Sam Lipsyte is the author of Venus Drive, The Subject Steve and Home Land, which was a New York Times Notable Book of 2005 and winner of The Believer Book Award. His latest book, The Ask, was published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux in March, 2010. His writing has appeared in Bookforum, McSweeney’s, Tin House, Esquire, GQ and Playboy, among many others, and he’s a former editor of the prominent ‘90’s webzine FEED. He currently teaches fiction at Columbia University.
In the New York Times Book Review, Lydia Millet writes that, “Lipsyte is one of a handful of living American satirists (and when I say ‘handful’ I mean a very tiny hand, with three fingers at most, including the thumb) who can tell a traditional story while remaining foul-mouthed and dirty enough to occupy the literary vanguard.” In a 2005 Loggernaut Reading Series interview, Lipsyte told Gary Shteyngart (whose own interview for the Days of Yore can be found here), “I see a lot of pathos out there and not a lot of good comedy.” Well, it seems Lipsyte has succeeded in bucking that trend. Jennifer Schuessler for the New York Review of Books calls him, “Scabrously, deliriously, piss-yourself funny.”
He was once the frontman of a noise rock band called Dungbeetle.
When did you start writing? Did you always know you were going to be a writer?
My parents were journalists and writers so I started young, probably just trying to imitate them, and get on their good side, but then I found myself enthralled by it pretty early. I didn’t always know I would be a writer, and wanted to be other things as well, but I knew it was possible because I had the model of my parents, who both wrote. My father got up and went to his typewriter each day. That’s how he earned his living. Sometimes it was journalism, or nonfiction books, or young adult novels, but it was always something he did in the basement of our house.
So what “other things” did you think you might want to do?
Other things I wanted to be included a pro quarterback, a nameless drifter in the French Foreign Legion, and a European film director. Later I fronted an art rock band. But I was always drawn back to writing, to playing with language, telling stories. I wanted to write because I loved to read, and I wanted to do what the writers of those books had done. I wrote a story when I was fifteen about a middle-aged man having a terrible divorce and recalling his days as high school shot put champion. I actually was a high school shot-putter so I didn’t have to research that part. The rest I had no handle on whatsoever. It was utter crap, but I was hooked. I’d written a lot of science fiction before that, but this was different. I’d stumbled into mid-century American realism! Seemed like two minutes later I was reading post-modern novels, then modernist classics, then back and forward some more. Now a universe began to reveal itself. One book would lead you to the next. One book would support the next, or negate it. You could return to the books you had already read with new eyes. You could love and hate all of this stuff, but the main thing is you started to read as a writer as well as a reader, or even student. You took what you needed, left the carcass behind and kept moving. I didn’t know what the hell was going on, but I was in deep.
When was your first book deal?
Ten years ago. I was 31. I had been writing stories for a long time and publishing a few in some journals, including Open City. They started a book arm and I was their second book. I was very happy.
When did you begin to identify yourself as a writer?
I started at parties in college. I thought it would impress women. Of course I was just a poseur, but so was everybody else, so it didn’t matter. If anybody pitied me enough to offer some sort of physical contact, be it just a mild brushing of coat sleeves, I am sure it was despite the fact that I said I was a writer. When my first book was published I had just ended one relationship and was embarking on another with an old girlfriend who would become a new girlfriend, and then my wife.
How did your family (your parents, for instance) feel about your aspirations to be a writer before you were published? How do they feel now?
I think they were encouraging when I was teenager, winning lots of teen writing awards. Then when I was hitting thirty and clearly a bust I’m not sure how excited they were, but they never said anything negative, just suggested I look into other avenues. Like law school. My mother died when I was 28, so she missed all my books. I still find this very sad. Though who knows if they would be the same books if she had lived? This is the kind of gruesome question writing can lead you to.
How did you support yourself before you were able to make money on your writing?
I washed dishes at a rib house. I’ve also been a substitute teacher, a telephone survey caller, and some other things. The main job I had while writing my first book was working as an editor at an early and influential ‘90’s webzine called FEED. Though my “break” didn’t really change my life financially – I got $3,000 for my first book – but I got an advance on my second, which gave me two years of writing time.
What was your publishing trajectory like- were you publishing in magazines or other outlets before your first book?
Did some freelance nonfiction, and some short stories here and there.
What would be on your grocery list at that time?
Peanut butter, canned tomatoes, eggs, bread, coffee, milk, cigarettes.
Where were you living?
How do you write: at home, at an office, cafe etc? Is it difficult for you to balance writing on a project and doing other jobs (such as teaching, now, or other things before) or do these things feed off one another?
I write in libraries. I have kids so I don’t have the room at home. I like it. I need the quiet. Most of my work gets done in the summer or on leave, because the teaching fills my days during the school year. It seems like a fair compromise. I don’t know the number of serious fiction writers who support themselves only through their writing, but I’d guess you could count them on your hands.
Was there ever a time you thought about quitting writing and focusing on something else? What stopped you?
I really had nothing else to focus on. When you don’t have a fallback, you have no choice but to fall forward. Or, I guess, sideways, which I still do sometimes.
Photo by Ceridwen Morris
Interview by Astri von Arbin Ahlander