THE ELEMENT OF ESCAPE:
ATTICUS LISH with Dan Ostlund
Preparation for the Next Life
(Tyrant Books, 2014)
To go into what might be regarded as the family business without the advantage of familial tutelage or connection is to prefer hard labor over easy pedigree, but Atticus Lish, son of the famed writer and Knopf editor Gordon Lish, didn’t seek out his father’s help, didn’t even mention he was writing a novel until it was done. Certainly this was the harder, lonelier road, but as Lish says, “Growing up with Arnold Palmer won’t teach you golf.”
Lish’s first novel, Preparation for The Next Life (Tyrant Books) chronicles the story of Zou Lei, a Chinese immigrant, and Skinner, an Iraq War veteran groping their way through the broken margins of American existence.
Lish, who is 43 and lives in Brooklyn, has the appearance of a tough guy—the austere, martial haircut reminiscent of his time in the Marines; the fighter’s ear from his time in mixed martial arts; and the evident commitment to working out. But when he speaks the tough appearance gives way to his gentleness and self-deprecation. He is polite and solicitous in answering questions—he nods his head and puts his hands together as if in prayer when asking for your pardon. In the café where we met, the waitress dropped an armful of flattened boxes and he jumped up to help saying, “I can’t bear to see you struggling.”
Preparation for The Next Life has been lavishly praised in the New York Times and the Nation. The New York Review of Books called it “beautiful” and “astounding,” and has been named by Flavorwire, Book Riot, and Buzzfeed to their lists of best independent books of 2014.
Dan Ostlund (Rail): You’re the son of Gordon Lish, you went to Andover and Harvard, you had an unusual, even privileged background. But you dropped out of Harvard, and then worked as a mover, as a bottle washer, and so on. It seems almost as if you turned your back on the privilege. Would you say that’s true?
Atticus Lish: Part of that later in life was really accidental. After a certain point it was pretty much: I needed a job. Of course if I’d set my mind to it, it’s America, I have opportunities. I could have done other things, but it was partly my temperament too. I didn’t really want to commit to a career that my heart wasn’t in, and I liked the kind of work I was doing. Deep down I knew I hadn’t really found what I wanted to do yet. So, there were reasons for that other than an attempt to simply reject my background.
When I was younger though, it would be fair to say that I felt like maybe I didn’t completely feel at home wherever I found myself. I was aware that I was fortunate, but I think my temperament leads me in another direction. I’m not really an indoor cat. I enjoy doing. I enjoy getting outside, and running around. Growing up in New York City the way I did, it’s more like being a veal, where you’re covered in butter and lodged in a small little case or something.
Also, the most conscious thing for me is that while I was a privileged kid I think I had a strong awareness of how being privileged could lead to being a bully if you weren’t careful. If you have a lot of money and opportunity, you don’t want to be a jerk to anyone else, and so you’re a step away from guilt all the time. So for that reason I was never entirely comfortable with the things I was given. That’s probably why I thought I should go and earn whatever I was going to get in life on my own.
Rail: So the search to find something your heart was in led to the different jobs, the move to California to train mixed martial arts?
Lish: I think I’ve always wanted to be able to disconnect when I need to. If I see a movie like Revolutionary Road for example, a movie where the woman has a lot of obligations that lock her into a marriage, I feel like I’m strangling. It bothers me, and I want to see her pull a Lizzie Borden on her husband. I love movies about jailbreaks. I love Escape from New York. I love the idea of getting out of whatever obligations you’re stuck in.
One of my favorite books is by Eddie Bunker. It’s got prison breaks and armed robberies and people on the run from the cops. I mean real-life things. Obviously it’s not nice stuff, but the escape element of it appeals to me.
Rail: You learned Chinese, joined the Marines, went back to Harvard and finished, trained intensely in mixed martial arts—you seem to be drawn to difficult things.
Lish: It would certainly look like that from the outside. I don’t know if I set out to do any of these things, except the Marine Corps, because they were difficult. The Marine Corps attracted me, especially at the age I was, because they were supposed to be the toughest thing around. The other stuff I probably did for other reasons. They may have turned out to be difficult things, and they were, but I probably went after them just because they were fantasies, they were dreams, and I said: it was a little bit of an adventure, give it a shot, see what happens. It wasn’t just to take on the toughest thing I can do. It looks cooler than it is. It’s a nice list.
But I didn’t get into Chinese because it was hard; I did it because it was easy. I had taken French and Latin in elementary school and I found them very difficult because of the conjugations and the declensions, and when I got to high school I also had to fulfill a foreign language requirement, and Chinese doesn’t have that stuff, plus I was interested in it.
Rail: Why did you start writing?
Lish:I don’t know why. I think I started to get inspired and fascinated by Hemingway in the early 2000s. And Robert Stone. It would just blow me away how change would take place in a novel. You’d see the same themes return but they would have evolved. I was running a lot at the time, and in my mind, I really felt this connection to running, where you see the road and the road is always with you but the road changes. You feel different at the end than at the beginning.
Rail: And how did you decide on the subject, on the life of Zou Lei and Skinner?
Lish: I was highly disturbed by Bush and our country’s reaction to 9/11. I felt from the beginning that the Patriot Act and our new policies on torture and detention were chilling and Orwellian. I was deeply dismayed by the invasion of Iraq and all the horrors that Bush, Cheney, Wolfowitz, Powell, Rice, Rumsfeld, Yoo—war criminals all—unleashed. I was appalled by the Abu Ghraib prisoner-abuse scandal and by Guantanamo Bay. I was alienated from my country. I couldn’t understand the people who would go along with this. The dragnet approach was used both in Afghanistan, Iraq, and here at home to scoop up large numbers of people on the flimsiest evidence. In detention, they were subject to abuse. Here at home, immigration violation provided the grounds for arresting people on immigration sweeps, such as at the meatpacking plant in Greeley, Colorado. Illegal immigrants are a vulnerable population. I found no shortage of well-documented, disturbing news stories about what has happened to people in immigration detention. Sadistic guards, justified by notions of patriotism in time of war, can do anything they want to someone they regard as a “terrorist,” whether in Guantanamo Bay or the Passaic County Jail. The novel was a chance to deal with this.
Rail: You and your wife got jobs in China, gave your car away, and went. Tell me about that.
Lish: This was late 2004 and I was working as a moving man in Boston. I loved my job, but it wasn’t going to be the future and I wanted to see the world, which was especially important for my wife Beth—she wanted to see the world. I spoke Chinese so we felt we could survive in China. We got online and found jobs teaching. The easiest jobs to find were teaching English. They flew us over, and we just taught English.
It was a year contract. Neither of us was really up for another year. There was a downside to everything there. The people in China had a pretty hard life. It was an economically depressed area. We weren’t suffering or anything—by contrast to them we were living better—all I’m saying is that it’s a very foreign experience, you end up missing home—you end up missing cheeseburgers.
So we were ready to move on at the end. We’re not born expatriates.
Rail: Are you glad you did it?
Lish: Oh hell yeah. It played a major role in being able to write this book. I visited the area in the northwest of China where, in the book, Zou Lei comes from, but I also incorporated things from the area we lived in—Hubei. Hubei is in south central China, it’s a very Han Chinese area. It’s like Chinese Chinese, as opposed to the north-west which is like Central Asia, Muslims. And so in this Han area I became friends with this woman named Mrs. Li who collected garbage. The convention was we took our garbage outside the building and women from the fields would come in and tear apart the garbage and take out the recycling. The garbage, by the way, would include our sanitary products because you can’t flush them in the toilets there, so this was a very uncomfortable situation at first to see people going through your private trash, but that’s the way it was; they’d tear it open, they’d look for anything they could recycle. Now one of these women I ended up speaking to. She was a woman about 60 years old. She was wearing a rice hat, she had a shoulder pole, and a burlap sack she put plastic bottles in. Her name is Mrs. Li, and here’s the crazy thing: this woman who’s living by recycling—you can imagine how little money she’s making doing this, I mean fractions of a Chinese dollar—has a daughter going to the school we were teaching at. Go figure that. These were extremely poor people; they were peasants. I’d say they had to be living below the global poverty line. You know, people who look much older than they really are. Mrs. Li was the one person I really felt I made friends with during that year, and so I used her experience collecting those bottles, I used that for Zou Lei who collects cans and bottles in the south of China.
Rail: You’ve mentioned using Flaubert as inspiration at one point because you were wrestling with some parts of the novel.
Lish: My goal was to write a book that my wife and I would like to read. My source of feedback was my wife: I’d write a section, give it to her to read, and she’d tell me if she thought it was on-target or not. I had a lot of trouble with the middle section of my book during which the relationship between Zou Lei and Skinner evolves. I didn’t know how to approach this. I kept thinking it would be boring. I was bored just thinking about it, and I thought, if I’m bored, the reader’s going to be doubly bored. I was the opposite of inspired.
I knew that Madame Bovary was a famous love story so I wanted to take a look at it. I looked at how Flaubert handled this type of process, and this helped me see that it could be done. I also had a writing teacher, my one writing teacher, and she was always talking about Flaubert. She talked about Flaubert and Flannery O’Connor especially. She mentioned that quote about Flaubert putting slippers on clerks. It’s kind of a famous quote. It’s about how one of the writer’s jobs is to give you a little extra detail so you can picture something. That was why Flaubert was on my brain, so I checked him out.
Rail: You can get a little obsessive about your endeavors like your martial arts training, and you’ve hinted at it with your writing habits. Are you drawn to routine and habit? Is the routine important to you?
Lish: I’m a complex man, so I have to give this a two-part answer. Basically I’m going in two directions at once. A big part of me just wants to fuck off out of here right now. I’d like to go jump on a bus. I’d like to wake up in a trashcan in Tijuana. I mean, I just love the idea of not knowing what tomorrow will bring. I love seeing a new place. I love being totally free, just me and my backpack and maybe like a can of pork and beans.
At the same time, though, what I’ve found with writing is that, if I miss a day I get so stressed out by it. I’ve got like a little internal governor that punishes me, and if it wasn’t writing, it would be something else. If I’m not doing what I feel like I should do, it’s not good. It’s not good. Everything just shuts down. Like say I’m going along pretty well and then I decide to take Saturday off, I get some bad Sunday mornings because of that. It’s like, oh, I disrespected myself. I screwed up.
I feel like I always want to be in that groove where writing feels easy. I feel that’s so key due to the anxiety that can crop up when you worry about results. But you have to worry about results too, so getting between those two different mindsets—that is an M.F.-er. And so what I try to do—I say, “That’s your basic state there” the state of intuitive, relaxed, natural writing, you have to be able to come back to that, so I make that my first thing in the morning. And then I go over it and I try to edit on paper and not get stuck in staring at it online where you can move it around forever. That’s a death trap and then the anxiety over perfection crops up. I sort of deadlocked myself over a couple of days on a recent section I’m writing now, and I thought, “Okay, that’s a lesson. Try to stay out of that vortex.”
Rail: You mentioned Hemingway and Robert Stone. We talked about Thom Jones and Sebastian Junger. All very masculine writers on masculine subjects I would say. Is that representative of what you like?
Lish: Well, I also like Taylor Swift and I’m not joking. Is she the one with the song that goes “Trouble, trouble, trouble?” You don’t even know! I love that song. But I like Camille Paglia; she’s excellent. I like a lot of female authors. I love Jeannette Walls, Joan Didion. I mentioned those other authors, Stone, for example, because they write about subjects I’m interested in, but there are women who write about the subjects I like also. Paglia might be one of the top ones. I just read Lynn Lurie’s Quick Kills. It’s tough stuff. Very poetic, but it made me nervous when I read it.
Rail: You were inspired by Tom Wolfe’s advice to be a journalist. Tell me more about that.
Lish: I read an essay by him in a collection, I think it was Hooking Up, but there is an essay in there called “My Three Stooges” and it’s a response to a criticism of his novel A Man in Full by Norman Mailer and two other authors who attacked his book for not being literary. They complained that it was too journalistic. Wolfe was talking about people’s actual lives and Wolfe’s response was that this was exactly what a novelist should be doing, and he brought in the example of Dickens and Tolstoy—writers who were popular. The idea that you’re only good if no one reads you is something he had to defend himself against. And Wolfe said, in their day Dickens and Tolstoy sold massively; they were popular authors. Giving people what they want doesn’t make it bad. And an author can open up a world to you. What could be more fascinating than opening a window to another world that people aren’t normally seeing? Readers love that. I love it. That’s what gets me to open a book in the first place.
That really clicked for me. When I read that I said, that’s the way to go. Give the people what they want to read. I’m giving myself something I want to read. I want a story that’s fun to read written in a plain accessible style that reads like a movie. I mean all I want to do is see a fun movie, you know, with a pizza. That’s where I’m coming from. I wanted to write a book that would do that for me. If the book could turn into a pizza after I’m done reading it that would be even better.