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Elinor Lipman

Photo of Elinor Lipman

Photo: © Chester Higgins, Jr./The New York Times

About the Author

Elinor Lipman is the author of numerous novels, including On Turpentine Lane, The View from Penthouse B, The Inn at Lake Devine, The Pursuit of Alice Thrift, and Then She Found Me (a 2008 major motion picture written, directed and starring Helen Hunt); a collection of stories, Into Love and Out Again; an essay collection, I Can’t Complain: (All Too) Personal Essays; and Tweet Land of Liberty: Irreverent Rhymes from the Political Circus. She has been called “the diva of dialogue” (People) and “the last urbane romantic” (Chicago Tribune). Book Magazine said of The Pursuit of Alice Thrift, “like Jane Austen, the past master of the genre, Lipman isn’t only out for laughs. She serves up social satire, too, that’s all the more trenchant for being deftly drawn.”

Her essays have appeared in the Boston Globe MagazineGourmetChicago Tribune, and The New York Times’ Writers on Writing series.  She received the New England Booksellers’ 2001 fiction award for a body of work and a 2007 lifetime achievement award from NELINET (New England Library and Information Network), “created to recognize the contributions of an individual associated with New England who has significantly advanced the arts and letters.”

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Author Essay

Two Essays:
Elinor Lipman Sits Down with Reading Groups
on Romantic Comedy and Building Character at the Table

Elinor Lipman Sits Down with Reading Groups
It was the early 1990s: What did I know about book groups? The trend certainly seemed like good news–books as the focus of/excuse for good fellowship and monthly meetings. But how exactly did I fit in?

Strangers called. Would I like to be the guest of honor on the third Tuesday of any forthcoming month to eavesdrop on a discussion of one of my books? I didn’t know. I wondered secretly, Is this seemly? Dignified? Embarrassing? Do other authors accept the bids to sit in a circle and answer questions that break the fiction writer’s commandments, i.e. We shall not explain, defend, apologize or spell out.

I continued to decline with thanks, mainly because the invitations were coming from friends of friends, and, I reasoned, if I said yes to one, I’d be filling my calendar with yesses to all. Finally, an invitation was issued by a book group several towns away from my own. I could slip in and slip out under cover of darkness. I said yes.

The night arrived. I found myself in a roomful of intelligent, charming, and funny women. Like Narcissus falling in love with his own image in the water, I swooned over the book they were discussing–mine. Who expected this–oral rave reviews from the lips of everyone present: The book was wonderful! I was wonderful! The women admitted, one by one in delightful confessional style, to having a crush on my geeky librarian romantic hero. They produced flowers, a present, then the homemade desserts. What had I been waiting for? This was heaven.

I accepted more invitations, in fact with alacrity. The second book group I visited had been in existence for twenty-five years. Its recording secretary took notes as I spoke–later distributed as minutes of the meeting. Beautiful house and beautiful minds. Could I speak about the metaphor, the theological implications of “Devine” in The Inn at Lake Devine? I could have, I suppose, but I told the truth: that as I was sitting at my computer one morning in 1995, trying to name my fictional lake, when a friend named Laurie Divine called. “Lake Divine,” I mused after I’d hung up, then changed the spelling to avoid too-obvious religiosity.

Moreover, I learned that books groups have insights about characters and themes that escaped the author. Did I deliberately give Dwight Willamee’s sister “Lorraine,” in Then She Found Me the name of a Teutonic goddess in order to underscore the tensions between the German-American family and the Jewish narrator…etc. I said, “Well, no. Actually, I named Lorraine after Lorraine Loviglio, a dear coworker at my last job.”

Though the assigned book varies, there are few variations on the theme. I arrive, I get introduced, I answer questions, I sign books. But I’m thinking of getting more creative, presentationwise, or perhaps braver, like the novelist-friend of mine who brought one of his very early, unpublished short stories to a book group. Several new writers were in attendance. “Everyone was encouraged that it was so bad,” he reported.

In the right mood, encircled by sympathetic faces, I find myself confiding to these near-strangers about the low moments, the insecurities, the good and the bad of what appears to be a job that is pure fun. Book group therapy? Perhaps. We writers work alone. We wait for our phone to ring, our fax to peal, our mail to arrive, the critics to opine. How nice to sit among flesh-and-blood readers, to bask in the warmth of their hospitality and to drive home with my characters smiling in the back seat.

on "Romantic Comedy"

I started writing fiction at twenty-eight in an adult ed workshop at Brandeis University. I was a slow starter, there on a busman’s holiday, since I wrote for the Massachusetts Teachers Association by day, and had no burning desire to sit at the typewriter by night. But then I got hooked. As I began to submit manuscripts, I knew exactly what I wanted from the process. I wanted my stories read in class; I wanted people to laugh and to think I was talented. I wanted my teacher’s praise. I wanted to be part of the family, to fit in, to be the best student at the table. In other words, I wanted the workshop equivalent of critical and popular success.

My workshop phase ended a dozen years ago when I left the Boston area and moved to Western Massachusetts. But recently a reporter brought it back to mind when she asked me what I hoped my work evoked in readers. I realized that I was still going after the workshop buzz; that what I wanted was what I got from my workshop on a good night: approval, laughter, admiration. I didn’t write much of anything as a child except for the occasional holiday poem, but I read all the time. I loved novels with smart and witty heroines. I didn’t like tragedy – I refused to read further in Black Beauty when the puppies’ ears got clipped, and I haven’t picked it up since. I liked hardship of the plucky, silver-lined kind – Daddy-Long-Legs and the Five Little Peppers, Jane Eyre and Anne of Green Gables. I loved orphans, orphanages, picaresque girls away from their parents (Our Hearts Were Young and Gay). If I loved a book I reread it several times a year. I didn’t like animals who talked except for The Wizard of Oz and Charlotte’s Web. I had a love-hate relationship with Grimms’ Fairy Tales, the scary unabridged version. It was bedtime reading for months at about ten or eleven, but only the same few non-gory stories: prince, princess, frog. Good triumphed over evil. Endings were happy. I read every Nancy Drew, Bobbsey Twins, Happy Hollisters, Honey Bunch and, at fourteen, every O. Henry story ever written.

From junior high school on, my father pressed Ring Lardner’s short stories on me. I came to believe that funny equaled good. What else could people possibly want? Except for one afternoon trying to adapt P.G. Wodehouse’s Damsel in Distress into a movie, in my math notebook, I didn’t dream about being a writer. After all, my parents read constantly, and they weren’t writers. Neither was anyone else I knew personally. I was pragmatic: I was going to be either a lawyer, a meteorologist or a pharmacist. I wish I could say it mattered to me then if the authors of the books I loved were men or women, but it didn’t, as long as I loved their stories and their characters.

And now, even though I don’t consciously avoid it, I have a hard time writing the fictionalized human analog of puppies getting their ears snipped. If I’m going to create a world and be its god, then I want to be a benevolent one. If I create characters and come to love them, why torture them? Why let their children drown? Certainly not for reasons of literary fashion. Accordingly, my work sits under a banner that proclaims it "romantic comedy." It’s taken several books for me to wear that label comfortably, and to remind myself that it’s not only what I write best, but what I look for in other voices. When I do readings, I choose chapters that make people laugh. How else can I judge its success? How do writers of sad books get by? On a soft approving purr in the back of the audience’s throats?

Now notice I said "sad." Not "serious." This is about to be a theme.

In 1992, when The Way Men Act came out, a reporter for my hometown paper came to my house, sat in my living room, drank my herbal tea, asked lots of questions and generally led me to believe I could keep my head up on Main Street after the piece was published. And then she poised her pencil and asked, "Are you ever going to write a serious book?"

I wish I had quoted Woody Allen, who has said, "Comedy writers sit at the children’s table." I wanted to say, "You are an unsatisfactory reader. You, whose husband teaches literature at Amherst College and should know better, are being literal; you who don’t realize that so-called serious books are a dime a dozen, think, If a book makes me laugh, well I guess it must not be serious." I took a deep breath and said it had taken years of editorial therapy for me not to apologize for the humor, which many people–critics at large newspapers, in fact–valued. In the world of publishing I’m considered, you know–literary. I should have stopped there, but I said rather archly that a woman was teaching Then She Found Me (my 1990 novel) at Mt. Holyoke as well as other colleges too numerous to mention, and the course, as far as I know wasn’t called, "Lite and Slight Romantic Comedy."

After she left, I called my editor, who I knew would be properly indignant. She said, "Oh, yeah? How does this reporter like Jane Austen? And what does she say about As You Like It, huh? How does she like the arc of that story?" (When the piece came out a week later, the subhead said, "Lipman calls critics of her comedy ‘pretentious.’")

And at the risk of citing only dyspeptic reviews, I’ll quote another. It was a review in The Short Story Review of my story collection Into Love and Out Again (1987): "Lipman’s characters," it said, "are charming, but charm is the blight of the Eighties, to wit Ronald Reagan." They wouldn’t, for example, care about events in Latin America. I wrote back, the only time I’ve ever sniped at a reviewer, and said, essentially, "Dear idiot. You are confusing character with characterization. Do characters succeed only if you’d want to have dinner with them? Is it good writing only if you follow a character into the voting booth and he or she pulls the same lever as you would?"

• • •

More recently, I felt the burden of what I’ll call "pop depth," a literary cousin to political correctness. I was asked to judge a writing contest, and had to read ninety-two book-length short story collections. In a majority of manuscripts, writers chose for their characters and settings things outside themselves that seemed selected for weight and depth. Latin America for sure. Mexico. Trailer parks. Diner lunch counters where the Formica was cracked in a symbolic manner. Most characters were in broken marriages and abusive relationships – all grist for fine literature, don’t get me wrong. But there was something about the sheer repetition –so many angry lunches on Mexican verandas with bougainvillia scenting the air, that I was crying out for something unexotic. Something in Newton or Scarsdale. Here is what I concluded: Many beginning writers feel that there is no depth, no meaning, no poignancy, and consequently no stories inside their own houses and their own families. Outside and far away was the key to deep and important, as if they’re saying: "We whose parents are sending us to graduate school are by definition shallow." It made me wonder if all over America, graduate creative writing programs were saying: "Always use bougainvillia instead of violets; always choose a trailer over a house; always choose a Bud Light over a glass of chardonnay." I came away thinking, You can’t get a leg up that way. It’s all fiction. It’s all made up. It’s all from thin air. There shouldn’t be any givens that confer automatic nobility… Isn’t it all a blank page, with no inherent depth or weight?

In 1992 I reviewed The Republic of Love, a novel by Carol Shields. At the time, I was worried about how my own soon-to-be-released screwballish love story (The Way Men Act) would be received. And here was a sister book I loved – romantic comedy and social satire for intelligent adults! I raved about it, all genuine and all deserved. I quoted with a touch of narcissism what I called a model "dear-reader" passage: "Fay’s noticed something she’s never noticed before. That love is not taken seriously. It’s not respected. It’s the one thing in the world everyone wants to pretend that love is trifling and foolish.

"Work is important. Living arrangements are important. Wars and good sex and race relations and the environment are important and so are health and illness. Even minor shifts of faith or political intention are given weight that is not accorded to love. We turn our heads and pretend it’s not there, the thunderous passions that enter a life and alter its course. Love belongs in an amateur operetta, on the inside of a jokey greeting card, or in the annals of an old-fashioned poetry society… It’s womanish, it’s embarrassing, something to jeer at, something for jerks. ‘Just a love story,’ people say about a book they happen to be reading, to be caught reading. They think of it as something childish and temporary, and its furniture–its language, its kisses, its fevers and transports –are evidence of a profound frivolity. It’s possible to speak ironically about romance, but no adult with any sense talks about love’s richness and transcendence, that it actually happens, that it’s happening right now, in the last years of our long, hard, lean, bitter and promiscuous century."

When I called Carol Shields to ask permission to quote from the above, we talked about this double standard – about love being unfashionable on the page. She said, "And don’t you hate that question people ask – ‘Are you ever going to write a serious book?’" We laughed before she added, "People don’t want to write about it anymore. But what’s more important than love and loneliness? That need hasn’t changed." This comes up often – men and women who want this universal longing to go away, thematically. It’s serious business in the therapist’s office, but on the page, trivial.

I was talking to Meg Wolitzer, the novelist, after she’d come from a meeting with some Hollywood people. The producer, a woman in her thirties, had said very blithely, "This stuff? About women needing men and vice versa? It’s retro." Meg repeated the line to me and said dryly, "What a relief. I’ll call my friends up and tell them they’re not lonely anymore."

And what do my readers want? I believe they want to feel better when they finish a book than when they start it. They want to be amused, moved, befriended, included. Once I heard Robert Stone speak, and he said he thinks the real purpose of a novel is to make the reader feel less lonely. I don’t think readers want messages. They want to inhabit the world my characters live in, or at least visit it comfortably. Sometimes they write to me, and often I meet them at readings. They feel as if they know me, and they do. My first novel, Then She Found Me, was the story of April Epner, a quiet Latin teacher, who finds out her birth mother is an obnoxious TV-talk show hostess. At a reading I gave in New York – and I can’t resist saying it was mobbed mostly because The New York Times had run a feature the week before titled, "Readings as an Opportunity for Romance" – a woman raised her hand during the Q & A. I had read from The Way Men Act, and most questions were about that. I called on her, and she asked simply from the back, without preamble – "How’s April?" Nobody looked puzzled; nobody asked, "Who’s April?" It meant a great deal to me, to have a reader inquire after a fictional character as if she were a mutual friend. I thought, what more could an author want?

I said, "She’s fine. She’s happy. She sends her love."

on "Building Character at the Table"

I write novels and I cook dinner, and some days the edges blur. Like me, my characters know their way around a kitchen, and, like my family, they are good eaters. Increasingly my plots thicken in restaurants, as waiters hover, and increasingly readers ask, "What’s with the food in your books?"

My answer is, doesn’t everyone characterize people by what they eat? Isn’t it another descriptive tool, like a story’s furniture or its clothes? It seems so, well. . . easy–the dialogue balloon next to a character’s plate, an arrow pointing to his or her true self.

Let’s say I want to sketch an ordinary Joe. Following the first law of writing fiction–showing rather than telling–I don’t announce that Joe is unadventurous, prosaic, even dull, but I signal it by having him eat… what? (You try this at home) a) sweet breads on a bed of polenta? b) orange roughy? c) ramps d) franks and beans?

Try again: A man takes a seemingly appealing woman on a first date. He orders rotisserie chicken and garlic mashed potatoes (friendly, unpretentious, all-American yet bistro chic). Over her bottled water, the woman can’t decide what to have. She asks if the chef can make the risotto without butter, or leave the Gorgonzola out of the Gorgonzola vinaigrette. The reader recognizes the woman to be: a) on a diet? b) difficult? c) lactose-intolerant? d) no fun? e) all of the above?

After creating many characters who are unabashed eaters, I finally went all the way and made the heroine of one of my books a chef. The food in it food owes its allegiance to two schools: Vermont cuisine circa 1964 and the Catskills (then or now). It was almost too easy: chicken croquettes, meatloaf surprise, turkey pot pie, lettuce wedge, and baked stuffed sole versus flanken, capon, blueberry blintzes, canned figs, and almond bark. Just as my narrator finds personal happiness in the enemy camp–a matrimonial surf ‘n’ turf–so do Jewish and Gentile cuisines coexist peacefully on her table: a smokehouse ham and Grand Marnier sweet potato soufflé one night, brisket and kugel the next.

I began employing food as a narrative device when I was writing my first novel. In fleshing out one of my characters, I decided I needed a pot-luck contribution with airs–not a match with the other guests’ four-grain bread and spiral-cut ham, and perhaps not to anyone else’s liking. It was 1988, so I chose calamari vinaigrette–ambitious, daunting, and, I hoped, faintly ridiculous.

This reliance on talking food may be rooted in a pivotal social/gastronomic experience in my own life: At 19, I was brought home to a young man’s parents’ home for dinner, at which his mother served calf’s liver. Without onions; without apology. With so much serenity, in fact, that there was a cinematic otherworldliness to her composure. Did I need a degree in psychology to know my boyfriend’s mother was a) clueless? b) opposed to her baby going steady? c) passive-aggressive? d) a few capers short of a canapé? d) all of the above?

(Reader: if you were writing this scene and wanted to intensify the culinary hostility would you add to the plate: a) a baked potato? b) white rice? c) corn niblets? d) beets and lima beans?)

Characters have to eat, don’t they? Mine simply do it while you’re watching. They make reservations, study menus, talk and cook, talk and eat, refill their wine glasses, linger over decaf. I’m at peace with this predilection because I find that every interaction with the stove, refrigerator, plate, and fork provides an opportunity to mine the telling detail, to make abstract notions concrete in a way I hope is both subtle and economic.

Metaphors? Sort of. Blood, bones, lamb, variety meats (brains, guts, hearts) are entrees with symbolic heft. But I’ve found pleasure in telegraphing smaller coded messages: You know this person; you’ve dined with her or cooked for him. Happily, the supplies in this literary larder are limitless, and readers own the same ones. Tenderloin or tofu? Coffee or herbal tea? Iceberg or Bibb? Man or mouse? Walk me through your checkout line and I’ll tell you who you are.

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