Maybe there is no topic of greater interest to fiction readers than how characters develop. Where do they come from? Do authors fashion them after people they know? Do characters do the author's bidding or do they lead the way for the author? Milo Burke is a character outside the pale of most protagonists, certainly not a traditional sad-sack loser by any means. What's more, his profession as a development officer for a mediocre university makes one wonder: from whence did Milo spring? Is The Ask autobiographical? Is Milo a caricature of someone Lipsyte knows?
In a March 2, 2010 interview with Michael Kimball from The Faster Times, Sam Lipsyte opens up about the process of developing this character:
Michael Kimball: I love Home Land, which came out in 2005 in the US, and what I want to know is why did you make me (and everybody else) wait five years for another book?
Sam Lipsyte: I guess the easy answer is, "Kids!" But also it took me a while to get onto the next thing after Home Land. You mourn the passing of your last book, and then you have to figure out what it is you write now. But thanks for waiting. I appreciate that.
Kimball: I like the use of the exclamation mark, and I had to ask, in part, because there are some surface elements in The Ask that overlap with your life - a university job, a marriage, a child, living in Queens. Is there anything that you'd like to say about that and how those pieces of your life informed the fiction?
Lipsyte: Well, I try to keep the autobiographical elements emotional as opposed to factual as much as I can, but certainly some things leak through. The narrator of The Ask does work at a university, but not at the teaching end. The truth is I don't know much about his professional world. I had to make it up. I was following the dictum of writing what you don't know. Similar things happened with the other elements you mentioned, although I do know what it is like to be married and a father in Astoria, Queens. But very different people rise up out of the sentences than the ones in your life.
Kimball: I like that ideaâkeeping the autobiographical elements emotional, a kind of method writing. So how did you get going on The Ask and where did you startâwith a bit of emotion, a sentence, a character, something else?
Lipsyte: I started about five years ago writing about a similar character. I tried it a few different ways. It was third person for a while. It was multi-voiced. I gave my wife a few hundred pages a couple of years ago. It sat on her bedside table for a while, mostly unread, and then she read the whole thing and told me it sucked.
I started again. But a big turning point was when I figured out what he did for a living. And that came from hearing somebody use the word "ask" in the certain manner characters use it in the book.
Kimball: I've never had my wife tell me my writing sucked, for which I'm grateful. What was that like?
Lipsyte: It sucked. It was very awkward for her. And I was probably a baby about it. She didn't want to hurt my feelings. But she didn't want me to waste my time or embarrass myself, or her, I presume. Everybody writes shit sometimes. I guess some writers publish that stuff, and even get a movie made based on it, but usually we recognize we've taken a wrong turn and revise. I hope I would have figured it out myself eventually. But she saved me some months.
Kimball: There is a kind of difficult kindness in doing something like that. I'm curious: What did you gain changing the narration from third to first?
Lipsyte: I think I just got back to some particular calibrations that made the thing work. I was straining a bit. Most people write better in one or the other. I've written a few pieces in third but mostly I write in first. Various personas, but usually first person. Both are lateral movements that create necessary distance, but in different ways.
Kimball: What were those particular calibrations that made it work in first person? And what was the necessary distance created (or what was it created in relation to)?
Lipsyte: I suppose I'm talking about how a first person narrator is both presenting and reacting inside of a situation. I thought that dynamic would work best for this story. The main character might get crushed or elated, or even transported, but there is no third party describing it, at least officially. Milo's voice must deliver these experiences, at the risk of Milo enduring the intensities all over again.
As to the question of distance, there is obvious distance created from the story or object when you write "she" or "he" instead of "I," but finding in language a distinct "I," a style of speech for the narrator, is also an effective way to establish enough space, or breathing room, to get at some of the autobiographical stuff you mentioned before. It changes things enough, bends and frays the connections to the facts enough, that you feel emboldened to invent, distort, etc. It's fiction after all, but when some of the material is close to me, a little movement like that will free me from decorum. You've got to be brutal, and most of all with yourself. It helps to approach each project as a potential murder-suicide.
Kimball: We've always agreed on the brutality with which a writer must approach his or her work. OK, you said the big turning point in writing The Ask was when you figured out that the narrator worked as a development officer. What changed when you figured that out?
Lipsyte: Stanley Elkin said he had to know a character's job before he could really begin. It wasn't exactly like that for me, but it did make a lot of things fall together. It set up a lot of the problems. It gave the book motion. Also, I began to understand what kinds of notions the novel was churning up, not that I ever really know the whole of it, but I recognized certain patterns in the book, mostly connected to this idea of the ask, the panic and anxiety attendant, all the formalized and sometimes disguised begging we do in our work life and our relationships. Stability is gone, security has been hollowed out, which makes us depend on certain kinds of largesse more and more. At least that's the experience of many people I know, and many of the characters in the book.
Kimball: The idea of the ask is one of the great things about The Ask. It begins as this material thing, something that the development office at this university does and then it leaks into every part of every exchange. It becomes funny, visceral, heartbreaking. It becomes a great way to get at the issue of the human condition. I know that I haven't asked a question there, but maybe you could just respond with something funny or visceral or anything at all.
Lipsyte: Thanks. I think you stated it better than I could. There is something about the word visceral that is so visceral, no? Yet funny is not a very funny word.
Kimball: Let's go back to your wife. What did she say after she read the final version of The Ask?
This interview was first published at The Faster Times and is reproduced with the permission of Michael Kimball
Michael Kimball's third novel, Dear Everybody, is now in paperback in the US, UK, and Canada. The Believer calls it "a curatorial masterpiece." Time Out New York calls the writing "stunning." And the Los Angeles Times says the book is "funny and warm and sad and heartbreaking." His first two novels are The Way The Family Got Away (2000) and How Much of Us There Was (2005). His three novels have been translated (or are being translated) into many languages. His work has been on NPR's All Things Considered and in Vice, as well as The Guardian, Prairie Schooner, Post Road, Open City, Unsaid, and New York Tyrant. He is also responsible for Michael Kimball Writes Your Life Story (on a postcard)âand two documentary films, I Will Smash You (2009) and 60 Writers/60 Places (2010).
Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher.
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