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.
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?
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
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"
As a writer publishing your first book of fiction, what
was the thing you were most anxious about?
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.
When did you live in L.A.? How do you look back on the
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
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?
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.
Did you get an MFA? Did you study writing as an
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.