They Really Lose: An Interview with Atticus Lish

Atticus Lish in Lexington, Ky., on Sunday, May 30, 2021. Credit: Ryan Hermens I have recommended Atticus Lish’s first novel to more people than any other book. Beautiful without being sentimental, brutal without being cruel, Preparation for the Next Life (2014) is a love story between Zou Lei, an undocumented half-Uighur, half–Han Chinese woman, and Brad Skinner, an Iraq War veteran suffering from PTSD. “He gets it,” I told fellow New Yorkers: the Jackson Heights bars; the Flushing food stalls; the long walks through outer Queens, past housing projects and storefront mosques and cash-and-carries, all the way to the gas stations and football fields of Long Island. Everyone I pestered into reading the novel was bowled over, from jaded graduate students and sore-eyed copy editors to my mother and my grappling coach. They’d ask, Who is this man threading a romance through descriptions of ICE detention centers and sidewalk Falun Gong demonstrations? I would say what I had gleaned from interviews and articles. He’s the son of prominent editor Gordon Lish; a Harvard dropout who worked in security and telemarketing and taught English in China for a spell; a former Marine who fought two professional mixed martial arts bouts; a novelist who, after five years of dogged work in isolation, published his debut with the independent press Tyrant Books at age forty-three. One thing I hadn’t known was that when Lish was fifteen, his mother was diagnosed with ALS. His experience caring for her provided the foundation for his new novel, The War for Gloria. (“A lot of the book is autobiographical,” Lish told me, “although it’s disguised.”) Gloria Goltz is a hippieish, anarchist-curious daughter of Springfield, Massachusetts, living in and around Boston. Her ambition to condemn the world through her writing—“a single scream of rage against the patriarchy”—is frustrated, before being foreclosed entirely by ALS. The novel then follows her son, Corey, who cares for Gloria as her condition worsens and she starts needing assistance to eat and even to breathe. Corey drops out of high school and works construction and odd jobs while fighting with everyone and anyone—strangers, friends, MMA opponents, and his itinerant father, Leonard, an MIT security guard prone to grandiose intellectual claims and seething misogyny. Lish, who is Gen X, insisted to me that he hadn’t set out to write about men my age, and yet The War for Gloria is the finest novel about American millennial masculinity I’ve ever read. It details the particular ways in which young men have initiated themselves into violence from the George W. Bush years onward. There are pampered collegiate Übermensches-in-training, devouring Nietzsche and physics textbooks and piles of chicken as they grow their muscles and self-importance and stoke their rage at women. There are contractors with negative bank accounts and an “I don’t give a fuck” mantra, wanting nothing but to prove themselves in combat on the street or in the cage or in actual war. Then there are those left in their wake, unhappy onlookers to these men’s obsessive quests to overcome all weakness. When I spoke to Lish on the phone, I was in New York with a cold, and he was in Pasadena, having moved there in July. We talked on September 1, two days after the last American troop in Afghanistan boarded a C-17 cargo plane departing Kabul, and this country ended its longest war. INTERVIEWER When did you start writing The War for Gloria? LISH I started working on it right after Preparation for the Next Life came out. If I have my dates right, late 2014. I had finished the first novel the year before, so the whole time I had been wondering what I was going to write next. Preparation came out. I didn’t have an agent. I was contacted by Amanda Urban, and then I did have an agent and that changed my life completely. I had a real moment where I said, This is the brass ring. You have to grab it! I asked myself, What was close to the bone still? It was my mother’s death. She died of ALS. I had a direction for the next book. INTERVIEWER It’s quite the follow-up. I think you grabbed the ring. Did you write the novel in New York? LISH Most of the time writing the book was in Brooklyn. That was about four years. The first thing I did, my wife and I went out to the cemetery near my house and looked for headstones. I saw the last name Agoglia, and that’s how I got the last name for the villain. Leonard Agoglia. That was pretty early in 2015. But the book didn’t really come together until I moved to Kentucky in 2019. INTERVIEWER What happened in Kentucky? LISH I don’t think it’s related to anything geographic. There was nothing magical in itself about Kentucky that provided the missing link. It took me so darn long to go down all the blind alleys and figure out what the story should be. A long, long time to see the light with this one. I’ll tell you what the big problem of the book was—I ended up writing two books that were stuck together

They Really Lose: An Interview with Atticus Lish

Atticus Lish in Lexington, Ky., on Sunday, May 30, 2021. Credit: Ryan Hermens

I have recommended Atticus Lish’s first novel to more people than any other book. Beautiful without being sentimental, brutal without being cruel, Preparation for the Next Life (2014) is a love story between Zou Lei, an undocumented half-Uighur, half–Han Chinese woman, and Brad Skinner, an Iraq War veteran suffering from PTSD. “He gets it,” I told fellow New Yorkers: the Jackson Heights bars; the Flushing food stalls; the long walks through outer Queens, past housing projects and storefront mosques and cash-and-carries, all the way to the gas stations and football fields of Long Island. Everyone I pestered into reading the novel was bowled over, from jaded graduate students and sore-eyed copy editors to my mother and my grappling coach.

They’d ask, Who is this man threading a romance through descriptions of ICE detention centers and sidewalk Falun Gong demonstrations? I would say what I had gleaned from interviews and articles. He’s the son of prominent editor Gordon Lish; a Harvard dropout who worked in security and telemarketing and taught English in China for a spell; a former Marine who fought two professional mixed martial arts bouts; a novelist who, after five years of dogged work in isolation, published his debut with the independent press Tyrant Books at age forty-three.

One thing I hadn’t known was that when Lish was fifteen, his mother was diagnosed with ALS. His experience caring for her provided the foundation for his new novel, The War for Gloria. (“A lot of the book is autobiographical,” Lish told me, “although it’s disguised.”) Gloria Goltz is a hippieish, anarchist-curious daughter of Springfield, Massachusetts, living in and around Boston. Her ambition to condemn the world through her writing—“a single scream of rage against the patriarchy”—is frustrated, before being foreclosed entirely by ALS. The novel then follows her son, Corey, who cares for Gloria as her condition worsens and she starts needing assistance to eat and even to breathe. Corey drops out of high school and works construction and odd jobs while fighting with everyone and anyone—strangers, friends, MMA opponents, and his itinerant father, Leonard, an MIT security guard prone to grandiose intellectual claims and seething misogyny.

Lish, who is Gen X, insisted to me that he hadn’t set out to write about men my age, and yet The War for Gloria is the finest novel about American millennial masculinity I’ve ever read. It details the particular ways in which young men have initiated themselves into violence from the George W. Bush years onward. There are pampered collegiate Übermensches-in-training, devouring Nietzsche and physics textbooks and piles of chicken as they grow their muscles and self-importance and stoke their rage at women. There are contractors with negative bank accounts and an “I don’t give a fuck” mantra, wanting nothing but to prove themselves in combat on the street or in the cage or in actual war. Then there are those left in their wake, unhappy onlookers to these men’s obsessive quests to overcome all weakness.

When I spoke to Lish on the phone, I was in New York with a cold, and he was in Pasadena, having moved there in July. We talked on September 1, two days after the last American troop in Afghanistan boarded a C-17 cargo plane departing Kabul, and this country ended its longest war.

INTERVIEWER

When did you start writing The War for Gloria?

LISH

I started working on it right after Preparation for the Next Life came out. If I have my dates right, late 2014. I had finished the first novel the year before, so the whole time I had been wondering what I was going to write next. Preparation came out. I didn’t have an agent. I was contacted by Amanda Urban, and then I did have an agent and that changed my life completely. I had a real moment where I said, This is the brass ring. You have to grab it! I asked myself, What was close to the bone still? It was my mother’s death. She died of ALS. I had a direction for the next book.

INTERVIEWER

It’s quite the follow-up. I think you grabbed the ring. Did you write the novel in New York?

LISH

Most of the time writing the book was in Brooklyn. That was about four years. The first thing I did, my wife and I went out to the cemetery near my house and looked for headstones. I saw the last name Agoglia, and that’s how I got the last name for the villain. Leonard Agoglia. That was pretty early in 2015. But the book didn’t really come together until I moved to Kentucky in 2019.

INTERVIEWER

What happened in Kentucky?

LISH

I don’t think it’s related to anything geographic. There was nothing magical in itself about Kentucky that provided the missing link. It took me so darn long to go down all the blind alleys and figure out what the story should be. A long, long time to see the light with this one. I’ll tell you what the big problem of the book was—I ended up writing two books that were stuck together from the beginning. One was a family romance, the other was a crime story that was parasitizing the book you now have. It was an insane labor trying to integrate the two. Last summer, both my editor and my agent said, Look, you’ve got something here, but you’ve told the wrong story. Leonard is monstrous, but you’ve turned him into a monster. You’ve told the story where he’s Hannibal Lecter. You need to address that. I realized it was time for me to cut off the parasite. At that point, I went up to Massachusetts. There’s a moving company up there called Viking Moving. I worked with them in 2004, the best job I ever had. My boss and friend Paul Webster, he and his right-hand man Taran O’Leary put me up in a moving warehouse in West Concord. They gave me a job, and during that time I rewrote the last third of the book and got rid of all the things that were extraneous.

INTERVIEWER

I’d almost expect there to be a bit in the novel about moving companies. There’s so much description of manual labor as Corey is trying to support himself and his mother. He works the trades, but also just miscellaneous gig work—tin knocking, fiberglassing boats, putting together Ikea furniture.

LISH

Doing this, I worked on a tugboat docked in Red Hook and operated by a guy named Matt Perricone. I was a deckhand for him, I got my maritime PSA license. Shout-out, too, to my brother-in-law Tom. He’s an HVAC worker and took me around his sites. I just wrote what I saw.

INTERVIEWER

After the first novel, I thought of you as primarily a New Yorker, so I have to ask, Do you actually like Boston?

LISH

It’s been a second home to me. I went to Phillips Academy, and Harvard right after that. I dropped out of Harvard, but Massachusetts was where I spent most of my time. After I got out of the Marines in 1997 my wife and I stayed in Boston for another spell, and returned a few years later. Writing this book I kept taking the bus from New York up to Boston.

INTERVIEWER

I think it shows, though all I know of the area is from films, really. I laughed when one character describes another as Good Will Hunting, but I guess Bostonians watch Boston movies, too.

LISH

Hollywood does the accent so horribly. Mystic River, oh man. That’s painful. You know what I like from Boston? The Car Talk guys, I love them. I really like it there, though. I ran into some guys wearing Red Sox jerseys in Cleveland and I was fist bumping the whole table, saying, “Hey man, I left my heart in Massachusetts!”

INTERVIEWER

What were you doing in Cleveland?

LISH

I was at the Jake Paul vs. Tyron Woodley fights. I’m covering them for Harper’s. The fight of the night in my opinion was Serrano vs. Mercado—you know, Serrano is billed as one of the greatest female boxers of all time. It was great, it was a great night.

INTERVIEWER

Man, Woodley! As a mixed martial arts fan, it was sad to see him lose to a YouTuber, but I’m glad he got paid. Did you talk to Jake Paul? What was he like?

LISH

I didn’t know much about Jake Paul, and I didn’t know exactly what to ask him. I was just getting into the story. Interviewing is a tough job! It’s very hard to know anyone. I feel like I’m up on who he is after the week in Cleveland, but even so, you can know somebody for thirty years and they can still be mysterious.

INTERVIEWER

It’s funny to think that you’re my Jake Paul in this interview. Are you training at all yourself right now?

LISH

After my fortunes changed from the last book, the first thing I did was say, I’m going to give myself a big present. I’m going to go and sign up at a martial arts gym. I’d been longing to do that. I went to Radical MMA in Manhattan. It was great, that’s a good gym. The thing was, as much fun as I was having, I became aware after a couple of months that too much of my emotional energy was going into martial arts. I became concerned I was fighting the wrong battle. I said, Listen, you’re not Rickson Gracie, you’re not going to make your mark on history in the cage. You’re a middle-aged writer. So I sacrificed that. Believe me, I missed training, but I felt it was necessary and I devoted myself completely to the book.

INTERVIEWER

You fought some in the early 2000s, right? I can’t think of many athletes writing novels about their sport. There’s something strenuous and horrifying and beautiful about training and fighting, and the passages about Corey going through all of that really sing.

LISH

A lot of this was drawn from my training. I would stick my head in at different places when the spirit moved me and do a month here or there. While writing I went up to see a couple of fights, Cage Wars in Albany and Combat Zone in Rockingham Park. I should say this—Corey’s fight with a fighter called Jack, that’s a real fight. A guy named Victor Hunsaker, he trained at the Shark Tank under Eddie Millis in Rancho Cucamonga. I rolled with Victor a bit, and in 2000 I actually warmed him up for this fight at a promotion out by Palm Springs called King of the Cage. It was incredibly dramatic, a one-round fight. An incredible display of Victor’s heart. He just barely did it, but he did it, right before the bell.

INTERVIEWER

I was going to ask if that fight was taken from your own career.

LISH

It was a way, way, way more violent fight than I ever had. I have to tell you, another one of the inspirations was a guy you may have heard of, Mac Danzig.

INTERVIEWER

Of course, the winner of The Ultimate Fighter.

LISH

I crossed paths with him back in 2000 in Rico Chiapparelli’s R.A.W. gym in El Segundo. Mac came with a bunch of guys from Pittsburgh. He was a very impressive guy to me at the time. It must have been 2007, I was watching a DVD of The Ultimate Fighter’s sixth season I had rented from Blockbuster. It was amazing for me to see him show up. I was like, Oh my God, I was in the same gym as that guy. And when he wins The Ultimate Fighter, he says something like, “I want to dedicate this fight to my mom, it’s her birthday today, my mom Gayle.” That gave me the scene where Corey says, “I want to dedicate this fight to my mother, Gloria.” Even the choice of the name Gloria was inspired by Mac’s mom. Gayle started me thinking about names beginning with a G.

INTERVIEWER

You must have felt elated seeing a gym-mate win.

LISH

No, for me it was the idea of a son fighting for his mom. That was really why I wrote the book. I saw that with Mac. It’s funny, I just heard somebody say, “Moms are sacred.” We basically all know this—or we’re a little bit like Norman Bates and we know it too much.

INTERVIEWER

Corey’s not only fighting for his mother, though, right? Or, he’s trying to fight for his mother, but he’s also learning how to be aggressive for its own sake, or for all the reasons young men teach themselves aggression. He’s practicing this constant stonewalling, these maneuvers you describe and name like the deadpan and the front-off. I definitely taught myself those growing up.

LISH

The stuff about being tough, I guess it did come from me as a kid. I started realizing a bit behind the curve that I wanted to toughen up. I didn’t have brothers, I didn’t do competitive sports. I wasn’t in school fights. I was pampered, I was a soft young child. At a certain point, you hit adolescence and there’s a competition for status with the other fellas. You want to look good for girls and all that. It hit me kind of flat-footed. I didn’t know how to talk the talk and walk the walk. I overcompensated for not being tough enough. I was being antisocial. I tended to be a loner. I didn’t have pals usually. I felt like I had to stick up more for myself or something. It’s not an attractive quality, I overdid it a bit.

INTERVIEWER

I can’t imagine how much angrier I would have been at that age if my mother had had ALS.

LISH

I don’t know. I felt bad for my mother, obviously.

INTERVIEWER

It seems connected? In the book, at least, Gloria is losing bodily control in ways that no amount of discipline will really put off. At the same time, Corey is this adolescent trying to care for his mother and desperately seeking his own discipline, whether that’s becoming a stable provider or a fighter. But he gets angrier and angrier, even as he’s disgusted with his own temper. It feels yoked together.

LISH

If nothing else, it happened all at the same time. I guess you can say that. That’s what it is to turn thirteen, fourteen, fifteen. It all starts hitting. You have to deal with it all. You find out people die. You find out people want to take things away from you and you have to compete with them. You have to learn to make your way and ideally you learn to strike a balance. Being fierce when you have to be, but not being a savage, destructive person. One of the big factors driving me writing the book is guilt. I didn’t have that balance. I overcompensated, which basically means you turn into a little delinquent shit. When you’re a little shit at a time when your family needs you to pitch in, you carry that guilt around with you for the rest of your life. My mother died alone in a hospital bed without me by her side. That’s something that I’ll never forget, and I can’t forgive myself for.

INTERVIEWER

You couldn’t be there because of how you were behaving?

LISH

Well, I was in a war with my father. We were fighting while she was in the hospital, up until the day she died. We had cops coming to our house. We had court. We had a dirty fight between a father and a son raging around a woman who’s already facing hell. Lou Gehrig’s, it’s twenty-four hours, high intensity. The patients can’t really do anything for themselves. The care-taking is still vivid for me years later. What I learned from being a kid is, if you don’t get your shit together, the woman in your life is going to pay. You have to be a man because there are women—not just women, vulnerable people, and they depend on you. Sometimes you do have to fight with people. If you’re a fucking wet noodle, you can’t defend the people who need it. On the other hand, if you’re an absolute madman or a destructive delinquent or all you care about is your pride, that’s not good either.

INTERVIEWER

The balance that Corey strikes, it seems both similar and dissimilar to what you’re describing. I’m curious about how you were able to distance yourself from something so close to the bone, as you say, while writing the novel.

LISH

The time came when I had to separate from the book. It had to stop being a part of me, so it’s no longer just how I feel about it, it’s about how someone else would look at it aesthetically. It’s important to get to detachment. It took me a while, but it was a relief when it happened. It was a much greater satisfaction to try and sing a song that sounds beautiful and coherent to the person listening than to just have my say.

INTERVIEWER

I wanted to ask about the ending, with Corey enlisting in the Navy. The war in Afghanistan just ended this week, and I’ve been thinking a lot about Skinner, the Iraq War veteran in Preparation. You see how badly things turn out for veterans in that novel, and reading The War for Gloria, you see how bad things may have been before they became veterans. I was wondering whether you essentially wrote a book about why men enlist. Did you always know the novel was going to culminate with enlistment?

LISH

I knew the ending early in the writing. I wrote it in 2016, before I left New York. You really hit the nail on the head with that question. This book is psychologically a prequel to Preparation For The Next Life. Preparation is basically like, I’m a guy, you touch my woman, I’m going to murder you. The War for Gloria is how a guy might start thinking that way. Why would you think that you have to be able to take on anybody and to do anything? It’s because you might have seen something bad happen to your mother, both because other people are no good and because of your own failures. Because you become obsessed with self-improvement and courage and feel that you have to enlist.

INTERVIEWER

You enlisted in the Marines. Were you figuring out how you ended up making that choice?

LISH

This is one hundred percent me. I’ll tell you straight out, I probably shouldn’t say this publicly but I’ll say it: I did think for a minute that I should do something physical to my father. I definitely thought about it. I definitely thought—look, I definitely owned a baseball bat. And I thought about that. And then I thought about all the guys, all the people, the young people, who hurt a parent, and wind up in jail, and they’re doubly lost. They lose. They really lose. They’re still losing to that parent if they sit in jail, even if they put that parent in the ground. I mean, you know there was a case called the Menendez brothers, I don’t know the details of the case exactly, it doesn’t even matter—I thought of them. I thought, Don’t be that. I picked up Rogue Warrior, which was on a bookshelf in Barnes and Noble in 1992 or 1993, and read about Richard Marcinko having the adventure of his life in the Navy SEALs, and the next year I enlisted in the Marines. I said, I don’t want to sit here in a basement in Queens, New York, and have my big move be doing something that destroys my life after all this. No. I said, I’m going to sign up. I said, I’m going to be all I can be. Like the Army ad. That’s one hundred percent the choice.

Matthew Shen Goodman is a writer and a senior editor at Triple Canopy.

Read Atticus Lish’s story Jimmy in Issue no. 210 (Fall 2014).