Mar 4 2013

    Bookforum talks to Sam Lipsyte

    Lincoln Michel


    Around the turn of the millennium, Sam Lipsyte was an almost secret writer who inspired obsessive admiration. I had started to write fiction then, and my fellow aspiring writers and I would share Lipsyte rarities—a story in a back issue of Open City or NOON, a well-worn copy of his debut story collection Venus Drive (2000) or The Subject Steve (2001)—like pre-internet punk rockers trading tape dubs of out-of-print 7-inches. He’s not so secret anymore, particularly since his critically acclaimed novel The Ask (2010), but his work continues to generate a rare sense of excitement among the writers and readers I know. This week, he returns to the short story with The Fun Parts, an eclectic collection that features characters ranging from a lonely aspiring poet to a drug-addled sports writer to a deranged Dungeon Master to a self-aware drone bomber. These thirteen stories—culled from the pages of magazines such as the New Yorker, the Paris Review, and McSweeney’s—are narrated in Lipsyte’s darkly comic and unforgettable style. I spoke with Lipsyte over a plate of mediocre empanadas in a Manhattan restaurant that, in a different era, was a famed hangout of the beats.

    Bookforum: I’m sure you’ve heard for years, like I have, that in the age of Facebook-fried brains and 140 character attention spans, the short story is bound to reclaim its status in American letters. That doesn’t quite seem to have happened yet—

    Sam Lipsyte: They’ve been saying that since the ’80s. Maybe earlier. Since TV.

    Bookforum: I don’t know if you feel this way, but I do feel in the past few years there have been a few developments that may spurn that, such as e-book singles and literary websites that really promote stories to a wide audience.

    Lipsyte: That’s probably true. I do think of it as a cyclical phenomenon as well. I remember certain moments when a writer with real gifts as a short story maker comes into the foyer, and then publishing is very excited about short stories for a while. You saw it with Raymond Carver. You saw it with David Leavitt, his first collection. Jhumpa Lahiri. You see these big collections come out and suddenly the short story has a new prominence. But it’s sort of like the way that every few years they start writing articles about a drug epidemic. The kids are now using drugs! People are always using drugs, they just occasionally write a panic story about it.

    Bookforum: It was bath salts last year, right?

    Lipsyte: [Laughs]

    Bookforum: Maybe we will see it again now with George Saunders’s Tenth of December doing as well as it is.

    Lipsyte: I find it really exciting. I’m really happy for George. And yeah, I think that it will put a nice focus on short stories for a while.

    Bookforum: Well, a good time for your new collection to come out.

    Lipsyte: If I can ride his coattails a little bit, that is fine with me.

    Bookforum: There is a line in “The Dungeon Master” where the narrator says, “Everything’s weird if you look long enough.” Could that be a description of your fiction writing process?

    Lipsyte: Yeah, perhaps. I think that line echoes a Robert Creeley line, which is “everything is water if you look long enough.” I think I wrote “everything’s weird if you look long enough” and then made the connection, remembering the poem by Creeley, and left it because I liked the resonance there. I’m not sure about the water thing...

    Bookforum: [Laughs]

    Lipsyte: But the weirdness felt right.

    Bookforum: I thought of it because the last time I interviewed you, you said that you have to put yourself in jeopardy as a writer by letting people “see what your gaze is fixed upon.”

    Lipsyte: I acknowledge that connection. I don’t want to privilege certain lines and say this stands in for what I believe or my vision for fiction. But I do think that when we really study something, and let our gaze fall on it, let our obsession about it build, we see a lot of strange contours, and get to new places in our conception of it. That’s one of the great things that prose fiction can do. That kind of constant examining and reexamining with language. And perhaps it is not that you are revealing the weirdness, but you are also transforming it.

    Bookforum: That was Viktor Shklovsky’s conception of fiction. Fiction allows the reader to see things in the way they don’t normally, it can defamailiarize.

    Lipsyte: That’s the whole idea. There is a well-known phrase: “make the strange familiar, and the familiar strange.” And yes, looking without averting your gaze can produce that. When we fail, it is usually because we look away too soon.

    Bookforum: Your first collection was published thirteen years ago, and in between you’ve published three novels. Did you have to leave a lot of stories out of the new collection, The Fun Parts? If so, what guided you in choosing which to keep?

    Lipsyte: A lot of it had to do with how things held up. It’s that simple. Some things didn’t age that well. Most of the book is pretty new. Most of the book was the result of a decision in the last three years, since The Ask was finished, to turn to shorter stuff. So a lot of the stories were written in the last two, three, four years. A couple were written between Home Land and The Ask. And there a few that are older than that. They skew more recently. There are some recent ones that read like they could have been in Venus Drive, but are quite recent. I’m talking about one story in particular, “The Worm in Philly,” that has the character Gary who appears a lot in Venus Drive. The poet named David Rivard told me of a sculptor that he knew who said something along the lines of, “Every day I go into my studio and I do my work and once in a while I produce something that is just like something I produced five years ago. And sometimes I produce something that’s just like what I’ll be making in five years.” I think that experience happened with this collection. Most of the stuff was just what I was doing at the time I was writing. Some of the stuff harked back to an older mode. Some of the stuff tested out some approaches that I’m still figuring out.

    Bookforum: Since you brought up Gary, I was planning to ask you about him. He appears in several stories in Venus Drive and he was also in Home Land. Now he is in “The Worm in Philly.” Is there a particular effect you are trying to create by having that same character reappear? Or is it simply that he fits the stories?

    Lipsyte: Well, I said this when Home Land came out. There is a certain kind of character that I’m drawn to. I guess I just decided at a certain point instead of calling him Eddie one time, Billy another time, and Bobby a third time, why not just admit you are writing the same guy, and you let him be Gary?

    Bookforum: In The Fun Parts, you also have Tovah Gold who is the protagonist in the first story and reappears as a pretty big character in “Deniers.”

    Lipsyte: A female Gary. [Laughs]

    Bookforum: I’m interested in that, because it is the kind of thing that is very common in “genre fiction,” however that gets defined, but is rarer in so-called “literary fiction.”

    Lipsyte: Well, I don’t know. You see that in Faulkner. I think you see it in some other writers. There is always bleed over—or “bleed”—between my books. There is no book that doesn’t have allusion to things in other books of mine. I don’t do it to be cute. I do it because it helps ground me. I feel in some ways a writer’s work is all one big blob. So I don’t mind these overlaps. I don’t think they take away from anything. It’s also just a way to amuse myself. Plus getting a good name is hard. You don’t want to keep ditching a good name.

    Bookforum: I definitely don’t think it takes away from anything. I think the resonance adds to the texts.

    Lipsyte: Gary can sometimes be kind of goofy, but sometimes can be a source of dread. There is usually an interesting power dynamic between these unnamed narrators, or narrator, and Gary. I don’t know if Gary will ever return. This could be the death of Gary.

    Bookforum: I think you would have to write a death of Gary story.

    Lipsyte: Maybe. A bonus track. I wish there was a way to do one of those bonus tracks in a book. The way you could listen to a CD in the old days and the last song listed would play and if you sat there for a few more minutes, suddenly something would happen. That’s where the death of Gary story would need to appear.

    Bookforum: Some little booklet that you hide in the flap that falls out at the end, maybe? The Fun Parts has a wide variety of narrators and protagonists, and seems perhaps less autobiographical than some of your previous books. Several of the stories have female protagonists, for example.

    Lipsyte: Part of one of the stories is narrated by a drone. It’s not exactly that autobiographical. It’s funny, in a review in Kirkus, one of the things she attacked my book about—I said “she,” I don’t know why.

    Bookforum: The founder of Kirkus was a woman. Virginia Kirkus.

    Lipsyte: Mrs. Kirkus or one of her minions said it’s preposterous to think that a drone would ever attack an American, or attack American soil. I think on the cover of TIME this week—should have been the cover of my book—is a drone hovering over a suburban home.

    Bookforum: That doesn’t seem remotely preposterous. Seems very likely it will happen.

    Lipsyte: Mrs. Kirkus needs to get her house in order.

    Bookforum: It’s always funny to read reviews that pick the most random thing to complain about. I mean, “The Republic of Empathy” is not a realist story.

    Lipsyte: Right! And I’m not claiming that’s fact. But it just seems like the obvious extrapolation that anyone following world events or US foreign policy would come to. It is funny. They will never be able to attack you as viciously as you attack yourself. That’s a comfort.

    Bookforum: I was just reading an article today by Lev Grossman about what life will be like in the near future with drones, where you will have drones taking paparazzi photos, and drones delivering you groceries.

    Lipsyte: And also shoot you occasionally! Let’s not leave that part out.

    Bookforum: They are robots; they’ll do whatever you program to do.

    Lipsyte: Maybe they’ll go on book tour.

    Bookforum: That story, “The Republic of Empathy”—which is fantastic, and one of my favorite stories of yours ever—appeared in The New Yorker science fiction issue. I’ve seen you say before that when you were younger you mostly wrote science fiction.

    Lipsyte: I did. When I was a kid, 12, 13, 14, I would write these science fiction stories. You know, The New Yorker told me they would take that story and then later told me it would be in the science fiction issue. It wasn’t the case where I was sending it as a science fiction story, or that I thought of it as a science fiction story. I didn’t. But I was happy to be in that issue.

    Bookforum: Are you working on any other stories like that, whether you think of them as science fiction or not? Non-realist stories.

    Lipsyte: You know, I always think of that old saying, “all writers are realists.” Think they are realists anyway. No one sits down and says, “I’m going to describe things the way they are not.” It’s just a matter of perspective. It’s more an idea of a continuum rather than these separate genres. I’m working on something now that’s very loose—not loose in the sentences—but loose in the associations. It’s intimate and strange and certainly has the capacity to go to non-traditionally realist places.

    Bookforum: On the subject of those genre boundaries, do you think they have even less utility these days than they used to? They were always artificial, but it seems like more and more you see places like The New Yorker doing a science fiction issue, or Tin House and McSweeney’s publishing genre authors.

    Lipsyte: I’m far more interested in people writing great prose than I am in categorizing what the prose treats. “Realism” is such a strange word. It’s just a device. There’s a specific kind of realism that grew up in the 50s and 60s in America and England and it can be very effective with the best practitioners. I just have a problem with people who say the novel is this or the short story is that or prose fiction has to do these things. All it has to do is seize you. And destroy time.

    Bookforum: I remember George Saunders talking once about how the whole idea of realism is problematic. That there’s nothing inherently realistic, and I’m paraphrasing, about the pattern on the drapes metaphorically reflecting the crumbling marriage of the characters. That’s not how reality works either.

    Lipsyte: That’s true. And there’s something very realistic about a fantasy of a space colony where a disease is running rampant. [Laughs] You know? Saunders is right about that. I think it was Hob Broun that said realism has as a little to do with reality as anything else. That’s probably what George is getting at. I think it is a pretty obvious idea. Some people might say we have this wonderful form and we’ve been trained to read this way and we know how to derive pleasure from this form. That’s a different argument. That’s fine, but it’s a different argument. It’s like I like my pop songs to do A/B. I like verse/chorus/verse/bridge. And we’ve arrived at this perfect formula. Why fuck with it?

    Bookforum: Seems like maybe these warring factions have died down a bit.

    Lipsyte: Right, I don’t have these arguments with people anymore.

    Bookforum: But it was only a few years ago that you had, say, Ben Marcus and Jonathan Franzen writing dueling essays about realism vs. experimental writing.

    Lipsyte: I was at this big awards dinner and Ian McEwan gave this speech in which he waved his sword against the encroaching post-modernists. He said, “I toil in the bean rows of realism” or something like that, and “curse these post-modernists who threaten true literature.” I couldn’t believe it. You know, he’s a very impressive guy. I don’t know why he was making that old speech.

    Bookforum: Seems like that speech should have been made in the 70s.

    Lipsyte: And I heard it a lot—even when I was coming of age, the big postmodern novel’s glory days were over. And I was still soaking in it a bit. But, yeah, it just seemed insane. Everyone is using whatever they can now. And whatever seems salient. And whatever seems useful.

    Bookforum: Do you have marketing people pressuring you to use social media or get a Twitter account?

    Lipsyte: I say, “I’m not going to twitter.” Or, “I’m not going to tweet.”

    Bookforum: I didn’t want to correct you.

    Lipsyte: I’d sound more authentic if I said “twitter” and made it seem like I didn’t know “tweet.” That would be just a marketing move. I’m probably the last guy, the last in the line, who can say, “I’m not doing this.”

    Bookforum: The lone standout?

    Lipsyte: No, I mean that there’s probably nobody younger than I am who gets to say that. I think I’m the cut-off. It’s not a testament to me, it’s all timing. Everybody older can say, “Fuck off.” But if you are younger than I am, you can’t say, “I’m not doing Facebook.” It’s like saying, “I refuse to wipe.”

    Bookforum: Marketing people check your age. “Well, okay...”

    Lipsyte: Okay, grandpa.

    Bookforum: We’ll get an intern to do it. You are often described, quite correctly, as a very funny writer. Your writing is extremely comedic not only in that it is, well, funny, but also in that your sentences have the tautness, timing, and punch of skilled one-liners comics. I think of like Mitch Hedberg, Jack Handey, or Steven Wright. Do you have any comedians you’d consider a literary influence on your fiction writing?

    Lipsyte: I’ve said this before, but I used to listen to comedy records as a kid. Steve Martin records, Richard Pryor. I’ve always admired stand-up. I was just talking to someone about Steve Martin’s early book, Cruel Shoes. It was a really strange book to have as a kid.

    Bookforum: It’s a good book.

    Lipsyte: It’s a very good book. His best book.

    Bookforum: Not his book of tweets that just came out?

    Lipsyte: [Laughs] Does he have a book of tweets?

    Bookforum: I’m not joking. He has a book of tweets.

    Lipsyte: Well, he’s contributed enough to American culture that he is allowed to write a book of tweets. Or twitters, or whatever they are called. I have friends that are stand-up comics. I’ve certainly been influenced by watching their performances at times. But I think my ears are tuned in a certain way. I don’t want every line to be a rim-shot, one-liner. I’m not going for that. But I think when I’m in a kind of comic vein, those kind of stand-up rhythms are certainly present. That influence is there. I’m kind of hoping the sentences will do that and other things too. You can get the depth of character and a sizzling punch line at the same time. I think the comics that I’ve liked, and really the comic writers that I’ve liked—and I’m going to say people like Barry Hannah and Stanley Elkin, really deep serious writers who also had a deep sense of comedy, tragic comedy—they all did it through language. That’s the thing when you are writing prose, that’s what you have. You don’t have comic gestures. You can’t even wear an arrow through your head. You just have the words. You have to learn to adjust. With whatever works on stage, you are not going to make people laugh if it is just transcribed on page. It’s a different kind of timing, a different kind of rhythm. It demands an attention to acoustics that some of the best comics have, but all writers need to pay attention to. There’s a lot going on. But I don’t sit down and think that I’m writing comedy. It’s just the way it comes out.

    Bookforum: And certainly your stories are not pure one liners.

    Lipsyte: It gets back to what are you good at, and how does it come out of you? I remember doing an interview with Diane Williams, who you know really well. I assume readers at Bookforum are familiar with her work. It’s often very short, funny, powerful, disturbing, cryptic. One of the defining features is its brevity, right?

    Bookforum: Almost universally with her work, which I love. She does not have any novels.

    Lipsyte: But she told me if she could write long rambling novels, that’s what she’d rather do. You recognize what you can do. You recognize where your strengths are. Sometimes I see young writers tripped up by the idea that they need to be really well-rounded, like well-rounded students applying to school. Well-rounded writers who can do all of these forms quite well, and especially need to do the tasks of a certain kind of realism very well. If you can do that, that’s wonderful. Maybe you can’t do some other things. There isn’t one set of tasks, the five things every writer must be able to do well.

    Bookforum: I heard Gary Lutz speak once, who you are more than familiar with, and he had an inverse way of saying that idea. He said he is bad at all these different things and so as a writer he has to—any writer has to—“marshal your weaknesses.”

    Lipsyte: You can call them your weaknesses, or you can call them your strengths. I think it amounts to the same thing. You know, Gary talked about—and I always loved this—doing what other forms can’t do. Play to the strengths of fiction too. Again, it isn’t about defining a set of rules, it’s about figuring what comes out of you and seeing it for the drivel that it is, and then trying to get it as presentable as possible.

    Lincoln Michel’s writing appears in Tin House, Electric Literature, NOON, The Believer, and elsewhere. He is a co-editor of Gigantic and can be found online at lincolnmichel.com.

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