Atticus Lish on his painful second novel, The War for Gloria

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On the bookshelf

War for Gloria

By Atticus Lish
Knopf: 464 pages, $ 28

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In 2014, Atticus Lish’s first novel, “Preparing for the Next Life”, was published by a small press. Moving and often haunting, it told the story of a traumatized veteran and an undocumented immigrant making an unexpected connection to New York City. The enthusiastic reception that followed included the 2015 PEN / Faulkner Award and predictions of future glory.

This month, Lish is publishing her second novel, “War for Gloria”. The world is a very different place seven years later, and the book is very different too – consumed, like us, by conversations about family responsibility, healthcare, toxic masculinity, and excessive policing. It is also a much more personal book, because the author has also changed.

“Writing ‘The War For Gloria’ has been the hardest thing I’ve done in my life,” Lish said on a phone call from Pasadena, where he and his wife recently moved. “And I guess it transformed me, and it’s worth a novel in itself.”

Lish knows the challenges. He’s a retired sailor, a blue collar labor veteran, and a competitor at times in mixed martial arts tournaments – which gives “Gloria” ‘s MMA scenes a little more excitement. But revising a sequel to an acclaimed novel involves a different set of skills.

For example, Lish must have dropped an entire subplot involving a serial killer. But the hardest part was identifying the source of his protagonist’s pain and guilt, which was Lish’s. The description of this process made the author stop several times during our conversation, overcome with emotion, as he explained that the only way to end the novel was to continue.

At the heart of “The War for Gloria” is the relationship between a mother and her son. Gloria Goltz is raising Corey alone under difficult circumstances; sometimes they lived out of a car. By the time Corey is in high school, their life has become more stable – until Gloria is diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig’s disease.

This prompts Corey’s father Leonard to return and leads Corey to a strained friendship with Adrian, a young misogynist obsessed with math and fitness. It doesn’t spoil much to say that neither of them has a particularly positive influence on the teenager.

“The thing about human beings is that they’re tough enough to die slowly, which is exactly what my mother did.”

Atticus Lish

Corey is forced to come of age on a rushed schedule, desperate to find a purpose and a way to survive in school, through MMA fights and in a variety of construction jobs. Much of the material has emerged from observation and experience.

“The fight between Corey and the guy I called Jack – it’s based on something I saw at the Soboba Indian Reservation, at the King of the Cage promotion in the 2000s,” Lish said. .

Specifically, he remembers a fighter named Victor who received a brutal beating. As soon as Victor entered the ring, “the other guy dropped him with a punch and started pounding his head,” Lish said. “So Victor comes out and manages to subdue him with something like less than a second to go.” I don’t think he could have survived another round.

For Lish, it was a transcendent moment: “It did something to me physically. I jumped out of my seat. After the fight, Victor spoke to Lish. His head was “all swollen and he turned to me.” He said, ‘I’m a cockroach; you can’t kill me, ”Lish said. “I will never forget it when I say this. I don’t know what happened to Victor, but it was truly a display of heroism.

Heroism takes many forms in “The War for Gloria”, the main one being its main character’s struggles with ALS. This is where Lish had to face his past the death of his own mother from degenerative disease. During a conversation he brought up a scene from “Rocky Balboa” in which Sylvester Stallone says, “There’s still stuff in the basement.”

“Well there was something in the basement [for me] very obviously, ”Lish said. He had spent his teenage years struggling with both the impending loss of his mother and the burgeoning ambitions of any child trying to define himself. He had not only survived but thrived, but his grief and guilt were not completely resolved. He knew, sitting in his writing room in Brooklyn, that he had to write his way through the conflict.

“I never told anyone other than my wife about it,” he said, “so I went into this and – the funny thing is that in the book , I had never been able to say what I felt so guilty about. ” He had tried to discuss it with others who might understand his dilemma, including Elliot Ackerman, a fellow Navy author and veterinarian. But in the end, only the writing solved the problem.

It was, he said, to reconcile the idea that every act of endurance has a breaking point – training, writing, caring for a loved one – with a very different concept, l idea that absolute love is limitless. “I can get on a treadmill and I can force myself to run,” he said. “And within two minutes, if I pick up that tempo fast enough, I can streamline stopping. And I watched myself do it, you know? He had always done it in Marine training, and he was doing it now.

“I pushed myself to a breaking point several times during the writing of the book, so I had to face failure and get up again,” he said. “And I guess what I learned from that is that life would be easier if we all only had one breaking point. The problem with humans is that they’re tough enough to die slowly, which is exactly what my mom did when she had ALS. It took him seven years to die.

People don’t have just one breaking point, he realized. “You exhaust yourself, you pull yourself together and then you keep going. “

Although most of the novel was written in New York City, Lish’s research involved extensive trips to Boston. For a while he worked there for a friend’s moving company. “I made some decent money while I was up there,” he said. “And I rewrote the book, which needed to be rewritten.”

The final third met last fall, in correspondence with Jordan Pavlin, the editor-in-chief of Knopf. “It was a pure pleasure to see the thoroughness and care he brought to every aspect of the book during its review,” said Pavlin. “The novel is fierce, but Atticus himself is exceptionally gentle, intensely attuned to all aspects of the unruly emotional lives of his characters. Its ability to combat all that pain on the page is simply mind-blowing. “

The final sticking point was a serial killer crime thriller layered over the book – and at the heart of it, a portrayal of the father, Leonard, who created emotional distance by defaming him. Pavlin advised him to remove it.

“His words were, ‘You turned him from someone who’s not just monstrous to someone who is a monster. And if you’ve got the stamina, you might want to rethink that. And I said, ‘OK, challenge accepted’, ”he recalls.

He took one last push, but not for himself.

“It’s great to get a therapeutic effect from writing, but there really is something more that matters,” Lish said. “That is, can you create a beauty object that others will get something from?” This is another question to which the only answer was the book itself.

Carroll is the author of the novel “Reel”, the collection of stories “Transitory” and the non-fiction book “Political Sign”.

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