Thursday, July 28, 2011

An Interview with Paul Lisicky

Ryan Holden interviews Paul Lisicky about his forthcoming book, Unbuilt Projects (Four Way Books, 2012):

The title of the collection seems to offer an ironic take on how some might perceive flash fiction pieces. Was this a conscious gesture on your part? Did the title become apparent as you were working on the individual pieces in the collection?

The title was a happy accident. I was at a museum in Miami; there was a show for a prominent midcentury architect, and I saw the title “unbuilt projects” below some renderings on the wall. It seemed fascinating and poignant to me that the architect’s best buildings were never realized. (I wrote about one of those in the piece “Modernism.”) The metaphor stood for so many things relevant to my book--not just the form, but the mind of the mother, who’s in the process of losing her memory. I liked the way that title talked back to Famous Builder, my second book. The pieces in that manuscript are fuller, more narrative, while any number of the Unbuilt Projects pieces play with disjunction, leap, gap, tone shifts. You might say the unbuilt.

Some of the pieces, especially “Mothers in the Trees,” reminded me of the way myths were presented in some of my childhood books. How did you cultivate that mythic feel in your stories? How strong is the influence of fable in your collection? Were there particular mythologies (or individual stories) that had strongest influence?

I’d never let the mythic element into my previous books, but you can feel it try to nudge its way in. Just about all the pieces were written during the time of my mother’s last illness; dementia tore up everything I thought I knew about narrative, truth, character, identity. The mythic seemed to be truer to how I experienced consciousness then. I wasn’t a big reader as a young kid, so I can’t attribute that impulse to being influenced by any specific narratives. But I remember being taken with pictures of animals, plants, trees, water, turbulent weather. The cover of the book is actually taken from my favorite childhood picture book.

Many of the pieces include a relationship between mother and son that draws upon the array of emotions churning between them throughout their lifetimes. It is tempting to read the mother and son as the same throughout the collection. Would that be reading too much into it? Or was that a guiding intention?

In one sense, the mother and the son are the same from piece to piece. They have the same bodies, same faces, similar speech patterns. In another sense, they're not the same, especially when the mother's interior reality shifts from minute to minute. That sense of flux can't help but shape the speaker's sense of himself, and the ground he walks on. Can the book have it both ways? I hope so.

This collection often undercuts nostalgia. How much focus did you put on the perspective shift between childhood and adulthood as you were working?

The speaker's sense of time is fluid; childhood and adulthood aren't exactly distinct from one another. The past infiltrates the present and the present anticipates the future. Time is all mixed up; it's shadowed, impure. The book is wary of a nostalgic point of view, because nostalgia thinks of the past as something containable, separate, inevitably preferable to the present. The idealization of the past strikes the speaker as troublesome. It prevents us from seeing the world in front of us, ahead of us.

There’s a good mix of humorous stories and stories that take a more serious position; they are interspersed throughout the book. How did you decide on the order of your collection? How do the humorous stories inform the more serious pieces and vice versa?

I’m glad to hear that you think some of the stories are funny. I’m not sure I’m the best judge as to which pieces are humorous and which aren’t. I often think my funniest lines are heard as stark and grave when I give a reading. Then people will laugh and laugh when I think I’m being deadly serious. Humor is such a subjective thing--who knows what it is?--but I always take it as a compliment when people respond physically to my work. I think of laughter as recognition, assent. As to the structure of the manuscript, I want the pieces to form an extended conversation. It’s often the case that the piece following the piece in question will contradict the argument of the original piece, and I think there’s something inherently funny about that.

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RYAN HOLDEN received his MFA in Creative Writing from Arizona State University. His poems have been recently published in Country Dog Review, ditch, and Ampersand Review. He was nominated for a Pushcart Prize in 2011 by the Hobble Creek Review.

PAUL LISICKY is the author of Lawnboy, Famous Builder, and the forthcoming books The Burning House (2011) and Unbuilt Projects (2012). His work has appeared in Ploughshares, The Iowa Review, StoryQuarterly, The Seattle Review, Five Points, Subtropics, Gulf Coast, and many other anthologies and magazines. A graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, he’s the recipient of awards from the National Endowment for the Arts, the James Michener/Copernicus Society, the Henfield Foundation, and the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, where he was twice a fellow. He lives in New York City and Springs, New York, and has taught in the graduate writing programs at Cornell University, Rutgers-Newark, and Sarah Lawrence College. He currently teaches at NYU.