A Provincetown Person: Provincetown Book Festival Honoree Paul Lisicky

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by G.W. Mercure

The Rose Dorothea Award is given each year by the Provincetown Library’s Board of Trustees to an individual with close connections to the Outer Cape and who has made a significant contribution to the community in letters. “Rose Dorothea” is the name of the schooner whose model stands in the Provincetown Public Library. The vessel dramatically won an unlikely victory in a race in 1907. The schooner was likely named for captain Marion Perry’s wife, who encouraged him to participate in the race. Past winners of the Rose Dorothea Award have included Sebastian Junger (2018), Marge Piercy (2019), and Mark Doty (2021), among others. The 2022 award, formally presented at an event during the Provincetown Book Festival, will be given to the memoirist and novelist Paul Lisicky.

The selection of Lisicky for the Rose Dorothea Award creates a fitting landmark along Lisicky’s Provincetown journey: as he became a “Provincetown person” during the emergence of a devastating epidemic, he is being honored in the long, uncertain wake of another devastating epidemic. Lisicky has written moving memoirs and novels in which the places and the times are never static and are often as impactful as distinct, motivated characters. An earlier memoir told twin tales of love during a torrent of international traumas (The Narrow Door), while his most recent work, 2020’s Later: My Life at the Edge of the World, recalls Provincetown during the early days of the AIDS epidemic.  He has no plans to make the COVID pandemic a significant part of any upcoming projects, however.

“The pandemic makes its way into a book I’m working on now, but only in a way that’s fairly peripheral,” he says. “It’s not like a book that talks directly about isolation and the will to connect, but that’s certainly in the atmosphere. Sometimes an event can permeate us so deeply that it’s impossible to speak to. That’s part of the pressure of trying to represent something that’s so global and traumatic.”

Lisicky would rather reflect on the award and on Provincetown. “I’m tremendously excited about the Rose Dorothea Award,” he says. “I did not expect any attention of that sort. When I look at the past recipients, I’m a little in awe and I feel very, very honored.”

He continues, singling out Nan Cinnater, director of the Provincetown Book Festival, and Amy Raff, director of the library: “They’re doing such an amazing job in terms of attracting visible and important writers and creating an ongoing community that people come back to year after year. I’m happy to be a part of it again. I loved giving my reading there last year at a time when there weren’t that many readings—in person readings—scheduled because of the pandemic,” he says. “I’m getting slightly nervous just thinking about the event, but I’m looking forward to getting down to the Book Festival.”

Although Lisicky hasn’t lived year-round in Provincetown for more than a decade, Provincetown has always lived year-round in him. He visited for the first time in 1983. “I knew I loved it right away and I knew I wanted to come back somehow. And I think I came back for a visit by myself about five years later and I knew that it was a place that I had to make a part of my life.”

A Fine Arts Works Center fellowship in 1991 sealed the deal. “It was so deeply life-changing,” he says. “I don’t think I was ever as happy as when I got the phone call from the writing coordinator, Catherine Bush. I probably screamed; it seemed like the most unlikely gift and it changed my life. I decided to stay in town, and I did.”

His time as a year-round Provincetown resident paused in 2007, but he has continued to be a “Provincetown person,” spending up to six weeks here each year. “There are Provincetown people that might live elsewhere but have an emotional connection to the place,” he says. “They might live out of town, they might be here for a while, or they’re ongoing visitors. I feel like I run into Provincetown people all the time.”

What is so inspiring about Provincetown, for Lisicky and so many others? “I think it’s a collision between the natural world and the community that’s done so much to inform my work,” he says. Lisicky cites the calls of coyotes, the sound of the ocean moving, the uncharted territory, as elements of life in Provincetown that excite him. “There’s no way you can walk down Commercial Street and truly be in Provincetown,” he says, “if you’re not thinking about Herring Cove, about what’s in the water beyond what you can see, or what’s in the dunes, what’s in the woods outside of town.”

The Provincetown Book Festival takes place September 16 – 18 at the Provincetown Public Library, 356 Commercial St. Paul Lisicky will be presented with the Rose Dorothea Award at a reading and reception on Friday, September 16 at 6 p.m. For more information and to reserve (free) tickets for this event and other programs in the Festival, visit provincetownbookfestival.org.