The Sam Lipsyte Interview

Today is the day to skip Lent.

Today's interviewee is what Ed McMahon would call "hot property."  Some people claim that his current book, Home Land, is getting short shrift in the States, as it's only coming out in paperback. Other people, like the Believer, are bestowing it with prizes and calling it a Big Important Book.

The Sam Lipsyte Interview: Slightly Less Than Twenty Questions

The Believer, in presenting to you its first annual book award, describes Home Land as ìvery American.î What do you think that means?
I canít say Iím entirely sure, but I suppose that description was meant as a rebuke to the idea among publishers that the book wouldnít appeal to people in the US. Iím assuming they mean ìAmericanî in the best sense.

What are you working on now?
Iíve been playing around with some things, some stories, a new novel. Donít know what will come of it all yet.

Do you ever hold onto your emails to quote from when you write? Or hold onto them in case anybody ever wants to publish your collected letters?
My laptop died a few months ago. I lost everything. I guess I could have backed up all my emails but I didnít. Most of them say, ìOkay. See you there at seven,î or,  ìCheck out this link.î Not very illuminating. I still write letters sometimes. Put stamps on envelopes, the whole deal.

Do you hear back now from former classmates saying youíre going to make them all look like crap in upcoming alumni newsletters?
I heard from one old high school friend. He knew that the novel is not autobiographical, but he was getting a kick out of recognizing where I got some tiny details, like a minor characterís name and such. My high school English teacher came to a reading I did in New York recently. He complimented the prose, so I was pleased.

Are there any keys, you think, to writing a poignant book about young adults in American versus one thatís too snarky or self-congratulatory?
I guess you have to write from the heart, and have one. Does that sound corny? Is it snarky to say it sounds corny? I think itís a matter of risk. As long as the writer (or the voice the writer is inhabiting) knows enough to throw himself onto the same heap as everybody else, it wonít be self-congratulatory.

Part of Home Landís mystique seems to be its underdog quality. Do you think thatís starting to work for the book, that people are talking about it more because it almost didnít happen?
I hope people are talking about it because itís good. Sure, I think there was some initial curiosity because it had a hard time getting published here, but the novel has had to stand on its merits. And, really, my story isnít interesting. There is a tendency on the part of marketing people to search for a hook. He was a prostitute!  She really does love animals!  Heís heir to a chemical fortune! But in the end you just have the work.

Editors seem able easily now to say why Home Land was passed on so much before it was picked up. Did they give you these reasons or were they largely unbeknownst to you?
The most common response was ìI really like it but we donít know how to sell it.î That was pretty infuriating. I almost preferred, ìI donít like it, so Iíll pass.î

What do you think makes a good literary agent?
Tenacity. Faith in his or her taste.

Can you think of any real-life Lewises, high profile versions of what what Lizzie Skurnick describes as ìtoo interesting a loserî?
Not high profile.

The Subject Steve was published on Sept. 11, 2001 and youíve said that Home Landís title made some editors nervous due to current events.  Not to be blithe, but terrorism has directly interfered with your writing career. Does this make you feel any differently, you think, regarding our countryís policy and security than if you were not a writer?
I donít know, Claire, thatís pretty damn blithe. No, I donít think the fact that I write informs what I believe about those things. Maybe what I believe informs some of what I write.

You say in an interview with Kevin Sampsell that you steal from your life and the lives of your friends in your writing. Has this strained many relationships?
Well, the old joke is that the only thing that hurts people more than having some aspect of their lives depicted in your book is not making the cut. My wife is convinced sheís every major female character Iíve ever written. I beg to differ. A friend, upon reading something Iíd written, said, ìYou stole my life!î What Iíd stolen was a shitty job heíd had for about three weeks. I gave the same job to a character. So, maybe thereís a little strain, but it never lasts. And donít believe what I say to Kevin Sampsell. Heís a good fiction writer himself so I tend to lie to him to throw him off his game.

Much has been made of the fact that the book is only being published in paperback here in the States.  From a publishing point of view, why is this negative? Iím not very clear on the processes of hardback and paperback.
I was happy the book came out as a paperback original. I donít think itís negative at all. Iíve always liked the format and I think itís a much more reasonable price to ask somebody to pay to take a chance on a novel.

Do you have a feel as you write how good it will turn out to be, or do you just write and figure it out as you go along? Do you abandon much of your work?
I abandon most of what I write. I can tell when somethingís just plain wrong with the voice or the tone pretty quickly. What sucks is when youíre on a tear but then you hit a wall. You have to back up and try another direction. I donít really plan that much ahead so Iím finding out what it is Iím writing while Iím writing it. Thatís the first draft. Then there is a lot of heavy revision. But stuff gets tossed in all phases.

Do you hold onto any old grudges or crushes from high school? And do you think back to those folks whenever you experience a success like Home Land? (I personally am almost done getting over my high school beefs.)
Maybe some crushes, but no grudges. Iíve purged myself through art, man. And Iím not sure what the definition of success is here, anyway. Maybe Iíll get another book published. Thatís about the extent of it.

Whatís the best thing youíve read lately?
Iíve been reading this history textbook D.H. Lawrence wrote for ìadolescents.î Iím fascinated by the way he compressed thousands of years into these quite poetic (if entirely misguided) nuggets.

How does it feel to be the 118th person interviewed for
I feel angry, used. 118? When will you settle down?

More interviews here