Authors and Editors in Conversation
Eric Chinski: In The Fun Parts you’re returning to short stories after publishing a novel, The Ask. Do you approach writing stories and novels differently?
Sam Lipsyte: Once I know what I’m writing I start to approach them differently, but in the beginning I’m just trying to get something down on the page. As I go I can start to sense whether it’s opening up and might be something longer or if a closing is already in view. Sometimes I know it’s a short story from the start but often it takes a little while. Nathanael West, who wrote rather short novels, said, “You only have time to explode.” I think of that when I write the short pieces. You are creating a new world and new language to navigate it and there will be some nice effects along the way, but you are usually after a single moment for the piece to turn on. You are putting something – characters in the case of some stories, the very mode of utterance in others – under increasing pressure. It’s the same with the novel, in some sense, but you vary the pressure, digress in a controlled way, gather in more stories to feed into a larger narrative.
Eric Chinski: I don’t think it quite hit me until I heard you read from The Ask a few years ago, but there’s clearly a Sam Lipsyte sentence. I heard music at that reading. Your sentences are as much about rhythm and sound as character and plot. How do you think about the sentence in the broader context of a story?
Sam Lipsyte: I’m after music and meaning at the same time. I want poetry and life, or as much as prose can deliver those things. I prefer it when sentences are doing a few jobs at once, like male and female models strutting down the runway, looking great in their wild, impossible outfits, and at the last possible moment leaning forward to deliver some important plot or character information, before returning to the wings. And I’m backstage, screaming at the other sentences to get ready.
Eric Chinski: Some of the stories in The Fun Parts have been marinating for many years. Do you spend a lot of time on revisions? How do you know when a story is done?
Sam Lipsyte: Most of the stories are new, but some took me a while. I wrote a version of “The Dungeon Master” twenty years ago. The old version has no resemblance to the one in the collection, except the title. I wasn’t ready to write it then. I threw it out and forgot about it. Then one day I started thinking about it. The old story was lost but I remembered an element or two and thought maybe I was ready to write the story now. But that’s very rare for me. I usually write a draft of a story, get excited, decide that it sucks, put it away, take it out in a few weeks or more, get excited, decide that it sucks, etc. I go through this cycle for a while. But in the excited stage I can really see what the story could be, I’m doing a lot of revision. I don’t know when you’re ever done. You just have to stop. All you are doing is moving commas around. You don’t want to let it go because you are worried nothing else will come to you. That’s when you have to walk away.
Eric Chinski: No one gets the male mind in all its gory details as well as you do. In The Fun Parts, though, you take the reader inside the heads of several female characters who are wrestling with some pretty dark thoughts. Did this shift present any particular challenges for you?
Sam Lipsyte: I’ve lived long enough to know so many different kinds of women and men, and I just trusted I could handle these close third perspectives. They aren’t based on some preconceived notion of “what a woman thinks.” That would be generic nonsense. They felt very close to me, closer than many of my male characters. I’ve shared my life and thoughts with a woman for a long time. And she’s shared her life and thoughts with me. And I thought a lot about some of the things that might be hindering these characters, provoking them, and so forth. I was interested in the mix of pressures, cultural, biological, but just as important, the ones unique to them, based on their idiosyncrasies, which are clearly also connected to some of mine.
Eric Chinski: Some critics insist on calling you a comic novelist. Do you think there’s an inherent tension between a comic and literary sensibility? How do you think of the potential for comedy in fiction writing — and does it come with certain constraints?
Sam Lipsyte: I don’t see the comic and the literary as distinct categories. I think you have literature, and most of the good stuff is often very funny. Comedy and tragedy work best in tandem. Put them together and you have literature. I think maybe I make certain assumptions about my readers, that they understand that I’m not just going for laughs, that there are other currents running through my work, and I think my assumption is correct based on the response I get. But I’m also flagging in my struggle not to be pigeonholed by critics. As I’ve said before, I guess if you’re a pigeon it’s better to have a hole than not.
Eric Chinski: Many readers have hailed you as a writer who has captured a generation’s angst and lost illusions. Some fiction writers deliberately set out with the ambition to show us the way we live now. Would you put yourself in this camp? Can a short story take on our contemporary moment in the same way as a novel?
Sam Lipsyte: I don’t sit down and say, “Today I’m going to write something that shows us how we live now,” mostly because I would become paralyzed immediately. I’d ask myself too many anxious questions. I do, however, like to engage with the present, to use its textures, or else employ it as a jumping-off point. Some say write what you know. Some say write what you don’t know. The present, for me, is both, especially because of its speed. Roth was right about the futility of trying to keep up. You don’t have to keep up. You stand on the banks of the roaring river and look at who or what washes up. That’s what you make stories out of. All that heartbreak. I think you can do this in prose fiction no matter the length.
Sam Lipsyte is the author of Venus Drive, The Subject Steve, Home Land, and The Ask, the latter two of which were New York Times Notable Books. He won the first annual Believer Book Award and was a 2008 Guggenheim fellow. He teaches writing at the Columbia University School of the Arts.
Eric Chinski is Editor in Chief at Farrar, Straus and Giroux.