An Exclusive Interview With David Lipsky
Journalist and Acclaimed Novelist
Author of Absolutely American
By Doris Booth
F. Scott Fitzgerald once wrote to a young friend seeking advice on her writing: "You've got to sell your heart, your strongest reactions, not the little minor things that only touch you lightly. . . "
Now, acclaimed contemporary novelist and journalist David Lipsky, a fan of Fitzgerald, has done just that.
In his latest book, ABSOLUTELY AMERICAN: FOUR YEARS AT WEST POINT (Houghton Mifflin, July 2003), David has sold us his heart. What's more, he has sold us the heart of one of America's most venerable institution. He is the first journalist given complete access to training, staff, and cadets in the Academy's history.
ABSOLUTELY AMERICAN, the riveting true story of four years inside West Point, unveils the world of cadets as we've never before seen them, and reveals why these young people sacrifice so much to earn a place of leadership in America's Army.
The book grew from an article for Rolling Stone magazinean assignment David Lipsky originally refused to take.
David's father, after all, had told David when he was a boy that if he ever had anything to do with the military he'd break his legs. The answer was definitely "No."
Stepping back a few years, David had begun his writing career as a college sophomore when he sold several short pieces to major magazines including The New Yorker, then published his first novel, The Art Fair, after graduate school at Johns Hopkins. Jann Wenner, owner and editor of Rolling Stone spotted the New Yorker piece and offered David a job and "the chance to see the world beyond New York." Among his first assignments for the Stone was to cover sex on campuses. "I grabbed a bunch of college kids in Wisconsin and Virginia and California, and without any press credentials asked them to tell me about their sex lives," David recalls. He got the story, only to learn later that five reporters before him had failed. (He later went on to win an award for his work on gay teenagers in out of the way places like Heard County, GA and Sandy, Utah there actually is a place with the name Sandy, Utah which to me sounds like redundant or like a license plate slogan.) On his next critical assignment, a piece about drug addicts in Seattle, he moved in with several druggies for a month. "The addicts showed me that they needed the drug to feel normal. There wasn't much in life that mattered to them. Their whole lives involved getting another fix. After that story and visiting about 35 college campuses, I became the Stone's expert on young people in general
"When the West Point people came to Jann asking him to do a story (The magazine didn't seek out West Point), he wanted to assign me the task because I knew the age group," said David.
"My whole family was against the military, especially my dad, who came of age in the Vietnam era. What could be more out of date than West Point? Besides, you know, I really wanted to keep my legs unbroken."
Once inside the institution, David changed his lifelong prejudices about the military.
West Point had been closed to the outside world for 200 years. Barracks were opened to the public only one day a year. Chain link ropes marked restricted areas. No journalist had ever been allowed full access to the campus or its cadets. David thought he might have found a way to dump the assignment.
"I told the Academy administration the only way I'd do the story was if they gave me unlimited access to both campus and cadets. I needed to see everything. Surely they'd say no. But a few days later they said I could come and stay as long as I liked, go wherever I wanted, and talk with whomever I wished. They said a great thing: Write about us warts and all, because we have nothing of which we should be ashamed."
Once inside the institution, David changed his lifelong prejudices about the military. "Many people make the mistake my dad made. We have to understand that the military doesn't choose its missions. They only go where Washington sends themand they go on a moments notice, whether theyve trained for that location or not, whether the supply lines are ready or not. I used to think the military were a breed apart. What I learnedand what I wanted people to know in this bookis that the guy wearing a helmet is my neighbor and yours.
"I realized that all the subjects I'd written about for yearshow young people deal with sex and freedom and how they define themselveswere all gathered up in this one place. The cadets were struggling with the big questions that students and lots of adults work with every day: What makes a life worthwhile? Should I opt for the easy, comfortable life or is it worth pushing for something harder?
Each of those kids, unlike a lot of students Id covered and even unlike a lot of adults who were friends and co-workers of minehad found a purpose for their lives, each one in his or her own way." David said.
When David Lipsky turned in his 35,000 word article to Rolling Stone it was probably the first time the magazine had published anything positive about the military. "Before they saw the article, they kept asking me if it was really negative. Id say it was going to be pretty complete. They'd say, Surebut a little mean, right? By the end,. I said, Its going to be as honest and hopefully as true about that place as anything before it..'"
The magazine hasn't published a negative word about the military since.
"They said to me, 'You've had
a chance to see stuff no one
has ever seen. All we want
you to do is to tell our story
and get it right.'"
Soon after the article appeared in Rolling Stone, ten publishers approached David's agent, Lisa Bankoff at International Creative Management (ICM) with book deals.
"I chose Houghton Mifflin as the publisher because I knew how hard we'd have to work to get the story together as a book, and I felt the editor, Eamon Dolan, understood the magnitude and the responsibility of the project. He worked harder than any editor I've seen, even doing the kind of extraordinarily close and sharp line edits you only see with magazine work," said David.
"Cadets don't trust the media," David said. "So they give the answers to reporters that you're supposed to give. They figure the reporters arent putting in the time to try to formulate something real, so why should they? But they didn't want someone glossing over about what was hard about West Point. I lived with them for four years, followed them around on the weekends, followed through on military training, marched with them in the rain, slept in the next tent. Saw them after they got out of the Academy. They knew I was trying to understand what their lives were like insidethat I wasnt trying to crib the story away without putting in the work. They said to me, 'You've had a chance to see stuff no one has ever seen. They said the same thing the administration did. Dont worry about whether its going to be positive or negative. All we want you to do is to tell our story and get it right.' Now that the book is out, they say I did. And that's a huge relief to me. They even kidded me for being the only cadet in the Class of 2002 who never got commissioned into the U.S. Army.
"And my dad called when the book was released to say his attitude about the military had been wrong.
"West Point and I had the good fortune to come together. They opened their doors to me. If I hadn't asked for full access, I would never have met these cool people. Whats funny, actuallyas a kind of sociological jokeis that they really are the kinds of people my dad thought youd find in places outside the military: No racial or gender prejudice, everyone looking out for each other and trying their hardest, none of them motivated by money. They're motivated by a love of their work and their mission."
". . .in some ways nonfiction
may be more alive than fiction, perhaps sharper."
And so, was writing a nonfiction piece any harder than writing fiction?
David Lipsky had always wanted to be a writer of both, to join the greats such as Hemingway. He finds little difference between crafting fiction and nonfiction, except that "in some ways nonfiction may be more alive than fiction, perhaps sharper because you know youre reading about a real persons life, with no cheating. You cant make it alive with plot conventions or coincidences: you have to make it come alive with what you do on the page.
Indeed, Lipsky's nonfiction is alive in both senses. John Colapinto, author of As Nature Made Him and About the Author, said of David's book, "This is a rare work of nonfiction that actually does read like a gripping novel."
"You have to be willing
to give everything you have."
David's advice to writers who want to break into publishing is summed up in two words: Be fanatical.
"A professor invited me to address a class of Journalism graduate students. I asked them, Anyone still watch Quentin Tarantino moviesthe guy who wrote and directed Pulp Fiction? You know what he did before he became a screenwriter? He was working in a video store. I asked the class, What do you think he was doing there? Someone said, Recommending videos? I said, no, he was watching movies all day, every kind of movie he could get his hands on, memorizing structure, character creation, scene-setting, dialog-rhythms. He was fanatical, and that's how you have to be to be a writer. Because the person youre competing with is willing to try just as hard or harder than you, for a job where there arent a lot of spacesa job where you still have to compete with video games, DVDs, movies, and television just to get your bit of a readers attention. You have to be willing to give everything you have."
Fitzgerald, in that same letter to the aspiring young writer, said literature "is one of those professions that want the 'works.' You wouldn't be interested in a solider who was only a little brave. . . ." Having talent, he added, "is the equivalent of a solider having the right physical qualifications for entering West Point."
David Lipsky has given it his all in ABSOLUTELY AMERICAN. As Fitzgerald said of Hemmingway's In Our Time, the story "went right down to the bottom of all that he had ever felt and known."
Lipsky, who is thirty-seven, lives on the Upper West Side of Manhattan with his girlfriend, Evie, and their dog, Grace.
Copyright 2003-2005 by David Lipsky