Underground No More: The Rumpus Interview with Sam Lipsyte

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The Ask tells the story of Milo Burke, the latest in Lipsyte’s long line of anti-heroes. By the end, Lipsyte has strengthened his claim as our greatest comic novelist.

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More than five years have passed since Sam Lipsyte’s Home Land confounded the publishing world. After being turned down by more than twenty U.S. imprints, the novel was finally published—to instant acclaim—in the U.K., and later released in this country as a paperback original (by Picador). Brilliantly constructed as a series of letters from the unforgettable Lewis “Teabag” Miner to his high-school alumni magazine, Home Land solidified Lipsyte’s burgeoning status as the funniest writer no one really knew.

But we knew him, of course—those of us who cared about good books, who read reviews and subscribed to literary magazines and traipsed around Brooklyn and the Mission (and other places with dark basements and uninhabitable rooms) to the countless readings and panels that keep our literary world, however tenuously, afloat. Sam was one of us—is one of us—only funnier, smarter, and more ubiquitous. There he is, sipping whiskey in the corner of a book party, slightly awkward but always approachable. Or providing a pithy quote for a debut novel. Or lending his name to a fundraiser. Or, maybe, now you’ll find him reading from his newest work—perhaps his masterwork: The Ask, released today by FSG.

The Ask tells the story of Milo Burke—laid off development officer, confused father, hopeless husband—the latest in Lipsyte’s long line of pathetic but endearing anti-heroes. When Milo is given one last chance to turn his life around, friendships are tested, hearts are broken, and hilarity ensues. By the end, a reader knows one thing for certain: Lipsyte has only strengthened his claim as our greatest comic novelist. But I’ll leave the reviews to others; I know the author a bit too well (he blurbed my first book) to be objective. Instead, I forced Sam onto IM, ostensibly to talk craft, but other subjects—stupid athletes, chronic masturbation, and groundbreaking blurb work—kept getting in the way. I kind of hoped they would.

David Goodwillie

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The Rumpus: Sam, thanks for doing this. I felt IMing would be very Rumpus-y, original, etc., until I saw you did one of these with Gawker a few years back.

Sam Lipsyte: That’s right. I forgot. Another era. Time is moving strangely.

Rumpus: Another era seems a good place to start. Milo Burke, the main character of The Ask, is something of a luddite. He’s constantly saying things like, “We still did not own the devices that let you skip the commercials.” And yet you were involved with the Internet—as an editor at Feed.com—very early on. Which side of this equation do you fall on these days?

Lipsyte: Left to my own devices (ouch) I’ve mostly been a late adapter, also known as a dead man. When I worked at Feed I had to pick a few things up. But I wasn’t writing code, just editing and writing articles.

Rumpus: Well, the online literary world has very much adopted you.

Lipsyte: The blogs were really fundamental to Home Land getting a readership. And that’s where I find out what’s going on with other writers as well. So I’m not a luddite in that sense. I’m just not the guy with apps.

Rumpus: Maybe bloggers saw a chance when the brick and mortar publishing world dropped the ball with Home Land.

Lipsyte: Yes, I think there was the sense that we can collectively champion a work and make a difference.

Rumpus: Speaking of… The Ask is a hardcover! How’s it feel? Any different? Or were you getting comfortable as the spokesman for paperback originals everywhere?

Lipsyte: I started as a PBO boy with my first book, Venus Drive. So I’m a big fan of the format. But it’s nice to have a hardback out there. Who knows how much longer they’ll make them?

Rumpus: Oh God, don’t say that. Everyone says that. You need to be the voice of the resistance.

Lipsyte: Do I look like a fucking CEO? Oh, wait, you can’t see me… Yes, I think the PBO is a great thing. Most of the younger people I know, and the older people, too, come to think of it, can’t really afford too many hardbacks. But they remain one of life’s real pleasures. I was just talking to some tech guy at a party who kept telling me it was all over for text. Over. And good riddance, from his perspective. Time to move on to that more globally inclusive visual culture.

Rumpus: As long as books are still here, blurbs probably will be, too. You’re known, along with Gary Shteyngart, as being one of the great blurbers of our time. Are there that many wonderful books coming out? Or are you just a softie?

Lipsyte: I see some good stuff. And I want to encourage it—the work I think is interesting, daring. A little friendly push into the void might help the book bump into some faraway readers. A lot of writers have stopped blurbing. Just won’t do it. Burnt out, maybe. I’m getting fatigued, and pass on a lot of stuff now, but I also still want to help somehow. I work with Gary at Columbia, and I’m sure he feels the same way. I love some of his blurbs—they are becoming surreal little projects. He’s doing groundbreaking blurb work. There is also my hunch that blurbs don’t make a difference, but I don’t know.

Rumpus: Groundbreaking blurb work. Now that’s something.

Lipsyte: The ideal would be the bookless blurb.

Rumpus: Or just as rare, the blurbless book.

Lipsyte: Well, if publishers would stop demanding their writers get blurbs, or agents stop demanding “pre-blurbs,” we’d be better off.

Rumpus: Who will be the first to go blurbless?

Lipsyte: Me. I don’t have a blurb on The Ask.

Rumpus: Really?

Lipsyte: It’s mostly reviews of my past books.

Rumpus: Well speaking of… you said, in a Home Land-era interview hidden somewhere deep in the Web, that after the trials and tribulations of Lewis “Teabag” Miner, you felt you should “strive for a laugh-free enterprise the next time out.” Well, nice work. The Ask is the funniest book I’ve read since Jernigan, or maybe Portnoy’s Complaint.

Lipsyte: Thanks, David. Yes, I remember saying that. I think I even tried something somber. But then the character started masturbating and it was all over.

Rumpus: Yeah, it happens.

Lipsyte: Apparently.

Rumpus: Beyond the masturbation issues, Milo Burke is a real sad sack. He keeps fucking up, and he’s very aware of it, and yet he is trying. He’s not giving up on life.

Lipsyte: That’s right. I think you’ve got it. He’s got problems, but he’s definitely putting in the effort. It’s just not clear where the effort should be directed. He’s in over his head.

Rumpus: Which makes him remarkably identifiable, of course. Are any of us clear, in this peculiar American moment, where our efforts should be directed?

Lipsyte: I don’t think so. Or if somebody is, he or she isn’t sharing.

Rumpus: No, those of us cursed with even a modicum of self-awareness are screwed… Athletes, politicians and reality stars are fine.

Lipsyte: My wife has this idea about the people who are just dumb enough to succeed in the world. They’re smart and accomplished, but also “just dumb enough.” She wants to start JustDumbEnough.com. People could write in with nominations.

Rumpus: Right. You can’t hit a baseball if you’re actually smart enough to think about what you’re doing.

Lipsyte: Or else you have to know how to turn that part of you off. I mean, you can hit a baseball. You must have compartmentalized.

Rumpus: I could hit a baseball until I reached a certain level and then it didn’t matter what the hell I thought about, it wasn’t happening… Speaking of sports, I grew up reading your father’s writing in the Times sports pages. He’s also a novelist. Did he make you want to be a writer?

Lipsyte: Nowadays the parenting books would call it “modeling behavior” or something. I saw this man down in the basement with his coffee and his typewriter. My mom, too, was a journalist and novelist. It didn’t seem exotic and unreachable. People did it. I guess it’s the way so many athletes come from families that are involved in sports. You still have to do all the things one does to become a writer, but you don’t think it’s an utterly insane proposition.

Rumpus: Ah, the good old days. The New York of Willie Morris’s Harper’s magazine. Writing as full-contact sport. As something you wrestled down and defeated every day. Now people write a few hundred words then head off to yoga. Or worse, write about what they’ve just written and post it on their blogs.

Lipsyte: Strangely, my dad was doing yoga before practically anybody around here.

Rumpus: Perfect. That’s what I get for generalizing.

Lipsyte: But he was definitely a newspaperman, who dug deep but still hit his deadlines. He was a reporter. It’s a different world now.

Rumpus: You teach writing at Columbia. And you’re married with two children. Does being really busy help your novel-writing?

Lipsyte: In a way it does. I used to squander a lot of time to get some “good hours” in. Now I have much briefer windows. I have to attack. Hit the ground running. No dilly-dallying. Though of course I still do. You still need to be dreamy. But when it’s time to write I’m not scared of being distracted. I won’t be. I’m going to die. I’ve got to finish this story, this scene, this book.

Rumpus: You also drink whiskey, live—or lived—in Astoria, and have a young family—just like Milo Burke. Are you ready for the obligatory “Is this autobiographical?” question at every reading?

Lipsyte: My answer is: None of it is autobiographical except for all of it.

Rumpus: That should shut people up.

Lipsyte: For the time it takes me to get out of the bookstore at least.

David Goodwillie

Rumpus: One of my favorite lines in The Ask—and there are dozens of great ones—has to do with social networking. Here’s Milo discussing his wife: “Maura passed most evenings befriending men who had tried to date rape her in high school, but I was still stuck in the last virtual community, a sad place to be, like Europe, say, during the black death.” How important is Facebook, the Web, etc, in promoting books these days? I notice FSG has an online marketing guru.

Lipsyte: It’s really important, it seems. FSG is doing a bang-up job. Facebook, Twitter. I’m not really involved with the planning. I just go out and read. That’s what I like.

Rumpus: There’s a great line in The Quarterly Conversation‘s review of The Ask: “[Lipsyte’s] like a stand-up comedian who has decided to stop being funny and speak the truth, even though what comes out of his mouth still sounds terribly funny.” Do you set out with the idea of writing comedically, or is it the only style you know?

Lipsyte: It just tends to come out that way. But I do like the stand-up analogy, because I like the performative aspect of some elements in writing. Of course you can revise, but then again comedians hone their material as well. The idea is to make it seem spontaneous and naturally crazed, but it comes down to very precise timing… There’s a good novel by Wallace Markfield called You Could Live If They Let You, about an academic’s relationship with a great stand-up, that touches on some of this.

Rumpus: Do you ever feel trapped, in that readers now expect a certain type of book from you? I’m thinking a bit of Joshua Ferris’s new novel, The Unnamed—it’s a 180-degree departure from his comedic debut, and he paid a bit of a price for it review-wise.

Lipsyte: Well, you have to be ready to lose some readers and gain others. And some readers will follow you as you try new things. But I’ve already gotten a review where the guy loved Home Land and feels betrayed by The Ask, and it’s happened in the past. Each book has its partisans. You think of your books as siblings but other people don’t. As a writer you want to put yourself into new difficulties, so I do my best to ignore those expectations. But you still don’t know. You don’t know which of your books will matter the most in the future, if there is a future, or one where these considerations still take place.

Rumpus: The phrase “set piece” is getting used a lot by your early reviewers. Does that bother you as much as it does me? I mean, it makes a scene sound like an SNL skit or something—tie enough of them together and you get a plot! I’m not sure many writers sketch out “set pieces” beforehand. Some scenes just naturally become more pivotal. Or am I crazy?

Lipsyte: I don’t know if you’re crazy, but you’re right about this. It’s true that there are more extended scenes in my books, or moments when many characters come together, but I think novels were doing that for centuries before SNL came along. I don’t sketch things out. I may have a sense after awhile of what stuff needs to be drastically pruned so it can balance out longer, more complicated runs, but the book teaches you what’s important, or pivotal, as you write it.

Rumpus: You’re not a big fan of conjunctions—the old “and” after the comma, etc. To the point where it becomes a real stylistic choice. The reader notices it at first, and then fall easily into its rhythm. Shit: “The reader notices it at first, then falls easily…”

Lipsyte: It’s true. Somebody once sent me a video clip of that old public television educational song, “Conjunction junction, what’s your function?” as a sort of admonishment. I just like how the rhythm changes when you compress that way. It’s a way to avoid over-familiar cadences. It’s the same with avoiding lists of three, that sort of thing. Get the sentences to jump a little.

Rumpus: The entire book jumps, Sam. Very high.

Lipsyte: Glad to hear it!

Rumpus: It’s snowing hard outside.

Lipsyte: That mean we’re done?


David Goodwillie is the author of the forthcoming novel American Subversive, and the acclaimed memoir Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time. He has also played professional baseball, worked as a private investigator, and been an expert at Sotheby's auction house. A graduate of Kenyon College, he lives and works in New York City. More from this author →