Sam Lipsyte: Doulos, Dungeon Masters, and delusions

Sam Lipsyte

Sam Lipsyte

One of the most endearing truths about Galway is its capacity for broadening minds and horizons.

As the city eases through the clouds and rainy days of the past few months, it is time to look forward to the summer festival season and after all the festivities are over, people come away from these events having experienced or appreciated something or someone new, an interest sparked.

The Cuirt International Festival of Literature approaches in earnest once again, and so arrives one of the first opportunities of this new season to take advantage of new experiences and to open up minds to, in this case, the words of those we may not be familiar with yet. Cuirt introduces the Galway public to some of the great minds of the international literary world, in particular the ones we may not have heard about this side of the Atlantic.

The name Sam Lipsyte may not be too familiar in Ireland. A respected and award-winning short story writer and novelist, Lipsyte has authored three novels and two collections of short stories, including his latest, critically-acclaimed, book The Fun Parts. His fiction and nonfiction has featured in major publications such as The New Yorker, The New York Times Book Review, Esquire, GQ, and Harper’s, and he also had a short but sweet stint developing a television script for HBO. His ‘day job’, as it were, is as current chair of the writing programme, as well as a full time lecturer, at Columbia University.

As a child Sam started his eventual path early, writing short children’s stories and reading, and receiving a wealth of advice and encouragement from his teachers and of course from his father, the renowned New York Times sports journalist Robert Lipsyte. “Maybe you become a reader first and then you think ‘I’d like to write something like this’. You get inspired,” he says. “And then later you get arrogant and think, ‘I can beat this!’ When I’m really inspired time stops and the world seems to open up, language comes rushing in, and there is nowhere I’m happier.”

Informing his own individual style and voice over the years, Lipsyte credits some of the greats of literary history amongst his most memorable reading experiences, listing impressive surnames like Joyce, Beckett, Melville, and Amis, contemporaries like Cormac McCarthy, while also mentioning American short story masters such as Barry Hannah, Leonard Michaels, and Grace Paley. “All sorts of writers have made longer or shorter stops in my mind and done their work on me. It’s not that I am interested in one approach, I am always awed by someone who has total control of the world within the book. That’s what I admire.”

As a consequence of Lipsyte’s life long association with New York and New Jersey, many of his stories are deeply rooted in those areas and his characters are as detailed, unique, and diverse as the modern day big city dwellers he has grown up around, an authenticity which permeates through the pages of each segment clearly. When asked if he believes in the well worn mantra of ‘write what you know’, he instead believes in his own wise proverb; write what you know, write what you don’t know, and write what you’d rather not know. “I think you bring a lot of yourself into your work, but then you are transforming it, distorting it, you’re making it serve a story and the voice to the point where it no longer really matters whether it happened or not,” he explains. “I will change anything for the sake of a sound or a sentence so the facts are never that interesting to me, but they can be a great starting point which I think is the beauty of fiction.

“I am never sure if there is one stable ‘me’, so it is a lot of fun playing around with lots of different voices and different stories from different perspectives, because I think that ultimately you are writing from a bunch of selves that you have within.”

It is true that Lipsyte’s work cannot be confined to a genre or even a particular central theme, especially in the case of The Fun Parts, and judging by his stories and the real and surreal elements which are intertwined throughout the book, he is certainly not one for letting the truth get in the way of a good story.

His stories can really only be classed as the genre of life. While many of his stories are unusual, like the struggles of a ‘doulo’ or male birthing coach to be recognised for his work, or the harrowing accounts of degeneracy, broken dreams, and heroin addiction in ‘The Worm in Philly’, the reader cannot help but relate to some of the morals and emotional traumas on display, as well as his often hysterical prose. “I want the reader to have moments of real feeling and real thought, let them laugh a little and sort of commiserate with people over the agonies and celebrate some of the joys of being alive right now.”

By his own admission, Lipsyte sways in favour of characters who, as he puts it, “have their backs against the wall for one reason or another”. His characters are in many cases world weary, disaffected, and very honestly insecure. They have realised, or are in the process of realising, the bittersweet disappointments in life, perpetually down on their luck but still fighting for change and achieving some form of enlightenment from the difficult situations they find themselves in.

Some willingly choose to live in flawed imaginary worlds like the apprentice in ‘The Dungeon Master’, some dedicate themselves to false gods like the protagonist in ‘Ode to Oldcorn’ and his worship of a faded Olympic shot-putter, and some even put their faith in the holograms of little machine elves with emerald eyes garbed in gold (see ‘The Real-Ass Jumbo’ ). “I have always been fascinated by the ways in which we talk to ourselves and delude ourselves, and try to make narratives out of our lives that make sense when things are often so incoherent,” he says. “These characters might be a bit damaged, but they are very much self aware or else self-deluded. I don’t consider these people outcasts; these are people who I have been or I have known, and I love them.”

While Lipsyte says he does not consciously avoid happy endings, he does admit with a chuckle that almost all of the stories in The Fun Parts are hostile territories for the conventional happy ending. In many cases the characters find themselves stuck in their difficult situation or else the victim of a particularly violent happening largely out of their control.

However, in almost all cases, the characters do find a moment of clarity amid the debris of their lives, which is perhaps a happy ending in itself. These are stories of modern struggles and redemptions which are universally relatable to the reader, and Lipsyte lays them out uncomfortably bare and at a sharp and unrelenting pace. “We are all spinning a story as we make our way in the world. I am interested in the contrast between the things people do and the things they say they are going to do, or want to do, or dream of doing. The gulf between what we want and what we get, and between what we think we deserve and what we probably deserve. I am just trying to sort of connect some human dots.”

Lipsyte’s alter ego over the past 10 years is as a full time lecturer on the writing programme of New York’s Columbia University. He sees the experience as extremely fulfilling and valuable for himself, hoping it is also the same for his students. He takes special interest in helping his students find their own voice by engaging with them over their work and searching out possibilities that they may not recognised, while always trying not to impose too much. “I often wonder if I am helping or hurting but the most valuable piece of advice I give my students is that they have to do this type of work for themselves, because in the end nobody cares whether they write that novel or don’t,” he says honestly. “It is not about some identity you have thrust upon yourself by calling yourself a writer. It has to do with how much you are willing to sacrifice to write as well and as truly as you can.”

This identity is true of Sam Lipsyte the writer. He is dedicated to his work, especially the process of vision and revision it entails. He admits that he never confines himself to the short or long form or any necessary direction but simply sits down and goes with the flow and seeing where it takes him. Though “80 per cent of the time”, he says, it apparently leads to the bin. Presently he is writing his next novel, the next installment of Lipsyte’s mad but beautiful universe. “I have written a bunch of things for it and I’m not really sure what its going to be about yet but that is the usual process for me. I do like to get scared or nervous about what I’m writing because it keeps me on my toes; it keeps me excited to continue working on it,” he concludes with a grin.

Coffee and Cronuts with Sam Lipsyte takes place at Busker Brownes on Saturday April 12 at 11am. Tickets are available from the Town Hall on (091 ) 569777 or


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