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Paul Lisicky
by Gregg Shapiro
2003-06-25

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Paul Lisicky's astonishing memoir Famous Builder (Graywolf Press, St Paul, MN, 2002, $15) is a clear-eyed depiction of life in the suburbs. As a member of the generation of writers who have become the literary voices of suburbia, Lisicky says, 'I think we've all come to the point in our lives where we have some distance from where we've been and we want to examine that phenomenon on our upbringings and our identities.' He does so with grace, in Famous Builder, constructing a personal history through his marvelous essays.

Gregg Shapiro: I was born in Chicago, but like you, I grew up in the suburbs, and I found a lot of universal suburban themes in the book. One of the things that jumped out at me was the list of department stores from your youth. One of them, E. J. Korvettes, is mentioned twice.

PL: There's something about Korvettes, to me, that's an emblem of a particular time and place. In a way, it's a lost world now. A pre-K Mart, pre-Wal-Mart world feels quite distant. For my parents, E J Korvettes signified all sorts of opportunities. We would actually go there every Friday night and it was part of a ritual. I think the experience of that would be much different from the experience of a 16 or 10-year-old being taken to Wal-Mart. It's not imbued with the same sort of significance.

GS: There is also the whole 'mall generation.' When I was a kid there were 'shopping centers,' not malls.

PL: Right. Now, going to the mall seems so banal. But, it was still something new and fresh then. In part, I wanted the book to put that time and place in a historical context. I think it's very easy now to look back upon that world as tepid and shallow. There was a period in American life when middle-class style was, how to say this …

GS: There's something romantic about it, almost.

PL: Yeah. But Vietnam changed that, the late '60s changed that. I think it's all tied to Kennedy-era optimism. That, in fact, I think many Americans who had been in the (World) War (II), people who had, or whose parents had, been in the depression believed that reinvention was possible. They could transform themselves and move up the ladder of class. I think that was a significant possibility for many people.

GS: The architecture of prose would seem to be the logical progression following your early interest in the architecture of buildings. While you were drawing in those early years, were you also writing?

PL: Writing a bit. I wrote little plays and stories that were primarily meant to entertain my brothers or cousins. Most of my creative work was in music, that wasn't part of my interest in building communities. I was writing music from the age of eight onward. I fully believed by the time I was a teenager that I would be a professional musician all my life, a professional composer. That changed obviously.

GS: Your career in music is one of the most fascinating aspects of the book. You talk about working in the realm of religious music, and it made me think of performers who have been able to make that transition into popular and secular music.

PL: Back in the '70s it didn't seem to be possible that you could crossover into popular music if you were writing music for worship. The worlds of music were much more boxed in then. It was really important, I think, in the late '70s to be 'cool.' Anything could stigmatize you. Like playing in Las Vegas. Joni Mitchell was offered (the opportunity) to play in Las Vegas, back in the '70s and she wouldn't do it because it would have seemed like a sell-out gesture. I think that part of my struggle in music involved the fact that the world of music seemed to be so stratified and compartmentalized. You couldn't stand in many worlds at once. You had to make a choice. The choice was oppressive to me. I didn't know how to negotiate that. One of the pleasures of coming to writing was that you could fuse high and low art. You could stand in many places at once. I guess I see myself as having a complex identity. Writing allowed me to traverse boundaries in a way that felt right.

GS: A lot of gay men appear to have a history with and connection to Joni Mitchell and Laura Nyro …

PL: … which I never knew until I went to the last Joni concert. It was astonishing, proportionally, how many gay men were in the audience. I think she's probably the Judy Garland of my generation. Obviously her manner and presentation are different from Judy Garland. (But) there is that kind of identification.

GS: She's even worked gay men into her songs. 'Underneath The Streetlights' and 'Two Grey Rooms,' for example.

PL: I love 'Two Grey Rooms.' I think that Joni Mitchell has seen (gay performance artist) John Kelly (who performs as Mitchell in his shows) perform and my sense is that something clicked. She got who she is to a whole generation of men simply by witnessing his homage to her. He makes fun of her and loves her at once. It's really thrilling because those two points of view are simultaneous.

GS: There is also Laura's connection to the community, considering the fact that she was a lesbian. You write about her a lot in the book.

PL: She's really important to me. (Big sigh) I still can't believe that she's not around.

GS: I can't either. I was devastated by her death.

PL: I was too. My mom called me up—that's how I found out about her death. I wept for two days. Part of me assumed that I would always meet her. We had friends in common and didn't live that far apart. It seemed inevitable that one day we'd sit in the same room, and I'd be able to tell her how much she'd meant to me and continues to mean to me.

GS: In addition to writing about your family in the book, you also write about your life with (your partner) Mark (Doty). Did that present any problems because you are both such public figures?

PL: No. He's really willing and open to being written about. I've been a character in many of his books. I'm in Firebird, Still Life, and Source. I think I'm going to be a major character in his next book. I know that when I am writing and his name appears in a piece of my work, I am aware that I am writing about a public figure. There is some complex negotiation going on between who Mark is for me and who I know Mark is for the people who find meaning in his work. If I ever thought that I was violating his privacy, I'd certainly talk about it with him. We're each other's first readers. We're intimately involved in each other's work.

GS: Nothing's going to make it to the page that either of you wouldn't approve of.

PL: No. But at the same time I think we're sophisticated enough to know that what is on the page is a made thing. It's a piece of art. You try your damnedest to capture the complexity of a particular moment in time when you're writing. But you never can get all of that moment's dimensions. It's always one take on the moment and the fact that there's more to say about that moment offers a strange kind of comfort to the writer. There's no reason why, at another moment in time, it couldn't be explored through a different lens.

GS: Lawn Boy, your first book, was a novel. Famous Builder is a work of non-fiction. In what genre will your next book be?

PL: The next book is already well under way. It's a novel called The Gods of Luna Township. It's about redevelopment at the Jersey Shore. The protagonist is a young woman who isn't very pleased that half of her community is being torn down house by house to be replaced by mini-mansions. In part, I want to write about the escalation of real estate values in the last five years. To think about how that has affected community life in good and negative ways.

GS: Do you have a preference for one genre over the other?

PL: I like the idea of working in both forms, actually. I think one of the dangers of being an artist in one form is that over time you can start to repeat the same trajectory. Ideally, I would like to go back and forth between the two. I'd love to write a memoir about my life with my father. He's a major character in Famous Builder, but there's so much more to say about him. And I'd like to write a memoir about my life in church music (laughs) and my encounter with that world. And many, many more novels.


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