Atticus Lish ’89
March 25, 2022

The motivation of memories

Atticus Lish ’89 tapped into his relationship with his late mother to write a heart-wrenching coming-of-age book
by Nancy Hitchcock
Atticus Lish

When Atticus Lish ’89 set out to write The War for Gloria he wanted to “paint the Sistine ceiling. I will confess to having an outsized ambition,” he declares.

It took Lish seven years to write the novel, which was motivated by deep-rooted memories. When he was 15, a lower at Phillips Academy, his mother was diagnosed with ALS. She battled the debilitating neurodegenerative disease for eight years.

“I remembered it all so vividly,” Lish explains. “The raw material from which I was creating The War for Gloria got written very early on. It was like I had all the clay I needed.” He dedicated the novel to his mother, Barbara Lee Works.

At the heart of this coming-of-age story is the mutual devotion of a teenage boy, Corey, and his single mother, Gloria, who develops ALS. As the illness takes hold, Corey’s responsibilities— described in tender, heart-wrenching detail—increase. He strives to manage the challenges of high school, girlfriends, and relationships with shady characters, including his estranged father.

Lish’s decision to become a writer was influenced by his own father—Gordon Lish ’52, P’77, ’89, a well-known literary editor—but he didn’t follow this path until his late thirties.

While a student at PA, Lish developed a passion for Chinese; he would spend a decade as a Chinese translator. “Ronald Spears, a great teacher, taught my first year of Chinese,” says Lish. “He gave me the right approach for learning the language, which was to go to the ‘language lab’, which I did for five hours a night, every night of the week. I was obsessed with getting the tones right.” Lish later went to China for a year with his wife, whom he met at Harvard. Teaching English in China provided him with the material for his first book, the award-winning Preparation for the Next Life.

Lish is now exploring subjects for a third book. “I just want to keep writing novels and make a mark artistically,” he states. “My idols are Homer, Euripides, Shakespeare. Tolstoy—I'd like to compete with him…what I'll actually accomplish is anybody’s guess.”

Photo credit: Ryan Hermens

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