Sam Lipsyte is a name that easily fills several checkboxes: New York Times bestseller, Columbia professor, husband and father. And with just a little more digging, you’ll find that Lipsyte is also the son of two writers, and has roots in a noise-punk background — all of these slivers of identity comprise pieces of stories in The Fun Parts, Lipsyte’s new story collection.
One more thought I’d had nailed down was that this guy to whom I was about to speak was a cynic — especially after I’d gotten through The Fun Parts, whose shorts were Lipsyte’s darkest yet. By the end of our conversation, though, I’d turned off my recorder and popped open my laptop to write; Lipsyte had me more fascinated by people and hopeful about writing than I’d been when we started. Those, I suppose, are the fun parts.
Meredith Turits: The first line that stops me in the collection is in the first story, “The Climber Room”, which is: “Tovah wondered if Sean was the type who peaked just before setting off into the world, the boy the gang bets on before they understand life.” This is a hell of a notion to set the tone for the entire collection, and yet for me it did. Did you intend for it to set the tone for the book?
Sam Lipsyte: I wrote the story before I knew where it would be in a collection, so I meant for the story once I was putting together the book to set the tone for the book. That line is pretty key to the story. I can’t say I planned it from the beginning, but I guess it’s just an idea that I’ve had in my mind for a while about certain people I’ve known in my life who just seemed so full of promise and there’s just this kind of — not even a decline, it’s just a stasis. It’s kind of interesting to see when we try to narrative-ize lives later on and stack everything up into this steady ascent into some kind of fulfillment. We really have very spikey lives to describe our trajectory, and then long plateaus.
There’s a lot of the absolute worst in people in here, but maybe in ways that we’re not so used to thinking about. For instance, procreation is framed as selfish and greedy. People are pretty disappointing. I mean, are people pretty disappointing?
No, not at all. I think [regarding] procreation, there’s a lot in “The Climber Room,” and it comes up in other stories — that’s an attitude that I see in the world that’s represented by certain characters’ opinions in the book, but there are others there, as well. I’m not making any statements about procreation. I’ve talked to women who, at certain times when they’ve been pregnant with their babies, have felt a little persecuted or have felt some bad energy coming their way from certain people that do feel that way, like it’s some sort of greedy, indulgent behavior. I do have children myself, so I’m all for it.
As far as people, if I really did feel that way I wouldn’t bother to write. I’m fascinated and in love with people — very specific people — in my life. But in general it’s about inhabiting these voices, especially writing in the first person, or as I often do in a very intimate third person. It’s a performance in some way, and you can’t be a character, as it were, unless you care about the whole spectrum of their feelings and have empathy.
Do you think your sense of empathy has evolved?
I think I have found more ways to make it work in fiction. A writer’s greatest fear is that you’ll resort to some kind of sentimentalism that will be cheap. That’s what sentimentalism is — it’s cheap in sentiment. When I was younger, I wanted to avoid any chance of that at all by having a tighter leash on some of the intricacies of the book, and not really explore certain things. I think I’ve found ways as a writer — and you hope you are improving as you go — to explore those things without being sentimental.
When I read “The Dungeon Master” I started to think about every time I had my feelings hurt as a kid. Are people capable of forgiveness or are we more likely to hold onto grudges?
I guess a grudge would feel more natural. People often have to be taught to forgive. They don’t have to be taught to resent, and the whole idea of a religious notion of forgiveness — the reason it’s such a huge deal is because it seems so foreign to us. I think what we figure out is that the grudges tend to hurt us more than they hurt other people. I don’t know if we forgive so much as we just get tired.
Which end of that spectrum — forgiveness or grudges — is richer as a writer?
You’re always interested in both. Obviously, you want drama and conflict and you can’t just have people walking around forgiving each other and hugging the whole time. The joy is to watch the drama unfold.
Is it more alarming to see the worst parts of yourself, or the worst parts of other people in your stories?
I’m usually dealing with the worst parts of myself, and yeah, it’s appalling — when I recognize it.
How often is that?
Pretty often. But you know what happens? I forgive myself.
Do you hold grudges against yourself?
Oh, yeah, we all do.
How long do those last?
At least a lifetime.
What’s the most explicitly transparent project you’ve ever worked on, where you’re mirroring some situation or someone real?
I don’t have that much of an imagination, so that’s what I’m usually doing! All of the things that I find in life through a lot of avenues, including things that I’ve experienced, things that I’ve overheard, or stories I’ve heard from other people, or stories in the news — you run them through your mill and they become something else. They’re no longer just information, and they go through this process as you write, and come out as fiction.
I wrote an early story once in my first book — I was trying to write about my mother, who actually died, being on the edge of death, and I couldn’t get to it. So then I made it a sister instead of a mother. Why, I don’t know. And I have sister, and she’s always been very healthy. So then I wrote the story. And a teacher of mine said, “That was a great lateral move, a great substitution.” Because you can’t always go straight at the thing, even if you want to. Give it a counter. Come at it from a more oblique angle, and then you’re able to process those things and come at them in your fiction, and give them a new meaning of what is really your emotional autobiography.
As a professor of fiction, how do you navigate your own relationships with your students’ work, based on how you feel about where personal experience belongs in fiction?
I remember going to my teacher with a story he gave back to me and I said the worst thing I could have said, which was, “But it really happened!” and his answer was, “Who gives a shit.” And I think that’s really the bottom line. Who gives a shit if it really happened? Have you produced a piece of writing that moved me or not? However you can create something with power, however you can create those effects for the reader, however you can make something beautiful or funny or moving or all three, there are no rules. But there are some guidelines just to help you along, and sometimes if you take it exactly from life, in fiction it might not seem as plausible. Life has a lot of coincidences that won’t work in fiction.
Do you think a lot of the stuff you see is thinly veiled personal narrative?
No, not where I teach. Actually, a good deal of them have been told not to write about themselves and to avoid that at all costs and so they write about something else entirely. Sometimes I tell them, “You know, maybe you ought to stick a little closer to home right now.” I think you can go wrong at both extremes. Don’t be afraid to use the stuff, because if you’re really making fiction that’s going to change and mutate because it’s going to become a property, or an element in a story — a piece of fiction can really become part of a pattern, and its ties to history and its ties to the factual will really disintegrate for the needs of your fiction.
In The Fun Parts, we’ve got a lot of preciously screwed up family relationships on our hands. You wrote a bit about the relationship with your mother as she was going through her final days in your essay “The Gift”, but what was your own relationship with your family like growing up?
I really have no complaints. I was raised in a pretty stable home in a nice, suburban town with good public schools. I was sometimes introverted but a pretty much happy kid. My parents both wrote, so one of the great advantages I had was just seeing people do that. It wasn’t wild imagining [that] people did that all the time, and there were a lot of books around.
Where does drawing on a dysfunctional parental influence come from?
A lot of it comes from drawing on other families I’ve known. But also, I had this kind of idealized picture of my parents’ marriage, but when I was in college they split up, and I think that I spent a lot of years trying to go through those earlier times trying to go through those dynamics. You don’t want to say, “Oh, it’s all a lie,” because that’s an oversimplification, but [I was] trying to see what was really happening during certain moments of my childhood and teenage years. I think trying to remember my parents together gives me an interest in these things, too. And it’s the old Tolstoy thing about unhappy families — not only are all different, they’re also more interesting. Usually.
Judgments from others is a huge theme in these stories, too. Where do you think our fear of judgment comes from? Or is that a parental pressure, too?
No, never a parental pressure [for me]. I think I’m always just interested in exploring that sense of what’s expected of us, and how we think we’re being judged and the kind of anxiety or fear that can produce.
What liberated me as a writer was that nobody really cared if I did this or not. I think there was really a time where I really thought, Well, if I can’t make this work a lot of people — family and so forth — are going to be really disappointed in me. They just wanted me to be happy and have health insurance. Nobody woke up in the morning and was like, “I really hope Sam has figured out how to write a short story.” So I think we sometimes get delusional with the sense of how we’re getting judged, when the scarier fact is we may just be all alone.
But then there is a kind of societal judgment that just comes from the way that ideas about success or happiness are constructed: tropes about happiness and whether we can be happy and whether we can be fulfilled and what measures a successful life — it comes down to all the things we’re supposed to have, and the must-see television, and all of it. Those standards or imagined standards we may feel are judging us, as well, without [us] living up to them, and I wanted to deal with that in the work.
I believe a lot of people condemn self-loathing as a sort of masturbatory practice. Is writing a character who is really self-loathing in some way masturbatory?
I feel you’re being very judgmental about the idea of the masturbatory. It’s not always such a bad thing! People who say that about self-loathing may also have a 10-point plan to happiness for you. I think to allow yourself to be subsumed by self-loathing can be a tragic thing, and I think we fight it. If you’re sensitive to the world and yourself and to what your full capabilities as a human are and where they fall short, a little bit of self-loathing is a very natural thing, and not something to be swept away.
So, is it masturbatory? I don’t think that self-loathing really gives you the pleasure that masturbation does. I think self-loathing can also happen when you don’t understand that it’s not you that’s the problem — when you’re measuring yourself against your fantasies, and you fall short of your ideals. It’s almost as though you’re being trained to turn on yourself, to critique yourself, and to hate yourself. I don’t see it as this incredibly lazy and self-indulgent thing. I see it as kind of a tragic one, and one that people work through, and one that has phases.
Even in my writing, sometimes I hate it and sometimes I don’t. I know I have to work through each day as it comes and see where I get to. I’ve never put it this way before, but mostly I like to write characters who are self-delusional and self-aware. It’s a mix, because often we’re very keen about certain things in our lives and very aware of them, and we’re also very blind to other things. People seem to break characters up into, “That character is aware, or self-aware, and that character is not, based on the way she’s constructing her language or identity,” but I think it’s more complex than that. We’re all doing both at the same time.
How do you feel about humor in fiction? Is it the ultimate method of diffusion?
For me, there are different kinds of humor. What I’m most interested in is kind of the gallows of humor. Diffusion? Yes and no. Humor is how we recognize ourselves as humans, for one thing. A lot of humor really comes from recognize the gap between what we yearn for and what we get — what we think is possible and what is possible — from a kind of cosmic misapprehension. I think that this kind of humor — a deep humor that recognizes life and death and the conditions of our existence — gives us a handle on sanity when the evidence all around us points to chaos and a lack of providing order, and a vulnerability that can be altogether crushing.