BRING IT UP TO A NICE LEVEL: SAM LIPSYTE INTERVIEWED by Lincoln Michel
Print Issue 2
NOTE: This interview first appeared in Gigantic Issue 2: Gigantic America. You can purchase issue 2 here.
Sam Lipsyte is the author of the collection Venus Drive and the novels Home Land, The Subject Steve and The Ask (forthcoming in March 2010 on FSG). My original jumping-off point for this conversation was thought to sound too much "like a Sontag essay or something," so the author suggested "jumping-off points" as a jumping-off point. This interview was conducted in a loud Cuban restaurant that in an earlier, more innocent time was a beatnik hangout.
GIGANTIC: Is there something that you have always wanted to use as a jumping off point in your writing, but you haven't figured out how? Or one that you have used several times, but each time landed in a different place?
SAM LIPSYTE: Yeah, when I was growing up there was a reservoir behind my house. I spent a lot of formative years there—having fish fights, seeing my friends naked—and I don't think I ever really figured out how to get back to the reservoir.
GIGANTIC: What is a "fish fight"?
LIPSYTE: It is a pretty brutal enterprise. You catch crappies or sun fish and just whip your rod around. The fish are flying around on the end of the fishing line and you are trying to whack each other, cut each other up with the fins.
GIGANTIC: What is the highest thing you have ever jumped off of?
LIPSYTE: Well, I'm really scared of heights so when someone has a roof party, I'm the guy standing right in the middle of the roof the entire time. I probably haven't jumped off anything that high. Maybe a first floor window or something like that.
GIGANTIC: Your writing contains a great moodiness. I don't mean that in any emo way, but the characters' sense of anger and despair is woven into the sentences, pulses in the syntax. When you are writing is there something you do to get yourself in that mood? A way you piss yourself off?
LIPSYTE: That's a good question, because I'm generally not a moody guy.
GIGANTIC: In person, not at all. That's why I wonder.
LIPSYTE: I think that layer is always there and easy to get to. Just sit down and start writing. I think that I do write from a certain degree of anger and maybe that brings some of the jolt to the work, I don't know.
GIGANTIC: So you aren't angry while writing?
LIPSYTE: No, it is kind of a cool fire. It is just a thing that was goading me to keep writing the sentences. Anger mostly at myself for being such a piece of shit. But then also anger at the world and at the people I believe have it better than I do. Whether I'm right about that or not doesn't seem to matter.
GIGANTIC: When you are getting ready to write, do you jump in and lock the door and start writing or do you dip your toes in a bit, type a little…
LIPSYTE: All of that has changed drastically over the years. When I started I had a lot of alone time. I could really fuck around for hours and felt that that was necessary for the process. Would squander four hours reading the newspaper, emailing somebody, taking a walk, making more coffee, then having a slight coffee OD, then coming down from the coffee OD, taking a little nap and then—
GIGANTIC: Sipping a little beer to counteract the coffee?
LIPSYTE: Taking a little tea maybe. Bring me up to a nice level. So then after four or five hours of that then I was ready to do four or five really good writing hours. That was wonderful when I was starting out. But that's a young person's game. Now I have a job and a family, time is really constrained. I've trained myself to get in right away, into whatever I'm working on. I try to go full blast for one, two, three, four, five hours.
GIGANTIC: You have probably the best camp story I've ever read, "Admiral of the Swiss Navy," and one time you told me every-one has a summer camp story to write—
LIPSYTE: Not everyone, but anyone who went to summer camp.
GIGANTIC: Are there any other stories like that? That you have to get out of the way once.
LIPSYTE: No, I think I really said what I had to say about the camp experience. I remember reading a review of that book and the reviewer talked about that story as an allegory for WWII.
GIGANTIC: [laughs] Was that in your mind at all?
LIPSYTE: For a brief time I think. I really was just trying to get to that camp story.
GIGANTIC: Who was Van Wort in the WWII analogy?
LIPSYTE: The Jews. [laughs]
GIGANTIC: Do you ever find yourself linguistically inspired by odd things such as mishearing the lyrics of a pop song or reading writing on the bathroom wall?
LIPSYTE: Yeah, I'm often keeping my ears peeled for some kind of language incident. To hear something wrong, to hear it anew, to hear it in a different way than I ever had before. I have a recent example. I was in the supermarket just buying supermarket things and it was really crowded and there were a whole bunch of cashiers in a row and my cashier mistyped the item or something and anyway the whole thing needed to be erased and we needed to start again. And she called out that phrase I've heard a million times in the supermarket—and there is always one guy there with a key who can help with this—but the phrase was, "I need a void!" At that moment I was receptive to other meanings of that phrase, not just the need to void the cash register but rather the idea of somebody saying, "I'm in need of a void in my life or my spiritual existence at this moment."
GIGANTIC: In another interview I read with you by Michael Kimball in Avatar Review, you said your stories often start as a "lingual event" that sort of knocks around in your heard.
LIPSYTE: It is that sort of thing. But I may just tell that story over a beer to people and never use it. Maybe it is too obvious or would feel shoe-horned in if I tried to do something to it. But it exists now as a sort of nicely heard phrase.
GIGANTIC: Could you talk a little more about lingual events?
GIGANTIC: Yeah that's a kind of plain question. We'll fix that in editing.
LIPSYTE: Well, it is what I was just talking about where you hear something walking down the street or you mishear the greeting, mishear the guy on the news, misread the thing in the paper. Something interesting occurs. But it is not that often you get to use it in the right way. I've found that the only time that it's ever really worked, come back in an interesting way in fiction, is when I've forgotten. If I'm walking around thinking, "I'd really like to use I need a void, maybe I'll write the scene in the supermarket, use the phrase somehow," it will seem strained. But it is when I've really forgotten and it pops back in, it seems to work out.
GIGANTIC: I mishear stuff all the time, but I like to think of it as evidence of our creative minds at work, that we are like correcting what we hear. Making it more interesting.
LIPSYTE: Maybe. I'm also, I think, partially deaf from listening to loud music and I do mishear things all the time, not as an artist but as a guy with damaged hearing.
GIGANTIC: Because you were the front man for a noise-rock band named Dung Beetle. Do you look to music for writing inspiration?
LIPSYTE: I often think about the feeling that is created in me by music as a feeling or effect I would like to create in the reader on the page. So there were times that I was thinking about a sort of sharp approach to fiction, which would approximate the command and acceleration of songs I liked.
GIGANTIC: Who were your favorites?
LIPSYTE: Oh, doesn't really matter, but you can get a feeling for the sort of punk shit I'm talking about.
GIGANTIC: Right. [sighs] I remember the punk rock days.
LIPSYTE: Well I didn't live through the real punk rock days.
GIGANTIC: But there's always some punk rock.
LIPSYTE: There have been like thirty years of punk rock days. Everybody gets to tap in.
GIGANTIC: Then immediately after you get to say, "It's all over."
LIPSYTE: Everything up to your point was authentic. AFTER that it became somehow compromised. Everything after 2006 really, total shit.
GIGANTIC: Everyone sold out, the whole world.
LIPSYTE: The whole world. Four billion people just sold out.
GIGANTIC: I think we are up to six billion now.
LIPSYTE: See? That's part of the sell out.
GIGANTIC: So let's say you have an idea, like a lingual event, that is bouncing around in your head. Can you tell before you start writing it if it is going to be a short-story length shriek or a novel-sized howl? Or do you just not stop writing until the screaming stops?
LIPSYTE: The way you describe it sounds like I should be in a psych-ward right now.
GIGANTIC: I might be projecting here.
LIPSYTE: Maybe I need better medication. No I actually don't know. But when I write I can tell if something is opening up or closing down. I can tell a little way into it what kind of scope it might have. My last novel [Home Land] I was certain was a short story. I didn't think the premise was sustainable for the length of a novel and I felt very sure.
GIGANTIC: I should be leaving more time between these questions. You haven't even touched your beer yet.
LIPSYTE: Ah, this is the part of the interview where I'm going to drink my beer.
GIGANTIC: Maybe I'll stop this recorder and start it anew.
LIPSYTE: Is it running now? Keep it running.
GIGANTIC: I'm totally paranoid about technology stopping and breaking.
LIPSYTE: When I've interviewed people I've been scared of batteries dying, things going wrong.
GIGANTIC: You'd think technology would be there to help us along.
LIPSYTE: It's helping somebody along.
GIGANTIC: I guess in the old days, you just practiced your recall. Your Truman Capote 90% recall.
LIPSYTE: You know, a lot of that was bullshit too. My father was a sportswriter and I was talking to him once about the famous book The Sweet Science by A.J. Liebling. It is sort of the greatest book about boxing written in the last century and has all these amazing, lovely, wisdom-soaked quotes from old grizzly fight managers and promoters. It was my father's favorite book, the Bible for boxing writers, and then he traveled around the country on assignment and he would meet all these guys who had been in the book and just have conversations with them and realize there is no way that guy said anything like that.
LIPSYTE: So I think in the old days before they had the recorder what they had was "literary invention," which is a wonderful thing.
GIGANTIC: Well, we still have that but now you go on Oprah and get yelled at.
LIPSYTE: Now you go on Oprah in chains.
GIGANTIC: I've never read Frey's books so I don't have much of an opinion on his writing, but I would have preferred it if he had gone up there and said, "I took all your money, too bad." Instead, he was still trying to pretend it hadn't really happened.
LIPSYTE: You know, one of my students referred to it in class as a "fake book." I said it's not a fake book, it's a real book. It actually exists. What was sad about it was that I don't think the whole scenario gave us a sense that fiction is as valuable because he was writing this as a novel but couldn't sell it. Or maybe the idea was that it wasn't good enough to be a novel. At least that's the hope, right?
LIPSYTE: But I think the message was you will never make money unless you say it's true. I think a lot of fiction writers don't make up anything. They change some names, call it fiction. That's the old-fashioned way. I prefer it.
GIGANTIC: It seems to throw the whole thing out the window for me to know from the start that large parts are made up when it is claiming to be nonfiction.
LIPSYTE: If you are borrowing your authority from the fact that it is all true, then when it comes out it is made up, there is a deflation. If you are calling it fiction and it yanks them from the beginning then it is kind of wonderful.
GIGANTIC: I read another interview with you in Chief Magazine—
LIPSYTE: I don't even know who those people are really. But this guy kept buying me whiskeys.
GIGANTIC: At one point you said that one of your earliest literary influences was Gore Vidal's screen-play for Caligula.
LIPSYTE: I was just talking about that the other day with some people. I don't know if it was necessarily a literary influence. Maybe a moral influence. What happened was my father took me to a used book store. For some reason there was a big scuffle about censorship at the local library, because I remember my father was very concerned with the idea that there was censorship going on and he wanted to make sure I could read whatever I wanted to read. These are all noble thoughts. So he took me to a book store and said go pick out a book that you want and I'll buy it for you. So I took my chances on this paperback. I remember it had a gold coin on the cover with blood dripping out of a scratch in it. It was called Caligula, a novelization—I can't remember who wrote the novelization—of Gore Vidal's screenplay, which I didn't really know about. It was afterwards that I found out there was also a film called Caligula. I just opened it up and started to read and really it was the first time that I discovered print pornography. I had seen dirty pictures in somebody's garage, but this was the first time I'd seen someone use sentences to get the same effect. So I presented this book to my father and said, "This. This is what I want. You promised to buy me what I wanted and this is what I want." And the cashier said, "Oh, Sir, you don't want your son to have that book." And my father stood up for free speech and said, "Yes, he can have whatever he wants." It spent the next five years under my mattress.
GIGANTIC: Even after your father had already bought it for you, you had to hide it?
LIPSYTE: [laughs] Yes. Absolutely.
GIGANTIC: Do you have any other interesting, random influences like that?
LIPSYTE: No, I think that's it. I mean, I was a regular kid. I watched a lot of TV. My parents had a lot of books lying around which was really a big deal. I read those without any guidance. I'd pull things off the shelf and start to read, so I read a lot of things before I was ready to read them. Before I could really understand what the hell was going on. A lot of Updike and Robert Stone and other writers. Just pull them off the shelf and start reading. Being really interested in what was happening, what was trying to be done, but not really getting it but in a way I was.
GIGANTIC: Total side question, but have you ever read Freakonomics? There is one part in there where it talks about how literacy in children is not based at all in how much you read to them, but just how many books you have lying around.
LIPSYTE: I did read that because that's why I don't read to my children. Actually I do read to them, but when I don't read to them that extra book I cite that Freakonomics article.
GIGANTIC: [laughs] "Steven Levitt says you don't need this!"
LIPSYTE: I say, "Honey, come on, Steven Levitt says to just toss some more books on the shelf."
GIGANTIC: Just move another shelf into the bedroom and that takes care of them for a year.
GIGANTIC: Are you familiar with Harold Bloom and his theory of the anxiety of influence?
LIPSYTE: Yes, I'm familiar with it.
GIGANTIC: Have you ever felt that you had a certain writer or writers whose influence you had to shake off?
LIPSYTE: I feel it is kind of trendy to say that all that stuff is bullshit, but of course there is truth to it. I do think of it more in the negative. There are writers who get buried under influences, who become a little undone by them. I think it is not necessarily about shaking them off. I think it gets a little silly to think of this great struggle going on. Sometimes you can just leave the room. What I have found is that there are some writers that will always matter to one and if you persist, you notice little openings between them because they don't all fit together perfectly. There are spaces to shoot through and find your own place. It's not necessarily going to be completely divorced from what you read because what you write is a kind of crazy mixture of everything you've read, everything you've done, all the conversations you've had. It's a mash. So I don't think you can discount the people that made you want to write in the first place, the people that sent you a secret message through their books and gave you permission. That's really important. But I don't think you have to frame it in terms of a manly struggle…wrestling in the sky with Faulkner. I think you can find your hole and dart through.
GIGANTIC: Maybe Harold Bloom just wants people to say, "I beat up Shakespeare. I took out Virginia Woolf. It's my ground now." Like the king of the mountain game you play as children.
LIPSYTE: There is something to that. With Harold Bloom there is a sense that it is so real to him, these writers and their characters, the struggle. And I admire that. I just think there are better ways to think about that if you want to write fiction that's not overburdened by this problem.
GIGANTIC: What other child fighting games did you play other than fish fights?
LIPSYTE: Hmm…besides fish fights? What else do you need?
GIGANTIC: None that involved bottle rockets? Those are classic.
LIPSYTE: I was always a little bit frightened of them. I remember in high school we were having a sort of graduation party and this guy that I knew, Paul, came over and people were playing with Roman candles and big explosives. He came over and his hand was mangled, his fingers were missing, there was blood spouting everywhere. It didn't seem real to me. I remember standing there and he said, "Sam, look at what happened to my hand. Look at my hand." And I sort of blacked over. I thought, "This is not happening."
GIGANTIC: So he lost the fingers?
LIPSYTE: I think they sewed them back on, but I don't really like that stuff.
GIGANTIC: Yeah, with that kind of experience you might avoid the bottle rocket games. There was always something about the physics I never quite understood. Where if you let a rocket off in your palm it wouldn't really hurt you but if you were holding it tightly in your fingers, the pressure from your fingers would cause it to blow them off. If you were holding it loosely you'd be okay.
LIPSYTE: See, I didn't even know that. Makes me glad I didn't touch them. I'd be the guy with no fingers right now because nobody gave me any information. I just wanted to say before when I said the missing fingers didn't seem real, that sounds a bit stupid to me. But there was an irreality to it, to that moment, that has always stuck with me for some reason. And I think that it is something that has probably been described in books about war when people are face to face for the first time with certain types of mutilation. But yeah, it was a pretty horrible event. Seeing your friend blow half his hand off.
GIGANTIC: You know, you once told me you should always write what scares you.
LIPSYTE: Yes I did. And a teacher said that to me. It was Gordon Lish. He was talking about putting yourself in jeopardy. I've always thought if you are scared and delighted at the same time you are probably in a good place. But that whole thing about putting yourself in danger, putting yourself in jeopardy, that always confused me for a long time. I think when I was younger I equated it more with writing the thing your parents would freak out about or putting shame to your family. That stuff was more about the content of your writing—"Oh, they will know you were doing a lot of drugs or oh, they will hear about how you are a transvestite or whatever it is." And that's all great, but I don't think that is ultimately what this jeopardy is about. It is about a certain vulnerability that comes from the sense that people are going to see what your gaze is fixed upon. Even if it is some superficial or benign thing, it is that element or elements that are the objects of your prose. And there is something kind of weird about people seeing you seeing. And that is the danger to me, that is the jeopardy: giving others a glimpse of all your tiny weirdnesses, the things that we conceal on a day to day level.
GIGANTIC: I feel like a lot of people when they write start out doing that, then pull back and take the easy way around it somehow.
LIPSYTE: And that is where received language and clichés come in handy. They help you evade that kind of vulnerability. They are a kind of harness and they are not real useful if you are trying to write. E.M. Cioran said, "Write for gladiators," and I love that quote. I don't think he means guys in sandals with swords. I think he means people who understand the fragility of their situation, people who don't have a lot of time for bullshit, people who feel it coming down on them and know that it could end anytime. How do you write for somebody like that? Like us.
GIGANTIC: Write for condemned men.
LIPSYTE: Yeah, what do you think they would need to read? And we are all condemned. Yes. Write for gladiators.
GIGANTIC: That's a good one. The kind you write on the wall behind your computer to look at while you're making your fifth cup of coffee.
LIPSYTE: "Those who are about to write, we salute you." I think all of that stuff is true. The reason you have to put yourself in danger—scare yourself—is because you are in danger, you are sentenced.