Sara Lippmann is the author of two story collections—Doll Palace (re-issued 7.13 Books, 2021) and Jerks (Mason Jar Press, 2022)—and her debut novel is LECH (Tortoise Books, 2022). She is this year’s judge of our flash fiction contest. I sat down with Sara to talk about her writing.
CL: LECH is your debut novel. Was this book a departure for you? How did it come about?
SL: The book’s a departure in the sense that I consider myself primarily a short story writer, but when the first seedling of the idea came to me it felt novelistic in scope. I can’t really explain that other than I feel like the stories we are compelled to tell dictate their containers, the structures they want, so that (hopefully) they arrive at their destined shape organically. Even though that initial idea morphed over years and grew almost cancerously from its earliest incarnation (which was a voyeuristic conceit in which an older man rents out his home to a young family then doesn’t leave the property) into 5 POVs–never did I doubt that it would be a novel.
Which may be the ONLY doubt I didn’t have.
It’s also the most consciously Jewish story I’ve written, from its biblical roots to its look at faith across denominations to its confronting anti-Semitism.
CL: Some themes–motherhood, Judaism, sex and infidelity, the dark side of humanity–populate much of your work. Are you drawn to these larger concerns or do they emerge when you start writing?
SL: Everyone has their material, their themes, obsessions that continue to puzzle us. I tend to go forth with simple questions of want. What does this character want? Will they get it, lose it, deny it, destroy it, will it constantly elude them, etc.? It just so happens desire is want, and humans are sexual beings, and so it goes. So, the imperative was there.
I knew I wanted to write a book about predation. How we prey and are preyed upon, how they feed each other. Also parasitism. And the fucked up but beautiful cycle of life and death.
I knew I was interested in the things we carry. All of us come with uncomfortable pasts, or carry a reputation–settings, included. But even as I was dwelling in the depths of Catskills decay it took me a while to realize I needed to slip this tiny biopsy I’d excised under a microscope, and try to understand through place how we’d arrived where we are in this country.
CL: Who have been some of your influences? And have they changed over the years? Are there writers–rarely read these days–that we should be going back and reading once again?
SL: Where to begin? I’ve had so many and of course they’ve changed over the years. I could write a dissertation on influence. The language of the modernists, the story writers who shaped me (Jayne Anne Phillips, Ann Beattie, James Salter, Richard Yates) – voices that hit me in the kishkes (A.M. Homes, Grace Paley, Lore Segal, Peter Orner.) And so on.
There are also writers whose hold has been frustrating, as enraging as it’s been influential, and I find that tension interesting–and useful. I was raised on the (mostly male) canon of Jewish fiction, and I wanted to confront some of those classic tropes but from a more ferociously feminist angle, so there are subversive nods here to Roth, Bellow, Harold Brodkey, Bruce Jay Friedman.
Friction casts sparks, or something.
CL: It’s been twenty years since you graduated with your MFA from the New School. Thinking about your writer’s life since that time, how informative were those grad school years? Do you have any advice for people thinking about MFA programs or recent graduates? Or how a writer can make a career in fiction writing?
SL: A career in fiction writing–what’s that? Lol. The reason I chose my grad program is because it was night school, which allowed me to maintain a job in magazines the whole time I was doing my MFA. Sure, I fantasized about going to some remote program where there was nothing for me to do but write, but a) leaving the city wasn’t in the cards and b) the constant juggle and feeling of being spread too thin mirrors the rhythm and grind of the writing life. Today, with the proliferation of lively writing communities and rigorous online courses and nourishing in-person workshops, I don’t know if I’d choose grad school. There are many ways to hone one’s craft and to maintain a practice. Having a tight group of trusty first readers helps. Kudos to the people who are able to make a living at this. I teach, edit, freelance–the hustle is real–but still, it doesn’t amount to much. I cannot overstate how ridiculously lucky I am to be married to someone who bears the family’s financial weight.
CL: As the judge of Atticus Review’s 2022 flash fiction contest, what are some of the things you look for in a piece of flash fiction?
SL: Urgency, vitality. I’m looking for a story that feels necessary, like it had to be written, that leaves me altered in some way, my perspective shifted. It doesn’t need to be big or loud, splashy or provocative. But do I feel something–not because the author is tugging on the heart strings and telling me to feel–but because the intrinsic workings of the story are bringing me there. I am looking for a change in temperature, whatever that may be.