Wednesday, April 20, 2011
Compress & Leap
I got back to Wilmington from an overnight trip to Charleston last night (SC not WV). Pictures tomorrow--or soon; till then, I thought I'd pass along this interview I did with Sadye Teiser for the UNCW Creative Writing Department newsletter. Maybe you'll find something of use here.
Sadye Teiser: First off, thanks very much for sharing your time with our program. What has your experience here been like?
Paul Lisicky: I was here for the Spring 2004 semester, and it's been an experience to come back seven years later. The city, the river, the beach, the birds, the trees--all of it had imprinted itself in me more deeply than I knew. I seem to know where everything is. At the same time, I think the program is in a really good place right now, and I feel lucky to be working with such excellent writers.
S.T.: Would you talk a little bit about Unbuilt Projects, your forthcoming anthology of short prose pieces? How do they compare to the novels you've written? What are the challenges / rewards of working in each form? What sorts of ideas do you find best suited for a novel vs. a piece of short fiction?
P.L.: I've always felt at home in the shorter form, but for years I fell into that old trap where you equate duration with depth. Then my mother was diagnosed with dementia. Her state of mind challenged everything I knew about identity, character, narrative, emotion, time. Who are we if our truth shifts every two minutes? The short, disjunctive piece seemed to be the only form that made sense to me for a while. I've always been interested in pitting one layer of time against another--none of my books are exactly linear--but I gave myself permission to compress and leap in Unbuilt Projects.
S.T.: Who are some of your favorite authors?
P.L.: Flannery O'Connor, Denis Johnson, Joy Williams, Mary Gaitskill. Among newer writers: Sarah Shun-lien Bynum, Salvatore Scibona, Victor LaValle, Paul Harding. I'm a great fan of lists, but I'm leaving so many good people out.
S.T.: In workshop, you were talking about the complexity of figuring out what a piece of fiction is "about," what aspects you want to focus on as you tell each story. Could you talk a little bit about this process? Have you ever, in your own writing, figured out what you want your book to focus on while writing and then had to backtrack?
P.L.: About-ness is such a tricky thing. I don't think we ever want our work to be wholly explainable, or to support a thesis. We want it to be mysterious. We want it to move like music. But we also want it to be bound by meaning. A lot of that meaning is already embedded in our metaphors, whether we know it or not. The trick is to write toward a space that knows more than we do. And that often involves throwing out the original plan.
S.T.: What is your approach to revision? How much and how do you revise?
P.L.: I think that that's determined by the individual piece. I have a one-page story that I actually wrote in an airport baggage claim that came to me fully formed. Then I have a novel that went through probably a hundred drafts. For years I thought it was going to be a multi-voiced narrative at 350 pages, then after six years I winnowed it down to one voice, half the original length. The hardest thing is to pay attention to what the piece wants to be. How to turn off all those external voices and listen to what's there?
S.T.: Do you have any general advice for aspiring writers?
P.L.: Flaubert said it well: "The library of a writer should be composed of five or six books, sources that he should reread every day. As for the others, it is good to know them, and that’s all.”