Q&A: Mimi Lipson on her debut collection, 'The Cloud of Unknowing'

June 30, 2014

An interview with Mimi Lipson, author of short story collection "The Cloud of Unknowing," published by the small independent Yeti Publishing. Sigrid Nunez calls her a natural and Jenny Offill describes her writing as "dazzling offhand brilliance." Lipson answered our questions by email.

Q: The first story in your collection, "Lou Schultz," features two kids on a trip to Disney World with their father. His priorities seem sort of inverted, yet heís a really sympathetic character. Was this based at all on your personal experience? And how did you find a way into the fatherís perspective, rather than your own?

A: Lou Schultz was indeed inspired by my father. In its broad strokes and personality details, that story is maybe 72 percent factual. Or anyhow, itís true enough to life that, when my sister read it, her response was: "Iím so glad someone is getting all this down." But it is fiction, so really there isnít a possible perspective in that story that I could say was "my own."

I tried to write the story from various different points of view, but without access to Louís thoughts, his actions made him seem distractingly loutish ó and that wasnít what I wanted. Iím not sure how I found my way into his head. I guess thatís the part of writing thatís like acting, but I donít have a lot of insight about how it happens. I do think the character had to diverge from his influence ó to become more of my creation ó so I could presume to speak for him. That is one part of how "stuff that happened" becomes fiction.

Q: As a writer publishing your first book of fiction, what was the thing you were most anxious about?

A: Actually, I was very anxious about questions like the first one! I was worried that people would recognize details and then read my fiction as autobiography. But I guess I asked for it by not creating worlds out of whole cloth. That wasnít the biggest anxiety, though. Iím a pretty modest person in some ways. Just putting a book into the world ó and then promoting it, and expecting people to read it ó thatís the kind of attention-seeking behavior I tend to avoid. That was probably the most stressful part.

Q: When did you live in L.A.? How do you look back on the experience?

A: I moved to Los Angeles in 2000 and left in 2005. For the first six months, I kind of couldnít see it. My field of vision just didnít take it in. Apart from specific field trips ó to old Hollywood places Ö or ridiculous contemporary follies Ö I just saw a lot of brown stucco and exhausted foliage. And then something clicked, and I started appreciating Los Angeles in its variety and multitudes. It always felt foreign to me, and I guess I always knew there was an expiration date, but I loved my time here and would not trade it for anything. There are so many different worlds within this city, which is very exciting to me. You could never know it all.

Q: Many of the stories in your book feature people who are underemployed or underpaid, just barely getting by. Thatís becoming increasingly hard to find in literary fiction. Did you have any books or authors that were models for stories like yours?

A: It didnít occur to me when I was writing these stories that there was anything rare about that. I suppose I just grew up around and befriended a lot of underemployed people. And Iíve spend most of my life being pretty underemployed, so itís what I know best. Iíd have a much harder time writing about people in the straight professional world.

Q: Did you get an MFA? Did you study writing as an undergraduate?

A: I did not study writing as an undergraduate. I was only dimly aware that such a thing was possible, and in fact I didnít start writing seriously until I was in my early forties. I knew about MFAs from my friends who were visual artists and filmmakers, and I thought it was something you had to go into debt for, which did not interest me. When I learned that wasnít the case with a writing MFA ó that in fact they might pay you to get one ó I knew it was for me. Now I am going to sound really silly: I heard there was this thing called the Michener Center for Writers, in Texas, where they would give you $25K a year for three years and all you had to do was study and write. I thought, wow! Iíll do that! Then someone gently explained to me that I might need to apply to more than one school. It was a pretty ad hoc application process. I ended up at Boston University, which is an intensive one-year program with a really exceptional faculty: Leslie Epstein, Ha Jin and Sigrid Nunez. I think it was for the best.


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