From his first collection of stories, Venus Drive, to his most recent novel, The Ask, Sam Lipsyte has consistently penned the best comedic literature of the past decade. In the fall issue, he has returned to the short form and chiseled us out what might be his best story to date. It’s your classic tale about a good man with a bad plan. A lot like life, it’s a tale of things almost working out. Last year I interviewed Lipsyte about The Ask. This month he let me do it again, this time about “The Worm in Philly.”
The hero of your new story wants to write a book about Marvelous Marvin Hagler. Why Hagler?
As the narrator says, why not Hagler? Truth is I’ve always been a Hagler fan. There were things I left out of the story, like his subsequent career as an action-movie star in Italy, or the rumor that he wouldn’t shake hands with white fighters because he refused to touch “white flesh.” I used to follow a fighter named Mustafa Hamsho, who lost to Hagler a few times. I like both of those names a lot. Hagler and Hamsho. Hagler’s baldness was maybe an homage to Jack Johnson, but it was ominous in a fiercely contemporary way. He was kind of a throwback, but there was also the possibility he was from the future.
I love the “white flesh” thing. I do that too. I want to talk about drugs though. Without answering the first part of this question, why do I love reading about drugs and why do you love writing about drugs? Why are drugs so hard to resist, whether they’re on the page or in the pocket?
I’m glad you do that, Gian. That’s good.
I’m not sure why you love reading about drugs. Maybe at a certain point the reading high is better than actually doing them? That could be preposterous though. I guess I’ve written about drugs a good deal because for a time, in my younger days, certain hard substances were the major elements in my life. My movements and decisions revolved around them. I like to pretend it was all some meaningless blur, but it was a very intense and focused time. I had a daily purpose (to get more drugs) that heightened the experience of being alive (a heightening then nullified by the drugs). I felt very alert during the mission phase of the day. Make no mistake, it was a horrible time, but I’ve always been fascinated by that robotic intensity. Also, it’s a way to give your character something to do, and we all know you have to keep those fuckers in motion, or readers might find out they are just constructions in a fiction! I try to make sure the drug-users in my stories aren’t acting high. Most of them tend to do drugs to get straight anyway. They are in that awful place. So their interactions might seem slightly off, but mostly these could easily be people not doing dangerous drugs. It’s just that occasionally they die from their addictions or else make really bad decisions that lead to more misery. That’s where the comedy kicks in. Drugs are hard to resist for some people because they work really well. And then don’t. But you find that out later.
Have you ever worried that writing about drugs would alienate those unfamiliar with them? Or it doesn’t have to be drugs you’re writing about. In fact, let’s get off drugs. What about anything? How do you know what is going to come across to the reader and what won’t? Or do you just write what you want to write? Somewhere I think you said that with writing it is always the how and never the what. Can you clarify or expound?
I write what I want. I try to write what I’d like to read. I think about not wasting a reader’s time, my own included. As to the what and the how, I’m certainly not the first to use those terms. I guess others would call it content and style, and so forth. Of course, they can never be untangled from each other. They are each other. My point, and it’s an obvious one, I think, to many writers and readers, is that the story is nothing if you are not invested in every line of its telling. I’m talking about that charged feeling, the startling stuff, the poetry, the humor, the hurt, and getting your effects through language as well as through the situation. Your desired effect might be something percussive, or languorous, or plain-spoken, or richly complex, but they all require artifice, manipulation, in order for their power to compel us and to be sustained, undeniable. And here’s the crucial thing: By not thinking of your sentences as mere delivery trucks for the information of your story, by putting pressure on them, you often end up with a much more profound “what” than you could have dreamed up beforehand. As I said, this is really obvious. But it took me a long time and the help of teachers to figure it out.
A lot of young indie writers who are published by small presses look up to you as an example. I was with some of them the other night, and I heard one say, “Sam Lipsyte is the only writer who has made it from the small presses to the big house without giving an inch.” What do you say to this? Did you give an inch? And any advice for the young punks out there still sweating it out?
I’ve given (or perhaps taken on?) several inches, mostly at the waistline. I’ve been careful to preserve what inches I’ve been given below that. The thing is, I never had the whole thing planned out, and it never occurred to me that I would ever be put in the predicament of publishing fiction I thought was compromised. It didn’t occur to me that the next book could be with a major house until after my first book came out. I’ve had some great editors who have helped me get closer to the things the work was groping toward, but nobody’s ever said, change it to make it more marketable, or you’re out. I don’t even think they do that anymore. It’s a waste of time. If you’re an editor looking for a certain “thing” to make a buck, it’s easier to find the already perfectly packaged nullity than to wrench it out of some authentic piece of fiction. But that’s just a guess.
Starting with a small press was the best thing that happened to me, and I do not doubt I will publish with similar places at different points in the future. Being at a place like FSG, or publishing in The Paris Review, is also wonderful. These are relatively new developments. I spent a good deal of time being rejected by everybody everywhere. Still do. The bullshit never ends. That’s the main thing to remember. It never ends. The assholes are stronger in most ways. So you have to ignore them and just write and let that be the meaning of it all. If you publish at a small place or a large one, great. If you make some dough at, without messing with your work in ways that make you uneasy, great. But the meaning of it all is whatever happened when you were writing, and then the power of what you made. Those are the things that matter.