Sometimes the Quiet, More Chaste Gesture Is What Rouses the Heart: A Conversation with Sara Lippmann

DollPalace-coverA man who makes a living as a clown endures a difficult reunion with his teenage crush while working her son’s birthday party. A young girl struggles to forgive herself for an accident involving her younger brother. A father whose youth and reputation were destroyed by tragedy desperately seeks acceptance from his son’s friends. A woman searches for meaning in a stale and shallow marriage.

In her debut collection of short stories, Doll Palace (Dock Street Press, forthcoming), Sara Lippmann unflinchingly and unrelentingly renders the darkness of modern human existence: our isolation, loneliness, and struggle to connect despite our alienation. Throughout these twenty-three stories, Lippmann ambitiously investigates human suffering through characters who are lost and broken, who question how to make sense of the world but come to few conclusions.

Despite their often dire circumstances, characters young and old search for love as they seek to remedy their disconnection. Lettie, a character in “The Second Act,” is described as “Not yet 40 but already a survivor.” In Lettie’s case, she has survived breast cancer, but all of Lippmann’s characters, young and old and deeply flawed, are survivors: finding moments of redemption and meaning as they connect, however briefly, with other human beings.

I talked to Sara about how Doll Palace came to exist, where her characters come from, the power of a sentence, her literary influences, and what it means to write about suffering, love, and loss.

This is your first published book of fiction. How did these stories originate, and how did they come together as a collection? They feel very thematically connected: loss, regret, compassion, redemption, suffering. Did you set out with specific themes in mind, did the stories just come out, or something else?

I’d gone years without writing. Years. Eventually, I discovered that the only way back in, for me, was through very short fiction. Imposing strict word count parameters and trying to stick to them became an exercise that felt manageable for my lifestyle at the time (with two babies at home) which allowed only for very brief chunks in which to work. It was a kind of trick, a way of telling myself “you’re not really writing” when I was writing. I generated micro fiction, flash, short stories. I became fascinated, obsessed even, with compression, with whittling it down to the necessary bones, the attention to the line as demonstrated by masterful writers like Kathy Fish. Later, I began to see that the structural boundaries were seeping into the content—here I was writing all these boxed-in narratives, stories about characters with confined lives, who push up against but perhaps never break through their self and/or socially-imposed walls. At some point, a dear friend told me I had a collection. I took stock and noticed the themes, the recurrent settings. It still felt like a mishmash so I edited, edited, and a lot of those early very short pieces fell away. I wanted to build a collection that felt cohesive but that also made narrative sense, so that hopefully the stories not only stand on their own but also benefit from their order in the lineup. The idea is that they function also in conjunction with each other and cumulatively—to tell a larger story, if you read them consecutively from start to finish. I don’t know if I achieved that but it’s what I was going for.

One of my favorite things about reading Doll Palace was feeling completely transported by the landscapes you draw the reader into: the fairgrounds of youthful desire in “Whipping Post” with its “beer stops … pickle barrels … machines whirring icy blue threads of cotton candy.” Disney World in “Tomorrowland” where “the guests in line for A Small World are so pink from the sun they looked like they’d been slapped.” Or the claustrophobic, hot, noisy apartment building under construction in “Starter Home” that counters all the protagonist’s initial enthusiasm about her first home. Can you talk a little about the importance or role of place in your stories, or how place arrives in them?

Thank you. Setting often provides a kind of anchor for me. Maybe it’s because I started off in journalism and still find it daunting to pull all the threads out of thin air, or maybe it’s just the control freak in me, but yes, I feel like I have to get one thing right, know one thing inside and out before I take that leap. Usually but not always it’s the context, the place. Build the world and then go off and dream up characters and conflicts. So yeah. These are mostly settings I know. I chose a lot of them because they touch upon the themes (isolation, confinement), because they themselves are claustrophobic, boxed in spaces. Or the mood is already there—the setting reflects that stasis or decay, the washed up feeling that they’ve already had their day; that they can never get back to what they once were, or might have been. Is that a cheap shortcut? The sensibility and setting become somewhat intertwined.

Your use of details to capture the experience of youth is really incredible. I felt sometimes like I was watching an episode of Freaks and Geeks, but much richer. There are so many descriptions that took me back to high school or earlier. Here’s one, from “All This Happiness:” “While Steffi rose to the top of the cheerleading pyramid, Max grew his hair and shredded his jean jacket until his fingernails blackened and clothes accumulated that mealy, masturbatory smell, the smell of disregard, highlighted by resin and pencil shavings …” Your descriptions of this time in life feel so accurate, timeless, and also just really funny—or if not funny, I found myself laughing because I recognized myself or others in them. How do you go about describing youth in ways that are so specific and universal at once? And also, why were you interested in exploring youth within a collection that also deals so heavily with adulthood?

God, I love Freaks and Geeks! And I LOVE that you said that. The specific/universal—that’s the whole thing, right? Take Nathan Englander’s first collection, For the Relief of Unbearable Urges, which is an absolute wonder, because his whole book takes place within the closed insular world of Orthodox Judaism. And yet, the collection has been translated into over a dozen languages because his stories are everyone’s. That’s why we write. And that’s why I like first person—it creates the illusion that it’s absolutely personal, or somehow even my story—so that ideally, a reader would attach his/her own connections to that intimacy. Details and specifics are important because I wanted these stories to feel private and honest while maintaining the fiction. Sure, I grew up in a certain time and place. I grew up on MTV, John Hughes movies, etc. We all owned those narratives. They were ours, in some way. Mention St. Elmo’s Fire (not a John Hughes film) to someone my age and everyone has a memory that stems from it: Quick, what’s the meaning of life?

As for spent youth and adulthood—well, it’s the ultimate sadness. You can never get it back once it’s gone. And yet, you can’t begin to grasp it when you’re in it. When you’re young you want to be old and enter all those forbidden adult worlds and when you’re old all you want is to recapture the impossibility of that youth. It is so hard, almost contrary to human nature, to simply be in the present and not feel that stirring. Instead of accepting the moment for what it is, we are constantly restless, chained to the idea that the grass is always greener, or something.

So much of the book is about loss, and struggling with how to live life after a major loss. Characters without metaphorical (and sometimes literal) homes, who have lost their past selves, who have done terrible things that have destroyed them seemingly beyond repair. So many of the characters are destroyed, but I found myself rooting for them throughout. Where do your characters come from? What’s your interest in lost souls about?

Wow, that’s a great question. I really don’t think I am making too many conscious choices. I am drawn to characters that embody certain contradictions: the heartless yogi, the wrecked clown, the lovesick stripper, the minister knife-thrower, the saintly sanitation worker, the masks people wear. The chasm between who people are vs. how they package themselves vs. how they are seen by others. As for sad, lost souls—who wants to read about shiny happy people?

Your sentences are just so good. I have so many I marked, for a variety of reasons, but many of them are just so beautiful, and often so emotionally crushing. Your stories are relatively long, but the sentences seem so perfect. Do you put the same amount of care into each sentence you write? I’m curious about what you prioritize, and if the sentences just come naturally or how much revising you have to do?

Language has always been important to me (perhaps too important) but those exercises I was describing earlier, during which I was writing really short fiction, drove that obsession with the line. I grew impatient. Tired of excess, language for the sake of language, five hundred pages novels that should be two hundred fifty, all the bloat and gravitas. I wanted to be precise, to let the line hit, and not trample over the beat. If an emotion could be compressed, if a moment could be pared down to the essentials, if I could do more with less, then I’d go for it. Kathy Fish’s stories are the epitome; the stunning complexity and purity of her lines are something to study. I’ll never understand how she does it! I do think we all have a certain ear that drives the rhythm of our prose. Reading my work aloud helps me to hear the lines. That said, you should see my shitty first drafts.

There’s a quote I love from “Body Scan,” a story about the doldrums of married life with kids: “To touch is one thing. To feel is something else.” Connecting with the world and with others is a struggle for many of your characters: men and women, fathers and sons, friends, and others. What do you think these stories have to say about touching and feeling—or how does it apply to the bigger picture of the work or your interests as a writer?

There’s that E.M. Forster line: “Only connect.” Isn’t that what we want? The world is loud. Ride the subway; we may try to ignore it, but touch is unavoidable; touch is everywhere. But even between two people it is often cold, meaningless, anonymous. There is a disconnect between touch and connection. As much as we may desire the latter, connection is harder won. It’s why Julia Roberts’ Pretty Woman draws a line at kissing on the mouth, to invoke another throwback flick. Sometimes the quiet, more chaste gesture is what rouses the heart.

Sure, the writer in me wants the kiss. My biggest wish is that this book reaches someone, stirs an emotion or thought inside; that it makes them feel. At the same time, it is rather restrained emotionally, doesn’t go for the big swells. I realize that. Aesthetically, I am more interested in writing that elicits feeling from inside the page rather than one that is overtly steering that response. Obviously, all writing is some sort of manipulation, but I don’t want to be told nor do I wish to tell other people how to feel, I tend to dislike pushy, tug-on-the-heartstrings type of fiction—yet at the same time, I hope people respond emotionally. Does that mean I’m a doomed, boxed-in, contradictory and eternally screwed writer? Probably.

How do you avoid the trap of having the reader pity your characters? I think in particular of a couple of your male characters—Phil and Max the clown. Their circumstances are really quite dire; their lives have fallen apart in one way after another, and they feel incapable of going on. What would it mean for your reader to pity them, or for you to pity them?

Another great question. I don’t know. I do want my readers to connect to these characters. I don’t want them to leave the reader cold—but at the same time, I don’t want to tell readers how to feel. Phil and Max (the clown) may be sad sacks but they are not without agency. They are more like—I can’t go on I’ll go on. They may be caught in a downward spiral, but they are not without hope. At the end of “The Last Resort” Phil has an awakening of sorts, however short-lived that may turn out to be.

Many of the stories deal with consumerism—how we embrace it sometimes in order to fill a void, how we spend much of our lives on the surface, obsessed with plastic surgery, cars, and material objects; even the yoga retreat, Yogaversal, is contaminated by consumerism. Many of the stories also deal with gender in very direct ways. Various questions here: How do you write a story that is critical of our society but that still works as a story? Do you see your writing as political? How do you write about things you feel passionate, or even angry, about in a way that feels right to you?

I never set out to do a critique or be political—that doesn’t feel organic. Polemics are not my thing, but I do pull from the world around me. Absolutely. I wanted to write stories that speak to/reflect the current culture, that comment on it, but without being snarky. I am not after pot shots.

I am from the feminists raised on ZZ Tops’ “Legs” and Van Halen’s “Hot for Teacher” videos. I’ve worked at a men’s magazine and a women’s, a few floors down. All the ridiculously manufactured gender ideals have been shoved down my throat, both in the glossy and in the flesh. The power, injustice, the contradictions, how do you make sense of all the persistent, often dangerous bullshit? When is it okay to laugh? As a mother to a girl (and a boy) I worry about the societal messages. But no one is off the hook. I have as little patience for the designated pink and blue aisles of a toy store as I do the ardently political parent who turns their own child into a poster board for their campaign. A child is a child.

Then there is consumerism. The accumulation of crap as proof of worth, as aspirational—if only I had X then I’d be happy—these kinds of fallacies are ingrained upon us. They are deeply American. Again and again we are bought, swapped, and sold. I watched a lot of Mad Men when I was writing these stories. If anything, I tried to capture some of that.

Although you have so many characters who are women, the story “Doll Palace,” which you’ve described as a parody of the American Girl craze, feels the most directly concerned with gender roles. Can you say something about what it meant to approach these stories as a woman? Also, do you see the other stories radiating from Doll Palace in any way, since it’s the title story?

“Doll Palace” was one of the last stories to go into the collection. It originally had a different title. I wrote it for a Christmas e-book that had solicited me. The story was roughly there at the time, but not quite. Later, I noticed it was bringing together a lot of the themes I’d been working out elsewhere, so it became the glue of the book. The name of the store in the story became the collection title. The whole thing was somewhat serendipitous; it filled one of the holes in the book. The soap box quality makes it one of the funnier of the sad lot, I hope. As for my gender—it goes everywhere with me. That’s the lens, the hip, the joint. There’s no way to separate. Even when I’m writing first person male POV it’s inextricable.

What writers inspired you in writing the collection? They feel distinctly Grace Paley in a wonderful way because they deal a lot with domestic life, love, male-female relationships, and because of how compassionately you approach your characters. Any other influences?

Oh, God, Grace Paley is my hero. Thank you! Her fierce attention to the line, how she unapologetically owned her subject matter. I also love Kathy Fish, Rachel Sherman, Susan Minot, Deborah Eisenberg, Ann Beattie, Tillie Olsen: there are so many writers whose work inspires me.

I wrote down the phrase LOVE STORIES in all caps at one point in taking notes. All of the stories feel like love stories to me, although maybe not in a traditional sense. Do you see them in that way?

I love that you see them like that. I thought I was all alone! I do very much see them in that light, however dim or strange. These characters want nothing more than to love and be loved, but it’s all misguided. They love the wrong people, or are not properly loved, objectified and not loved, trying to connect but haven’t a clue how to go about it, are frozen in their molds and don’t know how to bust out, choose another path. There is a dominant love narrative that’s fed to us: This is how to meet a girl/boy; this is how to date/talk/be; this is what love looks like; this is how to build a house, a family, life, etc.  Maybe they still haven’t found what they’re looking for, but who says they will give up? Or ever stop looking?

I really liked the juxtaposition of youth versus adulthood throughout—versus is really the wrong word, though, as we see how all characters suffer and are lost, regardless of their age. Many times, you follow a story about youth with one that deals with the very different world of adulthood. I found the juxtaposition really powerful in terms of universalizing the experience of suffering—we suffer in different ways at different points in our lives, and no one is immune. How did you decide to set up the stories in this way? Or order them as you did?

When it came to ordering the stories in the collection, I wanted very much for them to resonate in juxtaposition to each other. But I also wanted to create some kind of overarching narrative. My publisher, Dane Bahr, compares the building of a collection to putting together an album. You don’t want the same note over and over, as that only deadens and tamps down the sound. Of course, thematically, I touched upon similar ground repeatedly but hopefully from somewhat different angles? For example, I pulled out a couple of my favorite stories because they didn’t add anything new—and if anything, detracted from others. This was a tricky, Jenga-like process. But I hope it stands together, however wobbly.

There are very brief moments of redemption throughout the book, within stories that are so heavily involved with suffering. It makes me worry about the characters’ futures. The book is very dark—the moments of redemption are incredibly moving, but we know that they won’t last. Can you say more about this darkness? 

Oh, I know it’s not a warm and fuzzy book. Oy. dire is a word I’ve heard. But once I found myself deep in the heart of darkness, I committed. Go long or go home. The characters may be stuck, but the story’s not over. Yet we all know the happy ending is bullshit. Either that or it’s a massage parlor—which would be a fitting story in itself, come to think of it. Phil’s probably there right now.

Megan Martin lives in Cincinnati, Ohio. She’s the author of the short fiction collection Nevers (Caketrain Journal and Press 2014).

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