Sara Lippmann interview with Meg Tuite
I cannot tell you, Sara, how excited I am about your forthcoming collection, Doll Palace, published by Dock Street Press, available in September, 2014.
I’ve been fortunate enough to have an early read of the collection and what an intoxicating ride it is! You weave a story as exquisitely and otherworldly as any of the best spiders and Native Americans on the planet. You are a phenomenon! Here are a few quotes from the title story of the collection:
“..their shoes lit up like movie aisles.”
“Girls are all well and good provided you stay dependent. But once you step away, once you say: I have two feet! And put an end to the madness, stop needing them to validate your planetary existence, once you stand separate and alone, and you will someday, for whatever what, mark my words. They will slice you up like a bad haircut.”
“The hostess hands out menus shaped like plantations.”
“Shannon has streaked her blonde locks blue, the color of fresh breath toothpaste.”
“She has the look of life on her feet but wears a thin smile painted siren red as if to hide the grooves in her lips.”
“Three days later he’s there again in my subway car, key and razor, going at his jowls with the rusty disposable, as if he’d never stopped, the kind embossed with daisies, over and over the same sunken spots, just staring across the car aisle, his elbows on knees, as if all the other passengers, as if we were his mirror.”
And I could have added another dozen exceptional quotes from this story alone. Can you tell me how you made this tale come to life, like all of them? I can see each of these characters so vividly and it moves like film/life/no bullshit. How do the layers come to you?
Thanks so much, Meg. It’s an honor to be back at Connotation Press, a journal that consistently features exciting work by writers I admire. I love your philosophy and approach, and I want to congratulate you on the launch of the CP book publishing arm. I read Len Kuntz’s The Dark Sunshine on my flight to AWP and it’s a terrific collection.
As for this story, I originally conceived it as a very short parody of the whole American Girl culture. A few winters ago, during the annual stroll down Madison Avenue to look at holiday windows, I was overwhelmed by the clog of girls swinging their new pink bags. The looks on their faces! People from all over the world! At the time, my own daughter was still too young to be swept up in the craze, but I could feel the fever burning just beneath her skin. Consumerism, doll fetishism, the loaded messages it sends to young girls, these are all obsessions of mine, so I knew I wanted to write about it. The mother’s voice came first with that opener – Does it ever end? – so I followed it. I knew she was going to be over-the-top and somewhat shrill, which is why I thought I’d try to sustain it only for the length of a flash. Only after I drafted the whole thing out did I realize that it would become the title story of the collection – and so, yes, through subsequent drafts, it deepened and grew into much more of a synthesis of the themes that crop up throughout the book.
I read these stories as though I am watching a movie reel that deepens from clip to clip, outer reality to inner dialogue. Your work is very much like a collage. There are numerous worlds that are tapping in on each other as characters are changed by fleeting moments of exchange with strangers outside their lives. It’s quite transformative to read your work because I am always taken to places I’ve been and forgotten. Thank you for that! Are you influenced by other mediums in your writing?
Music, film, listening in on conversations in the subway, restaurants, bathrooms?
Ha. Thank you, Meg. A very kind way of describing the adult onset ADD I’ve developed in my old age. But I think many of us do embody that collage state – albeit less artfully, certainly less consciously than you poetically depict. We bounce around, we flit. How many browser windows do you keep open on your computer? Information floods in and cuts out – this is how we live – all of which exacerbates the shallow, so the challenge becomes one of locating and unearthing depth, meaning. Strike that and you’re gold. Then, flutter back to the surface. Structurally, I guess this story reflects some of that skittish movement, the modern frenetic energy, in the way it jumps in and out of lives, of past, present, future, searching for something, anything that matters.
As for the rest of your question: I try to stay alert to the world around me, but the truth is, most of the time I’m nowhere. I write in my room, rarely write to music, haven’t seen a film in a decade. I’m boring as hell, but sure. I carry a notebook and will snatch up overhead lines ruthlessly – they can be too irresistible to pass up.
Who would you say are your greatest influences as a writer?
Can I cheat and check what I said last time?! Because this question, and my answer to it, changes. First there was Gimpel the Fool, followed by The Sun Also Rises. Goodbye, Columbus at 14. Then there were the writers who knocked me out in college and got me into this mess: Harold Brodkey, Virginia Woolf, Jayne Anne Phillips’ Black Tickets. There are the short story kings and queens: Grace Paley, J.D. Salinger, Susan Minot. Eleven Kinds of Loneliness by Richard Yates. More contemporary literary heroes have included Kathy Fish – her gift of compression is unparalleled – and Rachel Sherman, for her fearless prose. She is scary good. I could go on. I had been reading Deborah Eisenberg’s Collected Stories around the time I drafted this story and I feel like that’s pretty apparent.
What are you reading at this time?
I just began, and am already freaking out over, the manuscript of a friend whose brilliant novel is coming out this spring. Also: Starting Out in the Evening by Brian Morton. Before that I read Stoner, which a lot people are talking about because it had been out of print and is back again for good reason: it’s a brutal and beautiful ache. And then, because I am all over the place – that adult ADD – I’m mid-dip through a handful of new books by Sunday Saloners, Mimi Lipson’s debut collection, The Cloud of Unknowing, and When I First Held You, an anthology on fatherhood edited by Brian Gresko, to name two.
What would you say to a writer who is just starting to send out work for publication?
The submission process has changed so much. With some exceptions, the days of hanging around Kinkos waiting on collated hard copies, then on line at the post office are obsolete. It can be a rush to hit send, fill up that sub queue, hope for rapid fire acceptance. But writing is about as far from instant gratification as it gets. Don’t rush. Do your homework. Rejection is crucial. It’s what makes you. Be tough on yourself. Make sure your story is good and ready. The nerve wracking aspect in the age of Submittable is you can track and worry and track and worry and try to analyze and second guess what it all means. This only gobbles up time and energy.
Jhumpa Lahiri, my teacher in grad school, told my class that when she began submitting her work she would make a date with a friend. They would go to the post office together, mail off their envelopes, and then they would have a fancy cocktail somewhere. I love that. Because the simple act of putting yourself out there is part of what being a writer is about, and should be celebrated. Toast yourself for doing your best work. You deserve it. Then try your hardest to forget your work’s out there, and move on. You have another story to tell.
What is a favorite quote that speaks to you?
I’m impressed by writers who spew literary adages, especially in author interviews, fast in the pocket. I’m not a quote collector. Does this make me deficient? Probably. But I am currently in the middle of designing a writing course for tweens at an overnight camp for the summer (oh the angst!) so how about the bullet points from Kurt Vonnegut’s classic “How to Write with Style.” This, I think, applies to all writing, at all ages:
"1. Find a subject you care about. 2. Do not ramble, though. 3. Keep it simple. 4. Have the guts to cut. 5. Sound like yourself. 6. Say what you mean to say. 7. Pity the readers."
A favorite song?
Beast of Burden. The Only Living Boy in New York.
Where did you grow up and can you give me one moment in time that you remember: a conversation or visual that comes back to you?
I grew up outside of Philadelphia. It was suburban, it was unsupervised. We had MTV. I must have been 7 when some short-lived born-again babysitter blew through the living room telling me I was going to burn in hell. Twisted Sister was playing, She flipped it to Bob Ross. I became a latchkey kid soon after, and I don’t know it’s improved my destiny any, but I will always remember the lilting comfort of those happy little trees.
What is it in a writer’s work that speaks most to you: that stays with you?
Does it make me feel? Does it make me think? Has it left me altered, gutted, unsettled, has it challenged preexisting beliefs? Pushed me in new directions? I’m an emotional reader more than anything else – so those are going to be the ripples.
Alice Munro is described as “having revolutionized the architecture of short stories, especially in its tendency to move forward and backward in time.Her stories have been said to "embed more than announce, reveal more than parade.” What did you think when you heard that Alice Munro won the Nobel Prize for literature? And do you think that a novel is necessary to a writer’s success?
I love Alice Munro and was thrilled for her, but I’m not sure that her win is reflective of any shifting tide. Considering how people read (and don’t read) today you might think the short story would experience a widespread surge, match the national attention span, but who knows. The books industry is a business, just like anything else. If they have found that novels move and stories don’t, who am I to question their statistics? Their job is to sell. Best-sellers can be deep and full and transformative, or they can be watered down, recycled, all too safe. I am often struck by the dissonance between commercial and critical success. Some of my favorite writers – some of my favorite books – have been overlooked and/or grossly underappreciated in the marketplace. Does that mean they aren’t successful? Those authors may not be treating the room to five course steak dinners, but their collections are masterworks because they force readers to look at the world from new angles, because they tap every emotion and fill us up with searing, startling intelligence. Thank the planet for independent presses who seem unconcerned with whatever the conventional wisdom on novels may be, and who have championed these lasting collections into our hungry, grubby hands.
Thank you so much, Sara, for sending CP some of your pure brilliance!
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