Robin Lippincott is the author of three novels, In the Meantime (Toby Press, 2007), Our Arcadia: An American Watercolor (Viking, 2001, Penguin 2002) and Mr. Dalloway (Sarabande Books, 1999, now in its fourth printing), and a collection of short stories, The Real, True Angel (Fleur-de-Lis Press, 1996, 1999). His fiction has received nominations for the Pushcart Prize, the IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, the American Library Association Roundtable Award, the Independent Book Award, and the Lambda Literary Award. He is a multiple Yaddo fellow as well as a fellow of the MacDowell Colony. His fiction and nonfiction has also appeared in The Paris Review, Fence, American Short Fiction, The New York Times Book Review, The Literary Review, The American Voice, Provincetown Arts, The Louisville Review, The Bloomsbury Review, and many other journals as well as the anthologies M2M: New Literary Fiction, Rebel Yell and Rebel Yell 2. He teaches in the Master of Fine Arts in Writing Program at Spalding University and at Harvard University. He lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Can you remember the moment when you thought up the characters or the plot for In the Meantime?
It wasn’t a moment so much as it was an accumulation of moments, which is usually the case with me. And then of course as I write the moments coalesce and collide, grow and change…. I started writing the novel just days before September 11. 2001, and I can tell you that it changed dramatically because of it.
Did the idea for the book go through various incarnations? Or did you think, “EUREKA!” and plow straight ahead once the seed was planted?
Various incarnations. For example, at one point part of it was written in play form. Etcetera.
Your language in the book is at times expansive (brilliant narrative summary scanning long periods of time in a few pages) and at other times you describe details with such precision. Reading your work is like watching an epic film combined with a film strip on the inner workings of a watch. And the visuals! Are you influenced by the visual arts—film, painting, sculpture?
Thank you. Yes, I am very influenced by the visual arts. Checking out a Picasso monograph from the local library in my hometown (as a teenager) was a transforming experience. And I have since studied art history, and film. I love the abstract expressionists; and several of my closest friends are painters…. Film, too, has been invaluable: “Bonnie and Clyde” rocked my world when I first saw it back in ’67 or ’68.
Speaking of the arts, who’s your favorite modern artist?
I’m in a big Joan Mitchell phase now. In fact, I’ve been writing about her.
Your books have been published by big presses and small presses. How do the experiences compare?
As I’ve said elsewhere, one has less control with the bigger presses. And yet, generally speaking, with the bigger presses one makes more money and the work is more widely distributed. My happiest publishing experience has been with Sarabande, a fiercely independent and admirable small press.
Do you like poetry? I ask because your prose style employs a rhythmic sense found in poetry.
I began as a poet but didn’t think I was good enough and didn’t want to be a mediocre poet, so I switched to prose; but I have always tried to bring poetry into my prose—I think too many writers ignore language for the sake of story.
Your characters always rely on each others’ friendship, yet classical family relationships are sometimes not really evident in your books. Do you think in life, as in your books, Our Arcadia and In the Meantime, that people do better to surround themselves with people who they love, inventing their own families? If so, do you have a group of friends in real life who fill this familial role?
I would never say what others should or shouldn’t do; and of course, so much depends upon one’s own family. For me, the family one chooses has always been invaluable, which is not to disparage my beloved sisters, who have meant the world to me. But yes, I do have such a group of friends and always have.
What was it like to grow up in Florida?
How much time/space do we have? For me, it was not a happy time. Where I grew up (Sanford/Lake Mary) and when I grew up there (50’s/60’s), the center of town was a gas station, and all the roads were unpaved. The landscape was and is flat and, more often than not, it was/is hot and humid. There was no culture, and I was a misfit. And yet the south also has its charms, or at least it did back then. I hope to write about it someday.
What do you love about teaching writing? Anything you dislike and why?
I love discovering and encouraging and helping talented young writers. And I love being mired in literature. The thing I dislike is the thing that all writers who teach dislike—I have less time to write. But so it goes.
What was the best advice you ever received as a writer?
It was from Grace Paley. She said—and not just to me but to all aspiring writers: “Keep a low overhead.” That is, don’t expect to make a living from your writing. That way, you won’t be disappointed, nor will you be tempted to sell-out.
Billie Holiday and jazz play a role in your novel, In the Meantime… is music a big part of your life? Do you listen to music while you write? What kind?
Oh yes, music, too, is and has long been important to me. I love so many kinds of music—jazz, I have a particular fondness for singer-songwriters, and cabaret singers, but also punk, rock, classical, opera, folk, country, bluegrass…. But I don’t/can’t, listen to music while I write.
What is your writing process? Are you an OCD reviser? Do you ever know feel that a story or novel is “finished” when you are writing?
Yes, I’m afraid that I am an obsessive reviser: I can’t move forward with a piece unless and until I like what I have; I get too depressed. It’s the opposite of how you’re supposed to write, but it works for me.
Do you ever send out your own work? Does your agent assist with that?
I send out the shorter work (stories, etc.) myself, but my agent sends out the novels, though there have been exceptions to that as well.
What’s the most precious object you own?
My handsome Lord Elgin watch from the 1930s, which I bought in Sanford, Florida (at Sanford Jewelry and Luggage) in 1972 for $100.
What do you learn from your students?
Oh, so much—to stay on my toes; to have an intellectual basis for my assertions; to try to hold onto idealism….
Any new work on the horizon?
Yes, but I don’t particularly like to talk about work in progress.
Best advice you can give a budding writer.
Career-wise (though I loathe the word “career”), I would just reiterate Grace Paley’s advice to “Keep a low overhead.” Technique-wise, my advice is less is more: most writers over-write.