This month we congratulate New York writer Sara Lippmann on her new story collection – called ‘daring and fearless’ by Steve Almond – as well as a novel coming later this year. We caught up with her and asked a few questions. Here we include her responses, an excerpt and a few other details about the book…
A brief interview
Sara Lippmann: There’s a difference between having a smattering of stories and a collection, and so even though as soon as I published the title story, I knew if I’d ever write another collection what the title would be, it took a while for the shape of it to come. For me to know I had a book that was saying something.
SL: I knew the first story would be ‘Wolf’ or ‘Deer’ – it’s adolescence and formative, a launching off point. But I didn’t have the last one until I wrote it and then the book had a shape and then it became a question of what best served the imperative. I think the Trump years have made my writer more direct – fueled, yes, more urgent maybe, def more honest — and then the pandemic has put everything in a pressure cooker. There’s no time for much throat clearing.
SL: Right now I’m reading Claire Messud’s The Woman Upstairs and I’m loving the first person voice but my eyes get tired after staring at the screen or zoom all day, so that it’s hard to read at night which I used to love. I’ve been doing more and more on audio for that reason.
My debut novel is coming out in the fall so I’ve been poring over the proofs one last time hoping I catch every typo and don’t show my ass too much, fingers crossed.
Excerpt from the book
The Polish girl
The Polish girl hits the jackpot when she clinches the summer job in the South of France. The ad says, Polish Girl, and she answers. She can be anyone people want her to be. It just so happens she’s in Poland visiting a great-aunt on her mother’s side who’s fallen and shattered her hip. She’s got to be pushing 100. If she were a horse they’d put her down. Instead, she’s high on pillows and morphine.
The Polish girl is proxy for her mother who can’t just abandon her life, whereas the Polish girl hasn’t started hers. A roll with butter, her mother says, in Polish. May everything be as easy as pushing pudding through the thin lips of a distant relative who has nobody else. One meal in and out comes her phone. The girl scrolls. The ad pops. Her mother is Polish, which makes the Polish Girl legit even if she is an American from Monmouth, New Jersey.
She has the look, which is the employer’s top priority. Blond, blue eyes. Sometimes when she gets restless or bored, the Polish girl dyes her hair. It takes color like a sponge, soaking up whatever store-bought hue–electric eel teal, violent violet–thrust upon it, but eventually fades. Currently, she’s all washed out. But she is young and unattached and already overseas. She has everything the employer wants in a domestic. She has a bit of herpes, too, but it’s dormant during the video interview.
The French employer does not speak Polish which is a relief as the Polish girl speaks only in food terms and idioms. Don’t call a wolf from the forest. Did you fall from a Christmas tree? English is their common tongue. She can pull off a Polish accent in English by channeling her mother, so that much rings true. In Monmouth, her mother cleans houses; sometimes three a day. Word spreads like a match in the Pine Barrens: she is fast, efficient. She never complains.
The caretaking property is located near St. Tropez, which sounds both tropical and acrobatic to the girl, who’s never been to France, where she’s headed now with a thick cup of tomato juice and complimentary airline socks. In Nice she gathers stones on the beach and drinks a warm beer and orders an iced coffee that’s warm too while she waits for the bus then has to pee the entire ride, so she crosses and uncrosses her legs, the seaside bright and crackling blue.
The house is enormous. It is not a house but an estate. Her employer calls it a villa. Reached by a treacherously curvy road where cyclists whip by without helmets (the girl’s heart beats so fast she shuts her eyes), the terra compound sits high on a hill overlooking a vineyard. There are trellises everywhere strangled in vine, heavy with fruit. The Polish girl has never seen anything like it. Well, she’s seen Instagram. In Monmouth they live in a tract complex by the raceway. She takes classes, sometimes. The vet tech outfits are cute.
“Is it all yours?” She asks her employer, a silver-haired woman in a coral bustier and chiffon bell skirt. There are two hefty cuff bracelets on her wrists, as if she’s busted free.
“Speak only when asked,” her employer says, tapping a cigarette from her soft pack. She blows, waves a hand, as if to say, divorce is a business like any other. “A place like this must come with a girl, don’t you see?”
The Polish girl sees. Grounds ripple in the golden light. The grand tour reveals, for all its Frenchness, an African bazaar inside. There are animal skins on the floors and tusks on the walls and ebony busts trussed in orange headdresses framing the sideboard. Their eyes, inlaid with ivory, stare in reproach, knowing, if given the chance, she would colonize, too. Her great- aunt had been no Warsaw savior. Elephants adorn every surface of every room, porcelain and silk-screened, bejeweled and wood-cut, her employer kisses her on both cheeks, for good luck.
On Saturday guests arrive; the following Sunday they leave. The Polish girl sweeps dead bugs, mops tile, draws the curtains. The house is cavernous and winged so she talks aloud just to hear herself, the bend of sound. One toilet has a tassel pull flush. All shower nozzles are hand-held. The first time she uses it she gets off, hard and quick.
Her employer calls from her Parisian pied-a-terre. “Are you ready?”
The Polish Girl knows from her mother: only missteps attract notice. Forget praise. But she is not here for praise. If the job’s done right, she is invisible.
“Yes,” she says. Ready or not.
Vacationers arrive. The property has been cross-listed on multiple home away sites, securing a revolving occupancy for months. They are German, Spanish, Italian. She greets them at the door with a silver tray of strawberries and champagne.
The Polish girl wears white on white, her collar open to her crucifix, her only accessory, tasteful not flashy. She can feel sweat slide down her spine but she does not slouch while she serves. She has washed the linens, pinning them outside to fill up on air; she has done the hospital corners her mother taught her. Watered the plants, stocked the fridge (flat water, water with gas), placed clusters of tomatoes on the sill, leaving butter out to soften for morning toast. She has never cleaned so hard. Back home her room is a dump. She can’t be bothered. Put away crap and there’s only more crap. But in the Cote D’Azur (as her employer calls it), she vibrates with fastidious energy. She runs around, running baths, unpacking luggage. She drips essential oil onto every lamp with a pipette. She wants to be the very best Polish girl.
After her first day she collapses face first on the cot of her flat in the carriage house. She forgets to open the iron windows and wakes in a liquid pool behind bars. The room’s barrenness makes her think of her great-aunt, nicknamed The Squealer for how many neighbors she ratted out in the war. The Polish girl calls the nursing home. A miracle! The Squealer says, I’m healing! As if healing were the same as forgiveness. But then, with the girl’s shoddy Polish, it’s possible some of this is misunderstood.
She is a natural. Maybe it’s genetic. Maybe she has finally applied herself. The best part about being a Polish girl is not thinking about herself. What is there to think about? Her clothes are picked out. Tap water scalds or runs cold but she gets used to it, braiding her hair tight to her scalp in long ropes.
Mostly, she stays out of sight. When they call she comes. The Americans are the most demanding. They complain about the feel of the towels. They complain that the baguettes grow stale. She smiles. She is the Polish girl who comes with the house, a veritable Janet from that show she binged, so she obliges. She rides to the nearest village for more bread, more citronella, more brie. Her employer left her a bicycle with a basket for this purpose. Her herpes flares in the sun. It’s a painful reminder.
Fathers linger in dark hallways. Their armpits smell like seaweed, their mouths fresh with presumptions about Polish girls. Oh but they’re only teasing. She ducks into the children’s room, straightens their toys, escorts them to the patio with their Barbies. By accident on purpose she tosses Barbie into the pool. Now they all have to swim. The Polish girl snags the biggest float. It is a metallic gold donut shimmering with colored sprinkles. The Polish girl closes her eyes and drifts. For a moment, she is nowhere and everywhere, light dancing on her lids, until the oldest child capsizes her. Little shit, she catches herself. The Polish girl is dripping wet. Kurwa.
If the children want cucumbers she prepares the cucumbers. If the children want grapes she peels the grapes, slicing them in half if they are American. French families ignore her, more or less. They know their way around the kitchen and their country. Germans want a lemon in their wheat beer, a hot iron run over their sheets. Everyone wants sunscreen rubbed on their backs.
All summer it goes like this. The house is enormous so they are rarely single families. They are groups of cousins, friends of friends, college pals. They track sand from beach clubs large as ant hills. They leave damp suits on the zebra rug. Her favorite week is when the Dutch men come. They cook and clean and keep to themselves. She washes cum stains from knotted briefs each morning, and that’s it, the smell suckle sweet when it’s not meant for her.
At night, guests sits on the terrace overlooking the vineyard. The landscaping has been torn up, heather ravaged by an invasion of wild pigs. After midnight you can hear them rut and snort. The men dare each other to hunt, to slaughter, to roast one on a spit. They get drunk but only the Americans show it. Italians pour her wine like water. Americans become raunchy and loud, thinking she does not understand. Thinking she is Polish. The fathers talk about hitting that. One father says, but did you see her face? Who knows what you’ll catch.
She looks in the mirror. The sun isn’t helping and neither are the astringents. She needs Valtrex and does not know how to order a script, but it’s right there on the pharmacy shelf, same name and everything. She pockets a lipstick as she pays and feels, for a second, like she’s back in Jersey.
When guests go out for fancy dinners, she turns down their bedding, placing chocolates on the pillows. The Italians leave heaps of dishes in the sink. No matter the hour, they are always eating, which means the Polish girl is always cleaning. Leaning over the basin, her fingers prune and a stripe of water marks her waist. But they make up for their mess with wine. “It is no bother,” the Polish girl says, drinking. Her throat warms. The Italians laugh in careless apology. They are dark and sexy. When they leave their hair in the drain, she doesn’t mind.
The majority are American because the villa is exorbitant and Americans believe they are getting something special the more they pay. The Polish Girl has to keep up the accent, the halting English. It is tiresome but she is convincing. Maybe she’ll become an actor. Maybe she’ll be one of those actors that play patients in medical school. She could fake a stroke. While they’re out stocking up on truffle honey and herbs d’ Provence, she finds a tin of cannabis mints on a bedside table so now she is sky high and twirling, the hills are alive, in the late day sun. Never in a million years would she have pictured herself here, so the Polish girl snaps a selfie just to prove it, with a cheesy caption, Life is wild, before sobering up on an entire log of chevre.
That evening, a female guest camps out in the kitchen with her, changing and drying dishes, and it’s so nice, so comfortable, almost like friendship, the Polish girl nearly blows her cover.
“I didn’t grow up with help,” the woman says, snapping the Polish girl back into her role.
“You must to take easy.” She refills the woman’s glass as laughter erupts from the veranda.
“Enjoy in yourself, Missus. Go. Go make the laughter and the light.”
“It is impossible.”
“Everything is beautiful.”
“Don’t tell anyone.” The woman looks at her with bloodshot eyes then wanders out.
Men walk in on her in the bathroom. Men walk into her sleeping quarters. Doh, they say. Thought this was the pool house. They leave the nubs of their Cubans outside her room, like dogs marking their territory. They stare too long at her tits. They are used to getting what they want. Money is no object. One man grabs her wrist. “I’m onto you,” he says, then howls. The Polish girl bites her lip so hard her scab breaks. Cover-up only makes it look worse so she rubs it off with a wash cloth and the sore opens fully and bleeds.
She does not tell. She does not tell. She does not tell.
The sky fills with tiny stars. She clears glassware and empties ashtrays and listens. They are talking about fucking without kissing. Her face gets hot. They haven’t kissed their wives in years. They say this, like it’s a badge of honor. They call it, the beauty of marriage.
When they go on day trips to villages and markets, the Polish girl bikes to the beach. It is rocky, the surf calm and bath-like, piercing her with familiar ache. For fine sand and riptide flags down the shore, Budweiser flying low overhead, dolphins drawing a commotion along the horizon toward which she dives, straight through the heart of salt waves that arc and crash over her.
It’s a nude beach or maybe this is just France. Sunbathers are old and naked, asses flattened from the cruelty of time, skin sagging, elephantine and veined. Mostly men with their penises out, shrunken stubs dangling between legs. Maybe it’s a gay beach. Maybe they are simply inured to her, with her tattoos and sunburn and string bikini. They don’t glance her way, not even when she sheds her top. A grandmother tosses a red ball with her grandson, bare breasts bobbing, and she tries to picture her mother playing catch with her future children. Who will chase them up the dunes to the bells of Good Humor?
Her mother calls. Friends DM but she’s not checking social. Every night is an enviable sunset. She is living the photoshop. Her mother wants to know when she is coming home. What? She says. Guests are having a dance party. Has an elephant stomped on your ear? The Polish girl says Christmas, maybe.
By fall, guests still come but the pace has slowed, and the Polish girl relishes the quiet. She caretakes, drying stalks of lavender upside down by a string. The Polish girl rides her bicycle until her nose turns pink, her calves build as does her stamina. She knits herself a wool cap, thumbs a book a guest left behind. Paul Bowles. She treats the vineyard like a corn maze, plucks grapes more sour than sweet. That is always her problem. Colors turn to hay. Sometimes she takes the bus into town to watch the yachts docked in the off-season. Street artists still set up easels along the pier but the ice cream shops are closed. Tourists wear burkas. They are not sitting for their portraits. This is when she loves St. Tropez the best.
Christmas comes and goes. Her great-aunt dies in her sleep. Sepsis, the nursing home says. An infection from the break. Her blood had turned toxic. The Polish girl surprises herself by crying. No love lost for the Squealer, but still. Sand through an hour glass is its own grief.
Easter, it is decided.
On New Years’ Day, she watches the ball drop from her phone, remembers wearing diapers in the drunken mob with the other bridge-and-tunnelers. What they don’t tell you until after you’ve been corralled and locked in, you can’t hear the performances from blocks away. There’s no Jumbotron or anything. Post Malone looks like a guy she used to know. Times Square is not a party but a waiting around, having to pee. In the south of France she is hours ahead. Already the Polish girl knows better.
Like so much of her life, it happens slowly then all at once. Winter rolls through the region. It is cold, but she teaches herself how to build a fire. She throws in The Sheltering Sky for the hell of it, which is to say, she isn’t really paying attention until she is. Things change. Borders close. She cannot travel, cannot leave. She cannot even ride her bicycle for bread. To the beach. Everyone who can clear out of the south of France clears out. Her employer stops calling. Maybe she is sick. Maybe worse. Her mother says, I’m sorry. The Polish Girl is all alone.
With no one to mock her face, no one to push her against the wall, to slide a fist beneath her skirted pleats. No employer to ensure she wears uniform white. Just her, in the big empty house, with the busts and the pigs and bushels of lavender, her fire burning, the most glorious sunsets she’s ever seen.
What people are saying
Lippmann packs a great deal into a single turn of phrase, balancing vulnerability and humor with luminescent prose. The compression and bursts of poignancy will remind readers of Kathy Fish and Amy Hempel.
Starred Review from Publishers Weekly
I loved it. Efficient, daring and fearless–Sara Lippmann aims right for the heart of our confused desire. She gets us inside the female experience, not just of lust but of the tedium and resentment, the long grind that lurks beneath the slow burn.
– Steve Almond
Sara Lippmann has a major talent; she can create a whole world in five pages or less. The stories in JERKS are funny and vibrant and heartbreakingly real.
– Marcy Dermansky, author of Very Nice
Sara Lippmann is a master of the absurd realities that comprise our American domestic lives. The stories in JERKS crackles with urgent, electric prose that sets fire to every sentence on every page. Funny, daring, brutal, honest, brilliant. Lippmann is dazzling,
– Robert Lopez, author of A Better Class of People