An Open Book: Rutgers–Camden Professor Channels Love and Loss in Stirring Memoir

By Tom McLaughlin

In the fall of 2009, Paul Lisicky was still reeling from the death of his longtime friend and confidante, the novelist Denise Gess, six weeks earlier.

Narrow Door-downsized

Lisicky calls The Narrow Door “a conversation in images.”

So the author did what came naturally – he began to put his thoughts down on paper, crystallizing fragments of both fond and painful memories, and the lingering questions still lying in between.

“I wanted to record her gestures, to think about the way that she walked across the room, to hear her laugh,” recalls the assistant professor of English at Rutgers University–Camden.  “I needed to write to get my rudder back.”

Then, about a year into a fledgling manuscript, Lisicky’s relationship with his ex-husband, the poet Mark Doty, hit “a crisis point.” It was in the unraveling of their marriage, he says, that he began to see parallels with the tensions that he and Gess had endured.

“It was impossible not to fold that into the book,” says the Philadelphia resident. “The book is essentially a yearlong record of grief, so I was about two-thirds of the way into the manuscript when I was met by that surprise disruption.”

In the resulting memoir, The Narrow Door: A Memoir of Friendship (Graywolf Press), Lisicky crafts a collage of compelling scenes and images – a conversation in images, as he calls it – drawn from two relationships that he acknowledges helped shape the writer and person that he is today.

Lisicky recalls meeting Gess – seven years his senior – at Rutgers–Camden, where the two were teaching assistants in the Department of English. It was 1983, just prior to her publishing her first novel, Good Deeds. In the “evolved, achieved, and magnetic” writer, Lisicky found a mentor and, in no time at all, a trusted pal.

“She was all the things that I wanted to be, but didn’t know how to be,” says Lisicky, who was recently named a Guggenheim Fellow. “In many ways, she brought me to life as a writer and a person.”

The two would be friends for more than 26 years, traversing peaks and valleys in their relationship, which included a breakup near the end of her life, before she reached out again at a particularly vulnerable time for him.

“She said that she had a dream about me,” Lisicky recalls with a laugh. “She knew that I needed to hear from her. But that was Denise – she was family to me in so many profound ways.”

Lisicky, Paul (Star Black) ALT

Lisicky was recently named a Guggenheim Fellow in recognition of prior achievement and exceptional promise.

As Lisicky recalls, his romance with Doty – like Gess, a “charismatic, supportive” figure – began similarly as a mentoring relationship. Over the course of four years, a friendship founded on writing critiques and book readings evolved into something that transcended the pages – and boundaries – between them.

In The Narrow Door, selected as an Editors’ Choice by The New York Times, Lisicky contemplates what it means to lose such close companions with whom so much of one’s life, identity, and experiences are intertwined.

“I think that my sense of self was always hooked to someone else, and the loss of those people felt devastating to me,” says Lisicky. “So then who are you when you lose your sidekick? It was a compelling question to me and one that I hoped would be a compelling question to the reader as well.”

In pondering this question, Lisicky explores the complexities of love and the shifting power discrepancies between people who care about each other.

“In any relationship, power is not equal,” he says. “Things shift depending on the weather, who is making money, and what is going on in the world.”

Lisicky explains that, while the book might appear to be a raw, vulnerable retrospective, it is guided by thematic currents, with each section organized around a particular metaphor or image which leads to the next. As he reflects on the writing process now, he recalls that the book developed its own energy and even he was interested to see where the thoughts and images would take him next.

“I would sit down and find an image that conversed with the one before it,” he says, adding that, reading the book now – five years after he completed it – feels as if someone else had written it.

“I look at it with some awe, respect, and curiosity,” says Lisicky, who graduated from Rutgers–Camden with his master’s degree in English in 1986. “That is not meant to sound self-aggrandizing, but I am in a different place now. If I wrote about Denise and Mark now, it would sound different and that is the nature of memoir; it is guided by the present and urgency of the moment.”

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