Q&A with Sara Lippmann, author of Doll Palace
Q. How did this collection come together?
When my kids were little and my brain a sad, gray pulp I returned to the page. It’d been so long since I’d written anything, much less fiction, and I had doubts whether I’d be able to string together a complete sentence. The tiny chunks of time I was able to carve out dictated the shape of that early output. I started playing with the short form, often very short. Thanks to writers like Kathy Fish, I became newly obsessed with the line, the power of compression, the exciting things that can arise from strict parameters of word count and my own life-driven time constraints. Soon it became more than a structural imposition as I found myself drawn increasingly to ideas of confinement, boxed-in narratives; the stirrings along the edges. One piece became two and so on. I started gathering micros, flash, short stories. Kind editors at various journals, online and in print, published them. At some point, a friend told me I had a collection so I took stock. There were definite themes, recurrent settings. But I didn’t want to throw together a random hodgepodge of junk and call it a book. So I hacked away. Most of the tiny pieces I started out with landed on the cutting room floor. I filled in the gaping holes with newer, longer stories. I wanted to build a collection that felt cohesive and made narrative sense, so that hopefully, the stories work not just individually but in juxtaposition and conjunction and cumulatively, as well, to tell a larger story.
Q. While working on this book were the themes of isolation/struggling to find one’s place a conscious effort?
I wouldn’t say anything I do is a “conscious effort.” But I do tend to return to the same themes. Isolation. Stasis. Confinement. Perceptions of good and bad. The claustrophobia of identity. Like children whose parents lay out their outfits every night before school, the characters in Doll Palace try desperately to wear the roles society has set out for them, but nothing fits right. Everything is too itchy, too short, too tight, the colors all wrong. And yet, rather than say, “screw that,” and slough them off in favor of new clothes of their choosing, better suited to their bodies, they continue to move about the world in these insufficient, uncomfortable threads, which rather than conceal wind up exposing them even more, making them vulnerable in a way that’s infinitely interesting to me.
Q. It feels that each story is acutely aware of unrequited love. These stories are not cynical in any way, just the opposite—they are told almost with frank indifference. Do you feel an obligation of confession, not only to the characters in your book, but also to the readers while working through each story?
Thank you for calling them love stories (that is, if you are calling them love stories). I do tend to see most of them in that light, however shadowy and strange. Your choice of the word “confession” is curious, as it feels somewhat loaded, even gendered, like it’s the stuff meant for a diary and feathered pink pen. I don’t feel an obligation to anything or anyone any more than I think all writers have an obligation, regardless of genre (be it sci-fi or fantasy, fiction or nonfiction) to write honestly. To be true to their work. Would you call a male author who mines the thoughts of his characters “confessional?” Is there a double standard?
Certainly, the societal divides of good/bad, inside/outside, public/private are big for me. Who people are vs. how they are packaged vs. how they package themselves. Many of the characters are not self-aware enough to cop to anything outright; so the challenge for me was, how to reveal what remains hidden, how to get across to the reader all that stuff that they themselves cannot say?
Q. Most of these stories are rooted in acceptance, more specifically a woman’s identity in a modern society. As a female writer are there any fears or tabooed subjects that either repel or draw you to write about?
Once writers start labeling subjects as taboo or off-limits they are shortchanging themselves and their work. I think our job is to stay open, to welcome what comes. The stuff that keeps us up at night, thrums our curiosity, that makes us want to be on this planet; to better understand others and ourselves. That becomes our material. Reject those obsessions and they’ll boomerang back, eventually. When I was an undergrad I tried to write about certain things in a certain way: a lyrical, language-laden way. It was not my way. Then I wrote for magazines, which was great fun, but also confusing because it taught me to be a chameleon, how to blend with “the editorial voice of the magazine.” Which is a longwinded way of saying it took years to realize: this is my voice, here is my stuff; like it or not, I might as well own it.
I have always toyed with cultural dictates of innocence and menace. Rosy worlds of purported safety and joy (Disney, birthday parties, suburbia) turn dark and unsettling. Seemingly distrustful characters and shady places possess an abundance of tenderness and heart. Originally, the collection explored more of what one might deem conventional taboos: the marginalized worlds of looners, masochists, etc. Although I edited out most of the more overt pieces I still think there is a current of fetishism, certainly, doll fetishism, running through it.
Q. With so many writers in the world, how does a short story succeed? What is its role in contemporary writing, and what do you think is its future?
I love a good story. To me, there is nothing more exciting than a knock-out story, one that challenges the way you see the world and taps the full range of emotions, a story that startles and unsettles and also makes you laugh. Julie Innis’ Three Squares a Day with Occasional Torture is an example of a collection that accomplishes all of that and more. Rachel Sherman’s The First Hurt is another. Or, because I just read it tonight, Jonathan Papernick’s “The Miracle Birth” from his collection There is No Other is so transporting, so assured in its telling it feels like an instant classic.
But stories are unforgiving in a way that novels are not. We’ll follow that ten page tangent if it’s compelling enough because novels wear a baggier sweater. Stories have no room to hide. As for a litmus test: Does it feel urgent, necessary, quicken the pulse? Is it unlike other work you’ve read? Do you find yourself thinking or feeling in a different way, rereading it again and again? Those are all good indicators of success.
Because I tend to read the way I write—in inconsistent spurts, stolen moments, while juggling multiple things—I consume a lot of stories. One of my favorite procrastinations is to hop online and discover work that’s thrilling and new. Are stories making a comeback? There was that NY Times article however long ago, but I can’t anticipate trends or care much for industry fashion labels. There will always be stories and storytellers. Clearly, the proliferation online is changing how we read and what we read and the ways we interact with text. People who might not pick up a print journal are encountering fresh, smart fiction online. And that is a very good thing.
Q. Many in the industry have an antipathy toward the genres, and in turn this produces an endless pile of fiction based on real-life, accurate accounts, turning the banality of life into something interesting and readable. In your opening story, Whipping Post, you’ve done a wonderful job in creating a very real character that is incredibly compelling. What is the biggest fault you see most contemporary writers committing when addressing nearly plot-less situations?
Oh god I don’t know I understand this question or that I am at all equipped to answer it. Plot is my Achilles’ heel. I admire the ambition of a riveting plot, but I am a miserable plotter (in fact, I don’t “plot” out anything but kind of bumble and trip my way). However, I don’t think you need earthquakes to tell an effective story. I also struggle with narrative linear movement from A to B as being the only accepted way. How can that be? My arcs tend to be more circular, which can be frustrating for readers—I get that. The conventional wisdom may be for a character to change in order for a story to succeed, but I don’t know that’s true. So maybe I am the one committing the biggest fault, as you say, in that my characters are like broken gauges. They are stuck. They’ve caught a glimpse of B (and sometimes even sputtered to C)—there’s a fissure or flash, a glimmer of something, a realization, maybe even a reckoning on some small scale, but then the needle swings back to zero. They are not necessarily taking action—at least, not on the page.
But then there’s this, which Laura van den Berg said in recently in Interview: “I think a story in some ways as like a train window: being able to watch the landscape pass for a certain amount of time. And then your stop arrives, and you have to leave. You don’t necessarily ride the train to its final destination.” That kind of linear progression is something I can get behind: that feels wise, quiet, and true.
Q. That is nice imagery. And I think you have succeeded brilliantly at doing just that in this book, glimpsing the view from the window, internalizing a small part. It seems that’s what a good short story does. A lot of short stories written by emerging writers read like longer works that ran against a wall. The writer doesn’t have the patience or skills yet to find a way around and so the story ends. What you’ve done is offered us a question, then built a miniature world around it, and then closed the curtain at just the right time, so to speak, leaving the reader with more questions, but thoroughly satisfied. That’s the mark of a talented storywriter.
Thanks. I appreciate that. I sure hope the story isn’t over.
Q. You’ve exposed a secret world in this book, it seems, and you’ve done it so forthrightly that it begins to feel like something that has needed to be spilled. There’s tremendous velocity in your prose. Is the candor of your writing a response to what you see as contemporary literature or a frustration to cultural mannerisms?
When I was 7 months pregnant with my first child, we moved to Dallas, TX. It might as well have been another planet. I felt like a Martian. I knew no one. I missed my blue state: friends, family, my old job, bagels. I didn’t have a car—which in Texas summer is unheard of, but there I was, pushing my old lady shopping cart to the grocery in 110 degree heat with my stomach large as a whale. People stopped me thinking I was homeless, in need of a shower, a bed. When my belly button stuck out like an overbite, strangers touched it. My body was no longer mine but wasn’t that normal? I didn’t know anyone with kids. Then a former colleague told me about some website where the Manhattan mommies went to bitch, so I went there and it was like high school pudding wrestling in pearls—total brawling madness, a dumping ground for sordid drama about husbands, lovers, babies, preschool admissions. It was better than any soap opera. Better than Maury Povich. So I sat on the couch and ate Fudgicles and breastfed and read until my eyes glossed over like some silent but evil internet troll, horrified, disgusted with myself, but also a little less alone. Maybe these were extreme cases, but what struck me were the secrets, as you call them, the disconnect between how people—women, mostly—were acting on the street vs. behind closed doors. This against the backdrop of the various mommy wars being played out in the media at the time and I thought, for all the noise, no one’s really saying it. And then, I thought—maybe there is something to all that withholding. Still, I didn’t write a word. When I returned to Brooklyn full with #2, I attended my share of sing-alongs. I sat in coffee shops. My antennae shot up. It was the same story. Some variation of “No one ever told me it would be like this” on pregnancy or motherhood. Like the wedding industry, the parenting industry goes to great lengths to package then bubble wrap itself in bliss: chubby cheeks and ribbons drawn in pink and blue, when it is anything but. Yes, children are amazing, remarkable creatures and the love is unparalleled and life evens out and eventually, we experience some swell of amnesia and nostalgia, which is how we continue to populate the earth, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a fucked up, crazy time for a while. Forget all the physical stuff, the shock to the system, becoming a parent marks a monumental identity shift. Who are we? What have we become? I remember overhearing that line—Do any women like their husbands?—and I knew I had to write a story around it.
Q. I’m glad you brought that line up. It’s one of those sentences that stays with you, making you involuntarily ask yourself, Does my wife like me? Does my mom like my dad? Did Grandma like Grandpa? It’s a very dense, psychological concept for both men and women to stomach. It’s a perfect example of where you give the writer just enough, and then drop that thought on them to mull over while making dinner with their spouse.
Ha! Well, I love my husband. Thanks for giving me an opportunity to shout it from the treetops, as I know there’s a fair amount of husband bashing (poor husbands!) in the collection but the man I married is a kind, gentle person and loving father and we are having a wonderful time moving together through this wonky thing called life. That said, it’s like the Paul Rudd comedy where he plays a long married husband fantasizing about his wife’s death. People aren’t easy. I’m sure as hell not. I’ll bet he’s wanted to chuck me out the window.
Q. Going back to Whipping Post, you’ve written a very concise, earnest voice-driven piece there. Most first-person narratives feel to be written for the author, meaning the story and characters have a sentimental or nostalgic resonance with the author, and more often than not the center—the dilemmas—matter only to the author. Is it a lack of self-editing that create these kinds of stories? How do you shape your voice-driven work to not only be readable but also poignant?
People often read work in the first person and make various assumptions that are understandable however misguided. They assume the material is coming straight from the writer’s own biography, which perhaps is natural, but incorrect. I love the first person voice and often use it because it creates an intimacy with the reader. There is an immediacy inherent in that point of view. If it feels honest and true then I’ve done something right but let me be clear: it’s fiction.
The idea of Whipping Post came out of an open call from the very fine, now defunct, Our Stories journal. They wanted Gen X stories so I tried to write one that felt both intimate and universal, that could feel so familiar as to be the voice of generation type thing, one that people would read and say, I know this story. That it centered around a loss of virginity just made sense. The frame gave it the reflective distance – but also allowed it to retain the element of a secret, a story erased.
Q. You’ve completed a first draft of a novel. How has writing shorter works shaped your abilities as a novelist?
Ugh. I would not go that far. I have drafted the rough, basic scope of a novel that has been stewing for years, which I’ve started and abandoned a half dozen times. Unfortunately, all the time I’ve spent on the short form, getting in and getting out, distilling and compressing and fixating on the line has stalled my momentum. For the last two years or so, I’ve been trying to write longer stories as a sort of training for the novel. I am still struggling to sustain a narrative. Part of my trouble has been settling on a POV. It has gone from third person limited to third omniscient and is currently a chorus of three first person voices but I’m still not sure that’s right. Another problem is I’m a control freak, a textbook Virgo, and I regularly wonder if the whole messy thing might be better off squashed and managed into a tight, neatly self-contained story. I’m not sure a novel is in me. But, yes. I have filled up some legal pads and typed them onto the screen and printed out pages and am now starting the slow, humbling process of seeing what, if anything, I’ve got.
Q. What are your opinions about MFAs? Are they needed? Are they detrimental?
The only thing that’s been critical, for me, is community. How and where you get that is somewhat irrelevant. I don’t think I understood it when I was grad school 100 years ago, as I was working full time and too caught up in deadlines and other things to know what I needed. Had the internet been the thriving force it is today, teeming with journals and resources and all these wonderfully stimulating, supportive literary communities with writers who are doing the same as you—trying to get down one word after the next—I don’t know I would have pursued an MFA. But I do think students of craft—all writers—benefit from readers. That person or two people or four who you trust implicitly to read your shitty drafts, who come to your work without any ulterior motives or toxic intentions other than to offer solid, thoughtful feedback—who will be your ear and for whom you will be theirs as you all slog through the murky long haul to publication. Maybe you’ll find those people in an MFA program, or later, or on the internet, or maybe they’ll live down the street from you. Maybe they are still to be found but once you do find them, hold on to them. They’re gold.
We spend all this time in varying stages of undress, haunted by the voices in our heads, mumbling to ourselves, an embarrassment to the outside world. It’s easy to get lost in our own isolation. As the cohost of a longstanding reading series, it’s a comfort knowing I will get out and experience fresh talent, connect with and get inspired by others at least monthly. I wish I did more of this. But it’s a fine balance. I’m easily distracted. I fall down the rabbit hole. Discipline, determination, a persistent curiosity, an openness to discovery, a few good souls. Those things will get you through. You don’t need a degree for any of that.
Q. We’ve been getting a lot of letters asking about agents. Do they need one to submit their work, their role in the evolving literary landscape, etc. You recently signed with an agent. In your opinion, in the highly competitive industry of fiction writing how has getting an agent helped you? By having representation, in essence a solid form of validation, do you feel more willing to take risks in your writing, or are you more wary of it, knowing that your agent will often times be your first line of criticism? Has it brought more confidence to your writing, or done just the opposite?
This fall, before everything, I had coffee with a friend, the writer Sweta Srivastava Vikram, who has published something like eight books of poetry, nonfiction, fiction, I’ve lost count. She is a wonder and she said something (which I’m about to butcher) along the lines of: your agent/your publisher has to be behind you 200%. I think that’s incredibly wise. In an industry that perpetuates a kind of desperation – like me! publish me! represent me! – to which I’ve fallen prey, it can be tempting to make poor choices/compromise your work to nab the clip or ink the deal. But just the way you don’t want to beg some schmo who doesn’t give two licks about you to marry you, you don’t want to enter any of these professional relationships on such lopsided footing. It’s taken a long time to arrive at this simple place: work with people who believe in you. I do feel like recent events have been particularly fortuitous, and someone ought to pinch me. Maybe it sounds hokey (and six months ago I’d roll my eyes) like something out of an E-Harmony commercial but I do believe with a healthy dose of patience these things happen: literary matches gravitate toward one another in a way that’s beshert, meant to be. Just as I was beginning to shop around Doll Palace, Dock Street found me. They prided themselves on taking risks and nurturing emerging writers. The rest is history. The collection could not be in better, more thoughtful hands. As for Jenni Ferrari-Adler, I am over the moon. Again, it was a bit like matchmaking. She heard me read. I sent her a galley. We talked. Her sensibility, experience, and hands-on approach meshed with all that I’m looking for. We are just beginning. For me, knowing that she is there in the wings eager to read my novel is just the fire I need to stop the hemming and hawing and get back to work, pen to paper, word after word, the slow build of pages, urging my next story along.