Issue 7 :: Spring 2005  
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Michael Kimball
Michael's bio, here, and his prose, here.

An Interview with Sam Lipsyte
Sam's bio, here, and his prose, here.

Michael: How do you start a piece of fiction — with an idea, word, phrase, feeling, story, plot, character, or something else?

Sam: Sometimes it's hard to say. The actual writing always starts with what some would call a lingual event, a word, or more likely a combination of words that sends me off. But I also think that moment is really a sort of uncorking of whatever has been welling up in me for a while. So I'm sure it begins with a feeling. I'm walking around with a feeling. A feeling in search of a song, maybe. But without the lingual event it will just stay buzzing in me, useless. Story really comes later. I never sit down and say, Boy, do I have an important story to tell about alienation and oppression in late capitalist society or something like that. I figure that shit forces itself in anyway, and if you keep writing some kind of story has to emerge. It can't not emerge. And it's probably the story you should be telling. It might not be a classical narrative, but we maybe have enough of those, anyway. Characters come to me as voices, different modes of speech. Who they are comes from there. I'm not really sure what plot is. Somebody told me once but I forgot.

Michael: Talk some more about the lingual event.

Sam: It might be a sentence or a part of a sentence that pops into my head, it might be something overheard on the street, or more likely, something misheard. It could come from anywhere, really. A piece of language that has a certain musicality, a certain familiar vibration, but also a strangeness. Something you feel yourself pursuing almost unconsciously because you sense it will lead you somewhere, up-end the order of things in your mind, maybe assemble a new one. I have a feeling that's how it was with you in The Way the Family Got Away with "cradle" and "baby stuff" and "Birthrock." I can imagine these were all things swimming in you for a while, waiting for the right combination to loose them as language. This would be opposed to most novels, which might begin: "One week in June my parents sold my dead brother's cradle to raise the money for us to go on a trip." When I wrote "Old Soul" all I had was "You could touch for a couple of bucks." Someone had asked me what the protocol for a live peep show was (I seemed to have been a self-proclaimed expert at the time) and that's what I'd said. The rest — story, character, etc. — all came from that utterance. I just wrote it down and the whole thing flowed. I never sat down to write a story about a guy with a dying sister out prowling. (Though my mother had just died when I wrote it, and I'm sure there's something there. As a matter of fact, Gordon Lish read the story and said, "Nice substitution!" I didn't even understand the full significance of that comment until later.) This is not to say there wasn't a lot of revision, because there's always a lot of revision, but it all started there. The Subject Steve was an entirely different, failed novel until I got "Bastards said they had some good news and some bad news." Something about the sound of "Bastards said" seized me, not just for its acoustical elements, but its ability to so economically establish stance or voice for the narrator. Two words in and you know where the speaker is situated in relation to his world. So I went back and rewrote the entire book. Nothing remained, because nothing from before had any connection to that lingual event. You have to have it, but it doesn't always present itself. Most of my writing time is spent without it, struggling with deadness on the page, disgusted with myself.

Michael: The disgust, that's most days for me. I don't know if it is for you, but how do you work through that disgust and work with that deadness on the page. Do you make the deadness less dead, a process of sorts, that makes the words go alive? Does this happen through rewriting, rephrasing, rearranging, deleting, starting over?

Sam: Christ, the disgust. Either I'm disgusted with myself for squandering precious hours by not writing, or for writing crap. That deadness can be worse than the blank page. At least with the blank page you can fool yourself into thinking you're on the verge of something great. Resurrection is a tough proposition. I'm not really sure how it comes alive (and often it doesn't) except that it happens mostly in revision. I love rephrasing, rewriting. I love to delete. Maybe it's the only time in my life I feel in control of anything. It's like music, finding the space between the notes. And something happens in revision. You discover what the thing was you were trying to do in the first place. It's only then that you can ask yourself if it's something worthwhile. If the answer is no, you can throw it out. If the answer is yes, then the real madness can begin. I don't trust people who brag about how they rarely rewrite. Either they're lying or their prose sucks. They're like people who lie about how long it takes them to drive somewhere. It's not a race, it's a contest.

Michael: How do you know a piece of writing is worthwhile, a feeling or something more objective? And how do you work on that piece of writing after you have decided it is worth working on?

Sam: Well, if you're excited about it, that's a good sign. If you're a bit scared by it. If you're pissed off because you have to work to pay the rent or see your family instead of being in the presence of the thing, you might be onto the good stuff. When it's going well it's often a compulsive experience. Like having a secret lover or a drug habit. That's all pure feeling. Objective questions will of course intrude. Has this been done this way before? What is it exactly I'm trying to do? These are good questions, but I have to be careful. I'll start thinking like a critic, as opposed to just thinking critically. I'll begin to categorize, contextualize. This is all interesting when it pertains to other writing, but it can paralyze me when I apply it to my own. But if I haven't yet fucked myself, and I'm still confident that what I'm up to is worthwhile, I'll begin at the beginning. Take it slowly sentence by sentence. I had my novel set up as one document on my computer. No chapter breaks. I spent a few years just scrolling up and down. Writing, deleting, rewriting. I knew it as an object. I knew where all the words were.

Michael: Talk some more about writing as a compulsive experience, what you are thinking and feeling and doing as a writer in those wonderful times.

Sam: They're the best of times, when it's going well. Or at least if you're under the delusion it's going well. The delusion is important if it keeps you working, if it gets you to something genuinely good. But the compulsive experience, that's just how I sometimes formulate it, probably because I've been fairly compulsive in other aspects of my life. I have trouble stopping. I don't want to leave the party. I want to cling to a feeling that vanished ten minutes ago. So I keep trying recreate the conditions for those experiences. In life, this can lead to trouble. I tend to ride the horse until it drops dead under me. But in fiction you get to make a world and a language for it. There's a lot to do! You don't have to stop! I remember you told me once that occasionally when you're writing you get up and look at yourself in the mirror. I don't know why this stuck with me except that I had a sense of recognition, because I do it, too. I thought about it for a while, wondered if it was just some exercise in vanity. You know, practicing for a dust jacket photo or something. But I think there's more there. When I'm in it, as it were, the ego sort of drops away, time stops, fear dissolves, and it's not quite me anymore, this fairly pathetic guy in his apartment with all his ordinary bullshit hopes and neuroses. It feels like somebody else. So maybe the mirror is a way of saying yes, it's still you having this wonderful experience, and don't destroy it yet. You'll be full of doubt tomorrow anyway. Keep riding. Or maybe that's just a more sophisticated form of vanity. I don't know. Whatever works. One must nurture and protect one's buzz.

Michael: Looking at myself in the mirror, I had forgotten about that, that I had ever told anybody I do it. I also talk to myself a lot when I am writing and do little neurotic-type things with my body — pull on my eyebrows, touch my nose, pull on my chin hairs, check my stomach fat. I think this must be all of a piece, looking into and at the self. I haven't really asked a question here, but, okay, how about this: Do you have other little habits that happen during writing — tics, neurotic bits, anything like that? And maybe more to the point: Why do we do these things that we probably wouldn't do around other people while we are writing?

Sam: Sometimes I find myself making really odd hand gestures. I get up and pace a lot. Open the refrigerator door, close it. I'm sure I pick my nose. I'm not aware of much of it. I guess anybody at a desk without people around, no matter what the task is, does the same. Avoidance tactics, maybe. The best would be to find a way to focus the physical manifestations. Somewhere Genet describes jacking off to his prose as he composes it, trying to draw the experience out, luxuriate in it, one hand on his pen, the other in his lap. I'm hoping to try that someday. Then, when somebody accuses my work of being masturbatory, I can say, "You don't even know."

Michael: I'm not sure what to ask after that answer. I'm not sure there is a post-coital follow-up. So let me ask something else. No, first let me say that a lot of great fiction is masturbatory — must be, has to have been—especially as it relates to the compulsive behavior you were talking about. I'm thinking of a that great Brodkey opening, but also of Bernhard, say, or Borges, Goytisolo, Carson, Stein, Kundera, Calvino, Cioran, any of those. I don't know if you'd go along with that. Anyway, here's another question: Do you hear a voice inside your head when you write? I ask this because of the speakers that appear in your fiction, the verbal abilities they have.

Sam: Oh, I'd definitely agree with all of those to varying degrees. And, say, varying techniques. With Borges it's less about the stroke than the elaborate construction (or fantasy) that fuels it. Whereas with Bernhard, his circularity, his ceaseless deformation, it seems to be about the act itself. Stein, as well. Cioran can be like that, too. Teasing out a conceit. But with those aphorisms he might well have been playing that great game of economy. Can you achieve climax with one elegant touch? To sustain that practice you need to be able to recover quickly. Is this too crude? I hope so.

As to the voices, I hear voices in my head all the time. I think we all do. Not the kind that tell you to kill your family, just endless murmurings, the overheard snatches of this or that, personally significant utterances we've been in the presence of, the songs we can't stop humming. The hard thing is to focus on one and listen to it, but that's what you have to do. They do blur and bleed together. They are all versions of you. A friend of mine, a stand-up comic named Marc Maron, did a telling joke about this, about being tweaked from a long drug bender. The voices in his head are a cacophony and he's standing in the closet for hours, and it's not that he can't take the voices, but there are so many. So, he addresses them, says, "Look, guys, you have to pick a leader!" It's kind of like that when the writing is going well. A leader has been picked, provisionally.

Michael: So how do you pick? Which voice, which story, which word?
Sam: Well, at the outset it's more like it picks me. But then of course I have to decide; you always have to decide. Is this the voice I want to follow? Is this the language I want to learn? I guess I pick the one that feels the least like anything else, the one that pulls me back to the desk because it fascinates, because it taps into source I hadn't been aware of before, because its possibilities seem to expand as I proceed. That's when it all feels the least like work. And I'm generally a lazy motherfucker.

Michael: All right, so let's end this. We started with how you start a piece of fiction. How do you end one?

Sam: Christ, man, you tell me. This remains a great mystery. I suppose if you have a sense of some sort of circuit that's been completed, an idea that you've played it all out, or that you've landed on something irrevocable, you can call yourself done. But you're never done, really. Looking back you always see mistakes, opportunities missed. That's one of the things that keeps me going, the hope that this time I'll get it right. I don't think there's a serious writer alive who doesn't feel this way. By serious, I don't mean successful, or recognized, or even published. I mean the one for whom this kind of play is serious stuff. Since you mentioned Cioran, I'll leave you with something from The Trouble with Being Born. (I know, Cioran was a member of the Iron Guard, part of the fascist intelligentsia, but as with Celine and Cela, and others, I guess I've accepted that being a good writer doesn't always go hand-in-hand with being a decent human being. I'm not sure I would save him from a fire, but I'll still gladly quote the writings of his that mean something to me.) Anyway, on the question of how do you end, here's this:

"A work is finished when we can no longer improve it, though we know it to be inadequate and incomplete. We are so overtaxed by it that we no longer have the power to add a single comma, however indispensable. Whatever determines the degree to which a work is done is not a requirement of art or of truth, it is exhaustion and, even more, disgust."

To take it back to your question, I don't think that the disgust he writes about is incidental. It's the necessary end of the fascination with which we must begin.

(Previously published in taint.)