An Interview with Elinor Lipman

I was lucky enough to spend an afternoon with Elinor Lipman recently to talk about the simultaneous publications of her tenth novel, The View from Penthouse B, and her first book of personal essays, I Can't Complain. I'm happy -- though not surprised -- to report that she's just as delightful in person as on the page. As Lipman notes in one of her essays, her "default setting is cheerful." Our conversation frequently veers from the literary to the personal, peppered with anecdotes for which she occasionally modulates her sweet voice to a brassier tone.

Touches of Lipman's upbeat personality and sense of humor are in evidence throughout her lovely midtown Manhattan apartment. She proudly points out the efficient, newly renovated kitchen accented with colorful tiles. In the powder room, there's a framed letter from the Japanese translator of her first book, Into Love and Out Again, seeking clarification from "Mr. Alinor Lipman" on several points, including, "What is B-school?" and "Sabie Hawkins: Is it a name of a dancehall?"     

Lipman and her husband bought the apartment in 2004, thinking they would move into it full-time when he retired from his radiology practice in Springfield, Massachusetts. This was just a couple of years before he was diagnosed with the frontotemporal dementia that would kill him in 2009, at sixty, after thirty-four years of marriage. Lipman now spends most of her time in New York City, which she loves: "Given this phase of my life…I get to do things," she comments, citing a private party she attended in celebration of an auction of William Faulkner's manuscripts.

Call them comedies of manners, call them screwball comedies, call them social commentary masquerading as gossip, Lipman's books  -- beginning with Into Love and Out Again, short stories published in 1987, and her first novel, Then She Found Me, in 1990 -- are flat-out addictive. Smart, witty, stylish, snappy, brisk, zesty, sparkling, slyly mischievous, quirkily romantic, intelligent, heartwarming, acerbic, charming -- these are some of the adjectives that have been applied to her fiction. But although her books are effervescent, they aren't all froth. Loneliness is a recurrent theme. Often, they're about finding love where you least expect it. The Inn at Lake Devine takes on anti-Semitism. Her new novel is set against a backdrop of recession and loss.

Her two latest books don't shy from widowhood or grief. Gwen-Laura Schmidt, the childless narrator of The View from Penthouse B, lost her husband suddenly in her late forties, and two years later, she's still balking at the thought of intimacy with another man. Her older sister, Margot, has divorced her husband, Charles -- a fertility doctor serving time for fraud, having occasionally impregnated his patients the old-fashioned way and then charged them for the "treatments." Margot unfortunately invested the money from her divorce settlement with Bernie Madoff. To make ends meet, she takes in boarders in her Greenwich Village penthouse -- including her grieving sister and a young gay financier out of work since Lehman Brothers tanked. Out of this setup, Lipman whips up a social comedy.

"If someone said, what is this book about, the first thing I would say is forgiveness. And then I would say, second chances," Lipman remarks. "I think it would be a good book for single women after divorce or widowhood. It's about second acts. And everyone, I think, unless they completely retire from dating life, everyone has their dating stories." Does she really believe that people can change – that Margot's ex-husband, Charles, for example, can be trusted again? "Well, I think he was no question a jerk, I do believe Charles did something awful,  but he really does love Margot and she forgave him and she lets herself acknowledge that and feel that again, which takes a big person," she says carefully.

When I ask her what talking points she might suggest for reading groups, she says, "You know what flew into my head? Birth order!  Three sisters. That flew into my head. I haven't given this one a second's thought. Birth order, because there was Margot, the bossy one. And then there was mild-mannered Gwen in the middle." The third sister, who suggests that her two older siblings move in together, is Betsy, a successful, bossy banker.  

"I also think it would be fun to hear a discussion about lying," she adds. "Because Charles -- well, poor Charles. Charles needed forgiveness from everybody." Another topic she likes: "It's always fun when people discuss the food in books." She points out that in Penthouse B, the impoverished sisters subsist on economical stews and cabbage soups and find comfort in their third roommate's fancy cupcakes. Paroled Charles's idea of hostess gifts are heavy on protein -- whole hams and turkeys -- while Margot plays on his guilt, insisting he wine and dine both sisters in expensive restaurants. Throughout the novel, the quality of dates is closely tied to the quality of cuisine, and one signal that an evening is going well is when Gwen and her date start exchanging tastes of each other's food.

I ask why so many of her narrators are insecure. "My narrators tend to be women with low self-esteem, so I can send them to charm school. And this time Gwen had live-in charm school with her older sister as her instructor." Pushed by her housemates, Gwen forces herself to attend a grief support group and a seminar called "Fine, I'll Go Online" -- two activities Lipman skewers gleefully.

Fiction? She reminds me, "Every word in my essays is true," but her novels are fiction, and she's adamant about the difference. Lipman explains, "Although I refer to Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird as recommended reading when I teach, I do not believe nor do I preach what she says, which is, Go back to your own life, Go back to your own life! No! You have to make it up! You have to fictionalize and imagine! Otherwise there's the autobiographical first novel…and then there's the sophomore effort, which is not so good."

That said, the awful mix of self-aggrandizement and egregious spelling in the personal ads and online profiles Gwen reads are tweaks of actual posts Lipman came across during her research. As she explains in her essay "A Fine Nomance," "What's a verisimilitude-conscious author to do but join herself?" She signed up for Match.com, Jdate, and OkCupid. She says, "I trolled online from Match, and the epigraphs were personal statements that I changed. The ads came right from Craigslist, tortured grammar and all." But the scene in the novel in which an arrogant date calls for Gwen an hour early and berates her for not being ready wasn't her own: "My cousin had that experience and I asked her permission. The exact thing, the car, the sidewalk…she got out of the car…Oh, here's the difference!  She got out of the car, she went home, the phone rang and she ended up agreeing to go to dinner with him because she was hungry and she liked the restaurant he picked!  But I couldn't do that to Gwen." Instead, to the reader's deep satisfaction, Lipman has her narrator, on the road to self-assertion, jilt the jerk.

As for her own forays into dating, Lipman clearly isn't a timid moper like Gwen, but so far, her experiences have been richer in anecdotal material than in romance. In fact, as she writes in "A Fine Nomance," she became so fed up with the process that she was just about to cancel her Match.com account when she noticed that one of her daily matches listed "Elinor Lipman's The Family Man" as the last book he'd read. They hit it off and saw each other for months, but -- to the frustration of the friends who make up her "pit crew" -- it failed to progress beyond "insignificant other" and "friend without benefits." And what did she learn from the experience?  That "the trouble with my pit crew is they want to be bridesmaids at my wedding." In other words, they're too invested in the outcome. And it's her own damn fault, she says, for telling them too much. "I've made it their vicarious business and given them their front-row seats," she writes. "Three years after Bob died, I've discovered this about myself: that I don't like too much attention."

Among the thirty-one essays in I Can't Complain is Lipman's tribute to her  husband, which first appeared as a "Modern Love" column in The New York Times and is now retitled "This Is for You." I sobbed when I first read it in 2010, and I have to fight off tears again when Lipman describes speaking at his funeral, "the best funeral ever." But even here she lightens the mood by applying to her husband what Thomas Friedman said of his late mother: "She put the mensch in dementia."

Fiercely loyal to her friends, Lipman has slung barbs at critics who judge their books harshly. In an essay on writing, she discusses how she names characters: "Anyone remember that sexual predator in The Dearly Departed? He had the same last name as the critic who gave a dear friend an ugly review in The New York Times." In "Confessions of a Blurb Slut" she writes, "Critics have been described as people who go into the street after battle and shoot the wounded. No blurb can be a bulletproof vest, but in my own experience it can put a square inch of Kevlar over a worried writer's heart." She laughs when I cite this. I confess my disappointment with a novel she blurbed, which I reviewed critically. "I have new rules," she explains. "My policy -- no compromises and no dutiful blurbs. A friend recently asked if I would read her manuscript and blurb it, and I won't tell you who it was, but I knew it would be kind of silly. And so I said that I'd lost friends when they said to me, 'I want your honest opinion. I don't want you to sugarcoat this.' You know I've broken people's hearts."

As for whether she reads reviews of her own books, she admits unabashedly, "I do look at reviews, because they are almost always good." Perhaps in reaction to her immodesty, she adds, "I was worried about the section called 'The Writing Life'…that it would come across as too self-regarding, too smug, too immodest and self-aggrandizing…The truth is, I can't complain."  

She has also worried about smugness creeping into essays about how glad she is that she and her husband changed their minds about having a child, and how well their "champion son" turned out. (Her book of essays is dedicated to Ben, now thirty-one.) Yet she was surprised at the ferocity of letters from what she calls "childless-by-choicers," noting, "It wasn't that long after that I was eased out of the rotation" on the "Coupling" columns at The Boston Globe.

Even her novels have drawn out the occasional crank. Some readers complained about the interfaith marriage in The Inn at Lake Devine, writing, "Don't you think you have the social responsibility for Jews to marry Jews?" At a temple book group she attended as a favor to the rabbi who did the graveside service and unveiling for her mother (who died in 1998), one member told her, "I have a fifteen-year-old daughter and I don't want her to read this book."

But most responses are positive. "My favorite compliment was when this woman came up to me in Milwaukee and as soon as the reading was over she sort of ran so she'd be first in line. And she said, 'I just have to tell you that my mother was dying, my mother had cancer, she was in a lot of pain and I brought her home, and I put her in a room right off the living room, and I gave her Isabel's Bed and I could hear her laughing from the other room.' And I said, 'That is the best compliment ever. I'll never forget it.' "

Lipman's work routine involves hitting her desk by 8 a.m. "Five hundred words a day is what I aim for," she says, explaining how she sends each chapter to her two close friends -- her first editor, biographer Stacy Schiff, and novelist Mameve Medwed -- "And I don't go on to the next chapter until I've polished and polished and polished the one I'm working on." She writes without an outline, but "there's a point in the novel where you know where you're going, and finally, I've learned to slow it down because every editor wanted a new penultimate chapter inserted because the ending came too fast."  

As for her next novel, which she hopes to start after her book tour, "I have a premise in mind, and that's more than I usually have…about a daughter who makes some discoveries about her late mother that I'm sort of intrigued by."

Not surprisingly, Lipman is an avid reader, though she wishes she spent more time reading and less time e-mailing. "I consider reading part of my job," she says. "I love memoirs. I just finished A Voice from Old New York, by Louis Auchincloss. I'm busy reading at the same time Patty Volk's new book, Shocked, and Jill McCorkle's new novel, Life After Life, which I love,  and I just bought Meg Wolitzer's new book, The Interestings, and when I go up to Cambridge for my reading, I want Chris Castellani to sign his new book, All This Talk of Love, for me…One of my favorite books of the last couple of years that I just could not put down was Rafael Yglesias's A Happy Marriage, which is fiction close to fact."  

Asked what she thinks is the attraction of her own novels, she answers, "An early editor characterized my books as 'romantic comedy for intelligent adults.' I think people see them as funny but kind. I don't set out to write either funny or kind, but it's a voice they like, quirky like me…And you know, people like happy endings. And my feeling is, if I'm the god of this world, why am I going to drown anyone's child?"

 

About the Columnist
Heller McAlpin is a New York-based critic who reviews books for NPR.org, The Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, San Francisco Chronicle, Christian Science Monitor, and other publications.

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