Author Paul Lisicky’s memoir The Narrow Door reads like a scrapbook elegy—its loss archived in love notes, fragments of feeling, snapshots of memory. The book (a New York Times Editors’ Choice) documents the death of his longtime friend and fellow writer, Denise Gess, and the disintegration of his relationship with his ex-husband, writer Mark Doty. There’s emotional enormity in his remembering, the placement of personal and natural disaster side by side—cancer and the 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helen; isolation and the 2010 earthquake in Haiti. I love the structure and sensibility of this book, and that’s why I asked him:
What was the one thing you didn’t want to do when writing The Narrow Door?
“This is a great question but a tough one for me too, because I don’t think I ever consciously write out of negation. With The Narrow Door in particular, I was trying to see how much life I could get on the page without destroying it, without making some incomprehensible mess. I say that knowing so many of my favorite visual artists and writers make amazing work out of subtraction—in other words, limiting their work to the use of a few terms. Think of songwriters who write songs built of two chords, or graphic novelists who use only black and white. I’m fascinated by that approach, but I seem to be after trying to accommodate my too-muchness, always asking myself how much can I put out there? Can this feel like an essay, a poem, a story, and a song all at the same time? Can I create a sense of simultaneity, a sense of the connections between disparate people, who are never really all that separate if we hold them side by side?
So I never really go into any project overtly thinking about what I’m not going to do. It’s much more intuitive than that. It’s more like writing thirty pages and thinking, maybe—hmm. This feels more like F minor when I need three chord changes here. Or: this feels bright yellow when it needs some darker yellow and gold and bright green. Or: my friend was a hell of a lot sillier than this self-dramatizing person I’ve conjured up. Start again. So a lot of different moods are tried on until I find something that feels remotely accurate. I’m sure at a certain point in The Narrow Door I must have been thinking of other grief books. I must have been thinking, Man, this could be an awful slog, some guy’s feelings in the wake of his friend’s death. Who would want to read that? Haven’t other people done that better? The shock was the book started evolving into its own creature over time. Even the most crushing stuff, say, the climate catastrophes, had a weird kind of awe and alertness about it, and the book was so much less about death and mourning than it was, well, the texture of going through the day in the middle of trouble. But that never felt chosen. What better way to kill a book before it’s even had a chance to breathe? At least for me, I should say. I don’t want to make it sound like I’m tossing out some maxim that should be true for everyone.
But back to your question. I think all of my work is written out of some desire not to write the book that’s already on the shelf, but I don’t want to repeat myself either, which is a hell of a lot harder to do than it sounds. Joy Williams says: ‘The moment a writer knows how to achieve a certain effect, the method must be abandoned. Effects repeated become false, mannered.’ That’s sort of religion to me. Those words might sound scrupulous to the point of scary, but I don’t think there’s any better way to stay alive as an artist, a person.”