A few weeks ago I had hitched a ride to one my hockey games with a teammate and on the way home from the game, the topic du jour was trying to find meaning or some kind of redeeming value in what we do every day for a living. It wasn’t anything deeply philosophical, just mostly some back-and-forth on how neat it would be to have more meaningful or impactful relationships with people on a daily basis instead of via email and IM.
The next day, I received an email from him recommending a (fiction) book he had just finished by author Sam Lipsyte. The book, called Home Land is the story of Lewis Miner, a 33 year old middle classer who discovers that after fifteen years, there’s a newsletter which updates the goings-on of his fellow high school classmates. The updates, as one might expect, are filled with the typical class-A personalities and detail the cheerful successes of a doctor, a lawyer, a professional ballplayer, a popular musician, etc. So when Lewis begins submitting his updates it sets off a chain of events which I can’t really get into here for fear of ruining the book. All I can say, in Lewis’s own words, is that he didn’t “pan out.” The updates he writes are slightly spiteful towards others and cover his mundane life. In some cases they are quite explicit, but always manage to be more interesting than those of his boring but fast-tracked classmates. Suffice it to say, it was a very funny, compelling read and dialogue penned by Lipsyte was masterful.
So you know what’s coming, right? Yup. In my first attempt to expand the boundries of Item Five, I sought out a published author to see if he’d be interested in being subject to my interviwing. Surprisingly, Sam wrote right back to me, ready and willing. Seems authors actually do follow-through on commitments, unlike most musicians, who say they will, then don’t. Anyway, off to the races…..
1. When I was growing up, they would always show writers in movies or TV crumpling up and discarding pieces of paper in frustration. There would just be piles and piles of crumpled paper all over the room. I would imagine if you thought a piece of your own work sucked, there might have been some immense satisfaction in ripping paper out of the typewriter and just stomping on it – kicking its ass. Nowadays, though, I assume you and other writers peck away on computers. Is there any satisfying way to destroy something of your own that you don’t like? I mean, does highlighting and hitting delete really do it for you?
Well, I really hate it when an actor is playing a â€œwriterâ€ in the movies. Thereâ€™s nothing worse than watching somebody pretend he is doing the most boring thing to watch somebody do on Earth. When itâ€™s some movie star, itâ€™s even worse. Why is he slaving away like that? Why isnâ€™t he doing coke off a starletâ€™s ass or something? But, yes, I write on a computer and I delete a lot of shit. And then I print stuff and cross out lots of sentences and eventually crumple the paper up and throw it away, too. I do all of those things constantly. Itâ€™s purgative. I enjoy it.
2. “Home Land” is a terrific idea for a book. Never before and never again can a book get away with the very last line being someone getting punched in the face. Clever. Can you share with me how the idea for the book was born?
I was reading somebodyâ€™s high school alumni bulletin. I wondered what it might be like to write a true confession for that kind of built-in audience. Then a few days later the voice of Lewis Miner started welling up in me.
3. Have you ever been punched in the face? Explain.
Yeah, once, repeatedly. I stood there and took a half dozen shots to the chin. I was playing possum because the guy also had a gun, which he put to my head. His friend pulled him away, said, â€œHeâ€™s not worth it.â€ Iâ€™m pretty fucking glad I wasnâ€™t worth it. My jaw throbbed for weeks. This was back when I was a moron.
4. Home Land contains such great diction that I could ask 100 questions. But I won’t. Here’s a clip, however:
“She wore this faraway look as though she were conducting some kind of inner fire drill, evacuating the premises of herself in a quiet and orderly fashion.”
Now tell me something, Sam. Is that a line you stuff into the back of your brain and tell yourself you’re going to use someday or did that just come to you? It’s quite impressive. The book is full of this stuff.
Thanks. My short-term memory is pretty, well, short-term, and Iâ€™m a terrible note-taker, so it has to come to me in the moment. I approach writing as a performative act, and thereâ€™s a lot of improvisation.
5. Is any of this story autobiographical? I’m really hoping some of it isn’t.
Iâ€™ve felt sad and glad and bad, as Dr. Seuss put it in One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish, so in that sense itâ€™s autobiographical. But I make up the particulars. For instance, nobody ever called me Teabag and I donâ€™t have a fetish for legwarmers.
6. The ending is quite interesting – was there another ending at any time?
No, that was the ending. But I had to get to it. When I got there I knew I should stop.
7. What was the last thing that really made you laugh hard?
The mid-nineties UK television series Brass Eye. Also the plays of Will Eno and certain stories by the writer Gary Lutz.
8. Have you ever been to Electric Ladyland?
Are you referring to the museum of fluorescent art in Amsterdam?
9. Would you mind telling us how you got to be an author, how many books you wrote before this one (published or unpublished) and how satisfying or difficult the life is?
Iâ€™ve published two other books. Venus Drive was a collection of stories. The Subject Stevewas a novel. How I got to be an author was by writing them, I guess. The life is just any life, with all the wonderful things and the shitty stuff, too. The work is sometimes difficult, but the act of writing, when itâ€™s going well, can be euphoric, trance-inducing. Iâ€™d make a something closer to a decent living doing something else, maybe, but I donâ€™t want to.
10. We’re you ever able to do a cartwheel?
No. But I once benched three hundred pounds. I donâ€™t think I could do fifty now.
11.Can you tell when people say that they liked your book, but you know they really didn’t? Do you care? Wouldn’t you rather they be honest and just tell you why they didn’t like it?
I can tell when they havenâ€™t read it, or read it well. Sure, I want people to like what I do, but I canâ€™t take that with me into the work. Iâ€™ll listen to thoughtful critique, but Iâ€™m not hanging on the judgment of every idiot, professional or otherwise.
12. You into music? What do you listen to?
I tend towards rock. I really liked the last Nick Cave. Iâ€™m a fervent Frank Black fan. When I was younger I listened to lots of Husker Du, Dinosaur, Jesus Lizard, Mission of Burma, Birthday Party. Typical, maybe, but still transcendent by my lights. I canâ€™t name a Faust album or anything. Iâ€™m no rock scholar. Six Finger Satellite was a great band from my time. I havenâ€™t heard tons of new stuff. LCD Soundsystem, the Juan MacLean, and the Hold Steady are in heavy rotation. I listen to more blues and classical music lately, too.
13. Are you working on anything currently?
Itâ€™s hard to tell. I think so.
14. Who would you rather be: Donald Rumsfeld, Condoleeza Rice or Jose Canseco?
Jose Canseco. At least he tells the truth.
I love that last answer. Thanks a lot to Sam Lipsyte, keep an eye on this guy – some very good stuff.