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Arts + CultureLit'Wit had social currency': Nate Lippens ghosts through the...

‘Wit had social currency’: Nate Lippens ghosts through the AIDS generation in ‘My Dead Book’

Serial killers, homophobia, poverty, drugs—and also love, art, connection, and humor in author's debut novel.

As titles go, My Dead Book packs a punch. It also suits Nate Lippens’ debut novel, which doesn’t dilly-dally around with fancy language or unnecessary digressions in telling a story.

A compact tome, both in size and number of pages, My Dead Book in fact contains numerous stories, straight out of the gate in chapter one. That chapter introduces and, in some cases, says farewell to several characters. There’s a famous song by a cult poet and memoirist about people who’ve died. Lippens’ work doesn’t give way to that composition’s somewhat obnoxious repetition and self-centeredness. He renders each casualty in stark, vivid terms, letting the writing itself pay tribute.

All of which might make My Dead Book sound like a bum trip. There’s no denying that Lippens maintains a steadfast devotion to people who struggle—sometimes fatally—with lack of money and the pervasiveness of AIDS and homophobia in the 1990s. One thing that sets Lippens’ tale apart, in addition to its precision, is its similarly exact sense of humor, often taking the form of sharp, memorable one-liners.

“Marshall followed Oscar Wilde’s dictum that moderation is a fatal thing, and nothing succeeds like excess,” Lippens’ narrator notes about one acquaintance, closing the description with a punchline: “He didn’t succeed but he did exceed.” Later in the book, the hustler protagonist halts a trick’s violent aggression by faking a desire for more of it. “I knew how to kill any mood,” he boasts.

Released in blurb-less paperback by the small press Publication Studio, My Dead Book has garnered a bouquet of genuinely fervid praise from writers such as Eileen Myles, Kate Zambreno, and Semiotext(e)’s Hedi El Kholti. “The phantom limbs of what has been excised remain,” the latter writes, referring to Lippens’ minimalism. “But still there is so much love and sadness, all the randomness of what makes a life and who you meet along the way. My ghosts are summoned by his ghosts.”

My Dead Book’s rep is spreading—it’s soon to be published in the UK by Pilot Press. I recently caught up with Lippens to discuss the Midwest, the relationship between anecdote and aphorism, and what went into his paradoxically lively debut.

48 HILLS Now that the book is out, and it’s getting such a positive reception, including from writers I imagine you admire, what’s the experience like?

NATE LIPPENS It’s been fantastic and a bit unreal, honestly. I’m touched people have engaged with the book the way they have, that they’ve contacted me to share their own stories of loss and recollections of the ‘80s and 90s, and that the book activated memories or offered a springboard for them to talk. I love that the book has a life of its own. 

48H Tell me just a bit about your writing practice. Is there a time of day and night you write, and what does your writing space look like, or do you write all over the place?

NL Usually, I write late at night. There’s something about being done with the day and kind of depleted that works for me. My bed and my desk take turns as my writing space. I write longhand and then type it up later. That’s the first edit. I can’t write in public. It’s tied to being alone in a room—a quiet, private thing where I kind of fall away and the writing comes forward.

48H I think we came of age in the Midwest at roughly the same time, you in Wisconsin, me in Michigan, in the mid-late ’80s. When you look back at that time and place now, how do you feel?

NL That era of Reagan and Bush and the rabid Christian rightwing was awful. I’m amazed I survived. It was hostile, and I had a lot of violence directed at me. It’s only in the last ten years that I’ve shaken off some of the damage. Being an object of that kind of hatred cracked open the world for me. The nice Midwestern façade was destroyed, and I saw how most everything I’d been raised to believe was a lie.

But because I left home young, I met a lot of people very different from me and it broadened my world and allowed a lot of instant friendships and comradery because it was starkly clear-cut who wanted us dead. There were alliances made then that wouldn’t be possible now. And simultaneously there was also a vibrant underground of music and art and a lot of fervid creativity. 

48H When I was a child, my imagination was darkened by the Oakland County Child Killer. And then, Midwestern killers like John Wayne Gacy and Herb Baumeister preyed upon boys or gay men—as if the specters of AIDS and homophobia at the time wasn’t enough, there were these monsters lurking in the landscape. Jeffery Dahmer is mentioned early on in My Dead Book, though in a way the narrator not only dodges him but the shadow he casts. Can you talk a little about that tension, and the way—also in your descriptions of hustling—you don’t play into expectations? 

NL I wanted to show how the narrator’s survival depended on shutting out a lot, on not magnifying his fears. Dahmer was terrifying and the media’s frothing sick fascination with him infuriated me. But I knew the narrator needed to acknowledge it and brush it aside. That section sets up a lot tonally.

Wisconsin and its serial killers are so ingrained in my psyche. The hustling had to be described casually. The narrator and his friends, especially Shane, are sort of mirroring each other’s nonchalance. They need their circumstances to be downplayed so it doesn’t destroy them. AIDS is stalking their ranks, serial killers are hunting young men, and the tone of the nation at the time is that gay men are disposable. They have to distance themselves emotionally from that. Put it on ice. 

48H In your BOMB magazine interview with Kate Zambreno, Cookie Mueller and Kathy Acker are mentioned. Though tonally I see you as quite different from Cookie, one major quality you share with her is a rare ability to straightforwardly tell a story. The directness might seem quite easy, but anyone who writes knows how difficult it is to know what to emphasize and what to leave out in a story.

NL Cookie Mueller’s plainspoken, darkly fun adventures have this off-hand genius to them. Her and Sam D’Allesandro’s stories have always stuck with me as having a kind of direct address that gets right to the matter. They wrote like they had no time to waste because they didn’t. I aspire to that same tone of urgency. I tend to overwrite and then cut a lot. Anything that feels explanatory or more essayistic gets nixed. 

48H That spare precision to the writing style or voice of My Dead Book—does it reflect most of your writing overall?

NL It does. Something shifted in the last couple of years where I lost patience with descriptions and fussy transitions in my stories. I wanted the connections to happen faster. I like short sections that add up. I’m sure part of it comes from poetry, which was my first love. I looked at an old collection of poems from when I was a teenager and the poems are all short sections divided by asterisks, just like My Dead Book

48H Do you have friends who recognize themselves in characters within the book?

NL No, the material drawn from life was transformed. I don’t mean just veiled or camouflaged. It’s invented or the way it’s compressed changes it drastically. It had to make the transformation into something separate from my life, so I could surprise myself as I wrote it. I needed to find the uncertainty. 

48H There’s a sort of dynamic between anecdote and aphorism in your book. The aphorisms occur within the anecdotes, as observations by the narrator or dialogue spoken by certain characters. Would you agree?

NL Yeah, I love aphorisms. I also wanted to capture the particular sardonic humor of my generation of gay men. Wit had social currency. If you weren’t rich or beautiful, you had to be funny. It was a way to express a lot of rage and marginalization with style. Dialogue is a great place for that. To me anecdotes are such a cornerstone of the way people communicate. It’s the perfect story unit for quick connection. You get in, tell the story, and land it all in the space of a cigarette break or doing side work or a bus ride. 

48H Drugs—heroin in particular—are at the edge of the narrative, and it’s noteworthy that you neither sensationalize them nor moralize about them. They’re presented more as a fact of life. What were your intentions in this regard?

NL I wanted to represent drug use at face value, as just another aspect of the characters’ circumstances. I avoid moral imperatives or prescriptions. Personally, I’ve never found them useful. And that kind of writing usually ends with redemption or salvation, which is the furthest thing from my interests. Early on, the narrator notes that his friend Kennan forbids heroin use, but cocaine is fine. So, there are some hierarchies of acceptability even within their circles. I knew if I treated drug use plainly it would be more accurate. Addiction is usually presented as harrowing, but mostly it’s repetitive and boring. 

48H On the front cover, My Dead Book is deemed “A NOVEL.” I’ve now read a discussion of why the book isn’t a diminutive “novella,” but it’s noteworthy that it isn’t presented as creative nonfiction either.

NL It’s fiction. I know a lot of readers have assumed the book is autofiction, but the tradition of autobiographical writing I love is Jean Rhys and Marguerite Duras where one’s experiences are treated as source material. The experiences don’t guide the structure, the structure determines what gets used, and the biggest part is re-imagining, re-staging, and inventing. 

48H How do you view the book’s narrator protagonist? To what degree do you identify with him?

NL I definitely identify with him and with his older photographer friend Rudy. I see the narrator as someone who has soldiered through life but been unable to assimilate his experiences into a coherent narrative. The narrator is turning 50 and struggling with memories from the past and how to remember in a real way, not as a nostalgist or sentimentalist, but as a composite of all these dead friends. In the last few years, as my friends reached 50, I saw this happening a lot, and certainly the COVID pandemic reanimated a lot of old wounds with echoes of AIDS and the politicization of disease. 

48H In a way the blank spaces or even pages between the short passages that compose most chapters remind me of edits in a film. Would you agree with that comparison? Could you elaborate on the writing and assemblage of the book?

NL I referred to the blank spaces as jump cuts. The book started out much longer with more conventional scenes, but I was frustrated by that and started cutting out anything that felt unnecessary or impeded the flow. I had a lot of material, some dating back almost a decade. Selectivity was key. I moved sections around until the order had a natural momentum to it, and let the stories do the work. Once that rhythm was established, everything fell into place. 

48H Echoing a question above, one word I’d associate with the book is refinement. The many working-class characters are refined in a way that counters stereotypes, and the book itself feels refined, with extraneous material removed. Would you agree?

NL A lot of fiction portrays working-class people as inarticulate and sort of empty. They drink, they fight, they screw, they worry about bills. It’s like they have no inner lives or connection to anything that isn’t baseline survival.

The queer working-class I came up in was alive with imagination and creativity. Our identities were forged by art and music and movies. That was often our primary connection to each other. Sometimes it was our ticket out of working-class life, but usually we lacked access and connections, so it was just another part of our lives. The brightest, most important part. 

48H The dead in your book haven’t all perished from AIDS, but sometimes, perhaps from tight-money living, and perhaps from the psychic impact of AIDS and homophobia on a generation.

NL Yeah, the characters die from poverty, overdoses, and depression. Some when they’re young, but others when they’re older and have run out of road. AIDS and homophobia marked my generation. A lot of us left home young and lived hand-to-mouth. There was a lot of untreated depression and emotional damage, and our coping mechanisms were often drugs and alcohol.

We didn’t have insurance or go to doctors unless it was the ER or to get an HIV test. Being told you’re going to die for being intimate with another man and you deserve that death was hateful and it caused all kinds of hellish things. It’s difficult to value yourself or others like you when you’re conditioned to believe something is deeply wrong with you. How do you unlearn those beliefs? How do you find worth? 

48H You talk about Gena Rowlands—“a genius of performance”—escaping Wisconsin, yet My Dead Book is also a regional story. Wisconsin is not just a setting but at times almost a character. What was important to you in rendering it?

NL Wisconsin is a character in the book and has its own stories and myths and monsters that permeate everything. I wanted to capture some of its ambiguity and benevolent fatalism and darkness. Not in the standard way Wisconsin is portrayed. The yearning to leave and feeling trapped were a kind of pulse. The narrator views his return to Wisconsin as a kind of exile, but he also has a lot of memories there, and he has new, younger friends like Brandon. He may be wrangling with alienation and loss, but there is a present he’s part of and a future if he’ll accept it. 

48H What are you working on at present?

NL Another short novel. It’s about intimacy and sex. And I’m reworking some stories which have become a novel too. They magnetized and pulled together. 

My Dead Book is out now through Publication Studio. www.publicationstudio.biz. A UK edition of the book will soon be released by Pilot Press.

48 Hills welcomes comments in the form of letters to the editor, which you can submit here. We also invite you to join the conversation on our FacebookTwitter, and Instagram

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