This is an abridgement of a 10,000 word interview. The full interview will be published across a network of university and international literary magazines in the coming months.

THE CREATIVE PROCESS

Big cities attract all kinds of downtrodden people asking for hand-outs. So I’m wondering for your book The Ask (which, for those who haven’t read it yet is about Milo Burke who, at the start of the book, is employed by a New York university to shake down potential benefactors for donations) what strange, humiliating, or even perverse things did you do in the name of research?

 

SAM LIPSYTE

Just living each day is humiliating and perverse enough to obviate the need for specific research, but there was a moment that instigated the idea of Milo Burke being a development officer. I teach at Columbia and I was at a faculty meeting when some people from the development office came to give a presentation on how their efforts to woo various philanthropists was going. They were nice, smart people and I just started to think about what doing their jobs would be like. I hate asking people for things so it sort of made me wince, and mid-wince is often a good place to start. I understood they were not asking for personal loans and favors, and what they were doing was a specialized dance and everybody knew the steps and it was for a decent cause, but it still stuck with me. I just figured there must be times when a potential donor might yank you around and how awkward and infuriating that could be. I also thought about how it’s really just a stark example of dynamics that many of us experience in our work and home lives, depending on the largesse, emotional or financial, of others. The research was mostly just an extended feeling experiment, conducted through the act of composition. But after the book came out, I got a lot of nice notes from development officers from all over.

Already I was nostalgic for my sorrows. I wanted to savor heartsmash again, desertion, distraction, desolate nights, all the aches and bruises, love’s bunions, the mind’s bum knee. My mouth watered for bitter fruit. My belly panged for crow. There were no disaffected daughters in the patent-pending nonstate, no wife-pilfering Williams, no medallions of pampered meat. There were no tax forms to fudge, no binges to regret, no sweet depletions of the soul. There was nothing save a nothingness shot through with utter nothingness.

– Excerpt from The Subject Steve, courtesy of the author

THE CREATIVE PROCESS

That passage seemed to me–in your own style but very Joycean–it captured that swell. Was Joyce an influence? Do you return him?

 

LIPSYTE

I return to him, I guess, and Beckett and some others. Barry Hannah, who I mentioned. I think what it is is that they’re already embedded in me. I don’t need to return to them so much. They’re in my musculature as I write.

I sort of think we’re all kind of a swirl of everything we’ve read, the art we’ve looked at or heard, the life we’ve led, the people we know, the stories we’ve heard, the stories we’ve lived through and the stories we’ve heard secondhand, the fears we’ve had, the desires we’ve had, it’s kind of just swirling around, so when you’re writing it’s not that you’re channeling it in a completely unthinking way, but when I write I’m just sort of moving fence to fence and seeing what bubbles up and then I can shape it in the editing process and make it into what I want, but in the beginning I’m kind of feeling my way through, so all those influences, whether they’re literary influences or life influences or influences from other arts are just kind of pulsing through me.

THE CREATIVE PROCESS

You brought up editing and I guess you spent a few years with Gordon Lish? He was your teacher?

 

LIPSYTE

Yes, he taught a seminar that I attended for two or three years.

 

THE CREATIVE PROCESS

So what’s it like being edited by Lish?

 

LIPSYTE

Well, the only time I was edited by Lish was when I published a few pieces in his magazine, The Quarterly, which he was editor of in the late 80’s into the 90’s. This was before I studied with him. And I was just bowled over by his ability to hear what I was trying to do and to see and suggest better ways to do it. Also, point out moments where he thought I was strong and moments and where he thought I was kind of falling away. And then studying with him, I won’t speak for others, but he taught me a tremendous amount. One of the greatest things he taught was how to listen to yourself. You can be your own Gordon Lish.

 

THE CREATIVE PROCESS

What were some of his techniques? I was surprised when I read he’d been your teacher but I could also see it on a line by line level. The compression.

 

LIPSYTE

I think that’s the misconception about Gordon. That’s what he did for Raymond Carver because that’s what he thought Raymond Carver’s stories demanded, that’s not what he thought everything needed to be. There was a period when lot things were like that, but the larger thing was about actually just not evading whatever it is you’re writing about. It wasn’t necessarily about compression or stripping down or being minimalist. It was about not evading your objects. Well, it was about being a writer. It was about teaching yourself not to run away from what you want to write about.

[...]

THE CREATIVE PROCESS

Were you funny as a child?

 

LIPSYTE

I don't know if I was funny, but I appreciated humor, chemically, like a drug, you know? I liked whatever happens to you chemically when you laugh. I became very enamoured of that. But the real breakthrough for me, which goes back to what we were discussing earlier, I thought that writing had to be really serious. You could be sort of funny in your life, but when you wrote it had be really serious, unrelenting in its seriousness. There could be no light moments, there could be no human moment, really. Then you start to read writers who sort of laugh through that and you understand–Oh! You can apply your sense of humor to serious writing and it actually gets better.

 

THE CREATIVE PROCESS

We're taught there is this division between literary fiction and the comic and it's completely artificial.

 

LIPSYTE

It's incredibly artificial. It more has to do with a sense that people want to have that they're engaged with something worthy when they're reading. And I think it's not just writers, it's about readers who aren't sure if they're allowed to laugh. They pick up this book that deals with certain topics that are serious topics and then something funny happens that could be disturbing to them because, you know, I'm pursuing this worthy subject with seriousness because I want to make the world a better place or I want to learn about this justice or whatever. But that could make life very messy and it's full of various tragic things and they often intersect. And grownup literature is the literature that understands that.

[...]

Whereas some people think perhaps there is some division between comic and the poetic, actually I think there are no writers who I admire–with maybe a few exceptions–that don't have some sense of humor. [...] I can’t think of a serious writer who doesn’t have a sense of humor. 

 

THE CREATIVE PROCESS

In fact, I noticed in your fiction, you give people funny names–Dezzy Gautier, Vargina–and use weird words like coot and hucklebuck. Would you agree that by inserting these odd touches into the work you can write about the tragedy more easily?

 

LIPSYTE

Exactly, and it's also because there's all just an element of play that I'm always eager to introduce into my work. I like it when it kind of does double duty. It gives us some sense of a situation or character or adds texture to the piece, but is also of its own a little moment of play with the language or with expectations. Subverting of expectations. All of that is very important to me.

 

THE CREATIVE PROCESS

Who were some of your humor heroes? In any field...

 

LIPSYTE

I would have to say that the more contemporary authors that I have found who swelled my heart because of their wonderful style and their wonderful humor and their ability to look squarely into the darkness were writers like Barry Hannah, Stanley Elkin and Thomas McGuane. Diane Williams, I love her work. I think Jenny Offill is quite extraordinary. [...] And in terms of just comedy, as a kid I loved Woody Allen–I don't know if I still have the same feelings as I did–Richard Pryor, the work of Terry Southern, particularly his screenplay for Dr. Strangelove and his short stories. I mean, I watched that all the time. Peter Sellers in that movie, I guess. People who have just an exquisite sense of the absurd and an incredible comic gift.