On a recent Friday afternoon in Morningside Heights, The Voice met the man routinely hailed as one of America’s funniest writers: Sam Lipsyte. Sitting in the Creative Writing Department at Columbia, where he has taught in the M.F.A. program for the past eight years, Lipsyte seems like one of those Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society-types. His voice is quieter than most people’s, and every once in awhile he’ll say something pretty profound, pause, laugh not too loudly, throw his head back, and smile behind his dark-rimmed glasses. For someone the New York Times called “piss-yourself funny” and “the novelist of his generation,” he appears subdued and down to earth. We caught up with him about writing, his college days, and his latest book, The Fun Parts, a collection of short stories that will be released by FSG on March 5.
You went to Brown in the late ’80s, when the semiotics department (most recently documented by Jeffrey Eugenides in The Marriage Plot) was in full force. Did you feel like those years of studying deconstructionism impacted your writing, for better or worse?
It did both. It made me not want to write fiction for a while. It screwed up romantic ideas I had about writing, which was a good thing. If you’re ambitious you might hit a wall if you remain naive and don’t know what people have been thinking and saying for the last 40 years. So, in the end, I’m not very sorry about any of it.
I understand that you were in an alt noise-rock band during those years?
Yes, partly because I didn’t want to write anymore. I had been writing for a long time, and I found solace in screaming in this band, in “being creative,” quote-unquote. It was called Dung Beetle. We felt the metaphor was right, because dung beetles spend their lives rolling in shit uphill. We felt that’s what we were trying to do.
What made you want to take a break from writing?
I wanted to get away from that identity of myself as “a writer.” The “Sam’s a writer. He won this state prize, he won a dictionary from the local college, etc.” Things like that shaped my identity, and I began to feel anxious about fulfilling that role. I needed a break. When I came back to writing, there was this revelation that nobody really cared. I realized I just wanted to write and I didn’t care about about doing anything else. I didn’t even care if things got published. I just wanted to get good.
At what point did you start writing again?
I got serious again when I was 25. I worked on all different sorts of jobs in the meantime. Telephone marketing. A substitute teacher for a while. For a long time, I worked at a very early online magazine called FEED, a webzine as we called it in those days.
What’s your advice for young writers?
The advice is to give a shit. To know that you’re going to find it in language. To listen to yourself, that’s the most important thing. To pay attention to what you’re doing. A lot of us try to rush through, or try to make it “good enough.” Or we think, “I just need to write this section to get to the good part.” It all has to be the good part. We all have that voice, the critic in our head telling us, “That’s not good enough. You can do better.” There’s also a voice that says, “You’re a piece of shit and you’ll never do anything.” They may sound like the same voice sometimes, but you need to separate them. You have to find a balance between recklessness and control, and a way to put your heart out there–not in a cathartic manner, but in a way that will make others feel. You’re creating a machine to make others feel.
In the age of smart phones, tablets, and shorter attention spans, do you feel like the short story could become the dominant narrative form?
There are always cycles where people get excited about short stories, and this happens when one book of stories is a big hit. That could be Raymond Carver, way back. That could be David Leavitt. Jhumpa Lahiri. Now [George] Saunders is a great example. When these books become huge, everyone says, “We want short stories, we want short stories!” I liken it to when a band with a certain sound gets huge, and then a bunch of other bands with some affinity get signed. They might be great, but they’re not as commercially viable as the first. It happens in cycles, but most of the time publishers don’t want short stories. They want novels. I have been around long enough to see the boom and bust nature of it. I remember 20 years ago when the Internet really came into its own. A million articles were written about how the short story was going to be the dominant form. I can’t really say that in the last 20 years that has happened.
In one story in The Fun Parts, “The Worm in Philly,” the protagonist’s father is a well-known sports writer and a lesser-known young adult author. Your father, Robert Lipsyte, is a very well known sports writer and a lesser-known young adult author. How do you feel about working personal details like this into your fiction?
I like to play with it. The father in the story is a sportswriter, but he is nothing like my father. Playing with that somehow helps me distance myself from the personality of the protagonist, the son. Americans are obsessed with the memoir-fiction divide, with what’s true and not true. I’m not claiming anything to be fact.Writers write their emotions, and the emotions are autobiographical. At one moment you’re writing yourself. At another moment you’re writing another self, then perhaps another self, and then also imagined selves and projections of selves. I’m obsessed with how it all swirls and moves together. People sometimes talk about my characters and say, “I can’t believe they do these despicable things, but they also seem aware and kind in other ways.” I always assume that’s what humans are: Humans do both.
But where in the world do some of the more outrageous, despicable things your characters do come from?
The first answer is, well, I don’t know. The second answer is it comes from the writing. I could never do it all in my head and then write it out. I’m sure that literary critics would say, “Oh, I could see it coming all along.” But this stuff comes from not knowing what’s going to come. I don’t know where I am going until I get there.
Do you have a favorite story in the collection?
It’s always changing, like with my kids. I don’t have favorite child, but at a given moment I might have a favorite: The one who is not giving me a hard time.
Why call the collection The Fun Parts?
That phrase is used in a story in the collection, “The Real-Ass Jumbo,” in the crudest sense. But I like the way the phrase can play out in different ways. There are the fun parts of a book, in the dirty schoolboy sort of way. The fun parts of life. Fun as an entity that parts in the face of something kind of dreadful. There are a number of ways it could be interpreted, and I didn’t have anything better at the time, and I’m not sure if I do now.
You are so often labeled as being a very funny writer. Are you trying to be funny?
It’s just how it comes out. It’s my filter. I’m often amused by this opposition between something being funny and something being profound, truthful, serious. The phrase “seriocomic” is useful for me. Most of the things I care about are both dead serious and quite funny, and the people I like to talk to are dead serious and quite funny. Most great work, on one level, has a comic element. I have noticed that some of my stories are pretty gung-ho with the comic moments, but a lot of them are somewhat unreservedly grim. Well, maybe I shouldn’t talk about my work that way. It tells people not to read it.