Cue The Gods Of Despair
An Interview With Sara Lippmann

Sara LippmannSara Lippmann received a BA from Brown and an MFA from The New School. Her stories have been published in Tupelo Quarterly, Joyland, Jewish FictionThe Good Men ProjectSlice Magazine and elsewhere, nominated for the Pushcart Prize, and included in Wigleaf's Top 50. She received a 2012 Fellowship in Fiction from the New York Foundation for the Arts and her debut collection, Doll Palace, was longlisted for the 2015 Frank O'Connor International Short Story Award. Raised outside of Philadelphia, she lives with her husband and children in Brooklyn, and teaches through Ditmas Writing Workshops.

  • I read far, far too much writing online, wear my eyes bald. From the first piece I read of hers, Sara Lippman’s cut through like vinegar through sauce. Here are some questions I emailed to her in New York.Sara, I’ve found a couple of short, short stories of yours from 2010 'Two Microfictions' When did you start writing, start taking it seriously, and how do you feel it’s changed over the years?

Yikes. I’ve been interested in writing forever: high school newspaper stuff, etc. I started writing fiction in college. I was terrible. My prose was overwrought and I don’t think I had anything to say, but I was drawn to language and its possibilities. I studied words like music. There was emotion, maybe, but little meaning behind it. I didn’t see fiction as a realistic option so I went into magazines, where the idea was not to have your own voice but to parrot the editorial voice of the magazine, an attempt which proved its own sort of fiction for a woman of 22.

I got an MFA but I don’t know it cracked me open in any real way; if anything, it smoothed over the cracks. I wrote and published some and that was nice but that was all it was – nice.

Cut to motherhood! Here we go. Sometime around the birth of my son, I realized my MFA thesis would not be a book. I abandoned it. Later, when my daughter started sleeping, I start waking up with entire short stories on my pillow. It’s true, that saying about the space around the work, about honoring that space. (I think maybe it’s Grace Paley.) Because somehow, in all those years away from the page, years of not writing, other things were happening creatively. I couldn’t quantify it, but the stirring had returned. With that stirring came an impatience toward bloated drawn-out fiction, the smoke and mirrors kind of prose, i.e. my former style. I lost interest in language, or rather, my interest in language took a turn toward precision and concision. Preciousness went out the window, along with routine. I stole minutes. I started to carve out stories. The initial pieces were urgent and short because my windows of time were short. I had something to say and said it. I got in, out. I moved on.

  • Your stories expect your reader to do some of the work. You leave gaps. You don’t fill a limited word count with exposition. Still they deliver the narrative and emotional goods. Are you more than willing to lose readers who don’t have the smarts to follow what you’re doing?

I try to leave space for the reader. As a reader myself, I experience this as a generosity. I welcome stories and novels that place a certain demand on me, that call upon me to engage. Reading is not a passive act., So I hope I do leave enough for a reader to get close and excavate a little. For me, that heightens the emotional experience. But as you said, it’s a fine balance. I’m not trying to be dodgy or aiming for obfuscation. But I guess some readers might disagree!

  • Do you write a piece and then think of where to send it, or do you specifically think ‘I’ll try and write something for ..... I like what they do’?

Unless I’ve been solicited for a particular thing, I never think of audience or market when I’m in the active stage of writing. Usually I have a gut sense of whether a story is destined to be short or long, based on the nature/shape of the idea kernel, but that’s it, and even that may change once I get inside of it and see where it’s going.

Like you, I read a lot of short fiction online. When I stumble upon a story I love, I pay attention to that writer. I fangirl over lots of writers and the journals that publish them. When it comes time to submit my own work, these journals stay with me. I think very short fiction works really well online – digest a story over breakfast, at lunch, snacktime – so that’s where I tend to submit. With longer stories, and it’s funny, I’ve been having email exchanges with different people about this lately, but I try to exercise patience and do what we’ve all been taught about going thoughtfully down “the list” – but here’s the thing: I continue to feel haunted by a story until it’s been laid to rest, so to speak. It’s agony to let a story wallow in a queue for more than six months. Maybe this is bad behavior, but after a certain amount of time, I start looking at journals that I still admire deeply – but that are prompter in their turnarounds. I understand small staffs, submission loads, etc. But having been on various mastheads, I think it’s a common courtesy to extend to writers. Yes, no. Next. I just want to be read.

  • One of the things that most impresses about your writing is that you never seem to flinch. I don’t mean you gratuitously torture or humiliate your characters, or that they’re 2-dimensional figures you toss about like Godzilla; you write full-bloodiedly and humanely, but you don’t balk at going to dark places, and you’re never sentimental. (eg your most recent Wigleaf Top 50 Pick, 'Fallen Souflée' or 'Blame The Machine'. Did you work towards that, or are you innately unschmaltzy?

Thanks, Nick. I don’t know. If your characters are all out having a great day, that’s pretty dull fiction, right? Narrative possibilities await in shadows, in the dark. When I was young and fresh out of school, I went on a big A.M. Homes kick. Even before then, it’s been the kind of writing I gravitate toward. Spare, unflinching, quietly devastating. Richard Yates. Susan Minot. Later, Rachel Sherman. I am resistant to fiction where the emotion sits on top like a skin, like pond scum, where you can feel the author trying to elicit a certain reaction. Of course, all writing is a form of manipulation but that kind of thing feels particularly manipulative to me, so I try to steer clear of it. As both reader and writer. Yes, don’t be afraid of emotion. Don’t hold back. But please don’t tell me how to feel. If you shove it down my throat, or if I can feel the author’s hands reaching for the twist of heart, chances are it will backfire. I’ll laugh where I’m supposed to cry. Cringe through play-by-play romance. Sentimentalism works in “E.T.”, maybe, although it’s been ages since I’ve seen that movie – and still, I’m resentful even as I weep.

  • Continuing on that theme, most of your stories leave me feeling uncomfortable. Even the funny ones. They wound. They bark the reader’s shins, at the very least! Is that what you’re digging for in a story, the most knotted, painful muscle to knuckle?

I try to access the core. The center of the Tootsie Pop. If I’m writing from anything toward anything, it’s honesty, hopefully. (And by honesty, of course, I don’t mean fact. It seems silly to underline when discussing fiction and yet there can be a careless conflation, particularly among those who embrace first person POV, women especially.) It can be squirmy and unsettling to confront certain aspects of humanity, but I want them to penetrate. That’s why I read. For those ugly truths. Show me the vulnerable underbelly.

  • Do you prefer writing in the first person?

I enjoy writing in first person because it creates that illusion of intimacy, like, Come here. I’m telling you something. I understand how this gets construed as confessional (particularly, again, for women) but it’s a device, right? A narrative choice. A construct, like any other. And sure, if that fosters and strengthens the reader connection, then I’m going to do it. I want you next to me, to pull you in close. That is important to me. It can also bring the action to the foreground in a way. (For someone like me, who’s weak on plot, this is helpful.) I tend to use first person the most with shorter fiction, with flash, in particular. Maybe that’s a crutch. But it sets pace, ratchets up the tension, and deters me from launching into lengthy descriptions or indulgent interiority or what have you. That said, the project I’m working on now is in a series of close thirds. There are elements to that point of view that allow me the kind of exploration that would feel awkward and ungainly told in first.

  • You’ve written about holidaying girls and older male counsellors at summer camp in 'Wolf or Deer'' You’ve written about Patrick Swayze in 'Hey Baby' – was ‘Dirty Dancing’ a seminal film for you, by any chance?

Dirty Dancing was everything! It still is. “I don’t think you ever had any intention of telling him. Ever.”

  • I found a great clip of you on YouTube, reading your story Reunion and killing the audience. I know that you’ve also co-hosted a reading salon in New York City. Now that poetry and comedy have had a turn, is Fiction Writing the new Rock and Roll? It may well just be the circles I mix in but I know far more people trying to be writers than trying to be the next Thom Yorke or Rihanna...

Rock n Roll ain’t noise pollution. Rock n Roll ain’t gonna die.

Seriously, though, who am I to speak of trends? I just invoked AC/DC. Maybe fiction’s having a moment. Maybe there’s been a rise. Maybe it’s visibility. Certainly, there has been a proliferation of MFA programs, of reading series and literary magazines and communities and collectives and residencies and conferences and small presses. All of which is wonderful. Unless you’re Pynchon, authors are actively engaging with their readers in spirited and fruitful conversation. The whole world of writing feels more alive and expansive and committed to dialogue and change than it did when I first started tinkering many years ago. I’ve said this before, but I don’t know I would’ve gone the MFA route had I been a part of the charged, dynamic, diverse, and passionate community that lives and breathes today. I love that I connect with you in England, or others – in New Mexico, Idaho, Boston, LA. New Zealand, even. There are so many vibrant people doing truly exciting work and sharing in generous ways. I’m happy to be a teeny tiny part of it (when I’m not feeling like a worthless fraud.) And yeah, I know more writers than pop stars.

  • Does having performed your stories publicly change how you write new stories?

Here’s a thing about me – I’m a wreck in front of people. Tongue-tied, red in the face. Hands waving like a lunatic as a distraction from my oratory incompetence. I started hosting the Salon because it terrified. As a child, I had a host of speech issues so public speaking meant a mountain of shame. Later, it morphed into a different but equally humiliating brand of hedge-ridden speech that continues to haunt me. I talk how I talk and though there might be value buried in there, it can be hard to find beneath all the anxiety. This is one of many ways I self-sabotage. Through years of hosting monthly at the Sunday Salon, I’ve gotten a bit better at getting out of my own way in welcoming authors to the stage. I may not be charming but I’m real. A cold pint (or two) helps.

When I’m reading my own work aloud, however; that is, when it’s a story I’ve written and the paper is right in front of me, it’s different. The nerves fall away. I’m more at ease. When the book came out, I did a lot of readings, so that now when I read my work it’s almost fun. Maybe that’s pushing it. But I’m fine, really.

How does this rambling relate to writing? I tend to obsess over the line. How it falls, where it hits. The rhythm of a paragraph. I can catch some real clunkers when I read aloud, so that is an important step to my editing process. But no, I never write for performance. I am aware of what might work or flop, and often I’m surprised, and often that changes from audience to audience. But then at readings, most people want funny and I’m not funny – miserable, maybe, but the guffaws are few and far between.

Maybe I ought to try writing for performance.

Last – because I am often scrambled, because I manage to spectacularly botch what I hope to say, I am acutely aware of this disconnect. How things get lost in translation. The gulf between what you want to say and what comes out and how speech is interpreted/misread by others. My characters often say the opposite of what they mean or else deflect or gloss or something. This chasm of public and private, of outward and inner speech, is something I continue to think about, play and struggle with, and it definitely has seeped into my writing.

  • I know that you teach flash fiction, as well. As a reader, what are you looking for in a piece of flash?

I look for the same things across the board, regardless of genre. Challenge me emotionally, intellectually. Immerse me in your world. I want to be shaken, stirred. Give me a reason, a feeling, but with flash, I’m also looking for the fullness and depth of story. How a narrative is compressed to its bones and how those bones come together in unexpected yet inevitable ways. Strum a nerve or alter my thinking, reverberate in the deep long after I’ve finished the page.

  • What are the most common mistakes that your students make? What tips or advice do you find most improves their writing? (And was that advice ever given to you?)

I think there can be a tendency toward impatience, to rush for done-ness. We’re all about that instant gratification. We’re like toddlers. I can barely wait six months on a story! Who’s the toddler now?! We can be sloppy and lazy. My students are often surprised that writing, it’s actually hard. Bear with me, but it’s like, go to a party where some guy says, “You’re a writer? Hey, I’ve got a book to write.” And sure, power to you. Write that book. It’s not some elitist or rarefied thing. To the contrary, talent has a very small role. It’s work, commitment. Sure, it can look easy. Effortless. We’re all versed in the English language. What could be difficult? Bad writing might be easy. Bad writing is a weed. It’s everywhere. (The only downside to the online proliferation is the scythe required to hack through some of that thicket.) But you’re fooling no one. Good writing can take blood, sweat, the works. Multiple drafts can be a strength not a weakness. Be merciless. Persevere, with patience.

Meg Wolitzer’s advice on the imperative has stayed with me – I’m butchering here, but it’s about locating that imperative. That’s the marrow: why are you telling this? To provide a clear imperative is to lend urgency, to propel a story forward. Which – to put the Jew spin on it – give your story the Four Questions treatment: ‘Why tonight instead of all other nights’?

I think that’s key.

Meredith Steinbach, my undergrad thesis advisor told me, Sit up straight.

I’m still working on it.

  • A few of your stories, like 'Charity Case' and 'Jew' directly address your Jewish background. Do you feel it’s important for writers to explicitly draw on their own cultures, location, class, social milieu etc, to prevent everything becoming homogenised and bland, to add some dumplings to the soup?

I think it’s important for writers to do what they want, to draw on what they want. This want will take shape differently for everyone. I have a fraught relationship with religion. Judaism is an important aspect of my identity, my sensibility, but it’s complicated. As inextricable as it is from me, I’ve fought against it my whole life. In my book, maybe only one or two stories touch on Jewish themes, yet that sensibility is present elsewhere in a less overt way. My characters stage quiet rebellions, bristle against those external and internal codes, the societal mores, etc. So it’s there. Or the superstition, the causal relationship, the Newtonian law of every action having an equal and opposite reaction. ie Who should live, who should die? The way we grasp for rationality in the midst of irrationality. But it is not something I necessarily lead with. I have written more directly about this through nonfiction, through personal essays. My old abandoned MFA thesis? More classically Jewish in theme.

There are aspects of religion – as a system of beliefs, as I’ve experienced it, as a way of thinking and doing, as embodiment of contradictions and transgressions, all that guilt and fear, the inequity, and shame (not to mention, as the root of all wars) that continue to trouble and interest me. There is a tension that I will probably forever engage with, even if it isn’t framed in a traditional way.

Which is to say, to cycle back, I feel it’s crucial that writers tap their obsessions. Write them, get inside them. Explore and understand them. Let them surprise you. What this process looks like will be different for everyone. But to run away from them – to deny those obsessions – to write about something that doesn’t keep you up at night, or to avoid writing about what troubles and haunts you, to sidestep your worries and concerns and fears and desires, well, that is rather bland and depressing. Why bother? If you don’t care about it, what’s the investment for the reader?

  • My last interview was with Bud Smith, who writes fast, and doesn’t sweat over redrafting. Do you sweat over your stories? Do you enjoy the writing or the editing more?

Bud Smith is my hero! He is one of the most gifted and kind hearted writers I am lucky to know. I love that you are a fan of his, too. I am always inspired by Bud’s energy and passion, his incredible wisdom and sheer output, his lust for life and art. Bud should have hats, so that I can wear a Bud hat when I write. For me, the whole thing is a touchy balance of work, of play. When I’m starting something new, stabbing in the dark, yes, I’ll scribble it fast, longhand, one messy sentence, keep the word vomit fast and furious until the story emerges and the idea feels real to me, until I’ve hooked into something. That’s the fun part. Then I transcribe my rotten handwriting. Less fun. And then I have to evaluate the mess and try to unpack it and rearrange and expand and add scene and cut, cut, cut, and see what’s left. It’s not the most efficient process but it’s how I work. I’m slow. I do get off on editing, though. I love trimming fat. Say a draft comes in at 1400 words and I want to submit it at flash. It’s so satisfying to tighten and compress. The problem is, I can’t stop. It’s a problem. I can edit forever. But hands down, the joyous beginnings and merciless ends are my favorite parts. It’s that sluggish murky middle, where everything looks like crap stage, that bums me out. Cue the gods of despair.

  • Finally, do you have a favourite of your stories (and if so, why?)

'Let All the Restless Creatures Go' is a newer long story, in many ways a departure for me, but I can read it from beginning to end without wanting to hurl – no small thing – though I’ve never read it aloud. I can read 'Reunion' out loud with little incident, as well as 'The Second Act'. 'Houseboy' was exhilarating to write, it poured out of me, but I would likely lose all bodily function if I attempted an Israeli accent at the mic. That, my friend, would not be pretty.

Interview by Nick Black

Nick BlackNick Black’s flash fiction has won or been listed for various competitions, including the 2014 North London Lit Fest, the 2015 and '16 Bath Flash Fiction Awards, and AdHoc Fiction (twice). They have also been published by various literary magazines including Litro and SickLit. Many can be found at www.fuzzynick.wordpress.com

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