In 2004 I sat on someone’s couch, listening to a writing group take turns demolishing one of my short stories. The final critique, delivered by a woman in pointy architect’s glasses, concluded by saying “It’s so Sam Lipsyte.” I had no idea what that meant. A few days later I picked up a copy of Home Land, dreading the worst. Instead, I found it to be hilariously unhinged, a string of baroque epistolary riffs wound around the neck of its reliability-challenged narrator. Exactly the palate cleanser I needed at a time when spending a Tuesday With Morrie seemed desirable to large swaths of the populace. The Architect had done me a real favor.
Six years later, with the release of The Ask, which has been met with the sort of near-universal accolades usually reserved for the discovery of a lost Rolling Stones album, Sam Lipsyte has graduated from regular inclusion on the funniest author you’ve never heard of lists, to the rarefied among our best contemporary writers. A former editor of the early webzine Feed, as well as current Columbia professor and winner of a 2008 Guggenheim fellowship, Lipsyte is on the kind of extended roll only dying crapshooters and remaindered novelists can truly appreciate.
So, you’re huge in France, I hear.
Never has a more false sentence been uttered.
Well, maybe it just seems like you should be.
Home Land came out there. I really like my translator. He thinks my books are untranslatable and just enjoys the insanity of it.
The French seem fascinated by our tendency to live a life of constant internal complaint. The sheer luxury of it. Which is something I think your writing definitely gets at.
Well, the French have that luxury too, so I think part of it is laughing at its crass, oafish nephew. But the French also want to distinguish their tradition of complaint from ours. They want theirs to be more elegant, which maybe it is, but they don’t quite have the self-deprecation down. Wait, am I generalizing?
Speaking of which, Katie Roiphe had a column in the Times Book Review recently comparing the horn-dog protagonists of Norman Mailer and Phillip Roth to contemporary writers like Dave Eggers and Jonathan Safran Foer, who she sees as effete and sexless. Strangely, she didn’t mention you. Do you think it’s because she respects how much of the masturbation market share you own?
I think it’s because she’s never read me, or heard of me.
She may not of heard of you, but I bet she’s heard of (Home Land’s world champion onanist) The Kid.
The Kid endures.
So, you were here in Seattle a month ago. I understand your reading was a sort of a debacle. What happened?
Well, my reading was fine. It was the fact that the room had been double-booked with some dude’s loud beery birthday bash. I had to scream my sentences. I guess a lot of writers would not have read at all, but I figured these people came out, so I’ll do what I can do. Yeah, I think I saw something about it, how it was kind of shameful and the shame rests on the whole city.
How do you feel about getting up in front of a crowd? There’s this strange notion that writing, which by nature usually demands a solitary and anti-social temperament, should prepare authors to be entertaining in person.
It is strange. I’ve often said one becomes a writer precisely to avoid such situations. But the other side of it is I had a little bit of a performing background as the lead screamer/weeper of an arty noise outfit called Dungbeetle, and getting up and reading some fiction doesn’t frighten me so much, though I do still become incredibly nervous when I’m reading new work.
Everyone loves this story, especially other writers, so I’ll mention it again: Home Land was famously turned down by pretty much every house in publishing before finally being accepted, and, of course, went on to great success. Did you consider taking out a full page photo in Variety, like Johnny Cash, to salute those who doubted you?
It was a pretty anguished time. But I felt vindicated already in a certain sense because a man named Philip Gwyn Jones in the UK was publishing the book with Flamingo there. So, I knew I wasn’t crazy to believe the book had some worth. It would have been weird to buy space in Variety though. Better a small leaflet taped to the door of one of the German conglomerates.
I was at a party recently where people were discussing book reviews, and I said something about how “Dale Peck hijacked Rick Moody to get himself a book deal, and then flew Rick Moody into a building.” Which got a lot of disapproving looks. Either because it just wasn’t funny, or the people I was talking to are still scared of Dale Peck. And then this morning I came across a quote where you talked about how Peck slammed Home Land, saying that reading it “made him want to join al-Qaeda.” Ever run into Dale at a party?
I think your joke is pretty good. I like twin towers humor. I remember my friends and I saying the phrase “planes gone wild” and getting a lot of disapproving stares back then. I did meet him once. He was quite affable. I can’t respect him for that comment about Home Land, though, because if you’re going to say that and then not fucking join al-Qaeda, you’re a hypocrite. His books make me want to join the British army circa 1812.
I’ve heard authors talk about how their books were just swallowed up by the events surrounding 9/11. And how it sort of forced them to consider the meaninglessness of writing novels in general. The Subject Stevewas released on Sep. 11, 2001. So your timing was…
I went to sleep on 9/10 thinking, “Tomorrow’s the big day!” Yes, I’d say the book had a rough time commercially, as did most things that weren’t the literary equivalent of Freedom Fries. I don’t know which writers you’re talking about, but those events never made me consider the meaningless of writing novels. They just convinced me of the meaninglessness of watching television news. Anyway, I went on tour a few weeks later, rode in mostly empty planes, read to tiny audiences. And it was great, because I had wonderful conversations with lots of people from very different backgrounds, and they tended to get deep very quickly. The vulnerability yielded some real reflection.
A hardbound copy of Steve arrived in the mail the other day. It’s really orange.
That book was designed by Rodrigo Corral, a legend. I loved it. Unfortunately, a few years later the design was completely ripped off for a Miranda July book. I understand this is pretty much how book design works. Somebody does something good and then for a few years it just gets lifted wholesale for other books. But I remember walking into bookstores and from a distance seeing the orange jacket and thinking, “Wow, this store must really believe in my book because it didn’t sell but they are still pushing it!” Then I’d take a few steps closer and my heart would sink.
It’s interesting that Home Land had such a problem getting placed, when The Subject Steve seems like a much harder sell for a house just looking to move copies.
It’s not that interesting after one examines the sales figures of The Subject Steve. This publishing with big houses stuff has mostly do with numbers. People have to understand that. Once you have a publishing record you are kind of screwed, unless you’ve put up big numbers in the past. It’s hard. Publishing and writing are two very different things. Every few years or so they intersect for me. But to make publishing at the corporate level a measure of success is ludicrous, given how much of it is driven by forces other than the artistic. I’m grateful for the chance to publish with a house like FSG, with its wonderful editors and stupendous list and ability to get work out there. But I also understand I could be dropped sometime. It wouldn’t make me a lesser writer.
Have you ever listened to Larry Young’s Lawrence of Newark?…just wondered if that’s where your character Heinrich of Newark came from.
I haven’t. But reading up on the record, it sounds like I should. I would love to say I got it from that but I didn’t, at least not consciously. But maybe somebody mentioned this record years ago and the title was floating around in my brain.
Two frequent comments about The Subject Steve and Home Land are “There is nothing uplifting about this book” and “There are no sympathetic characters in this book.” How do you feel about the underlying expectation that those needs be met for a novel to be a success?
Maybe for commercial success that’s true. Spiderman 3 or something like it will win at the box office. Every time. But everything shouldn’t have to be Spiderman 3. When dummies say that kind of thing, if they have a bully pulpit, it’s kind of sad. I think a lot more people than we credit can handle and enjoy challenging fiction with complicated characters and formal innovation and truly poetic prose and less-than-rosy outlooks on life. The best characters are sympathetic and also not, like people. They’re all on a spectrum. If the writing is great it doesn’t matter where they are on that spectrum. They are fascinating, thrilling. In terms of uplift, buy a forklift. That said, I generally think my work is pretty uplifting. By evidence of some letters I get, at least it gives some people joy. But the good news is that I’ve noticed that the best critics and reviewers don’t fall into this trap. They do encourage their readers to try things.
It seems like most reviews of The Ask inevitably refer to Milo as “a loser.” I didn’t read him that way. I saw him as being brave and also naive in how thoroughly he allows himself to be crushed by his perceptions.
I really didn’t understand all that “loser” stuff. I think some people missed the point. Milo lives in an pitiless culture that might call him a loser, but no person of mind and heart would agree with that assessment. He’s trying. He doesn’t sugarcoat and he’s really trying to find a way to live with a clear vision of himself. There is no middle ground for a guy like Milo. He either really succeeds or falls into the abyss. There’s no more “doing okay.” It’s the way things are set up now.
Then how do you feel about “anti-hero,”because that invariably pops up as well. Is it one of those stock phrases, like It is what it is that makes you want to pull your hair out?
Do you remember that kid’s book about the ghetto, A Hero Ain’t Nothing but a Sandwich? So would that mean an anti-hero is something that is not a sandwich? The anti-hero has been around for a long fucking time. I’m not sure what the term tells us. We have such a fractious society that I don’t think that dichotomy really works anymore.
My favorite line in The Ask is when Milo says his son’s foreskin is a “freak flap, letting it fly.” I’m a sucker for pretty much any book where a character describes their uncut toddler using Hendrix lyrics.
Hendrix was an underrated lyricist.
It’s also possible that I will spend the next five years wishing I’d named a character Vargina. Was that a last minute addition? Did anyone try to talk you out of it?
No, nobody tried to dissuade me. It wasn’t last minute. But it came on the page quite suddenly, and it seemed right for the book.
I liked your decision to make Purdy, the villain of The Ask, be that sort of genial trustfunder we all took sculpture classes with. That sort of guy is almost always absolved of the punishment he deserves, in fiction and real life. It made me think your marketing niche is men who inhabit the medium between fantasizing about being Purdy, and accepting the reality of being Milo.
The way I saw Purdy was that he was just fulfilling his destiny. He’s only evil from certain angles. But he is basically honorable. Many of us have people like that in our lives. The scale may vary, but not the way it is felt. And that group of people you mention, well, that’s almost everybody, men and women.
You mean having dreams of great success in the post-collegiate art world, and ending up with a job and family that forces them to swallow how unlikely that success ever was?
I mean in the broader sense of having certain ambitions, seeing the possibility of achieving them crushed under the various economic social pressure, and seeing somebody you know do much better, and not understanding why.
In reviews you tend to get high marks stylistically, and then reprimanded for your “lack” of plot. Do you feel like that’s the best way to approach things thematically, or is it just the way you write? Does part of you want to crank out something totally plot-driven, like Elmore Leonard?
It’s how I write, to some degree. But really, who even gives a shit about Elmore Leonard’s plots in the end? If you like him, it’s for his characters, his cadences, his details, his world-making. Who gives a shit about anybody’s plot? People think they do, but if they are serious readers, sensitive to all the other things going on in good fiction, they’re not really there just to find out what happened next. A novel should be a delivery system for astonishment, for feeling, for ideas, perhaps. It’s not a film treatment. You need motion, of course, always motion, always momentum, motion or the semblance of motion, but that doesn’t have to mean plot in the strictest sense. The Ask has a plot, far as I can tell. Enough for me. I wouldn’t want any more in it.
I read Robert Stone’s Dog Soldiers a few years ago, which I came across pretty much by accident, and was blown away by how good it was. How did it come about that he blurbed Venus Drive?
That was a pretty thrilling thing for me. I’d been a huge Robert Stone fan since high school. Dog Soldiers, A Hall of Mirrors – these books definitely helped shaped me. I’m not sure what the mechanics of it were. I think he was represented by Candida Donadio, and my agent worked for her agency, and got it to Stone. I’ve met him a few times since and he is always very funny and gracious.
Do you ever go back and re-read the stories in Venus Drive? Are you pleased or do you desperately want to rewrite them? And how do you feel about writing short stories with the current tech transformation?
Recently I did a reading and Joanna Yas, who was hosting it and was the editor of Venus Drive, asked me to read a story from it. It was very strange. I didn’t hate the story. In fact it seemed pretty good to me. But I never for an instant thought I was the one who had written it. A strange sensation, as you can imagine. But I am always hungry to revise more recent work. I’ve made changes to The Ask and Home Land minutes before reading from them, after they’d been published. I’m sure if I really sat down with the Venus Drive stories I’d want rework them. I don’t know if I’d make them better, but the urge never leaves me. I love to revise. What do you mean about the tech transformation and short stories?
I guess I mean if novels are now obsolete, or so the story goes, then short stories are even more pointless. I still write and read them, but it does in some ways feel anachronistic. Just wondering if you felt the same way, or if you’re keeping your toe in the water.
I’m writing them now. My next book is a collection. I think we need to stop worrying about whether we are with the times with this stuff. We aren’t. But I think as long as people are interested in language as a medium for art, people will write wonderful things and they will find some sort of audience.
It’s like saying “healthcare is socialist.” It’s self-fulfilling. If everyone just kept saying “books are flourishing,” then they would be.
Yes, you’re right on that score.
I was reading a review of Tom Rachman’s The Imperfectionists where it said “…and even its deceits and pathos avoid being out-and-out mean. Unlike The Ask, by Sam Lipsyte, another gallows comedy published earlier this year-there’s a novel with a heart full of bile.” That’s pretty much a toss off comment from a guy on a deadline, but does that perception, or lack of perception, bother you?
I don’t remember seeing that quote, but really, when somebody writes something like that I feel rather relieved. I know that I’m being attacked by a moron. As to your question, if somebody really does think there is only bile at the heart of The Ask, then there is not much to discuss. Is there bleakness? Sure. I’m writing for grown-ups. But I’ve always believed that the so-called heart of a work of fiction doesn’t really reside in its content, or how the “story” turns out. As many others have noted, particularly Barthelme writing about Beckett, it’s the very creation of a striking text, the idea that here a work of literary art was produced instead of, for example, a suicide, that we can consider said work a celebration of life.
Both of your parents were novelists as well as journalists. So you’re practically a Medici. Did you spend a lot of time as a teenager swearing you’d never do what they did?
Medici? Wish that were true! I’d never work again. I liken it more to people in other fields, like music or sports. Most musicians grew up in houses full of music-making. And most high-level athletes come from athletic families. I don’t mean in the genetic sense, just that a certain sport, say, is the foundation of the family’s social life, and most family members are athletes, coaches, what have you. That’s more what it felt like growing up with my parents. I never thought that being a writer was a crazy ambition. I saw people doing it. Then again, Czeslaw Milosz said that when a writer is born into a family, that family is finished. So mine was wrecked long before I came around. My sister is a lawyer, and many days I envy her.