Hybrid Interview: Sara Lippmann
In our hybrid interview series, we pair an author Q&A with a critical essay about one or more of their books. We’re happy to share this conversation between Sara Lippmann and Michelle Ross, who also essays about Lippmann’s second short story collection, JERKS. —CRAFT
Essay by Michelle Ross •
Since the first time I read a Sara Lippmann story, I’ve been smitten. Among the inventory of qualities I admire is her wit, her raw honesty, her faith in her readers’ ability to keep up, and most of all, her precision and economy. Here is a writer who is not easily satisfied. Her prose is whittled sharp. Not a word ill-considered. Not a word extraneous. Sara Lippmann’s prose is impossible to mistake for that of any other writer. Her prose is like a pair of broken-in, well-loved leather boots—they take on the shape of the wearer’s feet, the shape of the miles they’ve traveled. The effect: I will follow wherever she leads me.
I’ve been eagerly awaiting her second book, JERKS, ever since I read her wonderful first collection, Doll Palace. And JERKS does not disappoint. These are stories in which reading with a pen in hand is dangerous. There is too much temptation to underline and star until the pages are muddied with ink. These are stories that strike at savage truth after savage truth about the everyday lives of women (all but one story center on women protagonists). These stories are also raucously funny. The eighteen stories in JERKS teem with longing and lust. There are adolescent crushes, flirtations with the children’s tennis instructor, group sex on a weekend trip with old college friends. In “Runner’s Paradise,” a woman who describes herself as being “good at…inertia” takes up running. What she finds once she pushes past the pain “to the pleasure on the other side”—along with celery juice, newfound energy, and an appreciation for the beauty of the outdoors—is anonymous sex with strangers. Runner’s Paradise is a hidden clearing that Lippmann likens to Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights: “the entire natural world is fucking.” The protagonist, who notes that “no stranger has so much as sprung for my latte let alone opened into me,” is happily initiated into this new world. Soon after, she is doing squats while cooking dinner, reading up on how to improve her running form, sneaking out of the office to run multiple times a day.
Mixed with all this desire is disappointment, weariness, and rage. Many of the protagonists in JERKS are mothers and wives. They feel used up, exhausted. They have little left to give. In “Don’t You Swim?,” the mother’s children “clamber over her with their wants, chewing gum, lollipops, whatever she has, her bathing suit slipping off her shoulders as they dig and reach for crackers, juice, pawing the sunglasses from her head.” These children’s insatiable pawing at their mother is rendered with a kind of violence that is reminiscent of Hitchcock’s The Birds. I half expect her to be bloodied and mangled by her children’s wants. In “Har-Tru,” when the other tennis moms obsess over and idealize the relationships depicted in the reality television show Polyamory: Married & Dating, the protagonist counters, “The last thing I want is more demands on me, more hands tearing at my flesh like a store-bought chicken, more hungry mouths, more tender hearts to attend, much less flowers and chocolates and poetry and orifices and dicks.” Here romantic love is depicted in a similar fashion to the children’s demands in “Don’t You Swim?,” except this time hands tear at flesh to get at flesh, rather than crackers and lollipops.
This juxtaposition of the ways women are consumed by their children and by lovers comes to a head in “A Beastly Thing.” The story crosscuts between a mother of an infant having sex with her own husband and having sex with the father of another small child, and neither experience is particularly satisfying. The man who is not her husband disrupts her pleasure with weird, cringey dialogue. “Mother may I?” he says, before guzzling the milk flowing from her breast. Sex with the man who is her husband is described like this:
Every time (a grand five times) he nuzzled up to her, she’d turned, offering her back instead, dimples for eyes, the arch and swell of her bottom the most generous part of her, the only part not yet claimed, he took his pleasure briskly, her body leaking afterward like a broken toy.
The likening of the protagonist’s body to a broken toy made me laugh and wince at the same time. This metaphor so perfectly encapsulates the way a woman’s flesh is a source of pleasure for children and lovers alike, and the way that pleasure is oftentimes taken roughly, with little regard or appreciation for her own desires.
That said, the women in these stories are hardly innocent. They are as complicated and flawed as all of us. They, too, are jerks. In “No Time for Losers,” when the protagonist’s husband is deflated by his old college friends’ many achievements, she admits, “I could have strummed the lobe of his ear and said: You are plenty. You are more than enough. But I’m his wife.”
For all its exploration of the brutal ways people treat each other, JERKS is not without great tenderness too. In “Runner’s Paradise,” eventually the protagonist can no longer find Runner’s Paradise. She is disappointed, yes, but soon enough she finds her way back to her husband instead:
Toward the home stretch, I see him: my husband. I sneak up alongside him. Without looking, I can feel him follow, the swish of shorts, the shuffle of feet on loosely packed earth. Together we slink off the main path. Our bodies move in sync. We run past the makeshift sandbox, the memorial garden of rare plants, the kite flyers and peace-loving drummers, young girls braiding each other’s hair. Without talking, Adam and I lie down on a bed of rotting leaves, hold each other deep in the woods.
The quietness of they’re holding each other stands in stark contrast to the fucking against tree trunks with strangers earlier in the story. Note that the bed of leaves on which they lie is the rotting kind. There’s a bittersweet beauty to this rot.
Sara and I chatted over email recently. We talked about writing sex, motherhood, and humor. We talked about the revision process. We also talked about her forthcoming novel, LECH.
Michelle Ross: Congratulations, Sara, on this new and wonderful collection of stories! One of my favorite lines in JERKS—and there are so many—is this line from the story “Bougie Nights”: “…there is more to a wife than meals.” It’s one of those lines that I can’t unstick from my head. It so swiftly and devastatingly encapsulates heterosexual marriage/wifehood. Also, motherhood. The mothers/wives in these stories are always the bearers of their families’ snacks, and in this story, the protagonist’s husband loans her out, like a casserole dish, to a male friend of theirs whose wife is ill. Then there’s “A Beastly Thing,” in which a male friend guzzles down the protagonist’s overflowing breastmilk (stimulated by her baby’s cries) after she inadvertently confesses that breastfeeding makes her horny. Could you talk a bit about the interplay between food and sex and the roles of women and mothers in these stories? In the world?
Sara Lippmann: You are so kind to say all that, and as you know, I’m an enormous fan, so it means the world coming from you. Food, sex—they are basic needs, designed to fill holes, sate certain hungers, compensate for lack, which in so doing almost always only underscores that gaping, unfillable ache. I mean, we all read Shel Silverstein’s The Missing Piece. Anyway, funny because they can feel somewhat interchangeable, particularly within the context of narrative, and yet one is often deemed edgy (a word I hate) or provocative (not much better) or something when really, it’s almost shorthand for desire. I mean, what do your characters WANT? Maybe that makes me a verrrry lazy writer, but I guess I really do believe these stories are distillations of desire, and all the ways desire is met or not met or misplaced or transposed or projected or deflected or withheld or denied or mutated or multiplied, et cetera. So often the desire is placed upon us. So often the role is about filling, sating others’ needs and desires. What are mothers, what are women, allowed to want and to ask for?
MR: You have written one of the most hilarious, and painful, sex scenes in literature in “A Beastly Thing.” I’m thinking of the paragraph that begins with “‘Oh sweet momma,’ he moans. She shuts her eyes. Her stomach churns. Animals were lucky, spared of talk, of mood lighting and consequences and lingerie…” then ends with “he roars, ‘Timber!’ and collapses over her back like shot meat.” I think this paragraph kind of gets at one of the challenges of writing about sex, and that’s that the dialogue in a lot of the sex scenes I come across is quite often terrible and cringey without the writer seeming to mean for it to be so. I love how this scene is kind of about that—how this man’s words ruin the mood, get in the way. What do you find challenging about writing about sex? What do you hope to accomplish?
SL: Oy Michelle, I do spend a disproportionate amount of time thinking about this. LOL. What I was trying to get at, is primal. How we can put on our stupid shoes and ties, but we are all animals underneath—driven by innate desire. Your brilliant book, Shapeshifting, gets at this too. So, like sex in itself is kind of dull—like other basic functions. The bowels move and that rarely gets written about (although yikes I went there, in my novel too) largely because it’s a solitary act or considered crass or whatever. Sex is different. Sure, sometimes it’s alone, which can be revealing, but what it offers—particularly when it’s not alone—on a craft level is an opportunity to excavate character. How a person is with another person in an act that is ostensibly intimate but possibly transactional and often quite fraught and rife with power and so on. Which is the word that means part for the whole, synecdoche? I mean, there’s your little snow globe. It can be revelatory. Not in the graphic play-by-play. That to me is often boring. Or as you said, squirmy. (And the reason why something may veer into cringe usually has a lot to do with tone or performativity or not calling out your own bullshit.) I realize I probably sound like a hypocrite as this story is the most graphic I’ve ever written—I think?—but it needed to go there not for any sort of shock value or exhibitionism but in order to examine the imperative driving the whole story. To not go there would be cheating, cheating the reader and shortchanging the narrative. What do I hope to accomplish? A stir of emotion. I know that may sound precious or Tolstoian but that’s what art does. Not that I’m calling my work, art. Heck no. They’re stories. Still, this is what it boils down to: Do you feel anything? Does your temperature change? Is your thinking slightly shifted? Then the scene has done its job.
MR: These stories are, as are many of your stories, funny-sad. Who are some of your influences when it comes to humor in fiction?
SL: Misery loves comedy, I guess. I love this question because no one in my house thinks I’m funny (ask my kids) and most of my influences are grim, but also: I can’t handle the humorless. Like, the more dire things become—so it goes, right? Beckett was an early read. Hrabal. Etgar Keret. I tend to be more realist than absurdist, but reality is absurd. Grace Paley. Rebecca Schiff is very funny-sad. Shapeshifting, hello. There is rage that needs to vent. Leland Cheuk, Christopher Gonzalez, Julie Innis, Dan Sanders. My novel features a would-be comedian who never made it on the borscht belt, if that’s not a bitter tragedy.
MR: I know that you, like a lot of mother-writers, have talked about being drawn to flash at least in part because of the practicality of it when you have young children to care for. But hey, now you’ve written a novel, LECH, which will be published later this year. Congratulations! How was the process of writing a novel similar or different from writing flash and short fiction?
SL: Ha! It was hell. One of the things I love about short form is you get in, get out, say what you want to say, and move on. Which isn’t to say it doesn’t feel all-consuming or take up front and center of your heart—it absolutely does. But then, after some wrangling, usually it takes a shape. Whereas LECH: Pick an egregious and irresponsible motherhood metaphor—the birth canal is a Slip ’N Slide!—and let me say a) a book should never be compared to a baby, and b) I’m still leaking bodily fluid. A decade ago, I started thinking about this man who rents out his summer home and lives out back in a bungalow on the existing property. All I had was the tiniest seed, but I knew then—and this is something else I feel like we could talk about—I knew it was not going to be a flash or a short story. Even though I just had this one dumb idea it felt—god shoot me—“novelistic.” At first, I didn’t touch it, but then I knocked it out on legal pads in 2014. It was still just one point of view, or maybe two. Of course, there is a chasm between the book you think you are writing or the book you want to write and the book you actually write, but nothing was aligning. I had no idea what I was doing. The story kept pushing at its walls. LECH is about the fundamental predatoriness of human nature, and so whatevs, I’m rambling, but it grew to four points of view and ballooned to 106K, which is ridiculous, because then I had to spend the next hundred years trimming it down to size, treating its chronic case of “storyitis” as my friend called it, and stabilizing its fighting heart. Then I threw in one more POV for good measure, and there you have my stone soup. I sure hope it tastes better than it sounds.
MR: When it comes to writing, are you a serial monogamist, working on one piece until it’s done, or do you bounce around from story to story, working on a bunch of stories or projects at once?
SL: JERKS only came into being because I was working on my novel. That is, I was supposed to be writing this novel—I certainly had blabbed enough about it, and everyone was trying to hold me to it—but it kicked my ass. I do believe every writer has sort of a narrative sweet spot, a comfort zone in length, and for me, it’s the short story. I don’t know I’m a natural anything but I’m certainly not a natural novelist. My novel was about transgression so here I was transgressing with all these other stories on transgression. I wonder if there’s so much cheating in this book because the whole thing was a cheat. I don’t know I’d recommend it, but that’s how it got done: by slutting it up.
Anyway, my husband brought home an heirloom tomato yesterday and there was a mini tomato nub growing out of the butt of the big tomato and so I guess JERKS is like that. A bonus butt.
MR: Oh my god, that metaphor!
I’m always curious about how other story writers assemble their work into a collection, so I have to ask, what all were you thinking about as you assembled and ordered these stories?
SL: I’m looking for how the stories speak to each other in juxtaposition and in accrual. With this book, the manuscript was taken at 55K but then MJP [Mason Jar Press] wanted it whittled down to 40K, so it was a challenge to cut so many stories, but once I did that then I started paying attention to how they are in conversation with each other, and what the overarching takeaway is. What kind of story are they telling in their arrangement? I believe a good collection follows some kind of internal arc, so I tried to shut up for a minute and listen to that logic, and honor that trajectory. The bookends were abundantly clear. I tried to spread out certain narrative beats. There was some debate about whether to keep or to cut “Let All the Restless Creatures Go” because it is the only one with a male narrator and yet to me it feels thematically integral, the heart the book, so it stayed in, and falls in the middle. Like the fulcrum of the seesaw. Just thinking about this question makes me second guess all that’s been left behind. What’s lacking? I’d love to hear how you approached yours!
MR: Haha! I start feeling a little uncertain, too, when people ask why I ordered stories the way I did. I think the truth is that there’s no one perfect order, or at least most of the time there isn’t. There are bad choices and better choices.
More than just about any other writer I can think of, your sentences have, I think, a hard sculptural quality, like you’ve been chiseling away at stone for a long, long time. I remember that after I accepted “The Feeling You Want” for Atticus Review, you sent me some additional edits/revisions to that story that I hadn’t asked for. You said how difficult it is for you to stop making little edits to stories (I relate). Would you talk about your revision process? Does it feel akin to chiseling at stone for a long time? Or does a very different metaphor come to mind?
SL: For me, 90% of writing is revision, maybe more. I’m like 5% word-vomit. The rest are edits. Whenever I have to read from Doll Palace, I still mark that crap up (and I already made ample edits before it was rereleased last year.) I’m sure I enrage editors. You’re being nice with this spin, but I know I’m relentless. I can get obsessed with the music of language, which can be good but can also be indulgent. I had to tell my editor Ashley Miller at MJP not to show me proofs anymore, and I did the same thing now with LECH. I’ll correct the page proofs before it goes out the door, but sometimes I need to be reeled in. I don’t know why I’m this way. Maybe because I came from the world of magazines where an article would go through a zillion incarnations before print. Maybe because I’m nothing but a vessel of doubt. But also: You know when you’re being precise and honest, and you’ve nailed an image, and you also know when you’re full of it. I’ve gotten a bit better at trusting my gut but if a sentence bothers me it will nag at me like a hangnail, and get caught on everything I touch, until I do something about it.
SARA LIPPMANN is the author of the story collections Doll Palace (rereleased by 713 Books) and JERKS (Mason Jar Press, 2022). She was awarded an artist’s fellowship in fiction from the New York Foundation for the Arts, and her work has appeared in The Millions, The Washington Post, The Best Small Fictions 2020 Anthology, and elsewhere. Currently, she teaches creative writing through Jericho Writers. Her debut novel, LECH, will be published by Tortoise Books in October 2022. Find Sara on Twitter @saralippmann.
MICHELLE ROSS is the author of three story collections: There’s So Much They Haven’t Told You, winner of the 2016 Moon City Short Fiction Award (February 2017); Shapeshifting, winner of the 2020 Stillhouse Press Short Fiction Award (November 2021); and They Kept Running, winner of the 2021 Katherine Anne Porter Prize in Short Fiction (April 2022). Her work is included in The Best Small Fictions, Best Microfiction, the Wigleaf Top 50, and will be included in the forthcoming Norton anthology, Flash Fiction America. She is fiction editor of Atticus Review. Find Michelle on Instagram @michelleross_author.