Sam Lipsyte is a writer of short stories and novels. He teaches at Columbia University. His novel The Ask is a terrific comic novel. Highly recommended. He can be found here.
Q: Your books are important to me as someone going to college for writing.
What books inspired you in college?
Oh, lots of books. A professor gave us Barry Hannah’s Airships and I was destroyed. I read Angela Carter and Joy Williams. I read a lot of Donald Barthelme and Pynchon and Coover. Mark Leyner. Gilbert Sorrentino. My reading was all over the place. Beckett’s trilogy. I read plays. Shakespeare, of course, but modern playwrights also. Harold Pinter, David Mamet. David Rabe. I read poetry by Creeley and Wallace Stevens. I was an English major and read lots of older novels and poetry. James Hogg, I remember, had an effect on me for some reason. I learned what I needed to read and that was important. Stuff I knew I wouldn’t get to until after college. The whole thing, I guess, was that I read from all over the map, read writers who would have been appalled at some of my other reading choices. But all of them excited me. And they seemed to give me permission to try out anything. To get to the dangerous, the silly, the funny, the mean. I wanted to get as close to the truth as I was capable, while knowing what a loaded term that could be.
Q: You’ve spoken about your history in punk rock. It seems like yourprotagonists, Milo in particular, have a sort of atrophied punk rock attitude. Is that something you’ve consciously attempted to put across?
I had a great interest in the original punks, or some of them, certain sounds, certain gestures, and in the nineties I fronted a band where my duties were as much theatrical as musical. Along with the alienation I was seeking the humorous and slightly surreal. Maybe that carries over into some of the characters. I think sometimes it’s a way into them for me. Some characters have a world view that overlaps with mine, and others don?t at all. And it’s precisely that atrophied state you mention that is so curious. What does it all mean later? Just a bit of pathos. Or a well to draw from?
Q: You’ve also spoken about your childhood enjoyment of genre fiction, especially Science Fiction. *The Ask* however, seems to be structured like a detective novel. Do you feel that genre fiction has informed your writing in any way?
I think you are right about the Ask. It had the rhythm and sometimes the voice of the detective novel, but maybe I was also influenced by the way writers have played with genre in the past. I would say more of my genre influences come from movies, except science fiction.
Q: In an interview, you mentioned that you were going back to short stories
after writing a few novels. Do you have different goals in short stories
than you do in novels?
I have the same goal all the time, which is to write the best thing I can write and hope people get something from it. The techniques are what vary. The brevity of a short story presents certain problems, and the open space of a long fiction very different ones. Some writers say the difference is that in a short story every word counts, but I think that?s true whatever the length. You need to be able to open a book on any page and find something that will pull you into it, even if you don?t know what’s going on.