Saturday, February 6, 2010

An Interview with Elinor Lipman


Recently I reviewed the novel, The Inn at Lake Devine by Elinor Lipman (see here ). I enjoyed it so much that I contacted the author and requested a mini-interview. Imagine my surprise when she promptly agreed. So I'm very excited to be posting my first ever blog interview and I'm even more thrilled that it's an author of such stature as Elinor Lipman.

Lipman was born in Lowell, Massachusetts in 1950. Her first book in 1988 was Into Love and Out Again, a book of seven short stories that intertwined. Then She Found Me, her first novel was published in 1990 and has recently been made into a movie with Helen Hunt. Since then Lipman has published eight more books and won several awards.

Lipman has taught writing at Simmons, Smith and Hampshire colleges which are all in Massachusetts. She lives in Northhampton, Massachusetts but she also spends a lot of time in Manhattan. 

The Interview:

In my recent review of your book, The Inn at Lake Devine, one of my readers commented that he thought your books were considered "chick-lit" and that's why he's never picked up any of your novels. I don't agree with this but I can see why people would think so at first glance. I do think you are certainly unique among the current contemporary novelists because of your humour. However, there was also a strong message about growing up Jewish in the book, The Inn at Lake Devine, beneath the comedy. How would you yourself classify your novels?
He must be a shallow fellow! You tell that guy that no one who's read any of my work has ever described it as chick-lit. Will I be forced to toot my own horn here? Okay, if you insist. I'll immodestly report that My Latest Grievance won the Paterson Fiction Prize in the US, described as "awarded to the book the judges deemed the best work of fiction of the year." I've also won the New England Book Award for fiction in 2001. I've been a judge for the National Book Award in 2008 and the National Endowment for the Arts Panel for Fiction and Creative Nonfiction. Very respectable! An editor of mine classified my novels as "romantic comedy for intelligent adults," which I think is a nice place to be.        

Of all your books, which one is your favorite and why?  
The newest and latest book is always my favorite, in this case, The Family Man.  It's set in Manhattan and my main character is gay, both firsts for me, and its brought me new readers and I love it when people read it and say, "Now I wish MY father were gay." Another reason it's okay to favor the latest is because I always hope the new one is better than the last.

 

Though I have yet to read the Family Man, I've read several reviewers mention that Henry, the gay father in the book, is the best character you've ever written. What do you think makes him so appealing to readers?   
He's kind, generous, tolerant, courtly and a doting father, none of which I give myself credit for. He just came into being.  I think people like the fact that he gets rewarded, and that reward is personal happiness. I named the book "The Family Man," as a compliment to him since he personifies old-fashioned values.

I loved the character of Natalie in The Inn at Lake Devine. Is her character based on your own self and your own experiences growing up as a Jewish girl in the 60s?  In the beginning of the book, the Marx family receives the letter from the restricted hotel with the words,"...the people who return year after year and feel most comfortable here are Gentiles." That's actually a direct quote from a letter my parents got from The Lake Dunmore Hotel. There, I've said it!  I usually don't name the real place, but it burned down circa 1960. This was pre-Civil Rights act of 1964,  when such discrimination was tolerated.  After that, though, the story and characters are all imagined. Natalie and Frederica, the narrator from My Latest Grievance, are the teenagers I wish I had been--cheekier and braver.

Your dialogue and the characterizations of all your characters even the supporting cast are so realistic that I wonder if you draw on people you know and real life conversations for your novels?  I don't. I may borrow an expression or extrapolate from something I see in the newspaper, but I make it all up.

What is your writing routine?
I try to write 500 words a day when I'm not on hiatus.  I like to be at my computer by 8 a.m. or else I feel like a slacker.

What are you working on right now?  Some essays. Many of my essays have already been published, but there are some new ones I'm contemplating to round out what I'd like to be a collection. And I have about 150 pages of a new novel that is giving me some trouble.  I'm giving it a rest.

Did you always want to be a writer?
Yes.  I told my mother when I was little that I wanted to grow up to be a famous poem.  (yes, "poem."  Not a typo.)  Still, I didn't take my first fiction writing class until I was 28.  Before that, I did journalism of varying unglamorous sorts, such as managing editor for The Massachusetts Teacher.  

You've been compared to P.G. Wodehouse and even Larry David, both brilliant in comedy. Is it difficult to write comedic situations?  It isn't for me. The comedic part is somewhat accidental. I just write what I want to report, or maybe what I find to be poignant, and later discover that a particular line I meant to be wry, readers find to be funny. If I find myself ever reaching for a laugh, I cut that line. The humor has to be organic, not a joke. It always surprises me when I'm reading aloud at a bookstore what the audience laughs at--but I love when they do that. And next time I head out for a reading, I choose what will get laughs, even if I don't quite see what's so funny. Somewhere along the line I realized that what I find to be poignant or quirky or worth noting, other people find funny. Or, as one audience member pointed out to me--it's a laugh over something familiar, something close to the bone, a nervous laugh, and that is the definition of a comedy of manners.

What are your favorite novels?
The Republic of Love by Carol Shields,  The Hearts and Lives of Men by Fay Weldon, Charming Billy by Alice McDermott, Nine Stories by J.D. Salinger, Vera: Mrs. Valdimir Nabokov by Stacy Schiff,  Lolita by Nabokov, Happy All the Time by Laurie Colwin, Waking the Dead by Scott Spencer,  How I became a Famous Novelist by Steve Hely, Indignation by Philip Roth, The Habit of Being (Letters of Flannery O'Connor).

My favorite young adult novel as a kid and teen was Daddy-Long-Legs by Jean Webster.  I'm big fans of these buddies of mine, in alphabetic order:  Anthony Giardina, Tracy Kidder,  Stephen McCauley, Mameve Medwed, Tom Perrotta, Caroline Preston, Cathleen Schine, and Anita Shreve.  

In my recent review, you were delighted that I compared you to Barbara Pym. Are you a fan?  Yes!  In fact, it's been a while since I've read a Pym so I'm going to revisit them all.

Thank you very much to Elinor Lipman for participating in this interview. Her new novel, The Family Man, has been released this month in the UK in its paperback edition. You can find out more about Ms. Lipman on her website www.elinorlipman.com

Photo of Elinor Lipman by Gabriel Amadeus Cooney.

11 comments:

  1. Great interview. I loved The Inn at Lake Devine (read it twice) and My Latest Grievance as well. I was hoping to get a copy of Family man, but never did -- some day perhaps.

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  2. Great interview-I will have to look for one of her books-thanks

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  3. I loved the interview and now will definitely be looking out for Elinor Lipman's work.
    The idea of growing up to be a poem is realy interesting. I like that.
    Thank you Mrs B.

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  4. Mrs B: You are a star! I love that you asked for and got this interview. Despite having read four of her books now, I have never read anything about her so I found it fascinating.

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  5. Hi, Mrs. B! Thanks so much for posting this interview! I just love reading about authors and their insights!

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  6. I like that her favorite book is always her latest. Each one gets its moment in the sun :)

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  7. Great interview - I always love to hear what makes an author tick ;)

    I have an award for you at my blog...

    http://bookwormcouchpotato.blogspot.com/2010/02/spreading-award-love.html

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  8. I'm so glad all of you enjoyed the interview.

    @Thomas - thanks for recommending Lipman in the first place.
    @Dana - thank you so much for the award.

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  9. Mrs B - thank you sharing - this is so interesting. It is alwas to think about what motivates an author - Hannah

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  10. This is my favorite Elinor Lipman book. She's a great writer and I'm glad you discovered her. We are both alumnae of Simmons College in Boston. I've met her several times and she was part of a story I wrote on book signings. Here's the link:
    http://entertainmentrealm.com/2010/01/06/why-do-authors-sign-books-2/

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  11. Lovely interview with excellent questions :)

    I wish her books were available in India! :( I haven't seen any yet and 'romantic comedy for intelligent adults' totally makes me want to read her books!

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