareness of constraint usually doesn’t come until I’m about 75 percent of the way into a project, when my head hurts and I never want to open my laptop again.
How about you? I’m so curious about how you think about these questions. The Reconception of Marie is so much a dialogue between two different narrative realms. The form of it feels earned, as though you tried it out in several different combinations before you settled on what felt truest.
TC: I love it that your writing originates from sound and description—a process of evocation, perhaps? I, too, read aloud while I write, tuning into a sound or stream of language and voice, so much so that I can’t have music or other media playing. Even to compose this response, I turned off the playlist a friend made for her recently deceased cat. (RIP, dear London.)
For me, form often emerges from some combination of content, breath, and yes, constraint. While I sometimes draw on constraints rather formally via counting, bibliomancy, acrostics, etc, I didn’t have a working constraint for The Reconception of Marie, which did feel, to use your language, like a “pile of feelings and inchoate ideas” for so long. (Maybe this is one reason I later became obsessed with such literal constraints.) Reconception began as a nonfiction, though at some point, her (my?) thirteen-year-old voice took over and began writing diary entries. I soon realized I would need to choose between the diaristic form or nonfiction as a genre. After all, these weren’t my actual diary entries, so they weren’t true in the way nonfiction claims for the reader. Yet it wasn’t until I brought an adult voice back in—I’m speaking here about the interludes which run through young Marie’s first-person entries—that the book really came into itself. “A dialogue between two narrative realms”: yes. Sometimes I call it a novel-essay, a term traced to Virginia Woolf’s unfinished work, The Pargiters.
It’s almost like there’s a field of enunciation, traversing both internal and external realms, and the writer, through a combination of listening, formal choices, and, to use your language, “little acts of disobedience,” positions themself in that field toward a particular expression or manifestation. Am I being too mystical? Do I care? I like your question: does this sentence sound, or think, like me? Is like me another way of saying honest? And how does queerness fit into this?
I want to hear more about Later, which I would describe as queer text. Queer as a noun and a verb. Structurally, it accumulates numbered chapters and titled prose blocks, not unlike the way you (narrator, speaker, pen-performer) accumulate experiences, lovers, new ways of being in the world. And then there is another accumulation: deaths from AIDS-related illnesses. Later holds the personal and the political, the individual and the social, in such attentive, such intimate relation.
PL: I love the idea of queering the form, though the queering was just plain intuition at first. The first draft of the book that became the final book was linear, in past tense, with an emphasis on developing transitions—there wasn’t a lot of white space. Visually, the page was crowded with text. After a while, I had an unsettling feeling that I was creating something that felt a little too logical, orderly; it was moving toward something approximating a takeaway. Perspective. But HIV/AIDS is ongoing, even though it doesn’t make the headlines so much these days. The facts from unaids.org: “1.7 million became newly infected with HIV in 2019. 690,000 people died from AIDS-related illnesses.” To imply that HIV was an illness of the past felt not just off but…unconscionable.
So I put the manuscript aside for some months, and when I went back in to work, I started snipping away the connective tissue. I did everything I could to emphasize fragmentation, titling the individual sections. I didn’t want the read to be too smooth. I didn’t want it to go down easily. So what was a narrative became a list—“an accumulation,” as you call it. And maybe a list is the best way I could think of to imply loss. Lost loves, lost bodies.
So over the past few days I’ve been interrogating my phrase “act of disobedience.” I grew up during a time when disobedience felt like a positive in art, but here we are in another pandemic when large portions of the population refuse to wear masks; they protest against lockdowns, some describe COVID as a hoax even when they’re dying of it. Just a few days ago a video of a bear on a mountain road was making the rounds on social media. In the video, the bear ambles by an orange traffic safety cone on its side, rights it with his nose, and walks on, nonchalant. I’m charmed by that bear obviously, but most readers were looking at the video as a metaphor for human behavior. And my fellow writers were applauding the good deed. After an insurrection, when the threats of white supremacy and domestic terrorism feel nearer and nearer all the time, we’re shaken. No wonder we’re drawn to good deeds, good people, civic minded bears and safety cones. This is not very punk rock. I’m wondering how you think of disobedience in relationship to your writing these days. You mentioned a bit above, but is there hope for disobedience at a moment in which disobedience has been stolen from us?
TC: Your question reminds me of a friend’s story about a party she attended as a young queer punk in the 80s. Someone accidently dropped their beer, clearly embarrassed as the bottle smashed on the floor. So everyone in the vicinity, she said, immediately threw down their beers, smashing their bottles, and thus disrupting the original bottle dropper’s awkwardness or shame about their clumsiness. In other words, this act of rupture was about showing care or nurturance for each other. Which is, I think, the sentiment and vision at the heart of civil disobedience: how do we insist on care for a social body that’s been marginalized and hurt for generations? To me, this is why don’t tread on me feels very different than black lives matter. One is individual to the point of selfishness (me and mine), while the other insists on collective worth and truly valuing life (we and ours). As many protest signs read: all lives won’t matter until black lives matter.
Which leads me back to Later. I felt like one of its queerest aspects (if I may) was the way you hold the community, including your younger self, with such tenderness and care. There’s an insistence on love and vulnerability, beyond the defense mechanisms we all learn as a way to cope with fear, with loss and grief, with our experiences—external and internalized—of culturally- and politically-sanctioned abuse, such as racism, homophobia, sexism. Why do I call this tenderness and care queer? Because it’s the antithesis to the kind of toxicity perhaps best exemplified by those Trump signs that read: “F*ck your Feelings.” Oh dear ones, it’s much more wonderful, and brave, to fuck and feel.
In Reconception, I realized at some point that I was writing against authoritarianism and its all-encompassing demand for uncritical obedience. This writing-against meant allowing the full range and nuance of Marie’s felt experiences to blossom on the page, including coming into intimacy with her inner life. It meant allowing her to be as intellectually skeptical as she is spiritually-inclined. I needed to make space for both her fervency and her healing, though not in a reactive way as that would have reinforced the binary of authoritarian logic.
The French writer Leslie Kaplan once described clichés as authoritarian, as a should is implied within whatever well-worn image, phrase, or narrative trope is being deployed. It takes courage to make something that is true and honest for the maker—rather than what is expected, accepted, or more sellable. I do think such honesty is an act of artistic disobedience, especially as patriarchy still preaches repression as the best and only means to civic order. I’ve been circling this idea of ‘radical honesty’ in my current projects—a fiction and a collection of essays.
How about you? What are you working on now?
PL: So many wonderful things here, the recognition of community, tenderness, and care. The respect for feelings. Radical honesty as resistance to authoritarianism. One of the things I love most about Reconception is its refusal of absolutes. The narrator might have shut down her spiritual inclinations as part of her way out of rule-based religion: a very common trajectory I’ve read in so many books. But your novel is up to something truer, more alive. Marie’s intellect and spirituality are intertwined. Doubt is part of faith, and the book sends her off in wondrous territory: “…change is inevitable and constant, like the dark and light of the earth’s daily rotation… Does God change?” That insight, of course, leads her to a sense of self that’s dynamic, fresh, and wide open.
My new project? I’ve been working on a book about my father for past five or so years, a book I worked on concurrently with Later. One of the biggest challenges has been putting boundaries around the work, because a huge part of what was compelling about him was his utter lack of limit—stopping wasn’t a part of his mechanism until his body said finally, enough. The book is as much about my childhood life in music, and how I used my art as a protection, and even a prayer, against some of the chaos he generated. At least that’s what it is right now—it’s been through a couple of structural iterations since the beginning of the pandemic, and it might yet change again, but I’m starting to doubt that. I think it’s finally becoming its own beast.
What about your new fiction and your essays? Could you tell us about them?
TC: Your description of Reconception gets at another reason the book took so long to finish—I was working through these issues of spiritual abuse myself, even as, for many years, I didn’t realize it was abuse; to me, it was just normal. At some point I realized the book itself was guiding me toward, or through, my own healing—an ongoing process beyond binaries, or absolutes. Which wasn’t easy or succinct—oh, how our survival strategies and internal protectors can resist change! The question, “Does God change?” is in conversation with Octavia Butler and her Parable series, as well as adrienne maree brown’s Emergent Strategy, and how we might “shape change.” I’m interested in that movement—internally and as a narrative strategy. Selah Saterstrom talks about how writing often arrives with a blueprint for its own articulation. To me, this is magic, or spirit, how a book can know itself even before the writer realizes what the book is or might be. How books are organic beings, their “own beasts,” to use your language, made in conversation with others.
Well, I can talk about the essays anyway, which are experimental hybrids about coming into creative and political self-awareness via writers who have influenced that process: Virginia Woolf, Zora Neale Hurston, Clarice Lispector, Kathy Acker, to name a few. I’m reading and re-reading their work and doing archival research, and exploring my body as an archive, too. Where was I when I first began reading her? How did I come to know her and come to know myself? I’ve published a few already, and one has also become needlework. What will happen next?
This is a somewhat selfish question, but how do you read when you write?
PL: So much reading is required of us, right? Not just student manuscripts, or other work we’re prepping for class, but all the institution-y correspondence and administration that comes with being a professor. Just about all of this is urgent, it has a time stamp on it, it can’t be postponed, right? I’m not saying anything you don’t know. Over the years I’ve developed some psychic boundaries between all that reading and my own writing. But at the same time I always read in the hopes of being smitten—I want those boundaries to be breached! When I come across work I love, I want to write, I want to talk to back to it, even though that exchange isn’t visible to the reader. I felt some of that this fall when I was reading Sarah Shun-lien Bynum’s new story collection Likes. I’ve always loved Sarah’s work, and once again I felt the sensation of being swept by its descriptions, its love for objects, surfaces, rooms, landscapes, bodies, faces, not to mention the utter delight on the page. I was writing in a different genre from Sarah. Different content, different voice, different time and place—so I wasn’t remotely worried about sounding like her. But for at least a little while I could tell my own work was refreshed by her sense of awe, her playfulness, the scrupulousness of her eye.
One last question: which recent books are you excited about?
TC: Oh, I love Sarah’s writing, and have been savoring her new collection as well. Present company aside, one book I’ve really loved is Fernanda Melchor’s Hurricane Season, translated by Sophie Hughes. Her sentences are as long and storied as they are breath catching—a pulsing urgency felt in the body. I’ve also loved Ugly Duckling’s pamphlet series, and, speaking of classrooms, Magdalena Zurawski’s essay in that series, “Being Human Is an Occult Practice,” speaks toward the limits and possibilities of literary studies. She argues for FEELING (yes, all caps), and freedom as play, and generative purposelessness, which is, really, my favorite way to read.
Paul Lisicky is the author of six books including Later: My Life at the Edge of the World, one of NPR’S Best Books of 2020, as well as The Narrow Door, Unbuilt Projects, The Burning House, Famous Builder, and Lawnboy. http://www.
Teresa Carmody’s writing includes fiction, creative nonfiction, inter-arts collaborations, and hybrid forms. She is the author of three books, including The Reconception of Marie. https://www.