Arts & Culture

Sam Lipsyte: The Jewcy Interview

For Sam Lipsyte, it is time. He is now a Guggenhiem fellow, a writing professor at Columbia University and he is about to publish what people are calling his masterwork with Farrar, Strauss and Giroux. In reality, Homeland, Lipsyte’s second … Read More

By / March 15, 2010

For Sam Lipsyte, it is time. He is now a Guggenhiem fellow, a writing professor at Columbia University and he is about to publish what people are calling his masterwork with Farrar, Strauss and Giroux. In reality, Homeland, Lipsyte’s second novel was nothing short of masterful work. It created an entirely new vehicle for story telling by expressing a post college age slacker’s angst through bubbly toned updates to his high school’s alumni newsletter. Homeland is the kind of book people will claim to have taken to right away, years from now when it’s considered a literary staple for the times. Before that, he published The Subject Steve, a novel about a man diagnosed with a fatal and unknown disease. His first book is a collection of short stories called Venus Drive, which reads like less gruff Hot Water Music. Therein lies Lipsyte’s wheelhouse. He writes with the kind of edginess reserved for the hard drinking cult writers of American literature, but with an eloquence and a focus on cadence and sound that we associate with old time poets and literary greats.

Lipsyte’s new novel, The Ask, takes place in the life of a new dad with a job in the development office at a liberal arts college. Milo’s job is to procure donations from anybody with deep enough pockets and big enough egos. It requires him to keep a singular focus on these wealthy individuals or, “asks” and what he could potentially talk them into donating, or, “gives.” Early in the novel, Milo snaps, delivering a tirade at a young art student whose parents happen to be big shot asks. Milo is fired and left to worry about how to support his already flailing family life and pay for his comical toddler Bernie’s hippie-run nursery school. Then, Milo is suspiciously offered his job back if he can land an even bigger ask. The big ask proves to be darkly complicated and challenging. It will require him to re-examine his past, and to ask himself what kind of man he wants to become.

I phoned Lipsyte with my own ask. I wanted to know about the path that led him to his current success, and what the rest of us could stand to learn from it.

I want to ask you about Dungbeetle, the band you sang in before you became a writer.  I’ve read that Dungbeetle was known to put on strange and memorable stage shows but I’ve never really heard specifics aside from the fact that James Murphy aka LCD Soundsytem was your soundman.  There’s a character in Venus Drive that’s an ex noise rock band frontman who talks about kissing male audience members, wearing a cape, and a shoving a microphone up his ass while on stage.  Yet, I’ve been unable to find pictures, videos or songs from the real Dungbeetle.

Lipsyte: That’s good.

Tell me about Dungbeetle.  What did you guys sound like?  What was the stage show actually like?  Can we find any Dungbeetle artifacts?

The band was very noisy.  Our stage show was very much about denying audiences that moment, that sort of wink that makes everything okay.  We were very deadpan the entire time. The band would be making a racket and I would go down into the audience and maybe find the meanest, most homophobic looking dude and stroke his cheek gently.  Or I would writhe on the stage and cry about my father, that sort of thing.  It’s an acquired taste I’m sure.

We’re there any bands you played with often?

Six Figure Satellite were sort of a big brother band to us. We played with them a lot and they were just an incredibly powerful machine.  So we would compete with them on the level performative insanity, but certainly not musicianship.  We got to play with lots of great bands.  We played on a bill with The Jesus Lizard one night.  I think you can find one of our songs on iTunes.  It’s on the soundtrack for a movie called, “Half Cocked.”  You’ll get a sense of what the guitar sounds like.  But the drummer wasn’t feeling well that day, lets put it that way.  So it’s not as punchy as it usually was.

Speaking of music, people talk a lot about you as a musical writer and about the musicalityin your prose.  One writer even compared you to Dr Seuss.

Seuss is a master.

Is music a big part of your writing?

I think a lot about rhythm and cadence and the acoustics of what I’m writing.  Which probably has to do with my background as a flailing frontman and enjoying certainkinds of explosive punk songs and other kinds of music that reach heights in a very limited amount of time.  I think that’s translated in the length of my prose.  I’ve often wanted to create that feeling for a reader that I’ve gotten from great songs.

So, punk rock prose?

I think I’ve found different ways to work those rhythms and acoustics so that sometimes it’s not just a short blast, it’s a long extended glimpse.  There’s a reason people talk about music in relation to prose.  There is something performative in writing, especially for the kinds of writers who pay attention to it.  So I wouldn’t want to brand it that.  But the punk ethos of not being afraid to let out your joy and sorrow in an impossibly abrasive but also exultant manner, isn’tfar off.

Do you think music is interesting right now, anyone in particular?

I wish I were not someone who gets so stuck in the music he came of age to.  In a sense sometimes it sounds like the stuff you’ve heard before.  But I’m sure everything when I was young sounded to older people like the stuff they’d heard before and it goes on and on like that.  The bands that are interesting to me are, LCD Soundsystem, The Hold Steady have made some great records, Liars, that drum record I liked a lot.  I like The Reigning Sound.  But I also like what Juan Maclean is doing, so at this point I don’t really have to choose a camp or a genre to listen to.  Also there are some compositions by this dead composer named Julius Easton from the 70’s and 80’s.  I stumbled upon it and just found it kind of mesmerizing.

In your new novel, The Ask, the protagonist is put under pressure by the liberal arts college that he works for to procure a major donation from a wealthy potential donor.  In other words he’s asked to ask for a large ask from an ask.  He’s told that, “The whole game is poised for a gargantuan fall,” referring Liberal Arts Schools.  Basically meaning that in the new economy, parents aren’t willing to shell out money to Liberal Arts schools the way they once did.  You work at a university, is this based in real experience?

No.

I didn’t think so.

As it turns out I think applications at many places are up.  So people are still applying in large numbers, as I understand.  I wasn’t really trying to predict the economic future for liberal arts colleges as I was trying to present a crisis.

What do you think of the supposed “Death of the Novel”?  What about the possibility of physical books disappearing in favor of E-Readers?  Do you think that would be a good or a bad thing?

Well the Death of the Novel thing has been going on for centuries and centuries.  The novel is a form of fiction and for a few hundred years it’s been the primary delivery system.  I think we need to stop thinking about there being one thing called, “the novel.” But, I mean, will the novel morph?   I think as people continue to innovate and be bold, all sorts of fiction will come and a lot of it will continue to be in some sense connected to the traditional.  Anything from Jane Austen to Thomas Pynchon, they’re all, “the novel.”  I think you can draw that line from Laurence Sterne to David Foster Wallaceand many others.  I think people are still going to be feeding off of that tradition for a long time to come and then they will also be branching off into other modes of fiction making.  What’s always going to be important to me is that it be text based, it be language based, it be about how different combinations of words help us access human consciousness.  That’s the death of the novel part.  Whether the novel will always continue to be a mass-market item, I have no idea.  As a popular form, even in it’s degraded state it’s still strong.  You know, Dan Brown, that’s nothing I would want to read but when he writes a new novel, millions of people read it.  So it’s hard to tell.  The other part of it is, I think there will still be a market for books on paper because I think people will want the books they really care about to be something they can put on their shelf.  I think it’s different than say vinyl, because you can be nostalgic about vinyl, and the warmer sound that comes from vinyl but still the old records are kind of cumbersome.  At this stage, I don’t see the Kindle being any better than a book.  It’s far less pleasurable to use and there’s something about the texture of pages in a bound book that people will still desire.  As for everything else, an electric file like Chicken Soup for the Soul #33?  I don’t know.  I’ve had people tell me that it’s over for text, that since everyone emails and text messages, text-based art forms are over.  That we’re all going to move to this kind of global visual culture which everyone can understand.  I don’t think that’s so great.

Have you observed a sense of doom in the publishing industry?  Did they want you to do all kinds of Internet tricks for this book?

They’re doing them.  They haven’t asked me to do them.  You can become friends with the book on Facebook.  There’s some guy twittering or tweeting lines from the book.  But I mean it’s very effective in terms of getting the word out that there’s this book made of paper coming out.

But yes, there’s a lot of panic in the publishing industry.  Absolutely, they try to mask it, but they don’t know what’s going to happen. 

Who do you think reads your novels?  I mean, I’m a 26-year-old guy who recently finished college.  Do you have a sense of what your readership would look like or who would make up the lion’s share?

Did it take you a long time to finish college?

Yeah, it did.  I transferred a lot and did some fucking up along the way.  I’m just curious who you envision being the kind of person that would pick up your books?

I don’t know.  I mean, initially I thought it was 26-year-old fuck ups like you.  But I was checking out the book on Amazon and they give you your rank and then there are several sub-categories.  One of them was single women and I seem to be number five.  So that gave me a whole new perspective.

Congratulations.

Well, I’ m not on the market.  My point is, you don’t know, and I think more and more it’s lots of different kinds of people and that’s what I’m hoping, as much as my heart is with the 26 year old fuck ups.

Speaking of fuck-ups, there are two things, or themes, that you mention very casually in all, or almost all of your books.  Two rather lofty subjects that I think other writers, if they broach these topics they tend to harp on them a bit more.  But these two things keep coming up, male bisexuality and heroin.

No one has ever brought this up to me before.  That’s some deep reading.

I just wanted to throw it out there.

Well, it’s no secret that I’ve dabbled with [heroin] and consequently struggled with it.  It’s something that was for a substantial amount of time a very commanding presence in my life.  There was a very tense period where I struggled with it and had to deal with it.  It’s a very powerful drug.

And the bisexuality stuff? I guess I’m asking because these are the kinds of topics that writers tend to make a much bigger deal about when they write them, where as with you they are mentioned so casually, or as just sort of passing thing.  It almost makes me surprised that you didn’t have a publisher or editor saying, “I’d like to hear more about this.”

I would have told them to fuck off.  I find it’s much more effective in fiction to treat potentially big subjects more glancingly and the potentially trivial subjects with greater detail.  I think when you do that you’re kind of bending and distorting in a way that gives a truer perception.  We live in an age where people make declarations about their sexuality, and that’s great but I think the rest of us are a little more flux than we would admit.  But instead of making that a huge deal I’m interested in that being just part of the texture of life.  It’s also an anxiety-producing subject that can be a good source of comedy.

Speaking of comedy, you did an excellent interview/discussion with Gary Shteyngart, the author of The Russian Debutante’s Handbook, in which you said something that I found both fascinating and confusing.  You said, “Comedy is hard, pathos is easy.”  How is pathos easy?  What’s the trick to it?

I think I was probably talking about the famous saying, which I think was from a Yiddish theater actor who was on his deathbed and people were gathered around him and someone said, “this is so hard,” and he said, “comedy is hard, dying is easy.”  I guess what I meant is that I’ve seen a lot more examples of a moving sad story than a moving funny story.

I’ve read that you studied with Gordon Lish, who is known as being a very off the wall,non-conventional writing teacher.  Specifically I’ve read that in his workshops students would read their work aloud and Lish would cut them off at what he considered to be a “false note,” and then he’d move on to the next student.  What were the most common kinds of “false notes,” that came up?  Where did people get stopped often? What about your “false notes?”

Well, each of us had our own forays into inauthenticity.  Gordon was very good at spotting when someone was trying to get away with something or using a very stock phrase, or just beginning in a very watered-down way.  So there weren’t really any one or two specific things that people hit up against.  I can talk about what it was for me.  I think there were times when I would strain, perhaps, to be poetic.  Or I would use a phrase that was perhaps meant to be ironic, but it wasn’t reading that way.  Usually, it’s when what you have in your head or in your heart has yet to appear on the page.

With the undergrad students that you teach, is there anything you find that you have to break them of?  Is there some problem you find that beginning writers tend to have, something universal?

Yeah, they are really wedded to the information of their story.  A lot of the information they’ve devised about the world they’re creating and characters they’re writing about, they think the time the character woke up is very important, they think the make of the car that the character drove to work is very important.  Sometimes it’s a good idea to break from that…

But aren’t those just details?

Right but are they really the ones we want to begin our adventure with?  The main thing, and this is something that Lish talked about, is that you have this very brief window to get somebody into your book.  It’s those first sentences that matter in terms of getting them to keep going.  Those first sentences need to be undeniable.  If their chock full of clunky details that we don’t really care about.  That may not be the optimal effect.  If instead there’s this constant feel of a new world through a strange and exciting combination of words and a sense of the writers full command of the rhythms and sentences, that’s what’s going to seduce somebody.  Not what kind of car the character drove to work.

What was the first novel you remember really enjoying as a kid?  Not a children’s book.

When I was about fifteen, I was a junior counselor at a camp and senior counselor gave me an anthology of fiction with a Donald Barthelme story called, “Shower of Gold” and two years later I read these Robert Stone novels that really sort fired my imagination.  Earlier than that, I read a lot of science fiction.  There was a friend of the family who joined a cult and had to give away all of his possessions, so he gave me all of his Phillip K Dick novels.  I was probably about twelve then and I really devoured those.  I also read other science fiction books around that time.  Those books were very important to me.

Do you watch television?  If so, is there anything on TV that you consider to be particularly well written?  Would you every consider writing for TV?

Yeah, I would consider if it was the right people, if it was something that seemed exciting and challenging.  In terms of good writing on television, The Wire is good.  My favorite TV show is a British show that was done in the late 90’s called Brass Eye.  To me, that’s the funniest television I’ve seen in my entire life.  It was a fake magazine show.  But the controlled outrageousness of it is something that’s just been unmatched by anything else that I’ve seen.  The writing is just beautifully absurd.  He did a show called “The Day Today,” before “Brass Eye,” and he wrote and directed a show called “Nathan Barley” that was hilarious although it got mixed reviews.  

Can you tell me about your life before getting published, after graduating college?  You were living in New York City, how did you stay afloat?  Any horrible jobs?

I was a substitute teacher.  For a long time I worked for an online magazine called Feed.  I did the occasional freelance journalism.  I scraped by.  When I graduated college I spent another year in Providnece with my band and then we moved together to New York City.  The worst work I did around that time was telephone survey work.  There’s a story about that in Venus Drive.  That was probably the most demoralizing job.  I hated reading from that script and I hated talking to people who seemed pretty desperate for a human connection and I was just kind of pressing them to tell me about which kind of coffee they preferred.  The title of story in Venus Drive is “Probe to Negative,” and the idea is that you’re trying to eliminate people from the survey.  You keep asking questions to see if you can disqualify them, they’re either too old, or they’re not making enough money.  Sometimes you would get people who really needed to talk and you’d just have to kind of throw them overboard.

Before your first book got published, when you were scraping by, was there any point when you considered saying, “fuck it” and giving up on being a writer?  Is there anything else you ever imagined yourself doing?

No, and I think that was the problem.  If I could have imagined myself doing something else, I think that I would have done it.

So, you have these classes full of kids who are hedging their bets on ending up where you are, do you ever tell them that it’s not worth it, that they need a safety net.

Well, the fact is that you have a better chance arriving at something if you don’t have a safety net.  But it doesn’t really matter what you tell people because they’re either going to stick with it or they’re not and if they don’t then that’s fine because that wasn’t really what it was about for them anyway and they can go on and do other things.  So I never feel like I’m in the position of making or breaking someone’swill because it’s all desire.  If nothing else seems possible, if everything else seems like a kind of death, then people will persist.

What I do tell them though, is not to count on making a living off of it, especially now.  Everybody I know has to teach or do some other kind of work.  I can’t even think of someone who just makes a living off of fiction.

If you could do that, make a living off of your fiction, would you still teach?  Do you think teaching helps you as a writer?

Yes.  I would teach.  I wouldn’t teach as much, but I would teach.  I learn a lot.

Do you have any major regrets regarding anything you’ve written?

There’s a UK version of Homeland that came out before the American version and the novel begins, “It’s confession time, Catamounts.”  Publishers in the UK were worried that British readers wouldn’t really understand the frame of the book because they don’t have high school reunions and alumni bulletins in the same way.  So they wanted me to write a short prologue to that first chapter that would create another frame to explain, as subtly as possible, the notion of high school reunions and alumni newsletters.  I didn’t write anything new I just pulled some pages from later in the book and re-fashioned them and it was fine,but I realized that the book really needed to begin, “It’s confession time, Catamounts.”

If you could place a quick call to a seventeen-year-old Sam Lipsyte, what would you tell yourself?

Stop panicking.  It’s going to be okay.  Stay away from the hard stuff and don’t bank on a career in music.

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