Paul Lisicky is the author of the new book The Narrow Door: A Memoir of a Friendship, which focuses on his friendship with the late writer Denise Gess. His other books include Famous Builder and The Burning House, and his work has appeared in a variety of publications, including The Atlantic and BuzzFeed. He teaches in the MFA program at Rutgers University-Camden.
Q: Why did you decide to write this memoir, and what did your friendship with Denise Gess mean to you?
A: I started writing about Denise as a way to keep her in the world a while longer, to hold on to her walk and facial reactions and the sound of her laughter. I didn’t have grand plans.
But once I started to accumulate material, it was clear to me I was writing about friendship and relationships—or, more specifically, attachment. Who are we when we lose our sidekicks? The book is an attempt to metabolize that question.
As for what Denise meant to me..sidekick can be broken down into components. Mentor, mentee, chosen sibling, crush, best friend, she was all these things and more over the course of our 26-year-long friendship.
Q: The book jumps back and forth from more recent times to decades earlier. Did you plan the structure before you started writing, or did it develop as you went along?
A: Anyone who’s lost somebody knows that grief isn’t a linear story: it moves sideways and backwards, ahead, then backwards again. It doesn’t obey the rules of clock time, and I knew from the get-go it would have been false to my experience to write a chronological book.
I needed a form that gave me multiple layers and levels to suggest simultaneity. My hope is that a memory from, say, 2004 is permeated by a memory from 1984. In doing that it wants to enact something about time and recurrence.
Q: You also include sections on musicians, particularly Joni Mitchell. Why did you include those sections in the book?
A: Denise and I both loved Joni Mitchell’s work and bonded over our deep appreciation for her albums, especially the mid-‘70s albums: The Hissing of Summer Lawns, Hejira, Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter.
But Joni is also important for the adventurous and idiosyncratic work she did, based as it was on all sorts of alternate guitar tunings an unorthodox song forms. Later in her career, you can hear the pressure of commercial expectations on the work, and some freshness is lost. In trying to speak to a wider audience, it loses its self-attunement.
Denise herself struggled against the burden of commercial pressures with her second novel, so the book is inviting you to hold the travails of the two artists against each other. What do you do when your role model loses her way for a while?
Q: You also focus on your relationship with your ex-husband, a poet. Do you see a comparison between how the two relationships affected you?
A: The book certainly invites the reader to compare the two relationships. Both Denise and Mark started out as mentors to me, then one became a best friend, the other a romantic partner.
The mentor-mentee relationship is complex in that it’s never static; a certain sense of equilibrium can be threatened when the mentee archives something and is no longer a subordinate. How to navigate all that?
Q: The book deals with various feelings of grief and loss. Was it difficult to write about some of your experiences?
A: It was tough to write the book, but it would have been much tougher not to write it. Often when we lose someone we spend so much time assuring everyone we’re okay. There isn’t much permission to be sad, or lost, or even incompetent, even from those who care about us.
That can wear us out, and at least I had a verbal reliquary box. Sometimes the difficult is exactly what you need to do.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: Last summer I finished the first draft of a new memoir. It’s set in Provincetown in the early 1990s when I first moved to town as a Writing Fellow at the Fine Arts Work Center. The AIDS crisis was at its height and the town was a place where people came to find solace and community.
But the continual loss of people affected everyone, regardless of age or gender or sexual identity. It was a time of devastation but also a time of great humor and joy, and I wanted to summon up that era before it passed out of collective memory.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Paul Lisicky will be participating in the Bethesda Literary Festival, which runs from April 15-17, 2016, in Bethesda, Maryland.