An Interview with Lisa Gornick, by Catie Hannigan

Lisa Gornick’s novel, Tinderbox, explores the entanglement of human lives and the stunning result when lightness and darkness meet. Without a doubt, Tinderbox is corporeal, and a beating product of Gornick’s experiences. As the present is inevitably shaped by history, I asked Gornick how her stories are formed and by what vital influences. In this interview, she shares her writing space and processes, the origin of mysterious Eva, and the natural state where her psychoanalytic training and imaginative curiosity join forces. 

Tinderbox by Lisa gornick book cover

After reading about Myra’s deliberately structured spaces, it made me think of how curated my own spaces are, and how some care little of how their environment functions. What does your writing space look like? (feel free to send an image along!)

For the past twenty years, I’ve done the majority of my writing in the same office out of which  I’ve also at times seen patients.  Curated  is an apt word.  For me, and I think for my patients, the space is a sanctuary: a place where the outside world drops away.  There are café writers who need the buzz of human activity to focus their minds.  For me, the inner world out of which I find my sentences is such a swirl of thoughts and images, I do best with as much quiet and as little physical clutter as possible.

I have a white desk that stretches from wall to wall and that I like to keep as empty as possible.  It faces another building with a dull façade that offers little distraction, but with a turn of my head I can see the tree tops of the northern part of  Central Park and  a bit of the Triborough bridge.  The green gives me a place to rest my eyes and the solace of beauty when my material is painful or ugly.  Like Myra’s house, every object in the room has its own quiet story: a rug a relative with her own colorful story brought back half a century ago from China, a pen and ink from Florence, some glass beads that sat next to my grandmother’s reading chair.

Tinderbox seems to be influenced by your extensive background in psychology– was this intended during the writing process? Do you feel a strong connection between your creative writing and your education in psychology? 

 My training as a psychoanalyst doesn’t feel like something that was tacked on: as with most psychoanalysts, it changed me and altered the way I understand my own life and the lives of others.  Even when my writing has no psychotherapist character or psychotherapy situation, it has at its heart the analytic mystery of how did this character become who he or she is?  Will new experiences yield epiphanies, new possibilities? How do we create our own fate?

What/who is the inspiration behind Eva?   

A long time ago, a nanny/housekeeper I knew fell apart.  She’d come alone from another country and, I suspect, had experienced  trauma in her own childhood.  For this young woman, intimately witnessing the loving care her employers gave their own child unlocked profound buried longings on her part for a mothering she’d never had and, under the force of those longings, she unraveled.  To tell her story, I changed everything about her and the family she worked for, keeping only the emotional heart of the story.  I don’t think she’d even recognize herself were she to stumble across Tinderbox.

Do you have any favorite authors, scientists, artists, psychologists, etc. that influence your writing?

Let me stick with fiction writers. I began in the 1980’s as a short story writer.  This was the era of minimalist stories that worked with the economy of poems, stories that often moved from everyday life to a moment when everything changed for a character.  The writers who come to mind immediately are  Raymond Carver, Ann Beattie, Jayne Ann Phillips, Amy Hempel, Grace Paley, Bobbie Ann Mason.   From their stories, I learned how much can be depicted about a character through their voice, how there is also a narrative voice that can convey another layer of sensibility — and how an unnecessary word or a trite metaphor can ruin the magic. Then I discovered Alice Munro’s stories in which she delivers in thirty or forty pages entire lives. This freed me to write longer stories, more focused on narrative than language, and was a bridge to novel writing.  Another important influence for me was Ian McEwan’s Atonement.  There’s a scene in the novel when a young woman who aspires to be a writer sends a novella to a literary journal.  The editor writes her back: “For all the fine rhythms and nice observations, nothing much happens…Simply put, you need the backbone of a story.”  Whether this be advice from a fictional editor or, as I interpret it, McEwan’s own philosophy, I took it to heart!

One of the questions that preoccupies me as a novelist — and I suppose this comes from my training as a psychoanalyst where the treatment frame is such an important element — is how to construct an elegant frame that starts at point A and ends at point B, but also contains everything important that has come before without resorting to the clunky flashback device — in other words, how to transcend the front story-back story division so it is all one story. There are a few books that I think do this brilliantly: Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of  the Day, Sandor Marai’s Embers, Wallace Stegner’s Crossing to Safety, Ian McEwan’s Saturday.  All of these books have a tight time frame – in several of them little more than a day – but in each, an entire life unfolds.

Could you describe your writing process? Any pre- or post-writing rituals?

I like to write early in the day with as little intrusion from the outside world as possible.  With a family that needs to be launched for the day, that usually means that I am able to turn to my own work around  9:00, but I have had times when I’ve also tried to work very early, before everyone is up. Either way, for me, the morning has to start the night before when I’ll write a list of all the tasks that have to be done  the next day – in the afternoon, after I’m done with my writing.  There are always a few things that have to be handled at the beginning of a day, but for the most part, having that list lets me put those items out of mind and settle into my writing.  Sometimes I can sit right down and get going immediately; other times, I might read something that helps me settle into a writing frame of mind.  Writing, though, is the one thing I can’t do when I’m tired.  Adrenaline will get me through nearly any other  kind of work, but writing for me requires complete focus and submersion into my inner life. If I haven’t had enough sleep and my mind feels dull, I’ve learned that a short nap  – just enough time to let my mind sink into sleep – clears the fog and is worth the time it takes ten-fold!

Eva’s night terrors captured me. Did you study sleep/dreams? Do you keep a dream journal?

Every psychoanalyst studies dreams.  They are, as Freud said, the royal road to the unconscious.  Night terrors, though, are a different beast.  I’ve only witnessed them  once, many years ago in a house in an ancient village in France, when  a child woke screaming.  Like Eva, his eyes were open but it became clear that he was still in a hypnagogic state of terror and  it took a long time to lead him back to awareness of his surroundings.  Also like Eva, it was clear that part of what had precipitated the night terror was the strangeness of his environment: the gnome-like inhabitants of the ancient village, the strange food,  the anxiety of not understanding what the people  around him were saying.

When did you start writing creatively? Did you always know you wanted to be a novelist?

My mother taught me to read when I was three – and from that moment on, reading has been a central part of my life. I can spend a day without food or conversation but not without reading.  When I travel, even on the subway, I carry enough reading material to last through any emergency – and, since I like to read physical, not electronic books, that means a lot of lugging.  Having spent a childhood in which reading was my central activity, writing was a natural turn.  I started writing poems at a young age, and turned to writing stories in my twenties.  By the time I entered the writing program at NYU, my stories were bursting their seams.  E .L. Doctorow was one of my teachers, and he gently suggested that rather than inventing half a dozen different fictive worlds each year, it might be less exhausting to try my hand at a novel.

Other than parenting, writing novels is the most difficult thing I’ve ever done: artistically, intellectually, and spiritually.  I’ve heard it said that there are only a handful of themes in literature, and that may be true, but art is always a marriage of form and content.  I don’t think I’ll ever figure out what makes a novel work, in part because the novel, like a great city, keeps reinventing itself.  For me, the joy of writing novels is inextricably linked with how very very challenging it is, and how much I learn and develop through my efforts.  It’s a challenge, I feel certain, that will occupy me to the end of my days.


Lisa Gornick is the author of two novels: Tinderbox, recently published by Sarah Crichton Books/ Farrar, Straus and Giroux; and A Private Sorcery, published by Algonquin.  Her stories and essays have appeared widely, including in AGNIPrairie Schooner, and The Sun, and have received many awards.  She holds a B.A. from Princeton, a Ph.D. in clinical psychology from Yale, and is a graduate of the writing program at N.Y.U. and the psychoanalytic training program at Columbia.  A collection of linked stories, Louisa Meets Bear, is forthcoming, also with Sarah Crichton Books/ Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Catie Hannigan is a poet living in Maine.

Author photo by Sigrid Estrada.