Sam Lipsyte Keeps Busy with a New Novel and a New Novella
Sam Lipsyte, a professor in the Writing Program at the School of the Arts, is having a moment. His new novel, No One Left to Come Looking for You, has just come out, and if that isn’t enough, a novella, Friend of the Pod, was also recently published. The novel, a comic mystery, is centered on the music scene in Manhattan’s East Village during the early 1990s. The novella concerns Jason, a stalled Gen X playwright from Queens who lands a job producing a podcast.
Lipsyte muses on his spurt of productivity with Columbia News, as well as how he manages the intersection of teaching and writing, and why most writers are failed dinner guests.
You've had two books coming out so close together, a novel and a novella. How did that happen?
The novel, No One Left to Come Looking for You, is for Simon and Schuster and has been on a typical production schedule. The novella, Friend of the Pod, was published by Gagosian Picture Books, a part of the Gagosian Gallery, and is the third in a series of collaborations between artists and writers. The series is curated by Emma Cline, a graduate of the School of the Arts and a wonderful fiction writer. I was looking for a home for the novella as it was too long to publish in The New Yorker, and my editor there knew Emma was looking for another novella or long story. The Gagosian people were able to commission the art and bring the book out quite rapidly.
Were you working on both simultaneously, or one after the other? Was that confusing?
No, I can’t work on two pieces of fiction at once. I get brain cramps. I wrote the novel first. I began it in 2019, and wrote most of it in 2020 and 2021, during the heavy lockdown days. I’d go to this picnic bench in Riverbank State Park up near 135th Street, and just sit there with a notebook and these cheap steel fountain pens and write. Later, between rounds of edits on the novel, a novella just sort of seeped out of me.
How does the intersection of writing and teaching affect you?
In many ways, all of the time. The truth is, I don’t get a lot of writing done during the semester. The only reason I was able to get these books written is because I was on a sabbatical after chairing the writing program for a while. But when I’m teaching, I’m thinking about so many aspects of writing, and I’m deeply engaged with the work of others. It helps me get out of my bubble and replenish. I can think about state-of-the-art questions as well as technical considerations. Teaching is how and when I do a lot of the thinking to prepare for extended periods of composition, which are more intuitive, improvisational. And what I learn from writing each book I take back into the classroom to share with students.
How important to the craft of writing is reading?
I think writing and reading are the same thing, part of an ongoing conversation you are having with yourself and others. Many writers begin as readers, and are struck with the funny idea that maybe they could write the very sort of thing that thrills them. Once you are doing both, you start to read like a writer. You are studying the music and structural maneuvers of the writers you admire, and even the ones you don’t. It can become a different kind of reading.
I always liken it to the way my filmmaker friends watch movies. I usually watch them as an enraptured popcorn muncher. Or else I’m most concerned with the big faces and the language. But a filmmaker is clocking every cut and shot. Writers often do that with the books they read, studying how effects are achieved. Unless the writing is so good it stuns you back to your first bliss, and you forget all about technique. That’s the ultimate goal!
What have you read lately that you would recommend, and why?
I spend most of my time during the semester reading student manuscripts—workshop submissions and graduate theses. A few weeks ago, I read a new Thomas McGuane story in The New Yorker, “Take Half, Leave Half.” I’ve always been a huge fan—the guy is in his 80s, and somehow getting better, wiser, funnier, more stringent. Late style, I guess. The day after I read the story, I ran into a very talented undergrad from my workshop. He’d read it, too. We stood there gushing about the story, reciting lines. What’s more exciting?
What's next on your reading list?
The Dog of Tithwal, a short story collection, by Saadat Hasan Manto.
What are you working on now?
This questionnaire, mostly. I also might start another novel soon.
What are you teaching this semester?
Two workshops: a graduate fiction workshop and Advanced Fiction Writing for the undergraduate program. There is a lot of intensity at times, and a lot of fun. We have some astonishing writers in both the graduate and undergraduate programs. Tomorrow’s literary stars walk among us.
You're hosting a dinner party. Which three writers, dead or alive, would you invite, and why?
I always have a lot of trouble with this question. Writers, with exceptions, tend to be disappointing party guests. They spend too much time alone. They are either blowhards or spies. I’d invite my colleagues Ben Marcus and Heidi Julavits because I admire their work, and I’ve already had them to dinner and I know they are the exceptions I am referring to. They are great, funny dinner party guests. After that, Shakespeare can come, or Dante, if Shakespeare has a prior engagement. Or Homer, but I hear she doesn’t get out much anymore.