There Is No Later than Later
Writer Paul Lisicky Talks with A&U’s Raymond Luczak About His New Memoir About Life at the Edge of the World
When I first heard about Paul Lisicky’s memoir Later: My Life at the Edge of the World (Graywolf, 2020), my interest was immediately piqued, partly because it seems most people today aren’t all that interested in remembering how it had felt to live with the threat of HIV/AIDS during the early 1990s when there weren’t any surefire medications to prevent its spread. Mr. Lisicky is a fine prose stylist who often offers scintillating insights in the human condition, so I knew Later would be a worthwhile read. He has won numerous awards from the National Endowment for the Arts and the James Michener/Copernicus Society as well as a Guggenheim Fellowship.
Raymond Luczak: How would you summarize your latest book?
Paul Lisicky: Later is a memoir about coming of age in Provincetown, Massachusetts, during the early 1990s when the town was a haven for people with HIV and AIDS. It wants to think about how an intensified sense of time shaped the life of a geographically isolated town on the tip of Cape Cod, with a wintertime population of about 3,000. In its purest form Later is a book about survival, how people, HIV positive and not, came together and kept each other lifted during a time of extended emergency. The book’s primary focus is those late years of the early epidemic before protease inhibitors. We of course didn’t know that life-extending drugs were only a year or two away, and that situation strikes me as wrenching and poignant——1994 was a year when there were typically several funerals a week in that tiny town. So we didn’t know it was later in that phase of the ongoing epidemic. The arrival of PrEP is another marker, which is where the book leaps forward in time. That falls at a later point in my life, and the lives of anyone who lived through those early years.
In your previous book, The Narrow Door (Graywolf, 2016), you explored the loss of two long-term relationships—one with your partner of eighteen years, and the other with a woman novelist. You reflected at great length with hindsight on how those two relationships affected you. In this new book of yours, however, your ruminations do not have that overriding sense of hindsight; in fact, it seems to be more of in the now during the days before protease inhibitors came along in 1995 to help curtail the AIDS epidemic. Did you keep journal entries from your time spent in Provincetown?
I’ve never kept a journal, but the years of 1991–1994 are still hard-cut in my imagination in a way that hasn’t been true for me before or since. If you asked me to describe anything that happened Provincetown from 1996 onward (I lived there year round till about 2007), when townspeople stopped dying in alarming numbers, my memory would be far less lucid. I never felt more alert and present than when death was so near. Well, maybe hypervigilant is a more accurate word, because I certainly don’t want to wax nostalgic about those days.
If I recall correctly, it took you a very long time to write Later. What was so tricky about the process?
I started it as a novel back in 1997. I wanted to capture my affection for that community at the same time I wanted to capture the losses that were decimating it. It was really tough to get the balance right, and it intuitively felt off, and I ended up putting it aside. There’s a concentrated version of the story in my second book, Famous Builder, and that’s another try.
My father became ill with pneumonia back in 2015. He had last rites, my brothers and I were with him, and there was a sense of completion, a life well-lived. To make a long story short he ended up entering and leaving the hospice three times over the next six months——he moved from deathbed to some semblance of regular life again and again, and what did that chain of illnesses summon up? My father was ninety-one, he wasn’t HIV positive, but those AIDS years again felt so near once again. A few weeks after he died, I started writing, and I somehow was able to summon up those odd collisions of emotions, the dread and the joy, and everything that that community did to resist hopelessness.
When I initially heard about the book, the word “utopia” jumped out at me. Did you feel that your time in Provincetown was truly that of a utopia? How so?
Provincetown is still one of the few places in the United States, if not the world, where queerness is central, not on the margins. LGBT people are in town government, they own the major businesses. At the same time straight people live there too, so when I arrived, I was very much drawn to this place where LGBT and straight people mixed freely—I loved the unexpected energy that that brought to community life. It’s an extraordinary place, hemmed in by dunes and forest and water and wilderness—and the town itself is a walking town where people aren’t cordoned off in cars. People see each others’ faces—sometimes you’re forced to have a conversation with a person you’d rather run away from! All of these qualities conjure up a very specific form of utopia, and, yes, I do go back very frequently, sometimes once a month. But as far as it being a utopia back then? Town certainly implied an imaginary world of openness and inclusion, but too many people were suffering and dying to call it a utopia.
One of the book’s many strengths is how you delineated the varying nuances and complexities of sexual relationships between gay men. Fuck buddy? Friends with benefits? Open relationships? And so on. Yet you talked a great deal——quite obsessively so, in fact——about wanting to connect with another man in an emotionally meaningful way. You mentioned seeing the man who would become your future husband while he’s walking ahead of you with his friend as you tell your friends that he was going to be your husband one day. Later detailed your sexual relationships with other men in Provincetown, and yet you surprisingly don’t discuss how you and your future husband finally connected as a couple. Could you comment on this omission?
Every memoir is organized according to constraints, thematic boundaries. I very much wanted to write a book that attempted to capture the costs of the epidemic on the psyche, and on relationships. That project was in the foreground to me from the get-go. I wanted to write a book that made that pain real, to say that it happened, it happens. From a distance, my relationship with the man I call Noah in the book strikes me as heroic, maybe because it was so obviously bound to fail, when the two of us had very different ideas of what the future could be——or not. Those ideas were, in part, shaped by living in a town where few gay men lived past forty. We didn’t know how long we were going to be around.
Over and over I could feel the book arching toward a clear-cut hope, and I felt wary of giving in too readily to that wave, even though hope is probably my natural impulse. I could talk about this subject for hours, but it seemed more appropriate——and maybe more rebellious——to give that hope over to the complicated present. What would it mean to live life fully as a single man, after being in relationships, decades after the early years of the epidemic when the terrible logic of SEX = DEATH was etched in the psyche?
I think there’s certainly plenty of evidence that there’s a moment of connection between my then future partner at his late partner’s funeral. It’s observed by others, and they seem to be able to see it in a way that neither of us could. To be quite honest, I think the story of our getting together would have taken the emphasis off the loss of his late partner, which was life-changing to me too, but in a different way. I didn’t want to disrespect that loss by obscuring it. The full story of our time together would be a book in itself.
Given the amount of your insightful ruminations on the epidemic that had to have affected the Provincetown community in the off-season as well as exploring why you didn’t want to take the HIV test in those days, I was most startled to find you jumping to the year of 2018 by the book’s end without even sharing what had made you decide to take the HIV test after all. I was disappointed to find that particular event cut from the book. Could you tell us why that was cut?
I’d already written about first getting tested (and why) in The Narrow Door, and I didn’t revisit it here because it had happened outside of the primary timeline of the book. So I never cut it from this story. By the time I wrote this story, I’d been tested so many times that taking the test had stopped feeling pivotal. But going on PrEP certainly felt pivotal; it brought about a radical shift in my idea of the future—oh, I’m going to be around for a while—maybe. I’d lived a long life in which I’d never taken in that idea. Who would have thought I’d be around long enough to experience such a thing?
Raymond Luczak is the author and editor of over twenty books. His latest titles are The Kinda Fella I Am (Reclamation Press), A Babble of Objects (Fomite Press), and The Last Deaf Club in America (Handtype Press). Books recently published in 2019 include Flannelwood (Red Hen Press) and Lovejets: Queer Male Poets on 200 Years of Walt Whitman (Squares & Rebels). He was previously the editor of the queer fiction journals Jonathan and Callisto. A ten-time Pushcart Prize nominee, he lives in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Visit his website at: raymondluczak.com.