For many writers, Sam Lipsyte’s readerly eyes are the most coveted. Hordes flock to the Columbia MFA Writing Program for the chance to take his fiction workshop, where he and I first met. On campus, revved up egos struggled under the weight of our grandiose dreams. We students all crossed our fingers in hopes that we’d be one of the lucky ones to gain access to The Great Lipsyte’s secrets.
His secret? No secrets. He pays attention. In an atmosphere that otherwise conditions writers to race towards the sparkliest “high-status” achievements, oh, there’s Sam with his stable vision. He embraces time, urging his students to do the same, reintroducing the ancient notion that good work might require it.
I write this because I see something familiar in Lipsyte’s new novel Hark: aimless followers with luminous dreams, desperate for a goody bag of shortcuts. Its protagonist, Hark Morner, is a failed comedian turned spiritual guide, the founder of a technique called “mental archery.” Hark guides his disciples in doing the same thing Lipsyte teaches his students: to actually focus.
Hark is written through the perspectives of a disparate cast of characters, all of them average people struggling under the weight of their own potential: as a parent, as a poet, as a babysitter, as an organizer, as part of the machine, as a twin child. Like us, they’re tied to their phones—or, as Lipsyte writes, “addicted to rectangles of light.”
Plot summary risks flattening a story that relies so much on its telling. The writing in Hark is a swift composition from one meticulously crafted sentence to the next. It is genuinely hilarious, sometimes to the point of discomfort. Lipsyte passes no judgment on his characters, who move through their world as real people do: fucking up everything, snooping through browser histories, succeeding occasionally, searching for drama and human connection.
I read Hark and went to meet Sam on the Upper West Side. We met in his office on campus at Columbia, where he serves as chair of the creative writing department. Outside his window, a man in a spandex, head-to-toe, lion-printed ninja costume used only his feet to pick up and fling a Poland Spring bottle into a nearby recycling receptacle. What an incredible view, I remarked to Sam, looking down at the man with the bottle, perfectly framed in the window. I asked Sam what the man’s deal was. “Oh, he’s there all the time, doing that,” Sam said, as if I should have expected he would be there. I nodded. Quietly, the two of us watched. “It’s truly remarkable,” Sam said, as the water bottle missed the receptacle for the fifth or sixth time, “because he’s not that good at it.”
– Leah Dworkin for Guernica
Guernica: The title character of Hark is a mindfulness guru, who advocates the intentional practice of “mental archery.” What made you look for that kind of character?
Sam Lipsyte: My wife is into yoga, and we also sometimes talk about mindfulness techniques, so it started with this goofy idea of “mental archery” as yoga I could do. It’s easy to make fun of this stuff, but that’s not really what I set out to do. It was really a reflection of how many people I know, including myself, who are just always searching for a new way to relate to ourselves and to the world. I was failing at yoga, but I remembered liking archery as a kid. I started to mess around with a couple of pages about “mental archery” as a discipline, and the story started to effloresce out of that.
Guernica: How does one fail at yoga?
Lipsyte: They fail to be interested in pursuing it, I guess.
Guernica: Fair. Throughout the book Hark is a leader for so many people who need guidance in a variety of ways, but simultaneously he’s being hired to work in corporate environments. How did you reach the conclusion that this kind of spiritual guide would find himself in such spaces?
Lipsyte: I saw Hark as someone who is kind of a blank, in some ways. He guides people through the fifty-two poses of mental archery and makes quasi-mystical pronouncements, but there is something that is not quite there about him, and that’s by design. The idea is that all the characters are coming from different places, and have different dreams and different fears, and he responds in kind. He understands what each person needs, but he is pursuing something that he himself doesn’t quite understand. What happens in the course of the book is that everyone has to negotiate their relationship to the corporate universe they live in—whether it’s working for some company or not working for some company—but also knowing that everything they do, their consumer choices and so forth, are implicated in some way. There are forces that try to commodify and monetize this spiritual practice.
Guernica: Throughout the book you discuss, in very clear and specific language, methodologies that can be accessed in order to find focus, as well as the sorts of sensations that accompany intense and uninterrupted focus. When you wrote those segments, were you channeling your childhood archery experiences? Or were you drawing from your experiences as a writer, and the kind of focus that you’ve learned to access through developing a writing practice?
Lipsyte: Writing is the place where I have found focus. It’s so hard to find it anywhere else. It’s often not the case, but when it’s going well—which isn’t always an indicator that the work is good—there is this sense of focus, of being in a kind of clear space. I’ve seen writers equate writing to prayer. I’ve seen them equate it to being “in the zone” in a sports sense. I’ve seen them equate it to other kinds of spiritual practices—what it feels like to be playing music, where time stands still for the duration of the piece, and you’re within this series of patterns, and that’s all that matters. All of those things have been true for me, but when I’m in that space I really feel—here’s one small little corner where I can let go, discover what it is that I’m thinking and feeling, but also within that, control patterns and sounds.
Guernica: Speaking of sounds, when you choose a name—in any of your books or short stories, you find names that have such resonant sounds, names that really stick in the ear. In Hark we have Fraz. There’s Tovah. There’s Teal. There’s Nat Dersh. As a reader, I’m not the best at remembering character names, but I always remember the names of your characters because of the sound quality their names hold on the page. Where do you find these names? How do you zero in on a name with the right sound?
Lipsyte: I just play around with names until I find something I like.
Guernica: How do you come up with them? They’re not always names we’ve heard before.
Lipsyte: I don’t really have a system. When I was a kid, and maybe this is where it comes from, my father was writing young adult books. I think he said once, “I’ll pay you 50 cents for a really good name, because sometimes I need names for my characters.” So I would sit around thinking I was going to make all this money and make endless lists of names and run them by him. Maybe he’d buy three or four of them.
Guernica: Did he use any of them?
Lipsyte: I don’t know. He bought them! He didn’t use them, but he bought them, so I could make a dollar or two.
Guernica: That’s a good gig for a kid.
One thing that always strikes me about your work, and this rang true especially in Hark, is how you don’t shy away from really writing into a female perspective. The men in your stories often don’t know something that the women do, and husbands inhabit a very different worldview from their wives. In Hark I’m thinking about the dynamics between Fraz and his wife, Tovah. She feels very realized, and she has a different sense of what’s going on—her own logic and feminine wisdom, her own awareness of society and its systems. How do you confidently access a female perspective? How do you handle switching back and forth between those perspectives?
Lipsyte: With trepidation, but with excitement. In Hark, where I switch perspectives from chapter to chapter, between five or six people at least, I didn’t stop and think, Well, now it’s a woman, and I’m going to think like a woman. Because that’s ridiculous. Fifty years of being raised by a woman, being married to a woman, having a sister, and being friends with women, reading women writers and having conversations, doesn’t make me an expert. I don’t claim to know what it feels like to be a woman, but in the same way that I have that experience with men, I feel that I can approximate something for the purposes of a piece of fiction. I find this when I am trying to write in the close third [person] of a character that’s not like me. I’m not claiming to be speaking for that experience, and I think as long as you’re not doing that, there’s free range. I’m in this closed world—my fictional universe—and I’m moving from one character to another, and getting, I hope, to something that feels right to the reader.
Guernica: There’s this trend—I don’t know if you’ve noticed it with your students—where writers don’t want to switch perspectives into characters much different than they are, or they don’t feel like it’s their place.
Lipsyte: Oh, they’re deathly afraid.
Guernica: What do you think about that?
Lipsyte: I think it’s too bad.
Guernica: I know you encourage students to explore alternate perspectives—perspectives that might deviate from their own internal experiences.
Lipsyte: It’s all about your intentions. It’s all about good faith. There are ways to do it where you’re not making any grand claims about that subject’s position, but you’re trying, through the tools of empathy, to do what has been done in storytelling and dramatic writing forever. Which is to imagine what it’s like to be this other person. Not necessarily a real person, but an invented character who is part of a tapestry that you’re creating.
Guernica: That’s not something I see many emerging writers exploring. To see how an author could have access to that range of perspectives and make me feel that I was able to know each of the characters’ positions so intimately was, frankly, powerful.
I have a question about setting. In both Hark and your 2010 novel, The Ask, you describe large lakes or open bodies of water—natural settings that have an important place in a character’s memory. These scenes stood out for me; there was a different emotional frequency in them. I’m wondering where that might have come from.
Lipsyte: No one ever asked me that before! I grew up next to a reservoir and spent a lot of time there. In Hark, there’s a scene where the characters crawl under a fence to get to the reservoir, and that’s pretty much taken from my backyard growing up. Actually, I remember, when I was a little kid, when I was very young, it was open and you could just walk down into this reservoir. Then, one day, these guys from the water company showed up and started putting a huge fence right across our backyard. It was this chilling, sad moment.
Guernica: So they literally took it away from you?
Lipsyte: They took it away, but my friends and I figured out ways to dig holes under the fence and sneak down there. We’d fish and hang out, and then the security guards would come and chase us out of there and threaten us. It was a game of cat-and-mouse for years.
Guernica: When you write about those spaces, there’s a sense of peace or nostalgia.
Lipsyte: Yes, there’s nostalgia. There’s a sacredness to them. Those kinds of spaces in my fiction tend to be formative, because my reservoir days were formative. I’m glad you noticed that.
Guernica: I grew up near a pond, too. When things otherwise can feel claustrophobic, it’s a gift to have access to that kind of open space.
Lipsyte: Yeah, it is. And then to be sneaking around in that open space is a strange thing too.
Guernica: Did your parents know when you were sneaking around?
Lipsyte: They didn’t care. They knew that we’d get yelled at by these security guards, and sometimes the guards would come talk to our parents, but our parents didn’t take it that seriously because they resented the water company. It wasn’t like we were committing some horrible crime; we were just trespassing.
Guernica: Let’s talk a little about parents and parenting. Many authors have talked about writing while parenting, and the choice to have, or not to have, children. It seems some people believe that children are a hindrance if you’re trying to write a book, or that being a parent is a disadvantage to a writer.
In your work, the way parents have to make space for their children is so central to who they are as people. Children operate under their own motivations, their own rules, and their presence makes the world of the novel so much richer. Especially in Hark, parent-child relationships really drive the drama and create a very full-feeling world. I imagine a lot of that comes from having children?
Lipsyte: Yeah. I mean always admired the way that someone like Don DeLillo could write kids without having them, but I remember when my wife was pregnant with our first child, someone said to me, “Do you think it will change your writing?” I said, “Well, it would be crazy if it didn’t.” You know? I do know writers who have kids who just seal that off, they keep writing, and maybe it changes them as people or informs the writing in other ways, but they don’t tackle it head-on. I respect that, and that’s probably a more mature way to handle it, but I tend to grab everything in my life and put it into my work. Unfortunately, I grew up in a family of writers and they were doing that, so…it’s sort of a family tradition.
Guernica: Do you ever worry about that?
Lipsyte: I’m pretty careful not to exploit them or put them in a potentially tricky place with my fiction. There are aspects or details of their lives that maybe get in, but the kids in my books are different kids. The autobiography is more emotional. It’s about what it feels like to be a parent, those anxieties and joys.
Guernica: Right. So, without directly spoiling anything for people who might read this interview and haven’t read Hark yet, I just wanted to say that the third part of this book was a total left turn from what I expected.
Lipsyte: I had the same reaction.
Guernica: It was such a surprise and a delight. Do you know the outcome, or have the sense of an outcome or ending when you’re in the middle of writing? And what happened between the second part and the third part that made you move in that direction?
Lipsyte: Well, I don’t know. I really depend on not knowing. The first draft is just a way to find out what I’m writing and find out what I’m thinking. But as you’re going forward, especially with a novel, one thing that’s happening is you’re creating all these problems for yourself that you have to solve. The other thing that happens is that all the things the book isn’t start to fall away, and you begin to really see what it is.
At a certain point you get to make some big decisions. And there’s a way sometimes—I’ve had this experience writing novels in the past, where I’ve had to either throw them away or radically revise them—where you don’t want to make a decision, so you’re kind of treading water. You write the same chapter over and over again, because you know that there’s this big decision you have to make about what’s going to happen, or where this character is going to end up, and you don’t want to make it. And so, at any rate, after writing the first two parts of Hark I found myself at a certain fork in the road, and I realized that the direction that I kind of, maybe, sort of, felt like I was moving towards was the one that I would normally go towards: the one that was more in line with my worldview, that felt more natural, more rational. That felt like it had, I don’t know, a knowing take on the world. And so I went in the other direction.
Guernica: Yeah, you moved away from it. Did you write the “natural, rational” ending first, or did you just think about it?
Lipsyte: I just thought about it. Once you’re towards the end of a book, you can start thinking more. I try not to think too much in the beginning. I try to avoid forecasting. Here’s an example: You’re sitting here talking to me, but you’re thinking, What am I going to do when I leave here? I’m going to go to this place and get lunch, then I’m going to meet my friend… You have the day planned, and that’s your forecast, you’re plotting it out. But you can walk out and run into someone else, and go to a different bar and have a completely different day. In the beginning, I try to allow myself those kinds of accidents and those kinds of discoveries. But once the train’s really been going for a while, then you can start to really see the territory and where you might be headed.
Guernica: It sounds reminiscent of what one might experience in a mindfulness practice: being truly in the present moment, being able to see the options from that present place and make choices. So, since we’re back to the topic of mindfulness, I’ll ask you: when you sit down to write, is there anything you do to help yourself get in that “zone,” as you called it?
Guernica: Like…what do you do?
Lipsyte: I don’t really have rituals. I don’t light a candle. Maybe I should.
Guernica: I always feel like I should be lighting candles, probably.
Lipsyte: Maybe I’ll start. It’s really just about pushing away that voice that’s telling me, “This isn’t going to work,” or, “You’re no good. This is going too far.” If anything, I’ve learned over the years to get into this mode of composition where I’m pushing all thoughts of the outside away quicker. Having children has taught me to use my time a lot more wisely. I think it’s more or less automatic now that, when I sit down and start writing, I can almost feel the given world recede, and I can just play.