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 Yorker, Harper's, Esquire, GQ, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, Playboy, and many more. He is the author of three published novels: The Ask, Home Land, and The Subject Steve. Home 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.
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."