I had a happy, sweet Friday and Saturday at the fourth annual Philadelphia Stories conference at Rosemont College, where I was keynote speaker. Here's a short interview about the event, and a longer one by Jessica Jeffers from the current issue of Philadelphia Stories.
Jessica Jeffers: Your website says only that The Burning House is "a novel about the complexities of longing and desire." What else can you tell us about the story?
Paul Lisicky: The story is about a man whose life unravels once his sister-in-law moves in. She evokes for him all the qualities that once drew him to his wife, and he’s a wreck about it, because he doesn’t want to tear up his settled life, doesn’t want to hurt his wife. On another level, the story is about the relationship between home and community life; the community where the story takes place is undergoing redevelopment, houses torn down right and left, houses turned into commodities. How does all that affect the life at home?
JJ: From where do you draw inspiration?
PL: The moment in front of me, the moment ahead of me, the wish to transform that moment into something felt, active, remembered.
JJ: As the keynote speaker for Push to Publish, you will be sharing advice and wisdom with aspiring writers. What is the best piece of writing advice you've ever received?
PL: I spent years writing what I thought I should write, what I imagined to be publishable. Things changed once I was given permission to write what (and how) I needed to write. I think that’s when my real writing began.
JJ: What made you want to write a memoir? How did you approach this project differently than your fiction?
PL: I didn’t want to do another version of the novel I’d just written, and the shift in voice and stance helped me to access aspects of my character I’d never put on the page before. I don’t mean to be disingenuous, but it didn’t feel so much like a decision. I just happened to be writing an essay for fun one day, a piece about my childhood next door neighbor, who happened to be both an avatar of style and a bit of a nutbasket, and the voice that came out sounded looser than anything I’d done before.
JJ: How much do your novels reflect your real life?
PL: I’d say they’re emotionally autobiographical but they’re not literally autobiographical. The feelings are certainly real, but not the facts.
JJ: You are releasing a collection called Unbuilt Projects. Given the similarity in titles, is there any connection to Famous Builder? What binds the pieces together into a unit?
PL: The thread of building and community planning certainly binds all my books. And I deliberately wanted Unbuilt Projects to talk back to Famous Builder. Famous Builder is my attempt to locate my family in time, to think about how a certain historical moment informed how we thought about identity, memory, social aspiration, art. Unbuilt Projects, on the other hand, deconstructs the family narrative. My mother developed senile dementia in the last years of her life, and once she lost the major signposts of her memory, the whole family story seemed to go down with it. We didn’t know that her allegiance to story was in fact holding us together, and once her mind went, who were we?