Atticus Lish grew up in New York City surrounded by literary greatness as the son of famed former Esquire magazine editor Gordon Lish. He was able to see his father interact with some of the best writers America had to offer, including his oversight of Raymond Carver’s acclaimed short stories as he helped that author shape his stories into tersely perfect creations.
But while he had an interest in writing himself, Atticus wound up taking a circuitous route to that career. He dropped out of Harvard and worked an assortment of blue-collar and odd jobs for well over a decade, including stints as a construction worker, a laborer in a Styrofoam factory, a Marine, and even a professional wrestler.
But he returned to finish Harvard in his mid-30s and crafted his 2015 debut novel “Preparations for the Next Life,” which won the 2015 PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction and the 2016 Grand Prix de Litterature Americaine from France. Six years later, he’s back with his second novel, “The War for Gloria,” and has set up residence in Pasadena.
“I was driving west from Kentucky, which was a distance of 2,200 miles, and around Barstow I hit traffic and wound up shunted onto the 210 freeway,” he recalls. “I had been awake for three days straight and drank all the coffee between Kentucky and California at every truck stop, and when I got to the end of the 210 I just had to pull over.
“I had always known that Pasadena was an impressive place because it’s the home of Caltech, but it was just so beautiful. Why would I decide to move here from New York? Well, it just sold itself.”
Lish specializes in bringing hard-knock characters from the rough and forgotten corners of big cities to life, using a concise prose style that owes a great debt to Ernest Hemingway. His debut “Preprations’ followed the story of a female Chinese Muslim immigrant and an American veteran of three tours in Iraq as they fall in love in New York City, and was called “the finest and most unsentimental love story of the decade” by The New York Times.
“The War for Gloria” moves the setting to working-class Boston, following the story of a 15-year-old tough high school dropout named Corey Glotz who learns that his mother has been diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. As she declines, Corey’s estranged and neglectful father returns to the home, setting off a pattern of violence that is dangerous, including Corey’s growing involvement in mixed martial arts fighting – yet Corey will fight for his mother at any cost.
“The story behind this book is actually personal because my mother died of Lou Gehrig’s disease,” he explains. “After ‘Preparations’ had come out, I wanted to get started on a new novel right away and I asked myself, what is the thing that is the closest to the bone for me? And it came to me right away that that was it. It was the story of my mother’s death, and so I launched into that.”
Lish has built a reputation for obsessive preparation and detail in his work, crafting his fictional locations from oft-overlooked city streets he made it a priority to traverse. The major subplot of “The War for Gloria” involving mixed martial arts inspired him to attend numerous matches, and the indelible images he saw of the toll of extreme violence bleed onto the page.
Yet it was his acquaintance with the famed fighter Max Danzig and a dramatic moment that preceded one of Danzig’s fights that had the greatest influence on the novel.
“He once won a particularly brutal match on pay-per-view and then dedicated his fight to his mother, saying it was her birthday,” Lish recalls. “Seeing him beaten up and still giving it all to his mother, whose name was Gail, stuck to the core of me. I even picked the name Gloria for the novel because it started with a G.”
“The War for Gloria” is available at Vroman’s Bookstore and everywhere books are sold. Follow him at @atticuslish on Twitter.