The Beatrice Interview: Sam Lipsyte (2001)


There are a few scenes in The Subject Steve that, though they are still wickedly funny, have taken on a sinister new light when read after the destruction of the World Trade Center towers on September 11th (which was, coincidentally, the novel’s publication date). Though some readers might see in the novel a bleakness that hints at the world in which the disaster became possible, Lipsyte is quick to downplay any such notions of prophetic content. “If it had been some other catastrophe,” he points out over lunch at a Greek diner near his Astoria apartment, “you could go back and find stuff in people’s books that foreshadowed that as well. Adorno has a great line: ‘Of the world as it is, you can never be enough afraid.’ And somebody recently sent me a copy of Faulkner’s Nobel acceptance speech, where he talks about how the problem with young writers, and this is a few years after World War Two, is that they’re too afraid of being blown up, unable to see beyond their fear of violent, catastrophic death. People are talking now as if we live in a new world, that nobody before has ever these kinds of fears…but this is what life is. And The Subject Steve is about that; it’s about mortality and fear.”

One of the ways we deal with our fear is to crack jokes—and gallows humor gets taken to powerful new extremes in this tale of a man, who is named Steve but is not Steve, who is told that he’s about to die of a brand-new disease.

You’d written short stories (collected in Venus Drive) before this. Had you been wanting to write a novel for a

I started a novel that this novel eventually became before the stories. I wrote about a hundred fifty pages, and I threw all those pages out, but an idea remained. Then I spent some years working on the stories, and when I finished those, I went back. There was a kernel of a story, having to do with the Center for Non-Denominational Recovery and Redemption. That still
figures in the book, but besides the name of the place, I threw everything out and started from scratch.

There was a quote in the press kit, something you said you’d learned from Gordon Lish, along the lines of “There’s nothing brave in finishing a bad novel.”

He did say that to me, and it was liberating to hear that you could start again. I’ve known a lot of really talented people who have put their pencil in the wrong place and dig a hole in the ground for years because they feel they’d be surrendering if they didn’t finish. But if you’ve gone in the wrong direction, there’s no shame in turning around and going in another direction.

From that and other stories I’ve heard over the years about people who study from Lish, it seems that he teaches you as much about how to be a writer, to think like a writer and live like one, as he does about how to write.

I think that’s true. There’s a sort of…not necessarily moral teaching in what he does. He teaches you to find your own courage and to keep asking yourself, “Am I really putting myself in danger?” Obviously, I don’t mean physical danger, and I don’t mean writing for shock value. But is your heart on the line? And if it’s not…the one thing he said that always stuck with me was, “If you’re not scaring yourself, it’s not going to affect other people.”

And there’s moments in The Subject Steve where you clearly had to be scaring yourself, wondering where the hell you were going. Parts of this novel could be interpreted as being for shock value if they were seen out of context, but considered as a whole, they don’t come across as gratutious. They fit naturally into the world that Steve finds himself in.

That’s what I was hoping for. I think that the tissue that holds the book together, that makes all the scenes feel as if they belong, is the language, the sentences. I took Steve very seriously as a narrator, as the speaker of this piece. I didn’t want him to be just a receiver of wounds. It was never a case of “what can I put Steve through next?”

How long did it take you to find his voice?

A while. As I said, I started a novel that dealt with some of these themes and settings, but it just wasn’t the right narrative, and the voice wasn’t working. Then…I remember the breakthrough. I was writing in an illegal sublet, a storefront room on Varick Street where I’d have to padlock myself in because all I had was an accordion gate. At one point a car exploded on the street, and my room quickly filled up with black smoke, and I almost died trying to unlock the gate and get out.

Afterwards, I was thinking about the genre of book where the narrator’s in trouble. And I got to thinking, what’s the worst that could happen to a narrator like that? And I thought of that doctor joke, “We have some good news and some bad news.” It’s such a simple joke, but there’s a million variations you can make on it. And it’s filled with dread, but it also can be so funny.

You define everything pertaining to Steve’s condition so loosely that you can, and do, take the story just about anywhere. It doesn’t matter if he’s really sick. What matters is what he does when he believes that he is sick.

I don’t know how much of that was me not being sure what the hell I was doing at the time, but the more I wrote, the more I understood that the less I nailed down the specifics, the more leeway I would have. I’d have more possibilities, I could create more tension, and it would be more interesting to read. The thing that destroys Steve isn’t the illness, but the hunt for the so-called cure. And that’s how I meant to set it in motion. If you believe you’re dying, what do you do then?

And from there you get to take swipes at everything from the medical industry to self-help gurus to the dotcom world. Having been in that last environment myself, I felt that section of the book rang psychologically true in its extremes.

I worked in that world, too, for a while, and watched the rise and fall. I had a wonderful time working at Feed. Not only were we putting out a great magazine, writing whatever we wanted to write—a dream job in itself—there was supposed to be a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow… I thought it would be funny to have people still deluded by that dream even though everything has already crashed. But I didn’t sit down and say I was going to write a book that takes on the dotcom craze or skewer the medical industry or satirizes self-help culture. Those are all things I’ve had personal experiences with. That letter that Steve gets when his insurance company drops him, for example: My mom got that letter from her insurance company when she was dying. So these things came up as milieus in the novel, and there was a tone that carried over as they emerged. I couldn’t help but have fun with the absurdity of it.

But you can’t deliberately set out to mock something like that.

It’s never going to work. You’re just going to look like an ass. All the things that get treated in the book are things I’ve had real dealings with and complicated feelings about. I have a real sense of the absurdities inherent in them. You can tell when somebody has no idea what they’re talking about and is simply taking potshots with a distance.

What have you been reading recently?

I just read Candide on an airplane. That was pretty delightful. (smiles) I’ve been reading the new translation of Isaac Babel’s stories… What have I been reading by somebody who’s alive? There are things I go back to a lot. There’s a collection by Gary Lutz, Stories in the Worst Way, and I often read that book for inspiration about what one can do with a sentence. I just read Bruce Jay Friedman’s Stern, which was recently reissued. I’d never read it before, and I thought it was astonishingly good. Then there are younger writers I know and admire, and I read their new stuff as it comes out: Michael Kimble, Jenny Offill, Brian Evenson.