INTERVIEW: Out Philly Writer Paul Lisicky on The Narrow Door, Denise Gess, and Where We’re Drinking in the Gayborhood

Paul Lisicky

Paul Lisicky

The first time I physically met Paul Lisicky was about two weeks ago at Knead Bagels on Walnut Street, but it felt like we knew each other for a long, long time. Sure, we had been corresponding via email, Facebook, and Instagram (note: he’s a real active user) for about a year, but there was more to our connection than just random communication. We both had Denise in common.

That’s Denise Gess, the late Philly novelist, professor, and writer who died after a rather lengthy battle with cancer in 2010. I first met Denise when I was an undergrad student at Rutgers Camden, where she was the writing professor who made me realize that I had some worth, that my words actually meant something. She gave me my favorite criticism, ever: “Bryan, you are raping us with your language and leaving us in the alley to bleed!”

Several years (and a Master’s degree) later, Denise and I become colleagues, both working at a South Jersey college. We’d spend hours, literally, on the phone (“We’d be on the phone,” Paul later told me, “And you sometimes couldn’t get a word in, but you honestly didn’t care because you wanted to listen, you wanted to hear her talk”). We’d go to The Continental Midtown and drink, eat (even though she was always stick thin), and joke, but when she’d laugh, it wasn’t just a chuckle, but a straight up cackle. Period.

Luckily, I was one of many, many people that experienced Denise. However, Paul, arguably, may have been the friend that knew Denise the best: She always used to talk about him as if he was seriously larger than life.

Ironically enough, I can tell that it is Paul that sees Denise as the “larger than life” figure. His forthcoming book, The Narrow Door, is an examination of his friendship with Denise, her illness, her death, and his near simultaneous breakup with his ex-partner, referred to as “M”. There is no doubt that this is the Denise that people know: I could hear her voice within the first several pages of reading the book. It’s uncanny, I told him.

“That’s extremely good to hear,” Paul replied. “But, you know, this was never meant to be a documentary. It didn’t even cross my mind.”

That’s even more of a testament of just how close Paul and Denise were, which is painstakingly clear throughout the book. Told in a series of small vignettes, The Narrow Door jumps back and forth between years, locations, and situations. It’s how memory works, so to speak, and it’s also how we tend to enjoy a narrative these days. Paul and I talked about how hard it is to get our students (we both teach) to read any type of entire text, but how smaller chunks tend to be easier to digest.

Paul has written a number of novels, including Lawnboy and The Burning House. However, I assumed that this extremely raw examination of both Denise and his ex must have been one of the most challenging things he’s composed.

“It had to be done,” he told me. “It was one of those things that I had to write.” Therapy, one might argue, but sometimes the greatest work comes out of those moments where we need to tell a story. I get that.

Paul now works at Rutgers Camden, teaching out of their MFA program, and lives here in Center City. We talked a bit about Asbury Park (because he purchased his way cool wooden sunglasses from a store there), New York City, and how isolating the local Philly gay scene can be. Also: We agreed how dreadful Collingswood is (both of us having lived there for a number of years) and I told him that after he returns from a writers’ retreat he’s on, we’re going to head to Franky Bradley’s for a drink.

As we wrapped up our lengthy morning, Paul and I gave each other a relatively large bear hug and parted ways. I have no doubt that somewhere, Denise was sending one of her signature laughs. Here she was, years after her death, making yet another profound impact on others. That may be her greatest gift.

The Narrow Door will be available via paperback on January 16, 2016. For more information on Paul Lisicky, visit his website.