The following interview with Sam Lipsyte took place on the morning of Friday, March 5, 2010, via phone. It has been edited for clarity, length, and interest.
Lipsyte’s fourth novel, The Ask, was just published last week, and already he is receiving a veritable full-court press of book coverage, much deserved. (For my own review of The Ask in The Quarterly Conversation, please go here.) Up to now, Lipsyte has been known as much for his complicated publishing career as he has his for the vigor of his darkly comic satirical fiction. His first novel, The Subject Steve, was published on 9/11 and consequently did not receive the critical or reader attention it deserved. And his second novel, Homeland, was passed over by approximately 30 New York publishers before being brought out in Britain, after which Picador released it as a paperback original. It went on to become a cult hit, the kind of book you press on your friends but hide from your parents.
These anecdotal grindings of fate aside, the real reason to pay attention to Lipsyte is the renewed appearance in each book of Lipsyte’s particular prose, its bumpy, abrasive glee. Here is the beginning of chapter fourteen from The Ask:
Bernie fed, bathed screamlessly (perhaps for fear of Sioux pain), read to, sung to, and tucked in, I poured a glass of Old Overholt, turned on the TV. It was not often I had the run of the remote this early in the evening, but after a few moments I stopped clicking and settled in with a romantic comedy from the early nineties, the rare thing Maura would have maybe lingered on, caught up in some memory of watching this movie with old friends. It was strange to sit here and watch it alone. A few years, or even months ago, I would have scoffed, begged Maura to pop up the dial for some punditry or playoff scores or a breakdown of cavalry tactics in the Crimean War.
This wasn’t just some macho reflex. Stuff me in a tutu and let’s screen experimental videos all day, I always said, because I believed in Art (I harbored a secret capital, like a secret Capitol), but don’t ask me to endure the corporate weeps. When it came to cinema, I only sold out my aesthetic principles for zombie flicks, monster mashes, jelly-tentacled beasts who lived in toilets, slurped out our kidneys the hard way (watching Bernie get born, that angry purple mango plunging out of Maura, only further lubed my oozing worldview, my drippy grid), or else those special-ops terror soaps, the nutter mullahs and Glock minuets.
I’d never conceded to the rom-com pone, the coffee bars and turtlenecks, all that greeting card ontology. We were all garbage eaters, but there were too many varieties heaped. The idea was to limit yourself to one or two, or else you’d become an American.
Barrett Hathcock: The first question I had was about how you used to sing in a band. [After graduating from Brown, Lipsyte sang in the band Dungbeetle, an "arty noise-rock outfit."] Does it relate at all to you being a novelist or have you found any cross-pollination between the two?
Sam Lipsyte: I think—in terms of the energy I’m interested in, the energy that can be generated in language, in text. Maybe that’s a highfalutin way to put it. I like to read things, and I’m inspired to attempt to write things, that have an energy similar to the energy I experienced in music.
BH: I was wondering—and it’s hard to talk about humor without being totally unfunny—but do you try to be funny? Are you like intentionally setting out to be funny? Are you self-conscious about it?
SL: No, it’s just sort of the way it bends for me as I go. It’s just the way it comes out, really. I mean, once it’s starting to go that way, I understand that that’s going to be one of the pillars of the whole thing, that there will be funny passages. This is a machine built to carry funny riffs.
BH: How do you gauge the funniness or edit yourself in terms of timing or voice?
SL: I go through a lot of revision to get the timing, not just of the comic element but of everything. So I pay a lot of close attention to rhythm and cadence and acoustics and where things land, how sentences land, how paragraphs land, how we transition. A lot of comedy can be found in transitions too, I think.
BH: Are there any particular writers you look to as models, or are there any stand up comedians that you’re interested in?
SL: Well, Barry Hannah just died and to me he was the master at landing in the right way, making the familiar strange and funny and terrifying—all of those things that the writers I like strive to do. He was such an amazing example.
BH: How did you first encounter Barry Hannah’s work? Do you remember?
SL: Yes, it was in college. And there was this class I could barely drag my ass to every other morning. It was at 9 a.m. and this very intense man was teaching us some literary theory and drawing these wild Northrop Frye diagrams on the board, and I was very drowsy and could barely understand what was going on, but at some point I gave him a short story I’d been working on because I didn’t really have another person to give it to at that moment and he turned me on to Airships.
BH: That’s interesting. So you started reading Hannah right when you started writing yourself.
SL: Well I had been writing before. In my teens I wrote, and you know, as a high schooler I won lots of high schooler awards for writing and stuff, but it didn’t feel like it was emanating from me, and I think Hannah—you know, in that Flannery O’Connor sense—took off the top of my head, whatever that line is. That’s what it did. The amazement—you could write like this. I didn’t know that. And that sort of opened up everything.
BH: It’s been interesting; since he passed away, there have been a lot of tributes online.
SL: I think he’s influenced generation of writers. I don’t know how wide his readership was but everyone who cared about writing that I know worshiped him. . . .
It’s kind of always been strange for me because a lot of writers that I know who were really deeply influenced by him were also southern. And as a kind of northern, New Jersey, Jewish kid, it was a strange thing to latch on to, and I’m not sure I always got everything people from the south might get. But that made it all the more magical in some ways. And you know, things are shoved at you. “Oh, you’re a northeastern Jewish kid? Here. Read some Philip Roth. You’ll like Saul Bellow.” And I like those guys fine, but I felt this weird connection to this writer who had culturally nothing to do with me, which is also what’s kind of so wonderful about literature.
BH: Do you read the literature blogs?
SL: I read some. I’m not sure which ones I’m supposed to read, and I’m not savvy enough to know whatever hierarchy is out there among the literary blogs, but I like to read them. I like to hear the conversations people are having. I think that also you can find really good criticism and you can find some good fiction by younger writers who are coming up.
BH: Given your experience first writing and then editing for Feed magazine, do you think there’s any kind of fundamental difference between writing for the web versus regular old print?
SL: I guess it depends on what kind of writing you’re talking about. This is really out of my purview, but I suppose there are questions that come into play when it’s journalism. And when there’s an issue of where the reporting is coming from and all that, but that’s somebody else’s conversation. You know, I love books, and I don’t want them to go away, but I also understand that the web right now is the only outlet for a lot of things. Here and there people are trying to start print journals again and do that. I still think that the internet is going to be the way for a lot of this stuff to flower. . . . I don’t know how people read stuff on the screen. I will read shorter fiction on the screen, but I can’t really read a long piece of fiction on the screen, so I’ll print it out or something. So that’s why I think that [for] a literary reading experience, there’s something about a book. And the Kindle doesn’t feel like the thing yet, but we’re pretty early on with this stuff too. I mean, it’s just all eventually going to be this kind of vapor that surrounds you, right?
BH: You won’t have to steal your neighbors wi-fi.
SL: You will be your own wi-fi. Just devices dangling off of your flesh. It will be like a Cronenberg movie or something.
BH: You just described my students. . . .
I read on the New York Times Blog Papercuts that you’re working on a collection of stories now. Any thoughts about going in between the stories and the novels and how you manage that?
SL: I started with stories because I was working this nine-to-five job and I would come home and put on a pot of coffee and work on my stories. I was working on stories and also teaching myself how to write them. And so you can take a lot of wrong turns and throw out stuff and you didn’t lose years of your life. So I think stories are a great way to begin. Then I just felt this urge to write this novel. And then Homeland started as a story and blossomed into a novel. The Ask just came to me as a novel, actually. But I missed the short form and I was very curious to see how I write stories now. Because I’m not the guy who wrote Venus Drive, my first book, so I’m just curious to find out who I am as a short story writer now. And I haven’t gone back and forth. I’ve made the transition from short story to novels and now ten years later I’m back to stories. So it hasn’t been a lot of oscillation. But it is different. It’s a different race. It uses different muscles.
BH: How did you come up with the idea for The Ask?
SL: Well I’d been playing around with a character like Milo—he wasn’t named Milo—since about 2005. I’ve been writing about this character in Astoria, who’s under economic pressure, loses his job. I think the deck building was in there early. Some other elements were in there early. So I was just working on it, and it kept expanding and changing and [it] still kind of meandered a bit. I couldn’t quite get the momentum I wanted in this book, the motion. I still needed something for this guy to do. In Homeland . . . the narrator not maybe doing that much worked, because it had the device of the letters. It had this readymade container that could create pressure. But I didn’t want to use a device like that in this book. So I had to put some more pressure on him. And I realized it had to come from work, but I was still not sure what that would be. It was vaguely involved with the university, but then I heard the word “ask,” used in the manner that it’s used in the book, and things fell into place for me. What Milo needed to be doing and what world he needed to be involved in. That was the evolution.
BH: Did you think that one day you would teach? [Lipsyte currently teaches undergraduate and graduate students at Columbia University's School of the Arts.]
SL: No, not at all. I wrote a lot in college, but I felt at the end of college kind of alienated from my writing. . . . I knew there was this road where you got an MFA, got a first book out, and got a teaching job. It’s not that I didn’t want it, but I didn’t want it then. . . . I said maybe I will if things don’t work out, but I don’t want to do that, and it’s not that I didn’t want to teach, but I didn’t want to do all the things that one needs to do to become a teacher. And there was also I think probably kind of a self-loathing thing as well. I didn’t think I’d be able to hack it. And so by the time I was really writing seriously and even after I published Venus Drive, I realized, Wow, I really should have gotten an MFA because I could get a job.
And then I did get a job teaching. Some friends ran this arts education space out in Queens, and I taught some workshops out there. And then Ben Marcus at Columbia invited me to go speak to his class, and that was the first taste I had of really talking about writing with a group of people besides the workshop I had been doing in Queens. But this was actually not workshopping; this was more of a seminar type situation. And it went well. They invited me to be an adjunct, teach a workshop, and that went well. I did that for a couple of years and I realized that I really, really liked it. And that I fed off of it and that it informed me and my writing, and I got a lot of energy from it. And there was a job opening and I applied, and I got hired full time. It was kind of the thing I didn’t think I’d be doing, but it turned out to be something I really liked.
BH: Did teaching change the writing in any way?
SL: No, it just accelerated my learning about myself as a writer. You see other people doing things, good or bad, it helps you think about things you’re doing. That’s what the workshop model is based on. And it worked for me, too, even though I’m supposedly just the teacher. You recognize tics, you recognize approaches, you recognize successful maneuvers. You see how that applies to your work as well—down to saying, Wow, that’s why that never works when I try to do it.
BH: You once took a workshop with Gordon Lish?
SL: I wouldn’t call it a workshop. It was a class. He was our teacher.
BH: Did he critique your work or did he just talk about craft? [Note: Lipsyte studied in a private Lish class held in somebody's apartment, not as one of Lish's students at Columbia as was incorrectly reported in the profile of Lipsyte in Poets & Writers.]
SL: Well these were the famous classes that he taught and others have written about it. He would kind of perform an amazing monologue for hours that would be a work of art in and of itself, in the way it was constructed in real time and kept pulling threads through and weaving all these elements together, but the content of it would be reflections on writing and art and what it is to be an artist and how one should approach the page. And then at the end of that—and that could go for four or five hours—at the end of that, he would call on students to read from whatever it was they were working on, but normally you wouldn’t get too far, because he would stop you probably within a sentence or two and point out all that was false in what you had perpetrated. And he was invariably right. It was very hard for people who already had a big writer’s ego or had a sense of themselves as being already on their way with their work, because he would dismantle you. But it was a great boon for me because at that time in my life I was about 25, 26. I was a little bit broken down. I was taking care of my dying mother. I was barely scraping by work-wise. I was a substitute teacher and just starting to do a little writing for Feed, and I just had a feeling that I didn’t know anything that was worth knowing, that the writing I’d done before had been lauded because it was imitative of other things that the culture valued but wasn’t really the writing that I wanted to do. So it was the perfect time for me to have that experience, and he was a great teacher.
BH: When he would stop people because what they read was false, what was the premise?
SL: It would depend, it would depend. Maybe there would be a stock phrase, some kind of received idea, some kind of word combination that was just all weak, nothing surprising, nothing daring, no jeopardy on display, no sense that the writer was on a high wire here, and then also it might have been an attempt to be ironic that couldn’t work on the page. I think sometimes people have the sense that what works with an inflected voice will work exactly the same way printed on a page. Of course we know it doesn’t. So it could be any manner of things. What he had was this incredible ear for American. And I was sitting there. I was 25. He edited Airships and Raymond Carver and published all these amazing writers, so I was ready to open up and listen to him.
BH: It sounds both like the greatest experience and also—like you said—possibly the most damaging in terms of your ego.
SL: There were people who burst into tears and ran out and never came back. There were people who never really wrote again. It happens. But so maybe that wasn’t what they were really supposed to be doing, right?
BH: Does anyone do that anymore? That type of Lish treatment?
SL: I don’t know of anybody, and I can’t imagine anybody doing it effectively, because it was so much a singular thing and so much about this one man, who had a combination of performative and oratorical and editorial skills. I just can’t imagine it all coming together in a person like that. Maybe it can. I know many people who studied with him—including myself—who use a lot of use threads of things that he talked about to illuminate things for their students, but they don’t conduct class that way. And I’ve had students say, “You know, why won’t you kick my ass the same way?” But I do in my written comments and in talking with the student about the story, but I don’t really denounce somebody in a crowd because I don’t know that I can do that in a useful way.
But he’s begun teaching again. Anybody who wants it can go find it in New York City. And I sent a lot of my students to study with him. I encouraged a lot and a few went.
BH: When you write, do you still have that same sort of pressure, in terms of making every line count in that same way?
SL: That ended up being a big part of the lesson. Every morpheme counts. You don’t always succeed but you try to pay attention and be responsible for all of it. That’s the job. And you’re always going to fail. It’s never going to be enough, enough attention paid. You read over your work and often sometimes you just see these lost opportunities all over the place, stuff nobody else would know about or think about but stuff you saw. You made some decisions that could have been better if you’d done something just slightly different a few degrees here or there.
BH: Since you studied with Lish and since I noticed on the New York Times blog you mentioned that you’d read the Raymond Carver biography, do you have any thoughts or opinions on the Lish/Carver editing that happened earlier in his career?
SL: Yeah, I mean from the point of view personal drama, it’s a sad story, that Raymond Carver was tormented in these ways, but the fact remains that Gordon Lish made those stories into the work that Raymond Carver became famous for, and he made them better, in my opinion. And [we] just have to accept that. I don’t know what all the big hullabaloo is about really, unless it’s some idea of Raymond Carver that we’re trying to maintain for the good of the culture. . . . Part of it may be manufactured for people who are involved with the new version, the restored [version]. I don’t know. It’s just something to talk about.
BH: You mentioned in the New York Times blog that you have two kids, and I was curious how having children has affected your writing, both in terms of your life and if it changed how you approached writing at all.
SL: Do you have kids?
BH: I do, I do. I have a two year old.
SL: So you know how it affects your schedule. . . . I remember when my wife was pregnant with our first child, and somebody said to me, “Well do you think it’s going to influence your writing?” And I said, “It’d be really sad if it didn’t.” If that kind of experience made no impression on me at all, and didn’t help shape what was to come from my work, I don’t know what I would think. I would be a pretty pathetic human being. So yes, it’s infused. As you can see in The Ask, it’s infused into a lot of ways I create characters and worlds now. I tend to sort of begin at least from elements that are swirling around in my life and that certainly is one, parenthood, and when I kind of got to the character of Bernie, I knew I had something that was going to be fun to work with.
And in terms of time, it’s not having kids. It’s having a job and kids. If I just had a job, or just had kids, and a lot of money, there would still be plenty of time to write, but with the whole package. . . . I do get some amount of writing done during the school year, but as I said in that blog, it’s really about the summers for me. Then I can seize on really huge chunks of time. I don’t really have a complaint about it. It’s just how my schedule works.
Well I guess the idea is you can’t really convey this to people who don’t have children. But think of all the times you’re not at work. All of those hours are yours. You can do whatever you want with them. Now imagine all of those hours taken away. That’s what it is, right?
Barrett Hathcock is a contributing editor to The Quarterly Conversation. His fiction appears, most recently, in Arkansas Review, and an essay of his is forthcoming in Colorado Review. His personal website is available here.
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- The Ask by Sam Lipsyte The AskSam Lipsyte. Farrar, Straus & Giroux. $25.00, 304pp. Sam Lipsyte’s newest novel, The Ask, is another unrelenting tour de force of black bile. Set after 9/11, it follows the hapless meanderings of one Milo Burke, a failed middle-aged painter now working in development at a university in New York...
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