A Conversation with Sam Lipsyte

The Fun Parts seems an ironic title for Sam Lipsyte’s astonishing new book, his return to the short story after three acclaimed novels. In these stories, the recovering-addict daughter of a Holocaust survivor grows involved with a recovering Neo-Nazi; a listless office-drone of a dad is targeted by an anthropomorphic drone of a much more lethal variety; and a junkie tries to get rich quick. Needless to say, these characters do not experience much fun.

But for the reader there’s no irony. When I was Lipsyte’s student, he told us to cut anything we thought we needed before “getting to the good part,” because “it all has to be the good part.” This collection demonstrates the generosity of that commitment: almost every sentence is fun, and many are funny—very funny. Through tight control of each word, Lipsyte simultaneously evokes the institutionalized language that defines and tortures his characters (and us) and creates a language that is itself a kind of quarantined fun zone: “Her friends, the endorphins. She wanted to leap off a boat and swim with them.”

At Lipsyte’s office at Columbia University, we talked about how institutionalized language shapes the way we see everything from the Holocaust to drone strikes—a topic touched on in this collection’s “The Republic of Empathy,”—to what Lipsyte calls “the Z word” and what he possibly shares with Louis C.K. and Marc Maron. We also talked about short stories versus novels, the future of writing, and why he feels foxy.

—David Burr Gerrard

INTERVIEWER

This was a return to the short story for you after a decade or so of novels. Do you notice differences between this collection and your first collection, Venus Drive?

SAM LIPSYTE

Venus Drive was very much about hammering at a certain set of emotions, situations, intensities. By the time I was writing these newer stories, I was still interested in those things, but also in other things. There are some voices in these stories akin to my novels, there are some akin to the Venus Drive voice, and there are some voices that are just new.

 INTERVIEWER

You’re one of the few writers equally accomplished at novels and short stories. What’s it like shifting gears?

SAM LIPSYTE

For me it’s always been a question of opening up or closing down once I see the shape of something. I really just start writing. Sometimes I think it’s a story and it becomes something longer. Sometimes I think it’s longer and I realize it was a short story all along. Once I’m in the mode, and I know I’m writing short stories, I recognize the shape more quickly. Or I say, this is something longer and I’m not doing that right now. It’s taken a long time to figure out how I write in general, and how I want to experiment with new modes, and what forms are right for various ideas I have or elements I set into motion. I don’t prefer one to the other, but I think that writing this book has taught me that I always want to move back and forth.

INTERVIEWER

How about being funny in short stories versus novels? There does seem to be a difference in the kinds of humor you employ in the two forms.

SAM LIPSYTE

I haven’t quite gotten to the bottom of it yet. I think the humor is different because there’s just not enough time to do a certain form of riffing. You can do that in a novel, where you have your plot or story strung there tightly, one hopes, and then you can hang these other things from it. You don’t have that time in a short story, where your job is to place one bomb and detonate it. A novel is more of a campaign.

INTERVIEWER

Sticking with that metaphor, you write about drones in “The Republic of Empathy.” Teju Cole has recently written some great fiction about drones, and he’s gotten attacked for it. What drew you to the subject?

SAM LIPSYTE

I’d been wanting to write a drone voice for three or four years, and a while ago I was thinking—though it wouldn’t have been the greatest idea—about writing an entire novel narrated by a drone. Of course there’s a pilot sitting in a chair in a base, but what’s interesting is that there’s a pilot, but not a pilot. It’s a strange kind of voice—an imitation of a swaggering pilot who can’t really exist because there’s no danger for the person at the controls.

INTERVIEWER

Sort of like a fiction writer.

SAM LIPSYTE

Yes, I saw that parallel. When I was writing that story, “The Republic of Empathy,” I knew I was doing this carousel of voices and situations. I had my next blank section, so I just started going in the voice of that drone sister, and I followed it through. But I want to go back to this attack on Teju Cole. This idea that the fiction writer shouldn’t—

INTERVIEWER

Basically that a fiction writer shouldn’t engage with contemporary politics.

SAM LIPSYTE

I think that’s a wonderful idea for people in power. As long as you don’t have artists throwing down any kind of challenge or complicating the story, which I think is kind of the job of the artist, then we’re just going to have what certain powerful people think we should have and do what certain powerful people think we should do. So I think that’s preposterous. That’s self-Stalinism.

INTERVIEWER

I think there was a general sense that part of the problem with Bush was his lack of interest in language. But now we have a president who’s an accomplished writer himself. What do you think the role of the writer is now that we have a literary president who’s still distorting language in all sorts of ways?

SAM LIPSYTE

To listen. Very carefully. I think a lot of my work has had that element of listening to the given speech, the official speech, and get at how it’s distorting, and make our own distortions.

INTERVIEWER

Let’s talk about “The Wisdom of the Doulas,” which starts with a Saturday Night Live-style premise of a crass male doula and then becomes a very deep and moving story.

SAM LIPSYTE

I became steeped in a lot of that material because my wife [Ceridwen Morris] is a childbirth educator and has written books, and I was imagining, just to get going, who would be the worst person to be hired for such a position. But then as I wrote it I realized that it wasn’t just about a grubby, inappropriate guy helping with a birth. It was about mothering, loneliness, and a lot of other things. The idea is that usually you start small, and if those ideas are in you, they’re going to bubble up.  But you don’t have to have them right away.

INTERVIEWER

What does drug abuse give you as a writer?

SAM LIPSYTE

What attracts me to drugs in fiction is not the altered consciousness—because I’m usually writing people who are so messed up they’re using drugs to get straight—but more because of the way it gives people purpose. When you’re in the throes of addiction, you’re pretty single-minded. You need to attain X. X, not ecstasy. It’s why having five characters lost in the Arctic trying to get home creates wonderful, immediate suspense. But I’ve never been to the Arctic.

INTERVIEWER

The big drug story in the book, “The Worm in Philly,” like many of the others in this collection, is very well-made, with reversals and so forth. A lot of writers say that as they age they become more interested in story and less interested in sentences, but that’s clearly not the case for you.

SAM LIPSYTE

I remain interested in sentences, or in the grip of sentences. I am interested, for some stories, in creating traditional structure, but other times, not so much. I’m not one of those storytelling freaks.

INTERVIEWER

 So why are you sometimes interested in story?

SAM LIPSYTE

When I think there are the materials for it, and the story was conceived in a more traditional manner, where there are these reversals and false leads that take us into a tight narrative, I delight in that. But if the story’s not going in that direction, but has a looser, or stranger, or slinkier feel that resists that well-made short story model, then I’m interested in what kind of structure can emerge there. Sometimes some more formal innovation is interesting, sometimes just letting a voice create tension simply by the ways it doubles back on itself might be more interesting. I take everything piece by piece.

INTERVIEWER

Sentence by sentence.

SAM LIPSYTE

I start sentence by sentence. That’s the only way I know how to begin. There are plenty of writers who I suppose have it all in their heads, then they sit down and just execute it. I don’t have that kind of mind. What we pretend are aesthetic decisions or camps that we’re claiming place in end up really being questions of how your particular mind operates. I talked to Diane Williams once at Columbia, I think she’s a tremendous writer of very short fiction, and she said that if she could she’d write big, grand narratives. But she can’t. I don’t know how hard she’s tried. You come to terms with who you are.

INTERVIEWER

How has teaching affected your writing?

SAM LIPSYTE

I think it’s interesting to be swimming in other people’s manuscripts. It’s probably closer to being an editor. I’ve had wonderful experiences reading student manuscripts and learning from them, and learning also in a negative way, even noticing problems that I still have. I’ve said this before, but I think that the most useful part of a writing workshop is seeing your weaknesses in other people’s writing, because it’s very hard to see them in your own work and very easy to see them in others. An example might be a tendency to try to stage-manage too much in description, and to let in a clumsiness because you think the information it contains is so crucial.

INTERVIEWER

You mentioned that teaching is like editing. What’s it like working with editors?

SAM LIPSYTE

The hardest thing for me can be transitions. An editor might say: “I’m not sure we made this turn with you.”

INTERVIEWER

Why are transitions hard for you?

SAM LIPSYTE

It’s that question: Am I moving too quickly? Too slowly? You ask yourself: am I getting it? Would I get it if I were the reader of this story? But that would also depend on what I had for lunch, how much sleep I got the night before. An editor once told me: whether I accept or reject a short story has mostly to do with those things.

INTERVIEWER

Your old friend Marc Maron has gotten prominent in the last few years. Louis C.K. has become incredibly famous. Do you see yourself as part of that dark strain in comedy?

SAM LIPSYTE

I certainly feel connected to what those guys do thematically, at least in my past work. But those guys are stand-up comics; it’s a very different medium. There’s a translation that has to go on. I can’t get my point across with a facial expression or a gesture. They use language quite well, both of them, but that’s all I have, so I have to do a bunch of other things. I have no mastery of the things that they’re masters of. But there’s a similarity, a strain, a feeling in the air. I won’t use the “Z” word.

INTERVIEWER

How would you define the “Z” word, without naming it?

SAM LIPSYTE

Well, those guys are very different from each other, as well, but I think it’s a swirl of self-disgust that’s also a more righteous disgust with certain institutions and certain ways of thinking that have become systematic.

INTERVIEWER

Judaism comes up a lot in these stories, particularly in the story “Deniers.” How does Judaism affect your work?

SAM LIPSYTE

Yahweh comes down while I’m writing. He’s blinding to look at, so I stare down at my computer and I type whatever he says. I’m Jewish, but I wasn’t raised in any practice. I was raised to be somewhere between an agnostic and an atheist, and I remain so. Jewish-American culture was something I received from the outside, because even though I guess I was living in some version of it, I never felt that way when I compared it to the images I saw on television and in books. That was all as alien to me as High Wasp culture. My experience was just middle-class suburban. Mailer said: Some Jews turn their back on Judaism in a way, not to reject it, but because they’re fascinated by the Other, they’re fascinated by the rest of America. I think that I’ve been just slowly spinning. Sometimes I’m fascinated by aspects of my heritage and sometimes I don’t think about it all.

INTERVIEWER

In “Deniers,” the Holocaust is referred to only as “the whatchamacallit.” Just now, you referred to “Zeitgeist” as “the Z word.” Could you talk about the negative aspect of language, keeping words out?

SAM LIPSYTE

I’m always interested in the destabilizing of things that seem so institutionalized. These words become murky to us. Do you capitalize God now in fiction? I don’t know. I still do it, a lot of people don’t. Do you capitalize the Holocaust, meaning the Holocaust in Europe in World War II versus other holocausts? And this was also a case of this character being so bitter that he’s aware of how these words get used to conjure certain kinds of feelings in people. He’s being a dick, he’s playing around by calling it the whatchamacallit, because he feels he has a right to, because he’s a survivor. Maybe he’s afraid that the Holocaust becomes Hallmark if you allow it to just settle in. And I’m often interested, again, in how the official language distorts, which helps to keep us from questioning things.

INTERVIEWER

How do you think of place as you’re writing?

SAM LIPSYTE

James Wood called me “placeless.” It was a review of somebody else’s book, but he grouped me with Jennifer Egan and called us—and I assume these were damning words— “placeless and contemporary.” You know what? I’ll take both of those gladly. But of course place does have a place. There are a couple different places that I gravitate to.

INTERVIEWER

Has anything become easier for you over the course of your career?

SAM LIPSYTE

Recognizing when I’m not doing it, and being able to see I’ve taken a wrong turn much sooner. You become better at that. You become a bit foxy. And I feel foxy.

INTERVIEWER

What’s gotten harder?

SAM LIPSYTE

I have a friend who is—was, is, he doesn’t play much anymore—a very accomplished guitar player, who would even be written about in guitar magazines. He said that the more you learn and the more you’re aware of what you don’t know—and the more you see what’s possible that you can’t yet do—the harder it gets. When you’re in that first spasm of ignorance, you can produce at least one surprising thing.

INTERVIEWER

You have a couple recurring characters now—Tovah, Gary. What do these recurring characters give you?

SAM LIPSYTE

A little sense of a private universe.  It’s like having some friends you can call up and ask to do you favors. Often, I’m just honest with myself: this guy is so much like Gary, why wouldn’t he be Gary?

INTERVIEWER

What are you working on now?

SAM LIPSYTE

I’m trying to get into a novel. I’ve done my usual work of writing lots of bad pages and throwing them out, and I’m hoping that Good Page Island is in sight.

INTERVIEWER

There was an article in the New York Times that got talked about a lot that said the short story is having some kind of “moment.” Do you think that new technology is going to help the short story?

SAM LIPSYTE

I remember these same articles written twenty years ago. “Now that we’re all on the Internet—the ‘World Wide Web’—people are really going to read short stories, because that’s the form that’s perfect.” I don’t think that things went that way. I think that we’re having a real moment for George Saunders. George has been building a critical mass, and he’s an amazing writer. People are taking that success and making these predictions for the short story that never seem to bear out. I don’t think that the short story’s in danger. Short stories are still read by a lot of people, but I don’t know that we’re looking at some kind of massive shift.

INTERVIEWER

 If your kids say they want to be writers, what would you tell them?

SAM LIPSYTE

As long as they don’t expect to make any money, and as long as they don’t expect any money from me. It’s a cliché, but it really does come down to: you’re either going to write or not. You’re going to have other jobs, and you’re going to have find ways to keep yourself afloat. I don’t make enough money from my writing to sit around and write all day, and I probably never will. The people who need to write will write. It’s a problem that takes care of itself.

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  1. Pingback: A Conversation With Sam Lipsyte | David Burr Gerrard

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