Sam Lipsyte - 1986 Scholar

From high school shot-putter to critically acclaimed writer. It's not a self-portrait many people paint, but Sam Lipsyte (Arts Scholar, 1986, NJ) seldom colors inside the lines. He insists he's just an ordinary guy, but his life tells a different story.

The son of New York Times sports columnist Robert Lipsyte and journalist/novelist Marjorie Lipsyte, Sam describes his early years as a mash-up of the novels Portnoy’s Complaint and Are You There, God, It’s Me, Margaret, as well as the films Stand by Me and Starship Troopers. "As a kid I gorged on old Star Trek reruns and related to Captain Kirk," he says, "especially when I found out he was Jewish, or at least William Shatner was. To this day I am alert to the fact that a Romulan warbird with a cloaking device might be after me."

The Romulans seem to have other targets, because grown-up Sam, armed with a bachelor's from Brown University, now pursues his passion for writing with a level of skill even the discerning Mr. Spock might admire.  Sam's stories and essays have been published in The New YorkerHarper'sEsquireGQThe Washington PostThe Los Angeles TimesPlayboy, and many more. He is the author of three published novels: The Ask, Home Land, and The Subject SteveHome Land was a New York Times Notable Book in 2005; The Ask won the same honor in 2010. His two collections of short stories are The Fun Parts and Venus Drive. The Village Voice named Venus Drive a Top 25 Book of 2000. Sam's works have been translated into several languages, including French, Russian, Italian, Spanish, and Portuguese.

Interviewer: So, Sam, back to the original question. How did throwing the shot put lead you to become a writer?

Sam: When I was a high school freshman my dad wanted me to do an organized sport and I wanted to play football, but he didn’t want me to do that. The fear then was more about paralysis than brain damage. Anyway, I was just a husky oaf so he said I should try the shot put. Turned out our school had a very good track and field program and you could train and compete most of the year, throwing indoors when it was cold. I took it pretty seriously, lifted weights, worked on technique. I was the best freshman in the county my first year. But I sort of peaked. And I wasn’t getting taller, which was pretty crucial. I did it for four years but by the end I was going through the motions, bitter, disaffected, which was good because, when I was sixteen, I wrote a story about a washed-up middle-aged alcoholic ex–shot-putter. It was my first stab at what they call literary fiction. The story was ridiculous, but it steered me in the right direction.

He describes his heroes as lonely, horny underachievers. "But who isn't one, when you think about it?" he asks. He says he tries to write humans as he's known them to be and been himself. "I think people find some of the habits of my characters, and their awkward attempts at connection, disturbing, but readers recognize their own fears and desires in the mix as well."  The other feature that stands out is Sam's unique brand of humor. Once described by a reviewer as the funniest writer no one knows, Sam protests, "That was ten years ago. Now there are about six or seven people scattered across the country who know me. There’s somebody in San Diego. There’s a guy in Boulder, a bartender in Hadley, Massachusetts, a couple in Queens. This thing is really growing."

Humorist he may be, but Sam has a serious side.  "I’m a writer when I’m writing," Sam says, "but my day job is teaching." He's an associate professor at Columbia University School of the Arts, and he served as chair of the Columbia writing program between 2013 and 2015. Sam says he wants his students to learn to listen to themselves and become adept at editing themselves. "I try to teach them to trust that hum inside, the one that feels dangerous. I want them to risk looking foolish, because out of that jeopardy the best work will come. I want them to take their sentences as seriously as a seasoned reader will."

As for his Presidential Scholar National Recognition Program, now 30 years past, Sam says the experience was "like finding out that there were other people my age who had the same intense investment in making art that I did. Actually, it wasn’t like that. It was that. I had great friends at home, but the writing was sort of a secret undertaking. In DC, and in Miami before that, I met fellow members of my tribe."