Last summer I met a Brooklyn-based writer from my hometown who told me about her friend Sara Lippmann and showed me the amazing cover of Sara’s (then-forthcoming) latest story collection, Jerks. After hearing it was brilliant, I eagerly sought out the collection, which was published by Mason Jar Press in March. And it lived up to the hype — the stories are funny and razor sharp. Lippmann’s prose is electric and she maintains a generosity to both her characters and her readers.
After reading her work, I jumped at the chance to join Sara’s fiction workshop and learned she’s just as generous off the page. Her feedback was full of insight and kindness. (PSA: 10/10 would recommend one of her workshops.)
And now her debut novel is being published by Tortoise Books. Lech follows five characters all trying to move on and a potential sale of a property in the Catskills. The novel is written with Sara’s trademark wit and like Jerks, explores our predatory nature. It’s smart and poignant, like the cool older sister of her short fiction. I absolutely loved it.
I chatted with Sara about the novel writing process, subtlety in fiction, climate change, and writing about abortion.
Congrats on publishing your second (!) book this year. In an interview for Jerks, you said you wrote those stories when you were cheating on your novel. And here’s the novel!
This novel took so many damn years, over many muddling periods of despair. I’d get these little bursts of energy from writing stories then try to channel that momentum. As someone who comes from journalism, it’s hard not to have deadlines and be putting work out — to be toiling away in a vacuum. I need fire under my ass. I probably would have abandoned the novel if I hadn’t detoured with stories. Novel writing requires trust and patience and a certain generosity to the work, yes, but also to yourself. I can be stingy toward myself and terribly impatient, not to mention, riddled with self-doubt, so it took real training to settle into the discomfort of such a long, often futile-seeming process.
I’m fascinated by how you managed popping back and forth between projects. How did you orient yourself to get in the mental space for writing the novel?
I consider myself a story writer first, so when the idea struck, and it felt somehow novelistic in shape, I was like, oh shit. It took me a while to get started; then there were generative periods, and breaks in between. It went through many incarnations. Initially, it was a very slow, quiet book (maybe, probably, it still is – although it’s undergone substantial liposuction.) The novel deals with transgression, and so yes, it felt almost like method acting to transgress with short stories (which also dealt with transgression.) But the stories mostly were in a different tonal registry, so that felt liberating and playful, and energy giving. The two projects fed each other. It was like stretching, too — exercising certain muscles in a form I felt more comfortable in would then create new spaces to write into. But another truth is I have the attention span of a flea (which may be why I have 5 povs) – naturally flit between ideas. You should see my open tabs browser. I’d like to believe that movement is nourishing, but it’s probably just scattered. If I had better concentration, maybe it wouldn’t have taken so damn long.
The title has a double meaning—in English, it’s acting in a lecherous manner, but it also comes from a Hebrew word meaning ‘to go forth.’ At what point did you come up with the title?
The word Lech was integral to helping me crystalize the imperative of the novel: how do we go forth with all the shit that we carry? How do we begin to liberate ourselves from various tethers — self-imposed, culturally, historically, socioeconomically, and so forth. That was very much the central question, hand in hand with its other definition – I wanted to explore the predatory nature of humanity. It was always the title in my heart. My agent and I talked about how it invites a lot of mispronunciation and can sound like a glob of phlegm in your throat, so it’s not the most melodious or welcoming, I know, though that was quite deliberate on my part because it’s not a melodious novel; it deals with the phlegm caught in all of us. It’s a confrontational title for a confrontational book. At one point when we were trying to sell it, we bandied around alternatives, like “Murmur Lake,” which never resonated with me. It felt too much like a summer romance, so I pulled it back and said Lech has to be it. I didn’t want to package it as something softer when that’s not an accurate representation.
Murmur Lake is fictional, right?
Yes. Regionally the book takes place in Sullivan County, NY, though it’s not a place I had a ton of first hand experience. I’d visited the Catskills, but as a Philly person, I was more familiar with the Poconos. But we were not resort people (although my religious grandparents did take us to a kosher hotel one Passover, which depressed the heck out of me.) I drew a lot from Wayne County, PA, across the river, where I spent much of my childhood (and more recently, adulthood) at camp. But because rot and decay are so central, as is the former Borscht Belt – I moved it to Sullivan. There are legit towns mentioned —Liberty, Neversink, Kiamesha, etc— but the private property Murmur Lake is fictional.
How’d you tackle creating a fictional setting?
The region is irresistible. As a microcosm. A metaphor. “Nothing is how it was, only of course it is.” Sullivan County had been fascinating to me for years, probably since I first watched Dirty Dancing or before that, when my father won a raffle at a synagogue thing and we went to Grosinger’s for a night one winter and the mold climbing on the ceiling of our room felt like a horror film. I was interested in the nostalgia, the escapism, the resentment, the centering of a place well past its prime. American metonymy. I did a ton of research — movies, books, Remembering the Sullivan County Catskills, etc. But I was timid because it was not an automatic anchor. It felt more slippery. The past couple summers when I was working at a camp in Wayne County, I’d spend days off driving around Sullivan. I struggled with the dilemma: when you’re choosing to set a narrative in a real place, how much creative license can you take? The result is blended – invented elements run alongside actual elements.
Much of the external conflict deals with the potential sale of property. How’d you settle on that as the central conflict?
Real estate is inherently predatory (as any distillation of capitalism.) It preys upon emotions and aspirations. There’s so much fantasy attached to it. Your buyer envisions who they want to be and what the right property will allow them to become. Plus, in this region, real estate is particularly fraught between city buyers and country sellers, breeding resentment, tension, parasitic entanglement, it brings decay/growth front and center. That said, the initial seedling of a novel was an image of an older man watching his tenants in a voyeuristic way. I couldn’t let go of the idea of someone renting out their property but then not leaving and instead having a fetishistic experience with the family moving in. I think I was reading a lot of Salter at the time, lol. I’m never good with plot, but once I realized the importance of place, the real estate story felt like a natural throughline.
The novel also has an undercurrent about how this predatory human impulse impacts climate change.
Yes. Another example of parasitism. How we’ve invaded our host only to destroy it.
But I also wanted to highlight one of the greatest inequities of climate change — how people who can afford it are running to the hills. This idea of escapism and being able to outrun some sort of inevitability, driven by privilege. The people who create these bubbles have access. There is an ugly irony to this trend of city people moving out to the country not out of any respect for or awareness of the land but as some extended sprawl, so that renewal only furthers the destruction.
I love how that’s all present in the novel, but it’s subtle. One of the (many) strengths of your work is its subtlety.
I really try to resist any sort of moralism or messaging or judgment. There were things I was curious to explore and see played out but through character without being didactic in any way. I wanted to explore the life/death cycle of decay, I wanted to look at the way all living things (human, animal) are locked into their predatory, exploitative, transactional relationships. I was curious about entrapment and what it takes to loosen those ties that bind. Like, I’ll have all these questions or ideas nagging at me, but if we think we already have the answers, then why are we bothering to write? Curiosity is the driver. As a reader, I’m very resistant to a narrative that feels overdetermined, or like a foregone conclusion, in terms of its morality. If you tell me how I’m supposed to think, I’m going to reject that. I’m more interested in watching characters do their thing and make bad choices and create chaos and claw their way out and so on. That’s what makes fiction alive.
The novel has five POVs. Which was easiest to write? Hardest?
I started with Ira and he came on really strong in the beginning. There’s a fine line between repulsion and attraction. I had to reel him in. I didn’t want the reader to put the book down because he was too offensive, but his voice started first.
I was most resistant to Tzvi’s character. I felt out of my league trying to write a Hasidic male character who struggles with identity, faith, and grief. I was afraid to go there until my friend Zeeva vocalized what that tiny voice inside me was saying: you need to bring that voice in. (Listen to those tiny voices, children!) The book had already been accepted when I added that voice in the 11th hour. His mother had drowned in the lake twenty years prior on the saddest day in the Jewish calendar year, and there’s a long prayer of lamentations that’s read at night on that day, which has a certain cadence, and his voice arose in that mournful elegiac way. Which is to say his ultimately was probably the easiest for me to write when I finally did it, in these flash-like musical sections, though I’d been dragging my feet forever.
Beth is recovering from an abortion. You obviously wrote this before the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, though it’d been under attack for a while.
I feel like I’ve been writing about abortion for a long time. I write about it in my first collection and in my second. But while I’ve been writing about abortion for years, what interested me in this case was a mother who chooses not to have another kid. I wanted to challenge the assumption of once a mother, then mother first and always — that the anatomy of reproduction becomes paramount to mental health and individual choice and all other choices and desires. That a mother upon becoming a mother ceases to be a person with any bodily autonomy but only a vessel for more children. Beth’s abortion was a protest against that self-erasure and an assertion toward a path not solely dictated by her uterus.
It goes back to the whole question of lech lecha to look inward and then outward to live out your own life.
I wanted to address the stigma, a particular judgment that often accompanies even the most “pro-choice” of people when they hear about mothers having abortions. The qualifiers, the lines in the sand. How could a mother? Etc.
If I were to write the story from today’s vantage point, there would be a different tinge to it. New York can be a dangerous, insular bubble. If Beth were to exercise the same choice today AND still take it for granted as a New Yorker, that would only highlight her solipsism and privilege — and add a layer of dramatic irony — for the reader. That said, I would like to think that even Beth, for all her self-absorption, would possess a sharper level of awareness, sensitivity, and political positioning if she were to find herself in this position.
I thought we could wrap up talking about what lessons you learned from writing Lech. Any advice you’d give your younger self?
I’m not in any position to ever give advice. I fell into countless dark pits in the writing of this book. All those pits were fear-driven. Not to get all Jedi, but one of our primary tools is intuition. If we can quiet the noise and the garbage and anxiety and preoccupations about what the market might want or what our agent might want, or what the industry might support – all of which can be so toxic and and destructive – and try to stay in that space of trust with yourself, your voice, and your work, that’s going to serve you best. Believe me, it was a lesson hard won. But the only thing we can control is our integrity. That’s where emotional honesty lies. Let that guide our narrative impulses. It’ll take as long as it takes. One word, then the next. All we can hope to do is be present for it.
Photo: M. Price