Pigeon Pages Interview
with Paul Lisicky
Do you have a bird story or favorite feathered friend?
Brown pelicans, wood storks, magnificent frigatebirds: I’m crazy about all of them. And the much more commonplace song sparrow. One of the best things ever is a song sparrow’s voice, which always sounds like the first sign of spring.
What is your most memorable reading experience?
I’ve been reading and re-reading Joy Williams’s work since I was in my early twenties. It’s an ongoing thing, and I keep making new discoveries in it.
What makes you most excited about Later?
I can’t wait to see what the book’s actually going to look like: the cover art, the spine, the font. It’s a memoir set in Provincetown in the early 1990s, which was the height of the AIDS epidemic in town, and honestly I’ve been trying to find a form for that material for over twenty years. So it will be a little bit of a shock to see it in the form of a book, in something that people can actually pick up.
To tweet or not to tweet?
My own feed is a collection of tweets about animals and plants, with occasional tweets about space and writing and music. Some of those tweets are meant to be playful and funny, but mostly it’s just a catalog of things that interest me. I love the people who do jokes, especially running jokes, on Twitter—my friend Elizabeth McCracken is hilarious and brilliant—but I think I need more room and context in order to be funny, which is a weird thing to admit to, because as a writer I’m always describing myself as a compressionist or a subtractionist or some other fancy term.
What books do you have in your bag right now?
We’re about two-thirds of the way into the semester, so right now it’s mostly my students’ work, MFA thesis manuscripts, and the three books on the syllabus for my workshop: Jamel Brinkley’s Lucky Man, Deb Olin Unferth’s Wait Till You See Me Dance, and Amy Hempel’s Sing to It.
But once the semester is done? Mitchell Jackson’s Survival Math, Esmé Wang’s The Collected Schizophrenias, Yiyun Li’s Where Reasons End, Brenda Shaughnessy’s The Octopus Museum, Bryan Washington’s Lot, Ocean Vuong’s On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, Terese Svoboda’s Great American Desert, Mira Jacob’s Good Talk, Renee Gladman’s Morelia, Susan Choi’s Trust Exercise, Michael Carroll’s Stella Maris, Max Porter’s Lanny, Ilya Kaminsky’s Deaf Republic, Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore’s Sketchtasy. I know I’m missing a bunch. And those at least will take me through to the end of the year.
Can you tell us your favorite rejection story?
I remember submitting a story to an annual anthology way back when I was in my twenties; the editor sent it back, telling me what he thought was wrong. The following year I re-submitted it, told him I’d taken in his suggestions, told him how helpful they were, and here was a new version, thank you very much. He accepted it with the greatest enthusiasm and told me how much stronger it was after I’d listened. I don’t think I changed a sentence. I was very bad.
What literary journals do you love?
Well, I’d be negligent if I didn’t mention StoryQuarterly, which I edit. But there’s also Conjunctions, Fence, Foglifter, jubilat, The Offing, so many more.
What shakes your tail feathers?
I could say all those things expected of me: animals, the ocean, Joni Mitchell. But I really love to laugh with my good friends. And by that I mean really cracking up. Stupid imitations. Dumb jokes.
What advice do you have for fledgling writers?
Find five writers whose work you really love and read every single thing by them, their books, their interviews and essays. Obviously, it’s important to read widely, but maybe it’s even more important to revisit your core books, sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph. What do they do in terms of description and music? What are they up to structurally? How can you describe that in a way that will guide your own work?
What other eggs do you have in your basket right now?
I’ve been working on a book about my father since he died back in 2015. But it’s also becoming a book about all kinds of difficult fathers—and not just human.
Also, my friend, the visual artist Polly Burnell, just started a series of pen and ink collaborations based on my animal stories, brief-ish fables that I’ve been writing off and on for years, and we don’t yet know what final form it’s going to take.
Paul Lisicky is the author of five books: The Narrow Door (A New York Times’ Editors’ Choice and finalist for the Publishing Triangle’s Randy Shilts Award), Unbuilt Projects, The Burning House, Famous Builder, and Lawnboy. His work has appeared in The Atlantic, BuzzFeed, Conjunctions, Fence, The New York Times, The Offing, Tin House, and elsewhere. His awards include fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, where he has served on the Writing Committee since 2000. He has taught in the writing programs at Cornell University, New York University, Sarah Lawrence College, and the University of Texas at Austin. He is an Associate Professor in the MFA Program at Rutgers University-Camden, and is the editor of StoryQuarterly. He lives in Brooklyn. His sixth book, Later, a memoir set in early 1990s Provincetown, is forthcoming from Graywolf Press in March 2020.