The Autotelic Atticus Lish

Atticus Lish is seeking a state of flow—what the “positive psychologist” Mihlay Csikszentmihalyi calls the opposite of psychic entropy: negentropy. It can only be achieved while in pursuit of a task for the sake of the task. The good doctor also claims it is the secret to happiness.

Atticus Lish, surely right now, is sitting in his chair in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, humming in his routine: two thousand words per day on the next book. He has a system: spit it out, systematically revise, sweep it up.

“I’m back in the groove,” he tells me back in November. “My whole life falls into place if I’m doing that. I told my wife, ‘Baby, I want to write twenty books,’ and it’s not a boast; it’s because I believe in the Zen process. You know, if you rake a garden for fifty years, insight comes. My struggle right now is to make it no struggle. If I can do that, I can be a machine. I want to keep pumping out books because rarely can you just knock out a homerun. A perfect book only happens if you roll the dice a bunch of times. Take McCarthy for example. I think The Road is a perfect book.”

These are the words of a man who, if one asks the critics about his debut novel, Preparation for the Next Life (see The New York Times, The New York Review of Books, The Nation, The Wall Street Journal, Vanity Fair…), has knocked it out of the park on his first go. But Lish refuses to read the reviews; he does not want the distraction. That first go took five years. “I feel pressure to pull the trigger on another one to keep me down to earth,” he says.


A reader of Preparation might first be struck by Lish’s intense and consistent form of attention, his unceasing notation of detail that is particular but not peculiar, relevant but not symbolic—as if he is tracing the clean mathematics of parts in relation to a whole. This “encrusted detail,” wrote Dwight Garner in the New York Times, “flicks the switch on in every sentence.”

For example: “She passed a city building for pain abatement that had benches splintering out front.”

Or: “There was cardboard under the machines down with their bare feet to catch the oil from the Juki sewers furred in dust, strips of lucky red fabric tied to the spindle bobbins.”

Attention is key; Atticus pays attention to his attention, follows it, lets it accumulate. The effect is not an imagined reality, but the formation of a world to scale. His father, the infamous editor, writer, and teacher Gordon Lish, used to ask his students: “What is it that you notice, and notice first?” “To master effect,” he would say, “one must cultivate a form of attention guided by rigor.” Pay attention, do not flinch, keep your ass in the chair.

Atticus has steered clear of his father for much of his adult life—rejected the privilege he grew up with, came to terms with it, sought out a modest mode of standing apart. He certainly did not tell his father he was writing a book. “I made sure I wrote the entire thing first,” he says. “And then (only after the book was in galleys) I had a talk with him. I said ‘Dad, I’m not going to have you involved in anything. I respect you, but this is going to be something I’m doing on my own.”

Even so, perhaps by instinct or osmosis, Atticus has practiced what his father preached.


Atticus once noticed a vein in a woman’s neck. We are in the basement food court of Flushing Mall in Queens, the inspiration for the food stand where the protagonist of Preparation, Zou Lei, power-washes the remains of fried stringy beef, chicken, oyster, and congee, for under minimum wage. It is a step up from her previous job—hauling boxes of live frogs into a one-dollar noodle booth down the road.

Atticus walks up to a chest-high aluminum counter, his gait muscle-quick, autotelic. Behind the counter, women with their hair tied back hustle in the steam. He leans in, starts speaking Mandarin, his New York accent transposed into a staccato singsong. One woman turns her head, smiles, politely brushes him off.

“I used to come here and try to talk to these employees when I was writing the book,” Lish tells me, “and they’d drive me off every single time. I got the impression they thought I was with immigration. But there was one lady I talked to a bit. She was small but had this strong presence and a neck vein. I was like, I like that neck vein. She was this tough, badass old farm lady.”

In the novel, Zou Lei, too, has a muscular neck. And country hands purpled by work. Zou Lei is not your typical New Yorker, or perhaps she is all-too-typical, but no one looks. She is an illegal immigrant. She lives here, has been jailed here, works her ass off here, and dreams of obtaining a proper ID. Zou Lei is half Uighur (pronounced WEE-gher)—a nomadic Muslim minority descended from the Turks—and half Han, China’s version of white folk. In her native country, she was treated like an illegal immigrant as well.

“I’ve learned that China, in an effort to deal with their minority populations in the northwest, would offer Uighur women a financial incentive to leave their Uighur husbands and marry a Han,” explains Lish. “They also shut these people out of the economy, and the Chinese engage in pogroms against the Uighur. There is a deliberate policy, really a genocidal policy to dilute their bloodline and to get rid of them. It’s been going on for forever.”

Here we must backtrack a bit. Lish learned Mandarin while in boarding school as a teen in Andover, Massachusetts, and spent a semester as an exchange student in Beijing. Now, at forty-three, he works as a translator of Mandarin to English, “translating the fine print on the back of tickets and other stuff no one reads.” He also lived in Hubei in central China for a year with his wife in 2005. While there, Lish took a trip to Xinjiang Province (the area also called East Turkistan by Uighur separatists) in the country’s far northwest. This dramatic desert-meets-mountain plateau is the literal and figurative birthplace of Zou Lei.

“Xinjiang really knocked my eyes out,” Lish says. “That was a spiritual experience. Seeing the enormous size of the landscape. Seeing the clarity of the sky. And when we met Uighur people, there was just something about the way they acted, where I felt at home. There was a kind of humor. I could barely say anything in the Uighur’s language, but I learned how to say Yahshimusiz, which is how they say hello. I was running around Yahshimusiz-ing people and they were like, ‘Yeah!’ It was fellow-human time. Terrific. I love being a fellow human.”

Lish noticed something else in Xinjiang as well. “I visited Yili—called Gulja by the Uighurs—with my wife. We didn’t know about its background at the time, but I will say I felt a distinct difference when I was there than in Kashgar, which is a southern Xinjiang city, a much more Muslim place, with a much stronger Uighur identity. If you read Amnesty International, there was a major massacre in Yili in 1997 where the armed people’s police of the Chinese government open-fired on Uighur protesters. All night long they were scooping up people, taking them to a detention center. At the same time, trucks were going out the back of this detention center with dead bodies. When we went to Yili, I didn’t know what I was sensing, but it was a gloom. I recognize now, it was a climate of fear.”


A climate of fear also characterizes New York post 9/11. Zou Lei is jailed in an immigration sweep and detained without charges, without information, without even a pencil to hash-mark the days—all under the blanket legislation of the Patriot Act. Alone and without a sense of how long she has been or will be detained, “her mind turned inside-out like an envelope.” But Zou Lei has a secret weapon: the fables, myths, and landscapes of her youth, wherein she finds strength and identity. “While researching for this book, I read central-Asian folktales,” says Lish. “Islam was layered on top of whatever was already out there. It may have been shamanism. It may have been folk religion. Zou Lei has an older way.”

It is precisely this “older way,” these enduring cultural narratives, that the man Zou Lei meets after her release from jail lacks. Brad Skinner is a US Marine who has hitched a ride to NYC after returning from a third tour in Iraq (he was stop-lossed). His time in the war-zone, much like Zou Lei’s in jail, was untrackable, unthinkable, warped, disjointed, without logic. But unlike Zou Lei, Skinner does not have a safe haven for his mind.

“There’s a book about the Indonesian Genocide called In the Time of Madness, written by one of my favorite writers, Richard Lloyd Perry,” Lish tells me. “In that book Perry explains how Indonesians had a head-hunting tribal society that would go on ritualized wars with other tribes, so in times of war they would call down the god of war from the mountain. When the war was over they would send the god of war away. That’s something US society doesn’t have. You will be at war one day, and then get demobilized and suddenly you’re not allowed to kill people anymore. It is psychologically impossible for people to metabolize.”

When the Iraq war broke out, Lish took to the streets of Cambridge, Massachusetts, to collect signatures in protest. “You would think that Cambridge would be a hotbed of liberalism, but actually what I found was that most white males just sort of laughed at me, and black dudes running deliveries generally said, ‘Yeah I’m against the war.’ There was a class thing. I worked at a moving company at the time. The guys I worked with signed my little letter and I sent it off to a congressman. What an exercise in futility.”

Atticus tells me this over Guinesses in a long, dark, sports bar in Flushing—Roosevelt Sports Bar—the basis for a spot where Skinner would self-medicate on booze. TVs flicker above. An Irish-looking man near us eats takeout with chopsticks.

“I never really thought of who my audience would be for this book, but I definitely wanted to speak out for people who might not be heard,” Atticus says. “I’ll give you a perfect example. I have an actual show-and-tell here.” He pulls out a copy of William Finnegan’s Cold New World, slaps it on the bar. “The three subjects in this book are as follows: black, black, and Hispanic. It’s about their plight, but look at what they’re using to sell the book.” He taps the cover. “Blond, grunge, white people. To me, that sums it up. I want the cover of my book to have people who are black, brown, Asian. Why do we have to assume that because I’m white I’m only going to read a book about a white guy?”


About a decade after his father channeled J.D. Salinger in the text “For Jeromé—with Love and Kisses,” Atticus channeled Holden Caulfield and rebelled against the phonies and pretention in his life. He dropped out of Harvard, where he was studying mathematics, and worked at a fast-food joint. “I didn’t gel with the other people who went to Harvard,” he says. “I thought they were unlikable. I enjoyed working at a fast-food restaurant quite a bit more. Apparently my own space was in an immigrant apartment on Tyler Street,” in Boston’s Chinatown.

Lish and I are in the Chinatown of Queens, standing in an alley off Crommelin Avenue, Flushing. A few real birds chirp overhead; LaGuardia airplanes buzz not far off. He points to a modest brick apartment building one would never guess was partitioned into illegal living-cubicles inside. This is where he imagined Zou Lei lived. “I went into one of these apartments here and saw how they had it divided up,” he says. “I lived in a place like it in 1990, in Boston. I didn’t have a fixed address, and I got that job at a Chinese restaurant. The only people who would give me an apartment, no questions asked, were these Chinese landlords, so I ended up living in an apartment that was split between eight different people. I never forgot it.”

A slew of clotheslines protrudes from the top-floor window of the building we are contemplating. Graffiti on a garage door across the alley declares “MURDER” in capital black scrawl, and an American flag serves as a curtain for an adjacent bedroom. “That flag used to be a Marine flag,” says Lish. “It used to say KILL ’EM ALL AND LET GOD SORT ’EM OUT.”

Lish’s attention is drawn to graffiti, T-shirts, slogans, product names, bumper stickers, and likewise they are prominent in the descriptive tissue of his book. “I don’t necessarily want to notice these things, but that’s what my brain does. I can’t stop it,” he says. His brain is also drawn to criminology and the psychology of the psychopath. He is a huge fan of John Douglas’s Mindhunter and Stanton Samenow’s Inside the Criminal Mind. “I am interested in—this is going to sound funny—I am interested in [he switches to a creaky high-pitched voice] evil. I wanted to write about a true criminal. His demographics might have been based on somebody I could’ve known, possibly could’ve interacted with back in the day, a scumbag, a real evil son-of-a-gun.”

This son-of-a-gun is Jimmy, a violent force that accelerates and dements the narrative of Preparation. If Zou Lei and Skinner already had enough troubles, Jimmy delivers catastrophe. “There are people who hand out their bad news,” says Lish. “There really are some rotten people out there. I am pro–death penalty; I’ll just say that. I know it may seem like the same guy who’s against the Iraq war wouldn’t be a strong law-and-order guy, but I do believe there are scumbags out there who deserve to be killed.”

When it comes to “unforgivable” violence in Preparation, Lish’s goal is simple: to make the reader sick.

“Can you talk about Chapter 42?” Gordon Lish booms from the audience at Manhattan’s Center for Fiction, where Atticus is celebrating the novel’s release and holding a public conversation with fellow writer, Daniel Long.

“Is Chapter 42 the assault?” Atticus asks.

His father nods.

“Well, If you watch a surveillance video of a crime,” Atticus says, “more often than not you get sickened by it. But most depictions of crime in the movies don’t actually sicken me. I wanted to see if I could write something that would hit you the same way a surveillance video does.”

“You did it,” Gordon responds.

A woman from the audience then brings up a good point about the way Lish portrays violence: “I also wonder whether you’re deliberately using language that is not sickening. The way you use the word improved: ‘He improved her’ is the most horrifying sentence in the book.”


There is a brighter side to Atticus’s fascination with violence: violence-as-sport, and in turn, a deep appreciation for mastery expressed as improvisation. As you may have read in the New Yorker, Atticus Lish does Jujitsu. He is also an Ultimate Fighting fan. “I’ve been watching the UFC lately, and there’s a guy named Conor McGregor from Dublin,” Lish says. “They call him the fighting leprechaun, and he’s a phenomenon. He’s the most creative guy in the ring. He and another dude named Anthony Pettis—they’re inspired. The way McGregor fights is unlike anyone else, and when he’s interviewed about his game plan he says, ‘Listen I’m just gonna go out there and improvise.’ And he does. He takes an artistic attitude toward a competitive event, which is remarkable. I mean bad things can happen if things don’t go well. Career, money, your face is at stake. Your spinal cord. All of that stuff you care about. Here’s a guy who just goes out and plays. The most inspiring thing is people who improvise, especially when the chips are down. I’m trying to tap into that kind of spirit.”

Sport-as-spirit. Exhaustion-as-redemption. Sport-as-spiritual-defiance or political-rebellion; in Preparation, Atticus improvises variations on these themes.

Take for instance the Falungong sect in tracksuits that Zou Lei observes in a park:

They believed that the act of turning the wheel would bring them health, cure their cancer, and change history. In Queens they were free to change history. In China they went to detention centers, labor camps. Ultimately, through their exercises, they would be able to throw the business-suited men, those bestial criminals, in Beijing right out of power....

Or physical training as eroticism, such as when Skinner spots Zou Lei while lifting weights:

She started getting hot, her navy tracksuit whispering between them. She felt him behind her, his arms brushing her ribcage as if he were about to cup her breasts.… The only thing that mattered was if she could make her legs stand up.… They walked in together like two people in leg irons taking steps at the same time and racked the bar. Then she moaned aaiiii and wanted to collapse.

Or physical training as transcendence/mystical drug:

When they stood, they left behind sweat patterns in the shapes of themselves. She stared down at their spirit-patterns on the ground. The intensity of the exercise made her think strange things.


Back in Flushing, Lish bites into a jidan bing, a savory egg pancake from one of his favorite food counters. “This has nothing to do with the book,” he says. “This is pure pleasure.” The autotelic personality, the flow-cultivator—be he an athlete, artist, or connoisseur—is a person who derives pleasure from an active, sense-driven engagement in the world. His motivation necessarily stems from within; his attention is inexhaustibly focused without—on objects, branches of thought, fellow humans. Central to his success is a “non-self-conscious individualism,” Csikszentmihalyi points out, a shrinking of the ego to make room for the world.

A shrinking of the ego is a concept Gordon Lish likewise touted as central to the creative process. Zimzum is the kabalistic concept of contraction in order to make room for creation. As the success of Preparation expands, perhaps Atticus Lish is shrinking. He is compacting himself to make room for the next work. “It’s difficult,” he says, “because there are so many hormonal spikes. But it’d be nice to come to a different level, for writing to organize my entire life, to achieve calm. I want to say to all writers the same thing I say to myself: be happy, may it work out for you, and may you be the happy writer.”


Catherine Foulkrod is an independent writer and editor. She lives in Queens, New York.