Reading with... Sam Lipsyte

photo: Ceridwen Morris

Sam Lipsyte is the author of the story collections Venus Drive and The Fun Parts as well as the novels Hark, The Ask, The Subject Steve and Home Land. His fiction has appeared in the New Yorker, the Paris Review, Harper's and Best American Short Stories, among other places. The recipient of a Guggenheim fellowship and the Believer Book Award, Lipsyte lives in New York City and teaches at Columbia University. His fifth novel, No One Left to Come Looking for You (Simon & Schuster), is a darkly comic mystery set in New York City's music scene of the early 1990s. 

Handsell readers your book in 25 words or less:

Hey, here's a wild, hilarious detective novel full of shady weirdos, drugs, noise rock, art, sex, celebrities and a sincere appreciation of Hall & Oates!

On your nightstand now: 

My glasses, some tissues, a stapler (why?), some masks, a Black Diamond headlamp (I actually use it to read if my wife is asleep), Self Care by Leigh Stein, The 12th Commandment by Daniel Torday, Golden Age by Wang Xiaobo, The Distance by Ivan Vladislavic and Swann's Way by Marcel Proust (the Lydia Davis translation).

Favorite book when you were a child:

Sam the Minuteman by Nathaniel Benchley. Benchley was the son of famed Algonquin circle writer Robert Benchley and the father of Jaws author Peter Benchley. But he's my favorite Benchley for this gripping story of a boy named Sam who has to fight the Redcoats with his father at Lexington and Concord. His best friend John gets wounded, and my best friend at the time was named John, and so the whole thing really thrilled and traumatized me. Also, the illustrations are by the great Arnold Lobel, of Frog and Toad fame. In fact, now that I think of it, it would have been great as Toad the Minuteman. Or Toad the Minutetoad.

Book you've faked reading:

The Hunt for Red October by Tom Clancy. I was in a bar years ago. Some guy was going off about what a good movie it was. I told him the book was much better. But I was faking it. 

Book you're an evangelist for:

There are a number of books I'm always pushing on people, books I buy multiple used copies of so I can give some out. These include Airships by Barry Hannah, The Sellout by Paul Beatty, Inner Tube by Hob Broun, The Sugar Frosted Nutsack by Mark Leyner, Prosperous Friends by Christine Schutt, Woodcutters by Thomas Bernhard, The Collected Stories of Diane Williams and Leaving the Sea by Ben Marcus.

Book you've bought for the cover:

When I was 16 or so I bought the Vintage Contemporaries paperback edition of Thomas McGuane's The Bushwhacked Piano. Those were beautiful books in general, and I guess I bought this one for a combination of the title and the very weird illustration of a green Hudson Hornet floating over a desert. I think what sold me was that the cover didn't show a piano. I didn't know anything about McGuane at the time, but he soon became one of my favorite writers, and now an email buddy. Sometimes you can judge not just a book but an entire oeuvre by the cover!

Book you hid from your parents:

Well, they knew I had it, and that's a whole different story, but it was the novelization of Gore Vidal's screenplay for Caligula, the 1979 pornographic extravaganza starring A-list actors like Malcolm McDowell, John Gielgud and Helen Mirren produced by the publisher of Penthouse. Unlike the situation with The Hunt for Red October, I really can tell you that the book, though written after the movie, was better. I kept it under my bed, not to hide it from them so much as hide the fact that I kept it under my bed.

Book that changed your life:

The aforementioned Airships. It made me want to write stories that could swerve from weird and hilarious into heart-crushing on a dime. It made me realize that some of the deepest writers are also the funniest.

Favorite line from a book:

"Life is an immobile, locked,
Three-handed struggle between
Your wants, the world's for you, and (worse)
The unbeatable slow machine
That brings what you'll get."
--Philip Larkin

Five books you'll never part with:

If you ask my family, who have to live in our cluttered home, it's more like the 5,000 books I'll never part with. But five of the many I'll never part with include The Collected Stories of Isaac Babel; The Man Without Qualities by Robert Musil; Libra by Don DeLillo; Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf; and The Complete Gary Lutz.

Book you most want to read again for the first time:

Moby-Dick by Herman Melville. I read it for the first time in my 20s right after my mother died. I vowed not to leave her apartment until I was done. I just sat at her dining room table with her old Modern Library edition of the book and cups of coffee for days. It was a very emotional experience, a life-affirming one. I understood that a work of art, however bleak, was the artist shouting "Yes!" at the void. Or maybe just, "Up yours!"

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