Elisa Rolle Interview with Paul Lisicky, October 31, 2011
1) My first question is about your experience as teenager; doing a little bit of math, you were a teenager in the ‘70s, how was it at the time? Were you already out?
It’s hard to talk about all that without sounding like a relic. We were pretty isolated back then, even though the bars of Philadelphia were just ten miles across the river. I didn’t know of anyone in my high school who was out--I certainly wasn’t. That changed once everyone went off to college of course, but the landscape of high school didn’t feel all that friendly or safe. Also, there wasn’t an internet; there weren’t images of gay people around, except for the guys on the covers of Honcho or Mandate--funny that the suburban newsstands made sure to have those magazines in stock. The disturbing thing is that I really didn’t know of gay people who had professional lives. There were rumors about some of our teachers--the history teacher who wore clogs, for instance. The ceramics teacher in the tight jeans. But as to whether I believed the rumors? I just thought gay people were anywhere but where I was. They were part of some urban sex dream that seemed very far away.
2) You earned both Bachelor and Master of Arts degrees in English from Rutgers University and a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Was that your dream, being a writer I mean?
I actually wanted to be a songwriter. I was a Joni Mitchell fan from the time I was in fourth grade and I wanted to be her. Or, I wanted to find my idiosyncratic voice as she did as a singer, guitarist, pianist. But all of my songs sounded like copies of hers. In college, I ended up taking a poetry workshop. My poems, unfortunately, all sounded like copies of Joni songs. But then I took a fiction workshop and the locks started to click.
3) You are the author of the novel "Lawnboy," the memoir "Famous Builder," and the novel "The Burning House.” Your next book, “Unbuilt Projects,” is coming out next year. Do you want to tell us something more about these works?
Though my books sound different from one another, they’re all about desire, how it can both take care of us and get us into trouble. I’ve always been stirred up by that contradiction. How do you make a life inside that tension? They’re also about a search for home. My narrators all seem to live with some deep dread of homelessness, either literal or figurative, and they do what they can to redefine home for themselves.
4) When I asked you for this interview, I wanted to do a serial about real life romance, and my idea was to ask you about your relationship with Mark Doty, your partner since 1995. This was your very kind reply: “I'd be happy to be a guest--I like this notion of "real life romance." I don't know if it matters to you that Mark and I have separated after 16 years together. We're still close, of course, and maybe there's something to say about all that. Maybe one could have a real life romance, and there could be more life to come beyond that?” My opinion is absolutely yes, and so please, can you tell us something more about all that?
Well, it’s complicated. I certainly like this idea of “more life to come.” The fact is it’s hard to be apart from someone you’ve spent most of your adult life with. It’s even harder to be apart from someone you care about--and who cares about you--and realize that after all those years together you’ve come to want different things.
I would like to think that we’ll all have more than one real life romance in our lives. I think the notion of the “love of one’s life” puts too much pressure on finding a relationship, being in a relationship. I didn’t realize how much I’d taken in that myth until recently. Maybe a part of it had to do with coming of age during the beginning of the Epidemic. It was just expected that none of us were going to be around that long. Our lives were going to be short, so you better hold on to that one person.
I remember feeling so miserable in my twenties when I wasn’t in a relationship. I thought my life would begin when I had a partner, and in part that was true. But there’s also a real beauty in being by oneself. I wish I could have known that when I was younger. You see things more deeply, you get to know yourself better. It’s not a bad thing.
5) Correct me if I’m wrong, but you live in New York City, isn’t it right? How did you feel about the Marriage Equality Act that became legal on July 24, 2011?
Time for the other states to follow suit. No one who’s “married” in her home state should have to check “single” on her Federal Income Tax return. Period.
About Paul Lisicky: Paul Lisicky is the author of LAWNBOY, FAMOUS BUILDER, and THE BURNING HOUSE. His work has appeared in PLOUGHSHARES, THE IOWA REVIEW, FIVE POINTS, STORY QUARTERLY, GULF COAST, SUBTROPICS, and 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, Rutgers-Newark, Sarah Lawrence College, the University of North Carolina-Wilmington, and elsewhere. He currently teaches at NYU. UNBUILT PROJECTS, a collection of short prose pieces, is forthcoming from Four Way Books in Fall 2012. He lives in New York City. See his blog, MYSTERY BEAST, at http://paullisicky.blogspot.com.