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How to Go Forth: An Interview with Sara Lippmann on “Lech”

When we select a book from the shelf and open its pristine pages, we might believe the process of producing that book was smooth, even dreamy. We might imagine the author sat down, and the words arrived to her perfectly formed, the characters coherent, the plot sure-footed. Sara Lippmann would likely disagree with you. Over years of writing and rewriting her novel, she crafted enough short stories to publish a collection. She taught other students to write a novel. She birthed and raised children. She ran half-marathons. She doubted herself over and over. But at long last, her debut novel Lech will be published this month by Tortoise Books, and the world is richer for it.

Lech unfolds over the course of one summer in the Catskills, as five primary characters, unhappy in their own ways, come to terms with the directions their lives have taken. Some will succeed at changing their course; others will yearn for something different but remain stuck in one spot. As the narrator states, “Animals find their ways into tight spaces all the time, then can’t escape.” The novel, though, reminds us that some animals, and humans, manage to find their ways out.

Jill Witty

What is your writing process?

Sara Lippmann

I believe that all of us have our sweet spots, the hours when we’re most productive. For me, it’s a battle to get up before the critical brain wakes and starts telling me what a shitty writer I am. It took me years to accept the ungodly hour. But when I’m generating, I need to stumble to the page before all of that self-consciousness and negativity has had its coffee.

Jill Witty

You’ve been a short story writer for twenty-five years. I’m curious—how did you arrive at this novel? Did it start out as a short story?

Sara Lippmann

When I had the first seedling of this idea many years ago, of an older man renting out his property to a family and then not leaving, it felt novelistic. How do we know the containers for any of our stories? It’s a gut sense. It didn’t feel like it was going to fit into the framework that I was most comfortable with, the short story. And that scared the hell out of me. I’d started novels in the past, and after around eighty pages, things had run cold.

Jill Witty

What made you stick with this one?

Sara Lippmann

At first, I resisted. It was out of my comfort zone, and the idea of a sustained narrative, especially as a frazzled mom without childcare, felt overwhelming. Then one November, for NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month), I got a bunch of legal pads out, and I started with Ira’s voice. I was writing out his voice longhand, and then Beth’s voice came in. Soon the ideas I was curious about grew beyond the reaches of those two people. What was interesting to me on a superstructural level were characters who are so self-absorbed in their own insular situations that they don’t see each other. Later, it was important to watch where their stories intersect or run parallel, completely missing each other. The novel was driven by the question of how to build this life, yes, but also by the way our stories, both the pressing ones and the subterranean ones, resonate through sheer proximity.

Jill Witty

Talk to me about point of view. In Lech, you give us five different point-of-view characters. At first the reader doesn’t see all the connections between them, and then as the novel progresses, those intersections are revealed.

Sara Lippmann

Rebecca Makkai has a lecture on “The Ear of the Story,” highlighting the question of how much an author needs to explicate, to orient the reader in these various worlds. She calls it “the point of telling.” In Lech, there’s an omniscient prologue, but other than that, the characters are written in very close third person, which doesn’t allow for much exposition and orientation. I’ve just finished teaching a year-long novel writing course. We talked a lot about that. What are the demands you’re placing on the reader, and are you asking your reader to work in a way that is satisfying or frustrating? Most readers like to roll up their sleeves and engage in the text, but you don’t want to make it too divisive, tricky, or distancing. (I mean, unless you do, and that’s your style.) This leads to another question of craft: what to reveal and what to withhold. I think as writers, we often feel like we’re being too transparent (because, duh, it’s obvious to us, as the story lives in our heads), and then the reader tends to say, “Actually, I could have used more clarity.”

Jill Witty

What was your goal for this novel?

Sara Lippmann

I consider this the most confrontationally Jewish thing I’ve ever written. I grew up reading Roth, Bellow, a certain band of mostly male Jewish writers, and I really wanted to take some of those canonical themes of lust, alienation, dispossession, anxiety, humor, and misery and filter them through a fiercely feminist lens. It was a reclamation, of sorts.

Jill Witty

On the topic of lenses, one of your main characters is Ira Lecher, a landlord who predatorily watches the women who rent his house. When we first encounter him, he’s observing this summer’s tenant, Beth. “It is the same each summer. His property becomes his own wildlife park, a controlled environment in which he knows exactly what he’ll find: his new tenant, right on schedule.” Why does this character deserve to have the book named after him?

Sara Lippmann

The title has a double meaning. Ira is lecherous, but there’s a cultural quality to it. Because he grew up starved for affection, the lone child of emotionally unavailable Holocaust-surviving grandparents, he doesn’t know how to establish connection he’s desperate for; so, he’s transgressive. His trespassing is of course a male entitlement, but all the characters have predatory elements to them: the real estate agent, her daughter, etc. Even the relationship between tourists and locals fits under that larger umbrella of predation. The other meaning comes from Genesis. There’s a story called Lech Lecha in which Abraham is told to go forth. I love the imperative: go, build your life: look inward first, through self-examination, and then to go forth. The title, Lech, is not pretty. It’s confrontational. It kind of sounds like you’ve got glop in your throat, but I think that’s indicative of the book’s sensibility.

Jill Witty

What is the literary family tree of your novel?

Sara Lippmann

See Also

There were a lot of voices I was raised on, that I wanted to respond to. Philip Roth, particularly Sabbath’s Theater and The Ghost Writer. Saul Bellow in Herzog. Bruce Jay Friedman’s Stern. David Gates’s Jernigan. So many of these titles are a man’s last name. How many books by women are titled with a character’s last name? I wanted to get in that ring, particularly with respect to the character of Ira. Once I started looking at how to tell a story through multiple points of view, I read a lot of Elizabeth Strout, particularly Amy and Isabelle, Joshua Henkin’s The World Without You, my friend Rachel Sherman’s Living Room. Kent Haruf’s novel trilogy for the quietude, the saturation of place.

Jill Witty

Setting, here, is essential to the novel, this tiny town in the Catskills. Did you grow up or vacation in a town like this? If not, how did you conjure it?

Sara Lippmann

I went to a fairly observant summer camp on the other side of the river, in the Poconos, specifically in Wayne County, Pennsylvania, but I was familiar with the Borscht Belt of lore. Dorothy Allison has a great Tin House essay on “Place” in which she talks about place as character, place as conflict, place as a synthesis of all craft elements. “Catskills rot” was such a powerful theme to me—the duality of life and death, how the latter feeds the former—but the region also felt like a powder keg, a microcosm of our country. So I chose Sullivan County, and I chose the summer of 2014, as a way of looking at how we arrived at a Trump presidency. From there I did a lot of research.

Jill Witty

Your characters are divided between residents of the town and vacationers, the “summer people,” and from either side of that partition, there’s envy of the other life. Residents who long to escape, and vacationers who fantasize about moving to this town year-round. As an author, where do your sympathies lie?

Sara Lippmann

That cultural conflict is fascinating to me. I would see it as a child at camp, the resentment that comes when there’s an influx of outsiders. When a whole caravan of yarmulke-wearing kids rolled into Honesdale on a Sunday afternoon, the response was tense. I’ve witnessed a fair amount of antisemitism. Everybody trying to claim and hold onto their space. It’s a twisted parasitism, or symbiosis. The locals need the tourists even as they resent them, and the tourists find the area so quaint, they gravitate toward it, but they also corrupt it. That’s capitalism. We see this now, how the pandemic and privilege have affected the real estate market. Many city dwellers migrated upstate and never left. On the one hand, the influx revitalizes the region, and on the other hand, what happens to those who were already there? We see this repeated throughout our country’s history.

Jill Witty

What advice do you have for short story writers who hope to write their first novel?

Sara Lippmann

The process of trying to get this book published was so up and down. It took many years. But even if it had wound up in a drawer, I learned how to write a sustained narrative; I learned to become comfortable with discomfort, with being stuck in the murky middle for a long time. I don’t know of any shortcuts. Writing a novel means trusting yourself, understanding that doubt and despair and wanting to tear your hair out and throw the pages in the trash heap and curl up in a ball and cry—that’s normal. (For me, at least.)

FICTION
Lech
By Sara Lippmann
Tortoise Books
Published October 18, 2022