SAM LIPSYTE paid for my Earl Grey.
This isn’t okay. This isn’t how my first big interview was supposed to begin — my eyes catching a shiny CASH ONLY sign hanging like a guillotine blade in a subterranean café at Columbia University, where Lipsyte is on hiatus this semester to promote his hilarious new story collection, The Fun Parts. I’d moved to New York just two days prior, had and have been zipping around the city with the giddy idiocy of Buster Bluth on juice. To say I was still getting my bearings would be like saying a puppy is still getting the hang of this not-pooping-everywhere thing. I’d spent the last of my cash on subway fare; now I awaited an eye roll, a huff, for one of my favorite authors to walk out on the interview, repelled by my sweaty-palmed, amateur-hour aura.
But Lipsyte didn’t care. The author of three funny-bleak novels (The Subject Steve, Home Land, The Ask) and now two short story collections (the first: his 2000 debut Venus Drive), the man whose work always stirs in critics words like “cynical” and “satirical” and “dark” — labels Lipsyte doesn’t love but has tired of fighting — is gracious and sweet, seemingly nothing like his characters despite his insistence that they are all ultimately him. His responses during our hour-long talk were measured and thoughtful and often punctuated with laughter. Before we parted ways, Lipsyte joked that it was kind of cool that I’d made him pay, that that should be my gimmick as an interviewer, to put a price tag on my services and thereby increase demand for them.
This is how Lipsyte works: he stumbles onto things.
Evan Allgood: What was the hardest story to write in the new collection?
Sam Lipsyte: Well, when they’re too hard to write for too long, I toss ’em. Because I begin to think there’s a reason this isn’t working. But there are stories sometimes that take a while for the click. The longest in real time, I guess — it’s not as though I worked on this in the interim, but — I tried to write a version of “The Dungeon Master” when I was in my early 20s. That situation was in my mind and I wanted to explore it, but boy I just couldn’t get it. Couldn’t get anything going with it, couldn’t get any traction. The story stayed with me; I just wasn’t ready to write it. And almost 20 years later, I was sitting there and I wrote a sentence and another sentence and suddenly it occurs to me that this is that story. Now it’s coming to me. A couple of the stories … took a little bit of beating the head on the table before I figured them out. Figured out the approach. But that’s a pretty typical way I write. I’ll write a lot of bad shit first, till I get up to speed.
EA: Did you play Dungeons & Dragons as a kid? Did you know someone like the Dungeon Master?
SL: I played toward the end of middle school and the beginning of high school. It was just a group of kids. I’m not sure we really knew what we were doing, but the Dungeon Master seemed to have control. I can’t say that that story is completely divorced from reality. I did play in a game where things could get tense. I think a lot of it was just that our bodies were changing and our hormones were raging. I think we were kind of sad, angry, confused, and channeling it all into this game.
EA: Maybe I’m just trying to justify that I used to play, but do you feel like building characters and campaigns in role-playing games at all helped you develop as a storyteller?
SL: Yeah, maybe the idea of creating a narrative on the go, sort of ad-libbing, why not? Writers have told me that they used to invent entire baseball games and do all the commentary. That’s how it happened for them. I think there are all different things that we do, just kind of maniacal, isolated things that we do. I think it’s all coming from a similar urge.
EA: Is your process improvisational, or do you know exactly what’s going to happen in a story before you write it?
SL: No, I have no idea. The pleasure for me, as Donald Barthelme wrote in an essay called “Not Knowing,” is not knowing what’s going to happen. I very rarely have more than just a few words, a few sentences, or an image, or an impulse, and a feeling of urgency to get something down. And then it either keeps going or it doesn’t. If it keeps going, then it starts to teach me what it is. That’s how I learn about what it is. Once I’ve been doing that for a while, then plans can come into the process, and you can really start to see what it is, what it isn’t, how it can be, what shape it might take, those things, and then you can make adjustments and make decisions, but that doesn’t happen until later in the game. In the beginning it’s just moving from sentence to sentence.
EA: So you don’t even necessarily have a character in mind?
SL: No, I keep writing until a character emerges from the sentences.
EA: You have a lot of adolescent characters in your stories. Why does that stage of life appeal to you, and would you ever consider writing a novel with a teen or child narrator?
SL: If it came to me that way, yeah. I don’t have any preconceived thoughts about what I would or wouldn’t do. It hasn’t come to me in a long form yet. I’ve written more adolescents than children. I think that for some reason my memories of that time are just richer, more vivid than perhaps earlier memories. I remember those years very distinctly, so maybe that’s why I return to those themes.
There’s a wonderful writer named Michael Hickins who wrote a story in which the character goes through all these adventures, including, I think, falling in love with a girl who dies, and he’s talking about the sadness of that. But then at the end of the story he says something along the lines of, “But you know that feeling of Sunday night and you haven’t done your homework? It never feels as bad as that again.” I think there’s some truth to that. Even when I see my children having these long sobbing fits over the fact that they didn’t get dessert that night — in a way that’s as sad as you’ll ever be. That’s the worst it’s going to feel. You’ll be sad for far more dramatic and justified reasons later on, but it’s hard to imagine more turmoil.
EA: Do you draw upon your own kids when you write? Do you jot down funny things your children say and think, I gotta use that?
SL: In my last novel The Ask there were certainly some runs of dialogue that had a relation, at least rhythmically, to conversations I’ve had. I’m not necessarily writing down funny things they say, but I am interested in the cadence and rhythm of those, and the way certain absurdities are accepted as givens when you’re talking to a child. They can cut through a lot of layers of evasion that we’ve put around certain topics.
EA: Tovah Gold appears in two stories — as the protagonist of “The Climber Room” and on the periphery of “Deniers” — and in “The Worm in Philly,” a scene occurs that echoes one from “Probe to the Negative” in Venus Drive. In that collection you had a recurring character named Gary, and of course Venus Drive played a large role in several stories as well. Talk a little about creating a universe in which characters and places intersect.
SL: I’ve always been interested in not making a big deal about the links, but having them there. So characters overlap from novel to novel, or story to story. And also just references to places and towns and so forth. They say you’re creating the rules as you write your book or story … and teaching them to the reader. You are also teaching them the shorthand, so you don’t need to delve into everything all over again. You get to create kind of a secret language between the story and the reader.
EA: Do you think your writing style is going to continue to get more experimental and playful?
SL: It’s hard to say. This friend of mine told me a story about a sculptor he knew who said that he’d go into his sculpture studio everyday and every once in a while he’d suddenly be making something that he made five years ago, and then every once in a while he’d be making something that he’d be making in five years. So, you may come across something and you do a small version of it and you say, “well this is something I’m going to want to do in a larger way later on. But I’m not ready for it yet.” Or, “this is kind of like what I was doing five years ago, but I think it’s a slightly different angle on it.” I just don’t know. I’d like to think that I’m going to keep trying things.
EA: “The Republic of Empathy” ends with a drone strike. How conscious are you of politics when you write? Do you consider yourself a political author?
SL: If one has deep political feelings about something, it’ll emerge in the work. If I sit down and say I’m going to write a political story, I’ll just stare at a blank page for a long time. But if by following my sentences and the weird logic of the narrative I find myself [making] connections to things going on in the world, I’m not going to shy from it either.
I grew up reading a lot of war fiction, especially Vietnam War fiction, and I also remember sci-fi work that dealt with computers that had souls, some kind of sentience, whether it’s HAL from 2001 or Joseph McElroy’s Plus. I had a kind of joke in my head for the last four or five years of, yeah, I’m gonna write a novel in the voice of a drone. Maybe like a bitter drone back from the war. Of course I didn’t think I’d really do it. But I was writing [“The Republic of Empathy”] and that idea reared its head again and I said here’s a way to work with it in a contained manner, and it’s part of this larger thing and might actually have real salience as an element of this story, and wouldn’t it be weird. That’s what drives me. Is it weird and compelling? Is it something that’s suited to my strengths? That’s essentially where it was born.
EA: It seems like there are a lot of broken homes and marriages in your work. Is that based on personal experience, or just a result of characters needing problems for a compelling story?
SL: It’s strange — growing up, my parents really did a good job hiding their problems from us. When they split up I was in college and it was pretty acrimonious; it made me rethink everything I’d seen as a kid. So I think maybe I come back to that a lot because I’m still working with that, still examining that. But also it’s sort of the opposite of rolling for a D&D character. When you’re rolling for a character you want him to have as much strength and intelligence and wisdom and so forth as possible, but when you create a character for a story, you want low rolls.
EA: Joshua Mohr, in an interview, said that when he writes a character he starts from their shame: What is this person ashamed of? What’s wrong with them, what’s going wrong with them?
SL: Yeah, I want to give the character as many disadvantages as possible to see how they react. I always liked this: somebody talked about starting with your character already backed into a corner. We don’t need to, during the course of the story, have his parents divorce and it be painful. That’s already happened.
EA: You said at one point that your father, a sportswriter and young adult author, sort of demystified writing for you. You saw him working and you thought, oh, that’s what it is. You sit at your typewriter or your computer and you just hammer away for hours.
SL: Yeah, I think that was a big thing, to see that.
EA: What would your advice be to young writers?
SL: Well, my first advice would be to read everything you can get your hands on. And then, don’t try to strategize a writing career — just write, and don’t be afraid of sucking for a while. I had a teacher who used to say it’s mostly desire. Considering what the ultimate rewards are even for the most successful writers, if you think it’s some kind of big flashy career, you’re insane. So you have to love being in the chair. That’s the part you have to really love.
EA: I have a former teacher who writes novels, Inman Majors, whose theory is that all writers are failed actors. You said in an interview that you go into a schizophrenic mode when you’re writing dialogue. Are you saying the lines out loud as you write them? And do you think it’s true that all writers are failed actors?
SL: I’ll say that often my lips are moving; I won’t say I’m reading out loud. I may often look like a guy who needs to move his lips to read. Yeah, I think there’s a lot to that. I’ve always been really interested in the performative aspect — this idea that you’re doing an improvisation. Which in the end is not an improvisation because you get to revise and revise and revise and revise. But in the beginning there’s this feeling that you’re inhabiting a character and doing an improvisation. A monologue. I try to tell a story that way. I don’t know if that makes you a failed actor, but it makes you somebody who’s doing something similar to improvisational theater at the very beginning. The actor has body, gesture, movement. The writer is limited to language, but it’s a similar process. And in my personal case, I did try to do some acting when I was younger. In college I was in some plays. I certainly had an interest in it. I felt that my failure as an actor — I overthought things. But I think some of that experience fed into the way that I conceive of composition.
EA: I watched a conversation you had with Jess Walter on YouTube, and you said that people always label you as a satirical author but that you consider yourself more of a realist. Is that still true?
SL: Yes, I think I was referring to somebody’s great line about how all writers consider themselves realists. They’re trying to describe the world as they see it. When it doesn’t match up with the official culture’s version of reality, then it’s satire or fantasy or something else. Realism is just one technique — realism has got nothing to do with reality; it’s a literary device and it’s a fine one. I’ve probably been bouncing around on the spectrum of more realism here, less realism there, with everything. I try out different places on that spectrum. It’s a technique; it’s an approach.
EA: Another thing you guys talked about was whether it ever feels demeaning to be called a comic novelist or a comic writer?
SL: The term seriocomic never bothered me. I find life incredibly solemn and incredibly funny, and I’m sure most people do too. I try to get as much of all of that into the work.
EA: Which authors make you laugh?
SL: A lot of authors make me laugh. George Saunders is certainly one of them. Going back to writers that meant everything to me — Stanley Elkin was one, Barry Hannah was another. I’ve loved the work of DeLillo but I wouldn’t say he always made me laugh. But for the most part the people that formed me or informed me as writers had some streak of humor in them, some wildness, some funny wildness to them.
There are certain writers who accrue a kind of bleakness that becomes funny. You read Thomas Bernhard, and it seems like there’s always a very dark humor undercurrent running through all his things that makes them seem more solemn. I admire writers that do that.
I think it was Cioran who said every book is a postponed suicide. And getting back to something Barthelme said, this notion that a book where bleak things happen is bleak, I don’t find to be true. I find that a book where bleak things happen might be, just through its existence and through its attempt to find poetry out of these perhaps horrible elements, is a kind of celebration and should be relished. The content doesn’t need to say, as so many things do, “Oh, it’ll be okay.” It may not be okay, but this thing exists. Somebody made something that one can commiserate with, that one can get various sorts of thrills from — that in and of itself is uplifting. The what of the book or the story doesn’t need to declare some sort of redemptive, happy future.
EA: One of the main things I noticed about this collection versus Venus Drive is that it seems more violent, maybe a little — maybe not bleaker — but it seems like a lot of people are dying or getting jumped or throttled. How do you feel when you assault a character, or kill off someone?
SL: I guess this book is a little more violent than some other stuff. That’s maybe a sense of occasionally wanting some consequence to all of the swaggering and brandishing of weapons. I remember when I was writing Home Land, I had this scene where there are these kids doing all this speed upstairs from the narrator, and they’re chattering all night, annoying the narrator. And then one of them ODs, and the ambulance comes, and I remember my wife saying, “Why doesn’t he just die? People actually die from doing this. Nobody else is really dying in the book. At least kill this guy.”
EA: Could you talk a little about the trick of making endings feel both inevitable and unpredictable?
SL: The inevitable part comes from the teasing out the logic to its conclusion. The surprising part is the array of tricks you use to make it seem like it came out of nowhere. Endings sneak up on me. Once I put a certain kind of logic in motion, they tend to be logical endings for the logic of the story. But I can’t see ahead so far that I see what that’s going to be. I need to bump into it. Oh, that’s it. Oh of course it would be that. So that’s the first draft, with me bumping into, stumbling over the natural ending, and maybe even overshooting and realizing, oh it was here, and coming back. That’s why revision has always been so important to me, because the whole thing has been this blind stumble; it can’t be the best it can be. That’s usually how endings work. A sharper, more critical mind might be able to say, “Well, I saw that coming.” But I didn’t.