The Goal Is Equally Repulsive and Fascinating
Sara Lippmann, author of "Lech," on crafting characters, writing outside your comfort zone, and ignoring (some) feedback
Sara Lippmann’s debut Lech is a difficult to describe, marvelous contradiction of a novel. It is, in the author’s own words, “quiet,” and yet Lech takes an unflinching look at some of the worst, most dramatic parts of human nature—addiction, voyeurism, abuse, antisemitism, violence. Ultimately a narrative driven by characters in various stages of crisis, it also explores the mystery of the decades-old death of a young Orthodox woman who drowned in Murmur Lake, nicknamed “Murder Lake” by the locals. And for a book rooted in distinctly American horrors, Lech is funny as hell.
Set in Sullivan County, New York, the chapters alternate between five points of view. There’s Ira Lecher, affectionately (and appropriately) nicknamed “Lech,” who owns property on Murmur Lake which includes a guest house. Every summer he leases that house, and this year, Beth, along with her young son, have rented it. Beth is taking a hiatus from a challenging marriage to Doug, recovering for an abortion she’s kept secret from him. Then there’s Noreen, a real estate agent trying to convince Lech to sell his property to developers, which would require his neighbors, the Trawler brothers, to sell their land too. Years before, during a particularly hard time for Noreen, the Trawlers took her and her daughter Paige in, during which time Cole Trawler sexually abused the girl. Paige is now a young woman in her early twenties, with a boyfriend addicted to whatever drugs he can get his hands on. Through him, Paige comes into contact with Tzvi, a drug dealer and member of one of the orthodox Jewish communities that summer in the area.
Lippmann, a prolific and acclaimed short story writer, used to live up the street from me—we’ve been friends for many years. And so, when we met for beers one summer afternoon in Brooklyn, the interview began before I officially asked a question, in medias res, as we were talking about how one deals with feedback on your work.
Sara Lippmann: It’s no secret that I’ve got a lot of anxiety, but you can’t control other people’s responses to your work. As soon as you let that go, it’s very freeing.
Brian Gresko: And yet, getting feedback from agents and editors is part of the path to publication. Gatekeepers read your manuscript and say, “I like this, but . . . ” and give you notes. Sometimes, as an author, you have to say, “Thanks, but that’s not what I want to do with this project.” But to some extent you have to be open to feedback, right?
SL: Totally. And this is such a great point, I want to break it down in a couple of ways.
As it relates to teaching, I think feedback is something we as teachers have to be so careful giving. On the one hand, I believe in feedback. Your reader doesn’t live inside your head. There’s a lot that feels intuitive and obvious to us as writers, but if it’s not translating, if your intentionality is not coming through, you need to know. On the other hand, I don’t necessarily need a beta reader to say, “I wish this book were a summer romance!” That’s just not helpful. I think your job as a teacher is to suss out what your student’s intentionality is, and help them realize it on the page—being deliberately dense, approaching the work as the cold reader who would pick the book off the shelf and say, “Wait, I don’t get it.” It’s tricky.
As it relates to my own writing, for sure, there have been a lot of voices wanting to steer my fiction in certain commercial directions. Ultimately, you have to live with yourself, and you have to live with what you’ve set forth to do. It’s been a long road to publish this novel, and I’m happy to talk about that, because it’s easy to fall into the pit of despair when the market seems to be saying one thing and you’re doing something else. As if writers don’t have enough self-doubt as it is! I think you have to own your shit and make peace with that. And pray. And hope. And get your work out there.
BG: What surprised me about Lech is your choral approach to narrative. It’s not a story told by one character but by many, and chapter to chapter, the point of view shifts. How did that develop?
SL: Many years back, I had the idea of a guy renting out his property to another family while still being on that property. There was voyeurism, and elements of predation and intrigue, but it was vague. Still, I had a sense of the rhythm and pace, and it didn’t feel like it was going to be a story form. At that point, I primarily thought of myself as a short story writer, so I did nothing with it for a while.
When I finally started, I only had Ira’s voice. Then it was Ira and Beth, but both of those characters come from someplace else—Ira is a transplant, and Beth a tourist. I realized that the place itself is a character, and in order to render the place as a character, I needed to look at the people of the place. That’s when I began adding more points of view.
BG: At what point did you decide that place was Sullivan County, New York?
SL: I never went to a bungalow colony growing up with my family. Borscht Belt wasn’t my life at all. Instead, I worked at a summer camp in Wayne County, which is on the other side of the river, in Pennsylvania. I spent many years there, and even into adulthood would go back. But I know what fertile ground the Catskills are in the cultural imagination, and so decided to locate the book in Sullivan County.
At first, I used my experiences in Wayne to write about the cultural tension you see in Lech. Then, for a while, I would drive through Sullivan County, exploring it. That’s partly why this book took me so long: I needed to get to know the place. It was just serendipity that in the past couple of years I actually wound up spending time at a bungalow colony, in Orange County.
BG: Were there narrative models you looked to for inspiration?
SL: I think a lot about narrative touchstones. To start with film, obviously Dirty Dancing and A Walk on the Moon were two movies that were integral for me—Dirty Dancing from the time I was young, like seventh grade.
BG: I love Dirty Dancing, but I’ve never seen A Walk on the Moon.
SL: That movie is smoking hot. Viggo Mortensen, Diane Lane, Liev Schreiber. Oh, my gosh. Dirty Dancing shows you a Borscht Belt resort, but A Walk on the Moon is set in a bungalow colony, in 1969.
In terms of book touchstones, I was grappling because, as a short story writer, the whole undertaking of a novel felt very much outside of my comfort zone. One book I looked at was The World Without You by Joshua Henkin, which is a novel that takes place over a Fourth of July weekend, and is poly-vocal. It includes the perspectives of an entire family. Another was Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge, which is a book that also deals with place. I read that many years before I even started this project. Another was Allegra Goodman’s Kaaterskill Falls, which takes place in the Catskills, and helped affirm my choice to set Lech there. I also deeply love Virginia Woolf’s The Waves, which is poly-vocal and nonlinear. Those choices affect the pacing, which I struggled with in Lech, but I always felt that the place had to be witnessed and filtered through different people, multiple points of view.
BG: But Ira Lecher came first?
SL: Yeah, Ira was the starter. He was tough, because there are some deeply predatory elements about him, but I also wanted him to be interesting enough that someone would keep reading. It became a question of tonality—not just for him, but for all of the characters. The character I had the most trepidation writing was Tzvi, the closeted Hasid. I had many reservations about approaching him, and when I did, I decided to write his chapters as flash, which was funny, because then his narrative actually came easiest for me.
BG: The pacing felt very musical to me. Sometimes, the register of all the storylines rose, everything tweaked up. So even though the stories were often separate from one another, the energy between them resonated.
SL: I didn’t want all the voices to converge in a pat, overly-orchestrated way, but I did want them to somehow connect, so they center around an act of violence. That also took a long time to get right. At one point, I had a draft of 105,000 words, and the finished book is 73,000. A lot of that reduction process was me asking, of each and every section, “Is this necessary?” If the answer was no, I cut it.
BG: In your short stories, you almost always stay with the character in their present moment, whereas in Lech, the backstories of the characters are paramount. Almost like a kettle lake, I can sense their waters are very deep, even if you don’t plumb them.
SL: Thank you. My friend Steve Almond says this wonderful thing about how every character arrives on the page with everything that’s ever happened to them at all times. I think the trick, like with flash fiction, is to create characters that embody that sense of past without necessarily including the baggage of all that they carry. With this story, Lech is obviously Ira’s last name, and it’s also predation, but there’s also a line from the Hebrew Bible, “lech, lecha,” which literally means “go and go forth.” There are many interpretations of those words, but what became the through line of the book for me was this one: look inside yourself, and figure out how to move forward with everything that you carry.
This is why Sullivan County is so integral. Because the inherited past, the things that we carry, and the way that those things inform and shape us, whether we like it or not, is central to each of the character arcs. Many of them are compromised by what they experienced in the past. Having them arrive at a place where they could move through that and live their present life was at the heart of the book for me.
BG: It was interesting to me that you never put us in the points of view of the abusive characters themselves, like Cole Trawler or Tommy, Paige’s drug addict boyfriend. Did you ever consider that?
SL: I never thought about writing from Tommy’s perspective, but I did think about writing from the Trawler perspective, either Cole or his brother Mark. Ultimately, I decided not to, because it didn’t feel like I was telling either of their stories. Especially Cole’s. I wanted to hold up a mirror to anti-semitism and to American culture as a whole, but I didn’t want my book itself to come across as anti-semitic, nor did I personally want to embody a voice that was anti-semitic—I didn’t feel that kind of voice needed amplification. I was writing this during the 2016 election and through the early years of Trump’s presidency. I was living with enough of that anti-semitic voice in my ear already, I didn’t want it in the book in a direct way.
BG: There’s something different about those men too, because while the other characters might give into selfish impulses, they come across as people who want to be better, and are struggling against their worst impulses. So ultimately, no matter how predatory they might be, I end up rooting for them in ways I never rooted for the Trawlers or even for Tommy.
SL: Beth has a line in the book about being equally repulsed and drawn to Ira, and that’s what I was going for with all of these characters. I want the reader to be drawn to them, but not necessarily want to hang out with them. The characters that achieve that are the ones I remember the most in the books that I love. For instance, Philip Roth does that in many of his books. Roth was very much on my mind while writing Lech. So was David Gates’ novel Jernigan. These books contain characters that make some fucking bad choices, and offend you in many ways, but also challenge you to think and change your temperature in a way that is, I think, what literature is all about.
BG: You once said that every writing project changes the writer. After all these years of work on Lech, how do you feel different from how you started?
SL: First of all, this was a book that almost never was. There was a time period where I had to reconcile with that fact, and take stock of how I spent all these years of my life in service to this book—not going on camping trips or attending certain family functions. I came to feel it worthwhile even if it didn’t ever get published.
In my MFA program, all of my workshops focused on the short story for good reason, because that’s what you can wrangle in the course of a class. But writing a novel is an extremely different narrative muscle. Writing Lech stretched me so far beyond my comfort zone. Through that, I learned how to be a more generous writer toward both myself and the page. I imagine every book has its own set of rules and problems, and every book will crack a person open and teach them anew, so I don’t know if it will be any easier a second go-round. Perhaps next time, when I reach the stage of banging my head against the wall, I’ll be able to normalize it as all part of the process.
We started this conversation talking about feedback, and I remember my agent seeing the original draft of Lech and saying something like, “I don’t know what to say.” When I read that, I was so confused, it sent me into an existential tailspin. But it forced me to ask myself, what am I trying to say in this book? What’s the imperative here? I’ve always been someone who vomits out a draft first and then has to wrangle it, but I’ve never had to wrangle so many words in a row like this, and it made me such a better writer and teacher. It brought me to honor and appreciate plot and momentum, and made me understand that the reader has so many things vying for their attention, what an incredible act of grace that they’re going to come to your book and open it. You better fucking entertain them! In a way, a book is not about the writer; it’s really all in service to the story and, ultimately, to the reader.