I’ve been interested in origin stories lately. They usually tell the birth of an otherworldly being, like a Superman, or the those real-life tales of bravery among middle-American folks squeezed in between pictorial layouts of the Royal Wedding or Justin Bieber’s new mansion in People magazine. I find the most interesting origin stories, however, are the seeds in normal life that, for writers and artists, create narratives. Reading short fiction and novels, I often find myself wondering about the understory, the creative pulse that drove the artist to write or create the work, in addition to the day-to-day struggles they experienced during the process. Outside the matrix, if you will.
Sara Lippman’s debut collection of fiction, Doll Palace, seemed the perfect place to start. Although a good number of the twenty-plus stories that populate Doll Palace come from the Jewish, ’90s, Jersey shore/upstate New Jersey of Lippman’s youth, the cross-section of characters and scenarios is so rich and diverse, it feels like something more primal, more conjuring, is happening than the Real Housewives of New Jersey it could have easily been. No one is spared loneliness, a lack of redemption, a feeling of unease. Simply, no one is spared humanity.
Here, Sara Lippman discusses the origins of five stories from Doll Palace:
I’d been solicited to write something for the (now-defunct) Metazen annual Christmas e-book, so the holidays were on my mind. Ever since I was a child, we’d do the tourist thing, drive up from Philly and walk 5th Avenue, bag of chestnuts in hand, joined the swarms of families filling up the sidewalk with their cameras and their shopping. That fall my own daughter was not quite four, too young to be aware of much less caught up in the madness of doll culture, all the pink bags, but the sight itself was overwhelming and awful and awesome in that way I knew I’d have to write about: the consumerism, the packaging, the messages it sends to girls. Originally the story was called The Last Thing and started with the line: Does it ever end? Frida’s voice is fairly shrill and I didn’t know how long I could sustain it, so I thought it would be a very short parody of the American Doll trend, which seemed to be spreading through young girls like a cancer. Later, I realized the story was touching on a lot of the themes I’d been working on elsewhere, so I tried to deepen it and draw out those ideas and that’s how the title changed, and ultimately, became the title of the book.
I love to juxtapose images/ideas and watch them play off each another, especially if they seem initially jarring, so another focal point was the man shaving his beard in public—and the Midwestern babysitter’s response to it. The humanity/inhumanity of NYC. An autobiographical note: when I was 22 a guy I didn’t know so well left his full beard in my sink, and it struck me in ways I probably will continue to work over for some time. I tried to explore one angle here.
A gift that happens rarely, but I’m ever grateful when it does: a story, delivered intact on my pillow. “Talisman” arrived in my sleep. At the time my kids were very young and my daily routine revolved around dropping them off at nursery, rushing back home for an hour to shower or write (never both!) then turning back around to get them. So I think unconsciously I must have been working over this story during all those long walks. Then one morning I woke up and had it—complete with its overt nods to Malamud’s Angel Levine.
The Best of Us
At over 7,000 words, this is the longest story in the collection (I think it started out at over 8,000) and reflects whatever meager novelistic impulse I may possess. For a millisecond I kicked around the idea of expanding this story into a much longer piece because in addition to exploring a marriage, a family, it allowed me to look at the current climate of plastic surgery, the wellness movement, and all the vanity, hypocrisies and self-righteousness that come with it. From the standpoint of narrative, it broke into classic constructions of cause and effect: Do characters need a concrete reason—a trigger point—that makes them unfaithful? What leads people to lose and find their way? Big shock: I started drafting this in the weeks leading up to the Transit of Venus, and found myself still revising it around the DVD release of Judd Apatow’s This is 40.
All This Happiness
This sprang from an in-class exercise—a series of guided word prompts—issued by Jennifer Egan in her summer workshop at LIU a few years ago. Looking over the story now, I can’t isolate the original prompts, although perhaps she’d say something about magic. The only phrase I remember Egan giving us is “Ask yourself,” which appears about 2/3 into the story. Most of whatever I’d jotted down in a fast classroom fury quickly fell away. What remained: the desire to capture the cruelty of adolescence. How actions made in youth continue to haunt and play out in adulthood. I was drawn to the magician who can’t fix his own life, who has never been able to wipe his slate clean, paralyzed as he is, by his own guilt, the horror of what he’d done. Much has been written about likability, which is never something I think about when I’m writing; I guess none of my characters is particularly likable. Hopefully, though, they come across as human—with all the attendant longing and regret. To me, this is one of the Jewier stories even if that doesn’t seem to be the outright focus. My grandparents were Orthodox and I would go to their shul in Riverdale on High Holidays, and the central prayer of meditation, the harrowing way it was sung in this barren building of cinderblocks (the congregation had run out of money), how it echoed, made people weep, scared the hell out of me. Talk about instilling the fear of God: the detailed incantation centers around how the repercussions of your actions may or may not inscribe you into the book of life. It lays out this false, narrow equation of cause and effect, more or less teaching “everything happens for a reason,” or at least, that’s what I heard as I child, which is screwed up on so many levels, but difficult to shake: For someone like Max, who is not religious, but has been exposed to that kind of messaging, it’s contributed to his stasis; it’s partly what’s locked him in. Even his own parents blame him for his child’s illness.
Again, Queen Mab was good to me. I dreamed of a wild animal stampede—Biblical, apocalyptic in a Noah’s Ark kind of way. The rest—I don’t know. It’s the fastest story I’ve ever written. It was playful. Who can resist a good malapropism? But I also wanted to do right by the voice, fill it with heart, and not have it feel gimmicky or detract from the story. It was a risk I took. The whole thing could have flopped. Ultimately, I decided to establish the ESL syntax early on, then ease up on it a bit, reinstate some of the subject/verb agreement so that hopefully it reads smoothly, with consistent inconsistency.
In a way it marked a departure for me, but really, I’m just telling the same story: of ache and isolation, restlessness and stasis, of an outsider unable to access the inside. Here’s a guy just looking for connection. As for the autobiographical element: I attended a summer camp partially staffed by Israelis. On canoe trips, the waterfront instructor would advise us: “Secure your jacket life.”
Sara Lippman’s Doll Palace is available from Dock Street Press. To find out more about Sara, visit her website.