It’s peculiar timing to interview author Paul Lisicky on March 16, the day before his new book LATER: My Life at the Edge of the World comes out. After all, we are in the eye of the COVID-19 hurricane, which has stirred up worries, fears, and perhaps a bit of pandemic PTSD. The irony of launching a book about living through an old viral plague while landing in a new one isn’t lost on either of us.
LATER is a memoir about surviving during an extended crisis, and how the gay community forged ahead with queerness and community despite obstacles, bigotry and fear. It’s Lisicky’s personal tales of what he experienced during the early 1990s–that mezzo period after the initial shockwave of HIV/AIDS discovery and before the introduction of effective antiretroviral therapy, more commonly known as the AIDS cocktail.
For several reasons, I was eager to speak with Lisicky about his book and what motivated him to tell this story. I’m a gay writer who has visited and lived on Cape Cod off and on for 25 years, and I fell in love with the Cape’s mystery, magic and promise of escape just as Lisicky did. I came out and of age during –and lived through–those harrowing years of the AIDS epidemic as he did. His starkly rendered prose and impressionistic style transported me back to the imperfect beauty of those times, the sword of Damocles suspended over all of it.
In our conversation, we also explore the state of LGBTQ equality during this politically polarized era and the need for resistance, which is as strong now as it was then although the details are different.
Dave Singleton: What a day to talk to you about your new book, Paul. It’s hard to keep up with the latest news, projections, closings, and concerns about COVID-19. And yet you are bringing your book into the world now, which is such a positive thing.
Paul Lisicky: What an irony. I definitely never imagined being in the middle of this chaos in the midst of launching LATER. But you deal with what’s in front of you, right?
D: I heard that the idea of this book started as a novel that you eventually abandoned in favor of this memoir. If so, how did that come about?
P: I started exploring the early 90s time period as a short section in my book Famous Builder. I think that was a nod to a period of time I thought I’d put aside for good. But my feelings about the era never really left me. I still felt like I needed to give shape to all the contradictory feelings of those years. The straightforward linear narrative I’d started in my novel didn’t feel right to me. So I switched to memoir. But then I didn’t know if the story could be told or if it deserved to be told. How does my coming of age measure up to all these lost lives? As I moved forward with it, my editor told me to develop the “I” in the newly resurrected form when it became a memoir. It was good to have that permission from my editor. I think I may have had some survivor guilt, and I was reluctant to own the story since how could any individual do that? You can’t. So I could focus just on my story, my experience.
D: How did your experience influence your naming the chapters in LATER, such as “Haven,” “Movie,” “Pilgrim,” “Foglifter,” “Wally,” “Imposter Syndrome”? I think the names and short chapters add to the feel of literary impressionism.
P: I tried not to be deliberate. I wanted the names to seem offhand. I am not sure that the names of the chapters came to me until very late in writing. I thought a name was a way to create separate sections that could stand alone. My goal was for this book to be one you might want to go back and reread out of sequence. I definitely wanted people to read it consecutively one time, but I also wanted them to come back and enter it from any number of points. I wanted it to be like an album, possibly because of my love for Joni Mitchell and all the singer songwriters whose albums I loved going back to listen to time and again.
D: I love this line from the “Haven” chapter of your book: “This haven so far from the repression and punishments of adulthood.” How did it feel like that to you?
P: I started to feel that several weeks into living in Provincetown, because I didn’t want to leave. And I thought that was dangerous. I had found my life. But I knew I’d have to come back to another life. I knew it would be tough to maintain, financially and otherwise. I didn’t want to cut myself off from other adventures that could happen down the road. Many of the most rewarding experiences of my life have been stressful and scary. The “stresslessness” of Provincetown stirred up caution in me. There was always a little voice that said you need more difficulty and stress in order to bring things into creation.
D: So many different things can drive a person’s creativity. I understand that your father’s death fueled some of the energy behind exploring the scary times living in Provincetown during those uncertain years. Can you tell me a little about that?
P: He came down with pneumonia in 2015 after a long, healthy life. A few weeks into his illness, he went into hospice. My brothers and I were with him then, and we said goodbye to him. We were able to say we loved him. It was the perfect goodbye after a long life – kind of what you hope for. Then soon after that, my dad got up and walked out of the hospice, and there were two more hospice sequences before he finally died. When he did finally die, it was not the beautiful goodbye you want. It was hard and he was miserable, in physical pain and mental distress. I felt a lot of chaos in my head. The initial nice goodbye felt like it had been 100 years ago for another person. It really felt to me like the earlier AIDS era somehow. Afterwards, I was at a Yaddo residency and something about my father’s death triggered those earlier AIDS memories and the chaos of that period. That experience is really what inspired me to dive into this memoir. I wish I could be more conscious of it as a decision. But the truth is it just happened.
To add to that, my computer stopped working well when I was at the residency. I felt it was one second away from shutting down forever, so I spent so much nervous time emailing myself the new work I produced every day. Every single day I felt like the new work could be lost. I think that feeling informed the precarious and super alert state I was in while writing this book.
D: Was your writing of LATER at all influenced by wanting to document and share our history with the younger LGBTQ generation? Sometimes I feel like I want to shake younger gay men who don’t understand our history.
P: I wasn’t conscious of that energy or the drive to educate a younger generation, but thinking about it now, yes. I see it. I think of all the queer students I’ve had and how, when we’ve talked about AIDS, I saw the scrim of guilt and bewilderment crawl across their faces. It doesn’t feel apprehensible to them. I didn’t want to write this book from the position of distance and wisdom though. I didn’t want to own the situation or the story. I thought it was important to leave room for other stories. I wanted it to be very clear that this was just my take.
D: That seems like a theme. You wanted to make sure not to try to own the story for fear it would seem like the only story or that you were somehow the expert.
P: Exactly. I’m not the expert. My sense of Provincetown is that there are multiple Provincetowns and that there’s a gap between our mythologies of the place and the actual streets, beaches, and experiences we all have. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard an old-timer and newcomer talking on the ferry from Boston to Provincetown. The conversation goes like this:
Old-timer: Have your been to Provincetown before?
Newcomer: No, it’s my first time.
Old-timer: Well let me tell you where to go.
And I sit there on the ferry in my judgment listening to the old-timer, thinking to myself that he’s wrong. The places he’s telling the newcomer to go aren’t the best or only places.
D: When you landed in Provincetown in the early 90s, the country was rife with stigma. There was hatred for and harsh judgment of the communities hardest hit, especially gay men. Do you think that gay men who lived through what I’m calling the hardest hit AIDS years – the 80s and 90s – still carry a certain kind of PTSD due to that?
P: Yes, I do. The struggles are real. There is real PTSD in our community, especially older gay men, from those AIDS years. The trauma led to depression, addictions, and a multitude of problems, including the fact that many felt–and still feel–haunted by not being seen. Guys in their 50s and older are hurt in a particular way but, again, I don’t think there are absolutes. I know guys in their 30s and 40s who are also hurt and impacted by shame, stigma and bigotry. There are differences, but trauma is trauma. I know from my experience that many men came to Provincetown to try and escape trauma.
D: I remember being absolutely terrified many times and wondering how our gay community would recover enough from AIDS-related losses to keep on loving and fighting back, but we did. Some of us were so young then. What is it about the human spirit–and maybe specifically the gay spirit, I don’t know–that enabled us to do that?
P: Whatever we had in the way of love and the possibility of Eros was so hard won. In retrospect, it seems amazing and startling that there was so much eroticism in the air. It’s incredible how we managed to negotiate and make choices and think about risks in a way that doesn’t seem to be in the air now. Look at now and the COVID-19 responses; you hear that if we do X and Y, we’ll prevent the pandemic from spreading. COVID-19 seems like such an eroticism killer. It doesn’t feel like we’ve developed ways to negotiate during this. If this is ongoing, we’ll figure it out since queer people have will and persistence and are good at inventing new structure and order.
D: In both culture and literature, there are numerous references to Provincetown as the end of, or in your case from the subtitle of LATER, the edge of the world. What is it about the far geographical reaches that seem to have drawn gay men? We wanted to escape, so we flocked to far away spots like Greenwich Village, Fire Island, the Castro, and Provincetown since they felt like small, safe communities?
P: We must have. So many early gay meccas were pitched on a geographical end point. We created our own communities there, and they were an escape. Provincetown definitely felt like that still when I arrived back in the early 90s. I’d never felt like a person in a community before, until I got to Provincetown. I didn’t know what I was missing. Here I am with my tribe of other gay people and artists, close to the ocean I revere. I’d always experienced myself as a loner before moving to Provincetown. My time there was the only time I enjoyed checking in with people on the streets and allowing people to see me authentically like that. It felt very nourishing.
D: Do you think these far off spots will continue to be an LGBTQ draw in what has become a more integrated world for the LGBTQ community?
P: That’s a good question. I think that the less we need to escape to feel safe, the less need we’ll have for those places. For example, look at New York City. My sense of gay neighborhoods in New York City is that they are populated by those who moved there in an earlier time. I’m thinking of the Village and Hell’s Kitchen. It’s a different experience living in Brooklyn where I am now. I know there is a strong queer presence, and when I look around, I see how the queer presence is threaded into this community. But there don’t seem to be many specific places for LGBTQ anymore, or at least, if there are, they aren’t as anchored in that far off geography. Maybe they’re more virtual now. Think of that. Maybe younger generations find their sense of safe space, whatever that may mean to them, in online communities and apps. I don’t know.
D: You use this quote from Vic D’Lugin’s Power & Passion to kick off a chapter: “To go on living a full life which includes sex, in this time of AIDS, is an act of resistance. I believe we resist because we simply do not give in.” What moved you to include this quote?
P: To me, it seems to sum up something so vital and important from that time. We persisted and loved anyway.
D: When it comes to LGBTQ rights, do you believe that acts of resistance still matter?
P: Absolutely. Anything we’ve achieved could be lost in a day. Thinking about the instability of the moment and how many rights have already been taken away, it’s hard not to think of the impermanence. Your life as an LGBTQ person these days seems to really depend on where you live–for example, are you in a red or blue state, or perhaps an extremely religious and conservative pocket in any state. It’s hard to imagine the breadth and distance of different experiences these days. When I talk to varying queer students, I am amazed at the discrepancy of backgrounds and life experiences. What’s challenging is that we’re dealing with a multiplicity of perspectives.
D: Right. How can you make broad, sweeping statements like “it’s better?” Better for whom? With such diverse groups merging in Provincetown these days, what do you think when you go back there now?
P: It’s a different place. The Provincetown of the early 90s seemed to be a lot of gay men under 40. Many gay men under 40 from that era didn’t live to see 40. Now it’s a place where older LGBTQ people can thrive. There are many people who come to Provincetown, some of them after retiring from successful corporate careers, to focus on art or just living a more peaceful life. The amount of money that’s in Provincetown now has made a big difference, too. It’s tremendously hard to live there now without financial resources. If you don’t have a lot of money, it can feel like your life’s work just to get by there. It can be a lifestyle of having to hold multiple jobs amid fewer places to live.
I feel like I go through constant inner negotiation to not wax nostalgic about the place or that time period. I tell myself to stop it if I find myself getting too nostalgic when I consider visiting. It would be a mistake to idealize any of it since people were decimated week by week. From a writing standpoint, switching the voice to present tense drew me into the situations and helped me avoid that trap with writing LATER. I didn’t want to tint those years with anything approaching nostalgia. That seemed so dangerous.
But then again, I still sleep so well there. I still sleep better there than anywhere else in the world. It has to do with feeling safe in your body. I like my current neighborhood a lot, but I don’t feel that sense of deep psychic safety anywhere else.
D: Final question: would you consider living there again?
P: No. It’s hard to get there. It’s hard to leave. It feels isolated to me. There’s a part of me that always thinks of going to Provincetown when I want to escape. For example, like right now at the start of this new pandemic. But I know that’s not realistic and probably doesn’t suit the reality of how I want to live.
In addition to LATER: My Life at the Edge of the World, Paul Lisicky is the author of The Narrow Door (a New York Times Editors’ Choice), Unbuilt Projects, The Burning House, Famous Builder, and Lawnboy. For more on his work, visit his website.
Dave Singleton is an award-winning writer, contributing editor for Scoundrel Time, and author of three books including CRUSH.