Street Talk

Karen Lillis

Karen Lillis is the author of four short novels, including Watch the Doors as They Close (Spuyten Duyvil, 2012) and The Second Elizabeth (Six Gallery Press, 2009). Her writing has been included in the anthologies From Somewhere to Nowhere: The End of the American Dream, The Occupy Wall Street Poetry Anthology, and Wreckage of Reason (Volumes 1 and 2), among other publications. She is at work on a memoir of her years behind the register at St. Mark's Bookshop, Bagging the Beats at Midnight.

The Cost of Common Ground: An interview with Karen Lillis


Braddock Avenue Books: Watch the Doors As They Close chronicles the relationship between the narrator and a Columbia University student named Anselm. Ultimately, their love fails, and so much of the narrator’s thoughts are consumed by the limits of intimacy.

Karen Lillis: The narrator has ideals of what a perfect intimacy should be, and she’s obsessed with Anselm’s limitations. As the book starts out, it’s like a portrait of Anselm’s strangenesses and shortcomings, interspersed with scenes of the couple in blissful but fleeting (or anticipated) moments. This rhythm has, I think, a cumulative effect. Though the narrator might begin by writing a diary driven by two impulses—outrage at Anselm’s failings and longing for what they could have had together—the back and forth rhythm of the story speaks in a more subtle way to the elusive nature of harmony between idealistic lovers. The narrator wants to hold onto the perfection of the couple's best moments. But perfection is the kind of thing that is best looked for in art, not people.

BAB: Anselm is described as being filled with a constant anxiety, and so often the narrator sends out tendrils of thought to locate its source. One of the possible places that it lands is a history of childhood abuse.

Lillis: As the storyteller, this was familiar territory for me—having listened to too many of these stories from friends and lovers. And of course we've heard these stories in the public forum all our lives now—from Oprah to news headlines to memoirs. But as we're talking about it in public, are we any more adept at talking about how the effects of abuse show up in our most intimate encounters in our adult lives? Sex, closeness, living together, male-female relations, power plays, the treacherous act of mimicking our families by starting a new household? Anselm and the narrator find themselves suddenly living together, and their family norms are very different. Abuse and mental illness are normative for Anselm, offerings he brings with him to his lovers. For the narrator, it's a shock. Hailing from the middle class, she believes in repair and regeneration, which is to say, in trying to purge this shit as an adult. Or trying to purge it as an artist. Anselm doesn't have that kind of hope, doesn't believe in purging, he just lives out the hand he was dealt, and then the cumulative effects of each disastrous relationship.
BAB: Much of the novel takes place in Manhattan and Brooklyn, and this geography—its streets and subways, its bars and restaurants, its bookstores and residences—almost become characters in the book. Could you describe the ways that the city seems to influence the characters’ relationship?

Lillis: So often, the two characters have opposite feelings about the New York setting in question. The narrator is acclimated to subway stations as a staple of New York life; Anselm's sent into claustrophobic anxiety by them. The Brooklyn luncheonette is a magical spot exuding the warmth of family and community for the narrator; to Anselm, it’s just another greasy spoon that barely commands his attention. He would have gone reveling in the streets during the Blackout, whereas she hides in her apartment away from urban crime; but later he refuses to enter her friend’s loft party in Bushwick, instead insisting they hang out alone on the roof above it. New York is a place that pushes people to decide—you have to choose what desires and ambitions to follow, and what moments you will just go with the flow of what's beyond you. The city is a wave of energy. Sometimes you ride it, sometimes it rides you. I think that the New York settings in the book point to the ways that the narrator and Anselm have very different moments they want to grab in the city, different desires they want to pursue, and different places they allow for humility. And they don’t always have much sympathy for each other’s differences. So the city slowly reveals to them (and to the narrator and reader) that they don’t have enough in common to make it.

BAB: The form of the novel is the narrator’s journal, a gift to her from Anselm’s stay in Paris. In what ways did following the structure of journal entries affect the drafting of the novel?

Lillis: The journal allowed me an excuse to dispense with chronology. The journal is being written by a woman narrator who's just exited an intense affair, and she's determined to write a record of her lover—now that the story is the only thing she can “possess.” So I was able to begin with somewhat “random” sequences that would start drawing a picture of Anselm and his history, set a tone for the narrator’s (conflicting) feelings for him, and allow their relationship to start seeping into the story. Then I just kept conceiving of small scenes and moving them around as I worked on how best to set up the psychological build of the story. To me, the novella length invites a certain momentum, a driving energy to its emotionally inevitable conclusion. With the journal format I could concentrate on both the psychology and the cadence, and not worry about the order otherwise—one day the writer of the journal wakes up sympathetic to Anselm, the next day she wants to write a darker aspect of their story. But the story that keeps building is her revised understanding of events and memories.

BAB: Many writers have taken on the challenge of writing a New York love story. Would you describe writers whom you feel may have influenced Watch the Doors As They Close?

Lillis: The immediate impulse for the story came from a book not set in New York. I was blown away by Venus as a Boy, with the novel's intense love affairs, its momentum of moving through love and loss, and the way author Luke Sutherland uses the contrasted settings of fucked-up, backwater Scotland versus glamorous (but dangerous and high-stakes) London. Soon after I read this book I picked up a pen and started writing Watch the Doors as They Close. For New York influences: I loved the novel It Was Gonna Be Like Paris, in which Emily Listfield writes about a young artist’s dreams of downtown bohemia dissipating into the difficulties of addiction and codependency. After I finished the first draft of Watch the Doors, I discovered the novella The Double Standard, with which I felt a kinship right away. Kathe Burkhart writes about a romance gone sour with a heroin addict in Brooklyn, while she inserts flashbacks from the female protagonist's high school diary in West Virginia. When I was revising Watch the Doors, I wanted to look at some post-9/11 fiction, so I read Wednesday Kennedy’s 21st Century Showgirl, which is a riveting portrait of an all-or-nothing romance with a narcissistic deceiver. I saw the play The Mercy Seat by Neil LaBute, which delves into the brutally selfish passions of one adulterous couple amid the chaos of the very day of September 11th.