Sara Lippmann has a new book of short stories out and it’s called Doll Palace. I picked the collection up immediately because I’d read a story online called “Everybody Has Your Best Interests at Heart” that knocked my socks off not only for its writing, the characters, but also its setting—a fudge shop in a Jersey Shore outdoor mall where I happened to grow up. Check out the story here.
Overall, the collection is wonderful. It’s tough, intelligent writing. It’s got this New York City punk rock Jewish vibe that’s real slash and burn. A good chunk of the stories are about adolescence, what it’s like growing up in and around NYC, making one’s way up through the maze of conflicting ideas, ideals and options. Other stories are about being a mother, being a wife or just flat out—being whoever the fuck you are, whoever the fuck that is.
I sent Sara Lippmann some emails when I finished Doll Palace, here’s what happened:
Your story about working on at the fudge store is fantastic. I love reading stories about people working odd jobs. One of my favorite stories ever is called “Cheese Shop” by Martha Grover. I’d make the comparison that you’re like an east coast Martha Grover and she’s a west coast Sara Lippmann. What other odd jobs have you worked? Have you written about them yet?
Ha. I need to read Martha Grover! Thanks, Bud, but I actually never worked in a fudge shop. I’m afraid my jobs have been pretty boring. I’ve worked in food service, though, and I’ve worked on the Jersey Shore, so maybe that counts for something? As for other odd jobs: catering in college, a brief stint as a camp counselor, then right into reporting/magazines. At 18 I interned at Philadelphia magazine and all we did was scarf our faces as discerning “taste testers” for their Best of Philly issue. Alligator pizza for lunch! It was the best summer ever. I was at GQ in the late 90s, which was a playground, although I definitely was the loser of that sandbox. So yeah, there are stories. But then, Conde Nast can be an easy target so if I do ever write about that place it would have to be from a different angle, not in a Devil Wears Prada way. (Although true: the Vogue girls never held the elevator!)
Oh crap, you should have lied about working in a fudge shop.
Here’s a link to Sara’s story Talisman.
Well it doesn’t matter that you never served fudge. What’s being a camp counselor like? Closer to Red Hot American Summer, Heavyweights, or Meatballs, or Friday the 13th?
No kids ever got massacred because of an ancient curse, right?
Definitely closer to Meatballs. I am obsessed with that movie. At 7 I fell in love with Bill Murray and his shorty shorts and cowboy boots and irresistible fuck-all battle cry: “it just doesn’t matter.” And I’m embarrassed to admit I still watch it every June, like some kind of end of school ritual, and even subject my kids to it, however inappropriate/sexist/dated it may be. Rudy the Rabbit – i.e., Be scrappy. It’s family motto. As for my camp, the camp I grew up in, where I worked, it’s pretty Jewey. Less sex, more praying. In the 80s it was kind of a dump, like Camp Northstar, we’d watch the rich kids across the lake on water skis while we piddled around in leaky rowboats. I went back this summer for the first time in over 20 years (to teach writing) with my own kids and they’ve spruced it up a bit. But nostalgia can really do a number on you, when you to go back to a place only to discover (duh) it’s not yours anymore.
BTW: Your book cover artwork for Doll Palace is excellent. It’s a construction paper cut out that looks like it could have been done in camp. The best part about the cover is that the purple girl cut out is all screwed up, shriveled, an outcast of sorts. What up with the shriveled up girl? To me she might be the narrator of most of the stories.
Dock Street’s designer, Kelly Bahr, is fantastic. All of her covers are clean, bold, and dramatic. The string of paper dolls was there from the start and entirely her vision. I think they wanted to capture the flatness of the mold, comment on the cookie cutter expectations of gender, which is a theme addressed throughout. The rainbow palette is eye-catching, but it felt a bit too bright and cheerful, hence the fucked-up doll. A lot of the characters are trying to pull off a certain facade, conform to various molds/conventions even as they feel destroyed by these constraints. Inside they protest, but outside may tell another story. The result is often a mess. That disconnect between who people are and how they seem. At what price? What becomes of the self? That interests me.
What draws you to the fucked up and cranky vs. the cheerful and perfect?
Narrative, yeah, most definitely. There are far less interesting things to say about the winners. The losers, I could listen about the way the losers brush their teeth all day.
A lot of the stories were centered around adolescence, which is always so interesting because that’s always a time when a person is ripe to figure out whether they fit in or not. A strong percentage of the narrator’s in Doll Palace seem to be rebelling, but they also seem to be succeeding in the rebellion, even if the rebellion is only internal. That is very exciting to come across as a reader. Were you a successful punk rock teen rebel, or did you fail like me?
HA. No. I may have gotten busted a couple times, but I was pretty obedient. I was not punk. If anything, I guess, I was more of a poseur dead head. I had a ridiculously romantic vision of the 60s and played folk records just to make myself cry. How pathetic is that? As for writing, again, it’s what I’m interested (read: obsessed/fixated) in: Perceptions of youth and aging, not some random number, but how we understand time, our inability to grasp it. A teenage rebellion may be a protest against those who try to contain you and tell you what to do; an attempt to break chains and try on roles, to act grown up and do things a young person may associate with maturity (sex/drugs/independence). The flip side, of course, once you’re an old bag all you want to do is recapture the innocence, the joyful exuberance associated with youth, which remains forever out of reach. Unless you’re that rare person who can occupy the precise present moment in time, then yeah we’re all screwed.
I’m in constant awe of time. It sounds cliché but watching my kids grow into people kills me regularly. And when my grandmothers were alive but dying and I’d sit beside their brittle bodies and think: they were one fat-cheeked babies.
But that doesn’t answer your question on rebellion. Yes. The characters in the book are self-imprisoned in one way or another, caged within, by their own choosing or by society, and they bristle and knock up against those walls and perhaps carve out their own air tunnel, but no, never quite escape.
They don’t quite break free, but it’s left at a swell, at an apex, at a yeah, they might try again if the story went another two pages and now they know the secret weapon … that’s powerful writing.
What were these hippy folk records that you cried to?
Like a top five when you were trying to be a dead head at 17 or whatnot?
(I’m the worst at that! I once got an email from a person who’d read one of my books and it had some typos in it and he said he couldn’t recommend it because it had typos, so I said, “No, man, you don’t get it. Those typos are my artistic statement.” He was so pleased with that response, he asked me how I worked it out with the copy editor … he asked what typos stayed and which ones were fixed, how did we decide? I said, “We work very closely together to preserve the best typos, the essential typos, the life blood typos.”)
What’s the best show that you still hold dear?
Like I’m I loser for Dead ’72, but that’s as deep as I go
Joni Mitchell is great. Reading a lot of your book, how it had to do with adolescence, reminded me of my own adolescence, of course. A big part of the reason why it’s so great to read these stories is because of the sense of discovery. The unearthing. Mentioning bands like you in the opening story Whipping Post reminded me of a girl I knew who would come into school and say ‘today is Jack Kerouac’s birthday’ or ‘today is the day that Ginsberg published Howl”, and I didn’t even know what those things were, but I sought them out. The narrator of Whipping Post is seeking out something big in the opening story and I suspect the readers will too.
Yeah, but I know I put on Allman Brother’s Eat A Peach after reading the story and I listened to the album all the way through for the first time.
Pretty damn good.
I wanted to start the book with Whipping Post because it is that quintessential before/after story. Everyone has one. People know this story. (When the editor who accepted it initially for publication wrote me, he said, this is my story!) So I wanted to establish that intimacy and unease right away. I wanted to tap into the reader’s own well. Because I hope the stories patch together to tell some kind of overarching story, it was important to start with loss of virginity. Also, there is a masochistic undercurrent throughout, which begins here.
Music is a huge part of my writing. Not so much consciously but songs, lyrics, era, they all seep in, inform the mood, I guess. A shorthand, maybe. I’m writing from my generation (omg how old am I that I just wrote that) and that was the culture, then, going to shows. Do kids still go to shows? Do kids today – here she goes with kids today! – listen to music the way we did? It was social currency, dubbing bootlegs and making mix tapes, hanging out at record stores, waiting in line for tickets. That’s what we did.
Old is fine. Especially with writers. When I was a kid, the writers who were my heroes were old and dead. Now that I’m getting older, writers I like are closer to my own age. My peers. Maybe I don’t want to read old and dead writers as much any more is because I’ll be old and dead soon too. Haha. Circle of life.
Back to Doll Palace, I really liked the story, Jew, where the husband and wife are in the bodega in Brooklyn. I think you did a better job describing what Brooklyn is just besides hipster kids and bars, you’ve lived in Brooklyn for a while now. Have you seen it change much?
Jew. That whole story came to me in a dream, which is the greatest gift when it happens, however rarely, and when I am able to seize upon it and jot it down in the moment (even rarer). I dreamed of that hoarder’s paradise, that crazy crowded café/trinket bazaar – like a booth in the Jerusalem Shuk. I have lived in Brooklyn (minus two years in Texas) since the late 90s. My mom was born and raised in Bay Ridge and my grandmother was my first roommate when I first came to NYC, so this town has been the backdrop of my life in one way or another. Like everyone else, I have seen a lot of changes.
Thanks so much for taking the time, Bud. I do appreciate it.
Write another book so we can talk about it on Facebook Messenger, it’ll be a party.
To check out some more of Sara’s short stories check out this link.
Sara Lippmann is the author of the story collection, Doll Palace (Dock Street Press.) Her stories have been published in The Good Men Project, Wigleaf, Slice magazine, Tupelo Quarterly, Joyland and elsewhere. She has received a fellowship in Fiction from the New York Foundation for the Arts and currently co-hosts the Sunday Salon, a longstanding reading series in the East Village.