“I Have a Natural Impulse to Compress”: An Interview With Sara Lippmann


The stories found in Sara Lippmann‘s collection Doll Palace are concise and dizzying, showcasing memorably wrenching scenes from numerous lives in the span of a few pages. Lippmann is equally adept at settings urban and rural, moving from Jersey Shore life to urban absurdism to literary commentary. It’s an impressive breadth of work, and I reached out to Lippmann via email to learn more about the collection’s creation, boundaries, and settings.

Reading the stories in Doll Palace, location seems to play a huge part, whether it’s a nightclub in Brighton Beach or an apartment undergoing an absurd level of renovations. At what point in the process does the setting come into play? Do you ever begin with a location, or does it evolve more from the characters?

Setting is often right there from the outset. The initial spark might be something else: an overheard line (i.e. Do any women like their husbands?), an image I can’t shake or character I want to understand, but place provides an important anchor.

I started off in magazine journalism so maybe it’s that vestigial bone, or maybe just my controlling nature, but with fiction, where the possibilities are infinite, I feel like I need to get one thing down, know it inside and out, be able to taste touch smell it, before I take that leap into the unknown. Sometimes that first thing is character, but usually it’s place, and most of the time the two are inextricable. Once I have put down physical roots I feel less overwhelmed by all the choices and go about filling up the world with characters and their problems.

Most of the places are places I know or have known, with a handful of exceptions. I chose them because they tap into a lot of what I already was fiddling with in the stories themselves, because they embody that commercialism or claustrophobia and/or isolation or because they beat with some kind of ache or sadness, that washed up feeling they they’ve had their day, that they never will be what they were or could have been, which is shorthand, maybe, a kind of cheating, but when the mood is already embedded in the setting it helps me to keep the story on track.

Is there any one part of the world that looms particularly large in your fiction? As someone who grew up near the Jersey Shore, I found myself noting a couple of familiar places while reading the book.

I never set out to make it a regional book, but I grew up in Philadelphia and have lived in New York (save for two odd years in Dallas) for my adult life so for better and worse, the East Coast looms large in my heart and mind and has spilled all over the stories.

The Jersey Shore is irresistible. The sensory overload, and how it is so American, Atlantic City, in particular, the decrepit giant, a shadow of what it once was, the place where dreams were made and lives broken. I’m a sucker for nostalgia, for that disconnect between past and present, so I did find myself returning there in my fiction although I didn’t spend a ton of time there as a child. In college, my parents started going down to Long Beach Island – and the built-in metaphor of the place has fueled a couple of long abandoned novels. I’m also a sucker for a carnival story, and love to subvert expectation– i.e. the character perceived as a freak from the outside versus the freak alive and well deep inside of all of us.

One question about titles: the collection’s acknowledgments note that the story that appears here as “Jew” was originally published under the name “The Stranger.” What led to the change?

It’s hard for me to ever feel done with a story. I am forever dissatisfied and can tinker with my work until it’s wrenched from me (I’m an editor’s nightmare) the habit of which stems from magazine days, when we’d pass half a dozen rounds of edits and then four, five rounds of page proofs (on layout boards) before we’d ship. With the story you mention, I soon realized that the original title was both too polite and imprecise and that the metonymy of Jew as stand in for that otherness hit a sharper note. (Also: I get off on compression, so why use two words if you can say it better in one?) The new title has an unsettling, confrontational quality I love, so the instant I came to it, I asked the publication that had accepted the story if I could make the title change, like a real pain in the ass. It was too late. But from then on and in all subsequent reprints it was Jew.

The story “This Old Man” delves into the politics of the literary world; was that inspired by any actual authorial dynamics?

The Old Man trope is a bit of a fetish (and one of the driving currents of the novel I’m working on), but in this case, it’s my attempt to comment on certain aspects of the publishing world – and gee, there’s just so much to comment on, isn’t there? The white male canon and the imbalance of power, the misogyny, in-fighting, desperation, resentment, the old world and new. It was a fun story to write, but I wasn’t going for potshots. If anything, it’s a kind of screwy amalgamated homage to some of the big dicks I grew up on, like Salinger and Roth, who first turned me on to writing. When I was at a men’s magazine in the late 90s, it was wild to watch the beloved old guard — the Grand Poobahs of new journalism — come through the office on occasion and to witness how they were treated vs. expected to be treated and to see how that dynamic was shifting.

Many of the stories in Doll Palace are very concise, yet suggest much larger worlds. How much backstory do you have before you start work on a story?

Backstory is a weakness of mine – and something I constantly need to keep in check, to restrain in favor of whatever meager forward action there is (another weakness of mine.) So while I do feel characters can only come alive for me once I have a solid grasp of their whole world –past, present, future – very little of that needs to be on the page for the reader. I have a natural impulse to compress, so it becomes a game of withholding, of isolating the one salient memory or image that will pack the best punch – and render the character most fully.

For me, at least, this is how we are in the world: present, yes, but with steady tugs to past, even future. So in stories like “The Second Act” and others I wanted to try to capture that fluidity, that experience of time within the confines of story telling, hence the jump cuts, and switchbacks, the structural movement.

Did you know from the outset that “Doll Palace” would be the story that gave this collection its name?

The title story was in the last handful of stories I wrote. I could feel the manuscript building but it had a few glaring holes. Then I was asked to contribute to a Metazen Christmas e-book, so I quickly drafted the story – which also had a different title. Ideally, I like to let a piece of new fiction sit for a while before I send it out, but in this case I didn’t have the time. Months later when I pulled the story out to edit with fresh eyes, I had a new title, and a new draft. It became clear to me then it would be the title of the book.

What’s next for you?

A novel. It’s a furious beast unlike the short story and beats me up daily, but so far we’re still in the bloody ring.


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