Karen Lillis, known to the online world and beyond as the Small Press Librarian out of Pittsburgh, has also written three linguistically innovative, emotionally intense books, full of identity and naming and power (both sexual and personal): i, scorpion: foul belly-crawler of the desert (Words Like Kudzu, 2000), Magenta’s Adventures Underground (Words Like Kudzu/New York Nights, 2004), and The Second Elizabeth (Six Gallery Press, 2009).
In her newest work, the novella Watch the Doors as They Close, released earlier this year by Spuyten Duyvil Press, Lillis returns to these themes but with a twist. Although written (in diary format) by a woman, a nameless artist living in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, the story is actually of Anselm, her ex-lover, with whom she has had a sudden but long-coming break. Or is it? Does this anti-narrator, in the process of analyzing an ex-lover’s psyche, begin to find the contours of her own? I got the chance to talk with Karen to find about more about the many layers this small, quick read, encompasses.
The nonlinear, sometimes rambling, diary entries of Watch the Doors easily draw the reader in, offering no promise of denouement but at the same time creating hope that the narrator will crack the case of the soured relationship. As I read, I recalled the ethnographies I read during my sociology class in college. Although colloquial and conversational, the narrator in Watch the Doors really does seem to be involved in an obsessive class of categorization regarding her ex-lover, Anselm, attempting to find patterns that, although will no longer be useful in predicting their future, can perhaps make sense of the past. Alternately, there is also sort of a purging quality to the narrative, as if the narrator seeks to dispel everything she knows of Anselm and archiving it in a safe place before closing the door. An absolution, if you will. (And she writes: “I suppose the strong instinct to write the tell-all comes from Catholicism, I thought upon waking today.”)
I think purging is especially apt here. After the sudden departure of her lover, the narrator is aware that her small apartment is filled with this ghost—this man who was a charismatic cipher when he was there, and who now looms over her bedroom in stark absence but also vivid memories, haunting stories. How do you get rid of such a palpable ghost? The narrator is a writer, so she writes. In the book, there’s a story Anselm’s told about the Sicilian tarentella: “That’s the medieval folkdance where a bitten one dances frenetically enough to get a spider’s poison out of the body.” Anselm compares this to writing a love letter, and the narrator’s diary is like this, too. She is full of love and rage and bewilderment, and full of his stories, so she writes to forcibly purge her head and heart.
But like you say, there’s both a purging and archiving going on here—both the instinct to get rid of Anselm and the instinct to hold onto the relationship. And writers are lucky, we get to purge and archive at the same time. It’s hard to keep writing and not start making sense of something, and as we make more sense, the irritating problem we started with gets archived to a more stable place in the back of the brain. For the narrator, the act of sense-making, the act of writing the diary, is a way to preserve the affair forever while removing it from the daily agitation of her thoughts. Maybe seeking forgiveness through writing is a broader kind of sense-making: Like the narrator’s asking, “There was all this love, what was it for?”
You take a risk here, in revealing your narrator through the prism of another character, particularly one for whom the reader may not generate much sympathy: the emotionally stunted man-child (or, more tragically, the emotionally unstable, possibly crazy man-child). What made you want to write the novella in this way, as opposed to say the more conventional blow-by-blow, with a narrator whose place in the relationship is more central to the reader?
I seem to be drawn to write a character in terms of another character. In my last novel, The Second Elizabeth (Six Gallery Press, 2009), “Karen Elizabeth” immediately starts negotiating herself (writing herself, redefining herself, reframing her past) in terms of “Beth,” her new friend and coworker at a deli. Everything springs from meeting Beth, and then the story keeps diverging from Beth and returning to Beth. Beth is like a mantra or touchstone or one of Helene Cixous’ “magic words.” In my first novel, i, scorpion: foul belly-crawler of the desert (Words Like Kudzu Press, 2000) the narrator has a very similar reaction to meeting a new office coworker, “the girl,” who is fearless even in a corporate office space. But the narrator in i, scorpion vacillates between defining herself in terms of the girl and “the man,” her far-away lover. I like writing female doubles, but I’m also fascinated with the way that sex asks us (or tempts us) to renegotiate our boundaries and our sense of self. This is what the narrator in Watch the Doors is going through—Anselm has filled up her home and she’s having to fight to make it back into her own story. Certainly the ratio of Other to Self is the most extreme in Watch the Doors, but the situation is more extreme. Here the narrator has let this stranger live with her for a few months after she’s met him twice and known him for six weeks on the phone. And he’s not necessarily a dangerous stranger but he might have been psychologically dangerous for her. He’s very happy to talk about himself all day and she’s the kind of obsessive listener who measures the weight of every word.
It’s interesting to see reader reactions to Anselm—men will come up to me after readings and say, “I think I’m Anselm!” or readers will say, “At first I couldn’t stand Anselm, but I gained a real sympathy for him over the course of the book.”
Sounds like a good barometer for people! So tell me about the passive construction in your title, watching the doors as they close, rather than closing them oneself.
As the book begins, the doors have already closed on the romance between Anselm and the narrator. Not only in the sense that the two parties have decided to end their relationship, but also in the sense that the relationship has already passed through its natural stages. And in their case the two lovers have fucked it up so badly that the situation is irreparable. But the story rides on the momentum of the narrator’s insistence that there was some other way they could have gone; there was a happier ending that was never reached. The narrator still has the feeling of all that potential, and at the same time she knows it can’t be. Only in the telling. There’s a fatalism to her sense of how it all played out—like things got out of their control, or like they were a mystery to themselves as it was happening. She’s hoping to unravel the mystery as she writes, or regain some control. I think this particular story went well with the form of the novella—I wanted a momentum towards the inevitable. But this exists also in some tension with what the narrator is fighting to preserve.
And of course there’s the double entendre of the title which is easier to see with the book cover—a play on the kind of thing robot announcers say in metros and subway systems: “Watch the closing doors.” If you live in a big city, you might hear it 10 or 20 times a day on your commute to and from work. It becomes background music.
I know you cite Jean Rhys (Wide Saragasso Sea; Good Morning, Midnight) as a big influence on your work; a case could also be made for Colette (Cheri). In light of your last book, The Second Elizabeth, which was very much about the character defining herself, naming herself, through language, this is almost the anti-naming, a portrait in bas relief, carved from another’s life. Did this book seem like a natural counterpoint to TSE, or was there another inspiration?
The writing project that I was most involved with before I finished Watch the Doors was a collaboration where I listened to an older man’s stories and wrote them down, tried to edit them to capture his voice and its cadence, and then we’d go over the final edits together. We thought of it as an equal collaboration because we had a similar view of the world, we had an affinity, even if we were from different places and different generations. It was a collaboration because the stories that he wanted to tell were about places and times I wanted to know more about and had even imagined myself into—and because he wanted to tell these stories to me, rather than write them down as a memoir. So my active listening, our friendship, helped draw out these great stories from him. And I never felt effaced when I was working on this—I loved the stories and I felt a part of them because I understood exactly how they worked as stories. But this was the opposite of what The Second Elizabeth was doing—that novel plays so much with naming and identity and fighting for selfhood. And I guess I have these two extremes in my idea of what writing should be—the writer who finds her voice from a deeply subjective place of “the self” or the writer who listens to the world’s oral historians who are never going to write down their own story. Watch the Doors I think blends the two approaches because it purports to tell Anselm’s story, but soon it becomes a novel about the narrator’s obsession.
What I also found fascinating was the case one could make about delusion; the narrator is dating someone who gives her his life in fragments, someone whom she at some turns idealizes and at others wonders whether he is a con man. At some points, she freely admits misremembering information and acknowledgments there is no third party, whether it be friend or relative, who can offer any sort of contextualization about their relationship. It can be difficult for the reader at times to take the narrator’s recollections with any degree of certainty (although she doesn’t apologize or justify her own shortcomings, when they happen to occur). You almost feel as if you’re at a bar listening to a friend bitching about her boyfriend, even as she’s gone back to him twenty times before.
I once dated a pathological liar who was a painter, not a writer. He told me some great stories that were lies to get me to look the other way, and later I wondered who the stories belonged to. Were they mine, since he made the stories up for me? Were they mine because I was inclined to write them down and he wasn’t? Was the character he made up for me mine because he would discard it and go on to be someone different for the next person? It made me want to write a novel where the boyfriend hands the woman a compelling fiction to tell. But as I started writing Watch the Doors, I realized how much of the woman’s side was creeping in—her questions of how to tell the life story of someone who’s no longer there to confirm details or fill in gaps, her urgency to record what’s threatening to slip out of her memory, her obsessive attachment to Anselm that’s only slightly diminishing as she writes him down.
I really love the medium of storytelling, which is a different way of thinking about fiction. So I liked this set up for Watch the Doors, where the narrator’s inherent doubts are a way to point out the mechanics of storytelling—does a good story need to be true? Does a good story need to be retold faithfully to remain a good story? When does a love story become a detective story? A “good story” won’t always please a fiction workshop, but a good storyteller is always committed to trying to lure in the intended audience. The painter I dated, he wasn’t even a good liar, but he was a great storyteller.
The cable television series “Girls,” created by Lena Dunham (who also acts in it) just started to air as I was reading Watch the Doors. It seems like the narrator in Doors, a Brooklyn-ite, is not an isolated case! (Although I guess you could go back to Tama Janowitz, in her eighties novel in stories, Slaves of New York, and find similarities in Eleanor’s relationship with her live-in boyfriend Stash.) Why do women always want to rehabilitate, to love, the bad boy? Is it our innate sense of nurturing? Should we rescue more kittens instead?
I haven’t seen Girls but I hear it’s set in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, the same neighborhood as Watch the Doors. Greenpoint itself was part of the impetus I had to write the story and set it there. When people I knew started moving to Greenpoint in the early and mid 90s, it was a Polish enclave that seemed attractive to painters and sculptors and musicians—artists who wanted bigger spaces than what they could afford in the East Village. At one point I realized that most of my female friends who lived in Greenpoint or (neighboring) Williamsburg were these very independent women artists I admired, working low-wage or sporadic day jobs¾who were letting their boyfriends live with them rent-free, at least temporarily. Somehow we had all managed to find dudes who made even less money than we did.
But I didn’t actually think of these women or myself as the maternal types. I think there’s something else going on here. I think dating the bad boy or the elusive boy or the Peter Pan—for me it’s not about nurturing them. I think it can be about avoiding myself, avoiding a relationship in general and getting to blame it on the guy who’s always one foot out the door, or not having to take stock of my own faults because the other person is always so flagrantly “wrong” or irresponsible (in between being charismatic and entertaining). I’m equally interested in what’s up on the dude’s side—this male archetype I think of as post-feminist because feminism has made things more convenient for him.
The women I’m talking about were all very self-sufficient. It was important to us to get out of our parents’ houses, to pay our own rent, to cook our own food, to create our own schedules and our own artwork and our own lives with no one to tell us what to do. No one to define us. We didn’t want to get “caught” in a relationship where some guy had any say over us—even a nice guy! But these Peter Pans got to take advantage of the situation. They were also starving artists, trying to get by on as little day job as possible, but without the feminist impulse to earn their own keep and fight for their self respect. So it turned into—Oh, you’re making pancakes, just make a little more for me. Yeah, if you want company at the diner, you’ll have to buy me a coffee. Oh, you have a double bed, well, it won’t cost you any more if I start sleeping in it. In a weird way, it was a price we paid for some freedom, since these relationships usually went bust in short order. Maybe this seemed better than someone who would stick around too long—then we’d have to do the harder work of learning how to carve out the life we wanted while in a consistent relationship.
I’m guessing the sex was good? At least, I hope so!
In those days the chemistry was always heightened because I was never sure if it was the last time I was going to see the guy. I remember what a strange thing it was to hear an older friend of mine (a so-called “serial monogamist”) lament, “I miss relationship sex.” I didn’t know what relationship sex was.
So where are you going from here? You always seem to be in motion, whether on your self-financed book tour (through Indiegogo) for Watch the Doors or documenting the plight and resurgence of independent booksellers. I know you’re in the middle of writing your memoir, Bagging the Beats at Midnight, about working at St. Mark’s Bookstore in New York (and which got a nice shout out on the Paris Review blog!) Are you also working on fiction?
In between working on the bookstore memoir, I’ve been working on short stories. They’re often taking me through memories and impressions of the same New York as my bookstore years—so it’s a helpful side project. Meanwhile I’m also very involved in the readings I’m doing for Watch The Doors, and paying attention to see what novel might come next. I’m remembering that there are things you can’t learn about your book except through the process of bringing it to the public. From working with my editor, to reading to an audience, to seeing what comes out in the reviews or in emails from readers, that conversation between writer and reader has taught me much more what the strengths of the book are, and even about my own insights and interests.
Right now I’m working on a short story that was conceived as a “trailer” for the novella—I wanted to see if I could take the main themes in the novella and weave them into a story with the same characters on another night. It started because I really hate excerpting books—I spend all this time creating a cosmos that makes sense on its own terms, and then I have to rip it apart again. I thought I could read this short story at readings instead. In any case, working on the story has been a good way to get more writing out of some themes that still hold my interest: New York after 9/11 and before everyone was on the internet. Hot and cold relationships. Moody Peter Pans and the obsessive women who date them. The culture clash of the L train. Metrosexual Brooklyn versus the old, weird America where recent Brooklynites actually hail from.
To find out more about Karen Lillis and her adventures as a small-press librarian, visit http://karenslibraryblog.blogspot.com/. To find out more about her self-funded book tour, please visit http://www.indiegogo.com/Book-Tour-for-Watch-the-Doors-as-They-Close.