Atticus Lish's debut novel "Preparation for the Next Life," was something of an underdog: It was published by small independent Tyrant Books, set in the unloveliest corners of New York and focuses on two marginal characters rarely seen in American fiction. But Zou Lei, the tough Chinese immigrant, and Skinner, the rattled Iraq war veteran who meets her, have won hearts and major literary awards, including the prestigious PEN/Faulkner.
Lish, a former Marine, will appear at the L.A. Times Festival of Books at 12:30 p.m. Sunday on the panel "Untold Stories" with Ryan Gattis, Laila Lalami and Nina Revoyr. He spoke to us by phone.
The characters in "Preparation for the Next Life" are often excluded from our cultural narrative.
If you look at American mainstream movies, they will take people who would lead safe lives, and then use a contrived situation — an asteroid is going to hit — to put them in jeopardy. I like action, but this contrivance bothered me. I wanted to look at people where something dramatic really happens to them. I looked at the news. That's how I arrived at these characters.
They don't have opportunities. Skinner is from a town outside of Pittsburgh; I didn't want him to be somebody who had access to the kind of life I've had. He's not going to be an Ivy League student; he's on the outside. He was just an ordinary soldier. And for Zou Lei, the same thing: She's virtually a nonperson. She's one of these people that slips through the cracks.
You went to Andover and Harvard — a lot of people who've had those opportunities choose never to look outside of the Hamptons. What made you want to tell this story?
It's what I want to read in a book. I like real stories; I read a lot of journalism. Leading up to this I read about the Iraq war, I read Robert Fisk, the Middle East journalist and historian, the history of Central Asia. This was on my radar, whereas the Hamptons wasn't. I wouldn't know how to begin writing the subject matter of "The Great Gatsby," whereas this is what I was interested in. I thought it would be entertaining, dramatic and compelling to me.
For these characters, the stakes are very high just getting through the day.
They're what I think a criminologist would call "high-risk people." Take Zou Lei. I imagine her as someone who's been smuggled into this country. For anyone, but particularly for a single young female to attempt to cross the border of Mexico and the United States is incredibly perilous. I read a book on the subject, "Lines and Shadows" by the great Joseph Wambaugh. It's a nonfiction account of how the coyotes, the people smugglers, have exploited and sexually assaulted the people they help take across the desert. The risks are unbelievable. She's somebody who could disappear in an instant — she's a born victim.
But the character is not. Even though she's at a further disadvantage, being a Uighur — aren't they sort of an invisible minority in China?
Absolutely. China — it's not a unified country. The different groups don't get along. Maybe the north doesn't get along with the south, one village doesn't get along with another; it comes down to clans, language groups. That is interesting to me.
Can you tell me a little bit about your experiences in China?
We [Lish and his wife] had gone to China to teach English in a south-central location, the province of Hubei, but when our school gave us our national summer break we took a train clear across the country to Xinjiang province [in the far northwest]. Xinjiang is the most stunning place I've ever seen in my life. The landscape is a brilliant desert; it has this vast, ancient feeling to it. The sky's incredibly blue. And the people there are ethnically different from the main Chinese population; they are a Central Asian, Turkik people called the Uighurs, Sunni Muslim .... It was just a couple of weeks, but it made its way into my heart. It was a powerful experience.
Where were you when you started writing?
I was in our apartment in Brooklyn. We had moved to New York in 2006, and after about a year of getting set up and getting lives in order, that's when I started to want to write. Sitting at the desk where I do translation, because that was my job.
My goal is to write for the rest of my life, and I sort of feel like I'm getting off one horse and getting on another. Like in a Western.
Although you weren't really in contact with him while working on this book, your father is the well-known editor Gordon Lish. Were the writers he worked with — Raymond Carver, Don Delillo — part of your life when you were growing up?
The people Gordon knew in the literary world didn't come to our house. My recollection is that we lived in a very private way; we rarely had anybody come over. But his world did enter the house in the form of books. There were a lot of books in the house when I was young; I would go to the library and read freely. I recall very vividly reading Barry Hannah's great short novel "Ray" when I was a kid.
But you took a while before deciding that you wanted to jump on the writing horse.
I took a long while. I don't think I wanted to do anything that was intellectual until I got older. You have too much energy, sometimes, to want to sit down with pen and paper. I had a lot of jobs you do with your hands. In California, I helped remodel Albertsons, a Rite Aid or two — strip a floor, set up gondola shelving.
I had been studying martial arts in Boston. My instructor said if you’re interested in fighting, which I was, I needed to learn grappling. He had a connection to the Machados [the John Machado Jiujitsu Academy] in Torrance. I trained with them for a week; I loved it. I went back to Boston, rented a truck, packed everything up and we moved out to L.A. We were in Torrance for about four years, then I wanted to finish college and I went back to the East Coast.
We'll have you back this weekend.
I miss it. I've got West Coast fever. It really does something for me.