The PEN Ten with Atticus Lish

The PEN Ten is PEN America's biweekly interview series curated by Lauren Cerand. This week Lauren talks with Atticus Lish, translator and author of the forthcoming novel Preparation for the Next Life (which will be released in November) and the book of drawings Life Is with People

When did being a writer begin to inform your sense of identity?

Being a writer still doesn’t form my sense of identity—enough. For me, it’s an unstable identity. My writer-identity needs to be renewed all the time. This is even after spending five years writing a first novel. I wrote five hours every morning almost every day of the week, but even after that, I still don’t feel that I have definitively proved that I am a “writer” for ever after. Being a writer is something that can disappear easily. It’s like maintaining fitness: you miss a couple days in the gym, you’re not the same anymore. Or like being a decent husband. If you stop fulfilling your obligations to your household, you’ll lose claim to being a decent husband, and deservedly so. Writing is like that to me. It’s not an identity. Yet. It’s what I’m constantly trying to make my identity again. Every day, I have to write to stay in the game. The skill erodes fast, I feel. You’re constantly in danger of not knowing how to write and therefore of not being a writer. That’s the problem with writing. To quote Camille Paglia, writing is an activity “fraught with anxiety and crowned by success.” (Words to that effect.) And I’d add, “Success if you’re lucky.” Every time you write, you risk getting it wrong. It’s hard to feel you know what you’re doing, and this undermines your sense of identity as a writer. Perhaps this is less the case for people who write shorter-scale pieces that follow a discernible pattern, like newspaper columns: write a newspaper story every day for a year and I’m sure you’ll know how to do one of them in your sleep; you’ll be a pro. But my focus is the novel. Inherently, novels take longer to write, so the would-be writer only rarely experiences the entire course of writing a novel from beginning to end. This makes it harder to grasp the essence of the activity. You remain a perpetual innocent in these woods. And you don’t know who you are until you write your way to a successful ending. Then, if you get there, you’ll briefly feel like a writer.

Whose work would you like to steal without attribution or consequences?

Nobody’s. It wouldn’t give me any satisfaction to steal from someone. I’m not motivated by glory. I wouldn’t get anything out of saying I had done something I hadn’t done. That would be hollow fame. Plus, for me, the whole point of writing is doing things your own way, not Melville’s way or anyone else’s. We all see the world differently. When I write, I believe that my unique perspective—and it is a bit unique—is the point of the exercise. The best way I can do my job for you, the reader, is to see things the way I see them. That’s what you’re paying me for, so to speak. Not to tell you what you want to hear, but to tell you what I see. And what I write will be uniquely shaped by what interests me, which determines what I look at, and what I’m able to express. My defects—the very limitations of my expressive power, intelligence, and experience—all add to my unique stamp. This is another great thing about writing: disadvantages, weaknesses, even stupidity can be turned to help form your identity, your voice. Embrace this, and there’s nothing you can’t talk about. And there’s no one you would want to pass off as yourself.

But if this question is intended to get me to say who is writing books closest to the kind of books that I would like to write, I might cite Richard Lloyd Parry, author of the chilling nonfiction work People Who Eat Darkness.

There are many authors whose work is so wonderful and perfect that I’d be proud to have written their books—almost—except for one little problem: I haven’t and they did. Imagining writing another writer’s book is like imagining marrying one’s own sister. Something blocks you from carrying the thought experiment through to its conclusion. But a few writers who would be on this list of “sisters” for me would be Sebastian Junger, Robert Fisk, Robert Stone, John Sandford, and Richard Lloyd Parry.

Where is your favorite place to write?

I used to write in a Colombian coffee shop called the Pariscien on Fourth Avenue and 49th Street. I sat underneath a heating unit called the “Hot Dog” on winter mornings. Truth is, I don’t have entirely joyful memories of this time, which was characterized by isolation and uncertainty. However, one of the Colombian women who worked there (Miriam) took a kindly interest in what I was doing. I told her I was writing a book about immigrants and she cheered me on and said she wanted to see the book when it came out. I felt I had slim hope of ever getting the book done to my satisfaction, much less getting it published, so, under the circumstances, her encouragement meant a lot. Outside of my wife, this stranger was the only other person who knew what I was doing.

Recently, I went back to the Pariscien to show the woman my galleys. I wanted to sign a copy for her to express my thanks, but she had changed jobs and no longer works there.

The best place to write would be somewhere I don’t actually have regular access to yet: somewhere outside New York City. Somewhere that calms the nerves. Somewhere with a La-Z-Boy chair. A small room. A quiet room that contains the brain.

Have you ever been arrested? Care to discuss?

I’ve been arrested two or three times. All minor stuff, stupid kid stuff—misdemeanors. It was a long time ago. Not sure what I could tell you that you don’t already know. The cop puts you in handcuffs, you go see the judge and you do your community service.

Actually, far more interesting than the arrests was the community service. I did landscaping for the guy running the USO down in Jacksonville, NC, a former Marine Corps boxer and a truly great guy. Exactly the type of guy who is good for young guys who need guidance.

We’d had a hurricane in the spring of ‘96 and there were trees blown down everywhere. I got a lot of exercise dragging tree limbs around and raking up twigs and leaves. I loved it. The best meal of my life was probably when an ex-Marine whose yard I cleared cooked me a T-bone steak. All thanks to being arrested. Thank you for the memories!

Obsessions are influences—what are yours?

War and crime. Imprisonment. Torture. Lost love.

My main theme is the Sad Woman or the Woman in Jeopardy. A woman who is lonely, vulnerable, thinking of her little life.

These things obsess me because they are so awful.

War may be the ultimate subject. Its truth is elusive. They say only the dead know war. If I remember correctly, Christopher Hedges calls it a dark diamond that contains the image of a soldier amorously intertwined with a corpse. He asserts that war’s true nature is necrophilia, death-worship, failure. It is primarily and above all about killing. At a certain point, war releases a drive in its participants where they can’t kill enough to be satisfied. A lustful insatiability for death.

But this troubling aspect of war, how it activates a carnivorous, criminal aspect of human nature, is easily lost in its strident propaganda or glamorous mythology. Hence this darkness flickers like a diamond. War’s real effects are so hard to see. This makes war obsessively interesting to me as a subject for art, a flickering secret, which evaporates in open air. It’s such a delicate task to preserve it and hold it up to the reader’s view.

Another, related obsession: crime. Crime is similarly prone to misrepresentation. Yet it is brilliantly captured by Manson prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi’s Shadow of Cain.

What’s the most daring thing you’ve ever put into words?

I don’t look at writing this way, as a competition to be “daring”. I don’t think writing is daring unless you happen, like Solzhenitsyn, to live in a country that might put you in prison for speaking your mind. For people in the free world, the only things you might risk as a writer are economic/career consequences or personal embarrassment. Economic/career consequences can be serious enough. But I haven’t faced a situation where making a statement in the context of literary writing would result in loss of income for me or impact my career. (I hardly even have a literary career to impact yet.) I suspect most people in the US think that “being daring” as a writer involves confessional writing—talking about your personal affairs or ugly private thoughts. As a reader, I’m not generally interested in other people’s personal affairs or their ugly private thoughts. Unless they’re really fun of course. But this is rare. So I’ve never felt attracted to doing this kind of writing myself. I’m not an exhibitionist. And frankly, I’d recommend that other writers reconsider the confessional approach. Just tell the reader a good story. Telling a good story isn’t daring; it’s grueling. The main sacrifice in writing, as I look at it, is disciplined hard work, not social humiliation.

What is the responsibility of the writer?

This question seems to be asking for one of two types of answers: it pushes you to say either that the writer has a social responsibility or a responsibility of some kind to his craft; e.g., a writer must “speak truth to power” (social responsibility) or must “always be honest with the reader”/ “strive to make every sentence true” (craft responsibility). In fact, I don’t feel that writers have any responsibility of the above sorts. Writing begins as a private activity that becomes public later, maybe. It’s something the writer must be free to do to entertain him or herself. It ought to be as free of outside restrictions as any other truly personal activity. If there are rules, the writer must be free to define them for herself.

In particular, the writer doesn’t bear any more social responsibility than any other citizen. He or she doesn’t have to be the “conscience of a nation” or anything like that. After all, there are all different kinds of writing. You wouldn’t expect a guy who writes advertising copy to be the “conscience of a nation”, yet he’s a writer too. Writing is just written communication; you can do it well or poorly irrespectively of the purpose the writing serves—whether to sell washing machines, entertain people, or move them to political action, like Thomas Paine. Incidentally, one could even write so as to serve, rather than oppose, the State’s interests; one might be even a great writer who is a propagandist or apologist in service of the State. One might argue that Plato was such a writer/thinker, in that his views supported the status quo. But he was a great writer/thinker nonetheless. The skill of writing is an amoral one.

What makes a great writer/thinker? Someone who expands the mind or moves the heart, I’d say. But then you’d have to include Marquis de Sade, who expands the imagination quite a lot but doesn’t give us a recipe for bettering society (or at least a recipe that most of us would want to follow). The very point of the imagination is that, without consequences, it can go places that we cannot go ourselves. A writer can imagine what it’s like to die, for instance. Or what it’s like to commit a violent crime—as Dostoevsky does. These imaginings provide virtual experiences for readers. But they don’t make society more just. Rather, such powerful acts of imagination invigorate the civilization. They are its glowing, fascinating products. A great act of the imagination can be disconnected from moral concerns. And some things that move the heart aren’t Sunday school stories either.

But a writer needn’t be great. He or she can be so-so or even lousy. It’s a free country, as they say. I say if you want to write, go ahead and write whatever makes you happy. If you played guitar, you’d play whatever you liked. Writing should be the same. When you whistle, you whistle what you want. You might even be a crappy whistler. Your neighbor might hate your whistling, but so be it. You like it and that’s enough.

There are too many different kinds of taste to tell writers how to write. I believe in the democratic, free market idea that maybe the book-buying public aren’t total idiots after all. If you’re entertaining, accessible, interesting, full of action, drama—the things that appeal to everyone—maybe that’s not a bad thing. And if you’re not—if you’re esoteric, impenetrable, and verbose—if you write like Von Clausewitz—well, there’s probably someone out there, some West Point instructor, say, who will still love you. In short, I say, just as the grocery store shelves are packed with fifty kinds of ketchup and mustard, so should our bookstores’ shelves be filled with every kind of book so that readers/consumers can pick what they want. The more creation, the more production, the more options—the better. The filter imposed by critics can do more harm than good by prematurely rejecting material that readers would have enjoyed. Or it can be simply nullified when readers choose that material anyway.

I reject the idea that writers have an absolute “responsibility” to their craft or to the reader. Certainly, an individual writer may feel that he does owe the reader certain things. But it’s up to the writer to decide what this is. Personally, I’d like to try to follow Oscar Wilde’s advice to never be boring. But I wouldn’t make some kind of proclamation that all writers must stick to this or any other universal requirement. After all, if the requirement of never boring the reader were universally applied, we wouldn’t have Moby Dick.

While the notion of the public intellectual has fallen out of fashion, do you believe writers have a collective purpose?

This is related to the previous question. Do writers have a collective purpose? No! A writer can decide to critique his society if he chooses, but I’m not saying he has to. Not everybody has to be a Solzhenitsyn. It’s perfectly legitimate to want to be a fiction writer whose goal is to simply tell a damn good story, in the same way a musician might want to compose and perform a great song. Nothing wrong with songs and stories that don’t have political messages. Here’s an example of what I mean: Take U2’s “Sunday Bloody Sunday”: a fine song that decries political violence. It’s still not remotely as affecting to me as the Rolling Stones song “All Down the Line”, which isn’t political at all. I mean, get political if you want to, but I’d much rather have “All Down the Line”.

Having said that, the idea of a public intellectual sounds good. I didn’t realize it was out of favor. I suppose Norman Mailer was a public intellectual, a writer who went on talk shows and debated other thinky people. I like a good argument, a good intellectual debate, especially one that gets nasty and personal. What could be more entertaining? But I don’t think writers have a special responsibility to join public debates just because they write for a living.

There may be unusual circumstances that would change my opinion, however. There may be situations where you might feel compelled to stick up for what’s right. After 9/11, I was deeply disturbed by our country’s changes: the flag waving, the “never forget”, the Toby Keith songs, the jingoism, the Patriot Act, rendition, torture, the rush to an abhorrent, foolhardy war in Iraq. I wasn’t a writer, just a person; but I was so upset, I went around getting signatures on a letter I sent to a senator asking him to vote against the war. A pointless exercise of course. Now writers are citizens too; they have consciences just like everyone else. If their consciences move them to act, then they might use their greater power and voice as public intellectuals to agitate for whatever they think is right.

In 2003-4, writers at news organs like Time magazine never spoke against the war, and they earned my contempt—if I could even remember their names. There are few Robert Fisks. There’s a brave good man.

As for Norman Mailer, in 2003, he wrote Why Are We at War? That makes him a pretty decent public intellectual in my opinion.

Another hero of mine, Manson prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi, wrote The Prosecution of George W. Bush for Murder. Bugliosi is a classic example of a Jesuit, a monk packing a pistol, in Camille Paglia’s phrase: a combination of scholarship, literary ability, spiritual humanity, and fierceness.

But intellectuals and their big ideas can cause great harm to mankind too. A thinker can be genuinely driven by his conviction that he is speaking out for what’s right, and yet be wrong. Indeed, it was defense intellectuals that gave us Cold War brinksmanship and, subsequently, the Iraq War and the War on Terror, which various public intellectuals, like Christopher Hitchens, have supported.

If there’s a responsibility I’d like to impose on people, writers and intellectuals included, it’s not so much to speak up and be heard as to be on the right side morally. But since no one can agree on what that is, this is useless advice. Anyway, I’m dubious about the real value of public intellectuals—in a practical moral or political sense. Even if they oppose something that’s obviously morally repugnant, such as slavery, their opposition may not be effective. Ideas might take years to sink in. Or yet again they might be misused, as Nietzsche was misused by Hitler. Because, after all, ideas are subject to interpretation.

What book would you send to the leader of a government that imprisons writers?

Forgive me, but this is a naïve question. You think you’re going to reach a bully or a sociopath or a paranoid personality with literature? He’s going to read a book and think, gee, I should let that writer out of jail? When it’s easier and safer to keep him there? Sorry, no. The only language political oppressors respect is force, fear, and self-interest.

In political movements, one of the most effective books used to appeal for mercy and justice has been the Bible. But it has been used to mobilize those without power, not to reach those in power. Murderers only get religion when they’re the ones in jail. You send a copy of the Bible to the Chinese Communist Party, which despicably oppresses Tibetans and Uighurs, and they’re going to throw it in the trash. They’re not going to have a conversion of the heart. Please. Rather, they’ll use it to justify whatever horrors they’re visiting on their occupied subjects.

Where is the line between observation and surveillance?

The United States—I’m a US citizen—collects a great deal of information on its own citizens. This I am sure of. But I also doubt that this information can be used to control US citizens or limit their freedoms in a general systematic way, simply because this would be impractical due to the size of the country. Also, I have not heard of any case where an American has been prosecuted by the government simply for airing dissident views.

However, I am aware that various whistleblowers, maybe most notably Snowden, have been targeted. For the record, I am against censorship; I believe that far too many things are declared to be “secret” or to have a bearing on “national security” when no harm would be done if they were made public. I also oppose the Patriot Act, American torture, and the special category of “enemy noncombatant” whereby someone can be deprived of protections as a POW under the Geneva Convention. I oppose the extrajudicial imprisonment of detainees at Guantanamo Bay. I oppose the War on Terror and the War on Drugs. It makes me uneasy to consider quite how many prisons and prisoners the US has. The private prison industry and its lobby disturb me greatly. The criminalization of illegal alien status following 9/11 is a disturbing trend; immigration detainees—whole families—are the fastest growing population, maybe the largest population, in our prisons, along with persons detained for drug offenses. America has been a great place for me to live so far, and yet I recognize that this is because I’ve been lucky. This country has authoritarian tendencies. Our democracy has been warped and largely lost and turned into a kind of Disney show every four years. The Presidency has become increasingly powerful; we’re losing the separation and balance of powers.

If there’s any consolation, it’s that when you read Dos Passos’ 1919, you see that maybe things were pretty much always this way in the United States. The corrupt alliance between business interests and politicians has always been there. We have always had fascist, jingoistic tendencies, which were aroused from time to time. If opposing the Iraq War was unpopular, opposing the First World War could have gotten you lynched, according to Dos Passos.

My direct experience of life in America is positive. My objections and fears are based mainly on abstractions. To me “surveillance” is an abstraction. Yes, I imagine that if the government wanted to, they could read all my emails. But so far, no one has knocked on my door in the middle of the night and told me I’m going to be taken away to prison. The innocent people who I believe are most likely to be targeted in this way are those who are somehow connected to drugs or terrorism. The State can cast the net very wide, too wide, in pursuing drug or terrorism suspects, inflicting collateral damage and collective punishment, charging whole households, deporting families, as the case may be. But, to my knowledge, the American State has yet to target dissident writers. So I imagine I am safe to say and think and write whatever I want, despite any surveillance.

To answer your question directly, the line between “observation” and “surveillance” is wherever you define it. (I assume you’re saying that “observation” is okay but “surveillance” is not.) You’re asking when does the State know too much about its citizens? I would answer, I don’t care how much information they collect as long as they don’t use it.

In China and the former Soviet Union, the State has files on its citizens and can deploy large numbers of people to study detailed personal histories on individual detainees, which are used to prepare for interrogations. Detainees are compelled to write elaborate confessions, which are in turn studied for inconsistencies...These Orwellian practices were documented by Solzhenitsyn and Chinese survivors of the Cultural Revolution. In China today, dissidents may spend what remains of their wretched lives under house arrest, corralled and shadowed by teams of goons. In this context, “surveillance” isn’t an abstraction as it is in America; it means having goons and hateful busybodies guarding one’s door, a form of perpetual harassment intended to drive the victim to despair. Surveillance is just another form of torture in such countries.

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