Interviews / Novelists

Interview with Sara Lippmann: “I have always been my worst enemy.”

Sara Lippmann is the author of the story collections Doll Palace, re-released by 713 Books, Jerks from Mason Jar Press and Lech from Tortoise Books.

Her work has been honored by the New York Foundation for the Arts, and has appeared in The MillionsThe Washington PostThe Lit HubBest Small FictionsCatapultGuernicaEpiphanySplit LipJoylandWigleaf and elsewhere. She received a BA from Brown and an MFA from The New School, and has been teaching creative writing for over 20 years to people of all ages.

Currently, she teaches with Writing Co-lab. For many years, she co-hosted the Sunday Salon, a longstanding NYC reading series founded by Nita Noveno. Raised outside of Philadelphia, she lives with her husband and children in Brooklyn. 

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Hi Sara! We’re delighted to have you as a guest on Famous Writing Routines. For our readers who may not be familiar with your work, could you please give us a brief introduction to yourself? 

It’s been a long and winding, potholed road. I started out in magazines right after college, which was illuminating for a while until it wasn’t, at which point I left the land of glossies for an MFA at the New School. From there, I’ve taught everything from English comp to flash fiction to novel writing, mentoring writers of all ages.

There was a brief stint in Dallas. There were years of babies, years of not writing, years of despair. Flash helped me find my way back to the page. These days, I consider myself primarily a story writer (my collections are Doll Palace and Jerks), though I’ve also published a novel and do enjoy the occasional essay from time to time.

I live in Brooklyn with my husband, dog, and teenage children. Currently, I’m teaching with the Writing Co-Lab, a new artist’s coop formed with wonderful writer friends and colleagues, and co-editing an anthology with the author Seth Rogoff called Smashing the Tablets: Radical Retellings of the Hebrew Bible for SUNY Press.

How did growing up outside of Philadelphia and now living in Brooklyn shape your writing?

Where we come from, where we live: these naturally inform our sensibility. The east coast is unmistakably pervasive in my work, for better and worse.

Both Philly and New York have been fertile ground in different ways. Brooklyn can be kind of an irresistible target, especially the dog run and playground, but I try to steer clear of SNL level parodies. And I’m actually currently working on a long project now set in and around Philly over two timelines – 80s/90s and then 2008 – so it’s been fun not only to mine the memory bank but to return to my hometown, where my parents still live, and eavesdrop and observe and hit the archives, too (there is a historical element in the book) – for research.

I’d also add that you can probably detect regional influence on an idiomatic and syntactic level, which perhaps is the case with everyone, only my ear is that of a neurotic, sefl-interrupting New York Jew! 

Can you talk about the themes and inspiration behind your debut novel, LECH?

The novel began with a vague image, perhaps from a dream: an older man renting out his house and then not leaving his property. I didn’t have much: not the location, not even the story. I just had the voyeuristic feeling, the stirrings of predation.

Unlike most of my ideas, it felt somehow novelistic in scope, which scared me as a story writer. But it continued to nag at me. I became sort of obsessed or endlessly curious with the predatory impulses of human nature.

Fast forward years. The seedling grew. The number of points-of-view multiplied. Once I settled on Sullivan County, NY, home to the former Borscht Belt, so much started to come into place thematically in terms of life, death, decay, parasitism, the drum beat of a drowning well in the past, and so forth.

Early on I had the central question (from the book of Genesis) of Lech Lecha: i.e. How to go forth? How to build a life? What does it take to release ourselves from, or at least learn how to move through some of the things we carry? This driving imperative helped to focus the somewhat fractured plot, told from five different character perspectives.

How does your teaching experience influence your writing process and vice versa?

Teaching has made me a stronger writer and editor. Public speaking does not come easy to me. Speech struggles as a kid (which I’ve written about) have made me terribly self-conscious when I’m talking in front of people. But years of teaching, of practicing the formulation and articulation of my thoughts in a somewhat cogent and measured fashion, has sharpened my editorial eye.

We all may have a gut response to a certain story. We have taste, yes. We know what we like and what we don’t and that’s all very subjective, maybe. But it’s been incredibly instructive to take a moment and to sit with my response and consider why I am having a particular reaction to a work, and to couch it in the language of craft. It deepened my understanding of literature, and provided me with tools to apply to my own work.

I find student diligence so inspiring. Students inspire me regularly with their commitment and regular practice, especially as that remains a struggle: finding the time, and safeguarding it, and not letting other work and busywork take precedence. There will always be other obligations. Meg Wolitzer (a former teacher) once said, you have to steal the hours. No one is going to give it to you. And she’s right. And it’s still difficult to do so.

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Your work has been honored by the New York Foundation for the Arts and has appeared in many publications. Can you tell us about a particularly meaningful moment or publication for you?

The day I won the NYFA grant was pretty special and emotional for a whole host of reasons –- I actually wrote about it here – as I was in a pretty dark state at the time, on the brink of despair, and it was just the bone I needed: a bit of validation to keep going in a moment when everyone around me was questioning my life choices as we stared into the abyss of failure together. 

Can you describe your typical writing routine? Do you have a set schedule or do you work on your writing in the moments you can find?

My writing habits have been in the toilet. That’s my one goal for this year: to return to regular practice. I’ve spent the past couple years on edits, production, the constant sweat hustle and grind that comes with putting out two small press books (my novel and second story collection) in one year, and between that and teaching (and editing and kids and dogs and college visits and covid and life) the days go by. As Annie Dillard puts it: How we spend our days is how we spend our lives, right. So I’m trying to make some adjustments.

That said, when I am in the throes of a project, I have to wake up at an ungodly hour before the critical mind wakes. I need to beat the “you suck” voice if I have any hope of getting the sentences down.

Do you have any specific rituals or habits that you do before or during your writing sessions to help you get into the creative mindset?

I try to do morning pages. Sometimes that’s all I do, a string of lousy word vomit at 5:30am into a notebook. My handwriting is illegible so I’ll never read it over, which is liberating, somehow. Yes, on the one hand, all that scribble is lost; and yet, if I do stumble upon an idea in that early hour, it often sticks.

Later, it becomes easier for me to remember and draw upon that notion or character or whatever, building it out, if spark began in the morning notebook. The great thing about morning pages is it’s a place to play, to not think about craft or language – to just download whatever is knocking around in the head. It may not be that productive, as sometimes – often – that’s all I have time for, but it’s a way to engage with the creative mind. 

How do you balance your teaching and writing responsibilities? Do you have any tips for other writers who may be juggling multiple commitments?

There is no balance. It’s all a circus act. Now my kids are older and independent, so that’s been a significant shift, but they are a priority. Once they’re off to school, it’s dog time, then house time and work time. Work might mean prepping for teaching or evaluating manuscripts for private clients, or reading submissions for a workshop or for this anthology or an ARC to blurb or review.

It rarely involves my own writing. I can get bummed out about that, and do a number on myself about what a fraud and a loser I am, considering how little writing I’m doing these days, but I’m trying to be more generous in my outlook: to embrace fallow periods, and to honor the space around the work, and to try to trust that it’s all feeding the pot in some way even if I’m not facing the page.

All these other projects, they are all part of the writing life. Community is integral to me. It has buoyed me through dark times. I can’t imagine what it would be like to just sit around and write for myself all day, though I wouldn’t mind trying. Right now, I really could use a long weekend away in a rustic VRBO cabin, maybe with another friend, or just with the dog, for a DIY writing retreat.

Can you speak to any challenges you’ve faced in your writing process and how you’ve overcome them? Are there any techniques or methods you’ve found particularly helpful in overcoming writer’s block or other obstacles?

Self doubt and negativity, depression and despair. I have always been my worst enemy. I get in my own way. That is why I need to wake up before the critical voices start yammering about what a piece of garbage I am. That’s been one trick.

The other is longhand, whether it’s morning pages or legal pads later. To me, it feels infinitely more playful than the blank computer screen. We can’t forget about the play. Longhand can feel liberating, especially if I let myself be surprised by the idiosyncratic movement of the mind. A whole bunch of essays have sprung from morning pages.

I also love a good deadline. Maybe it’s the magazine hack in me. But being held accountable has been helpful. Currently, I’m supposed to email pages to a group of writers each week, with the understanding that they are not opening them or reading them, but rather, holding that space and encouragement in solidarity. The only way to get anywhere is through.

Last, I started running a bunch of years ago. I’m no athlete. My body is constantly breaking down. But running has taught me alot about endurance and stamina, staying the course, embracing the long game, and learning how to be comfortable with the discomfort. Even when it sucks I feel so much better afterward. The analogies to writing are endless. 

What does your writing workspace look like? 

Oh, it’s a mess. Which is hardly a shock because I’m a mess. My bookshelves – forget about it – but then, I kind of embrace the chaos of my shelves, even though the books are so deeply set and haphazardly stacked I can’t find what I’m looking for half the time, which feels apt.

It can be frustrating, especially as I’m getting older and no longer can rely on my memory of where I left things. My memory betrays me all the time. Sometimes I am surprised by what I do find instead, but it is not such a functional space, more like a repository, a dumping ground for my lost brain.

Last year I tried to clear things out and get organized. I went to the office supply store, got those little compartments for my desk drawers, and I got push pins! A bulletin board (which promptly came crashing down, and is not just braced against my cluttered desk. ) Which is to say: the disorder returns like a weed. I’m actually writing this from the bed because my workspace has become such a hazard.

Photo courteys of the author

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