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ROBERT LIPSYTE

BIOGRAPHY I BOOKS I PRESENTATIONS I BOOK ORDERING

I've always had two writing lives, one as a journalist and one as a fiction writer. They've complemented each other. I love them both.

My professional journalism life started in June 1957, when I answered a classified ad in the New York Times for an editorial assistant. I needed a summer job. I was 19 years old and had just graduated from Columbia. I was going to California to seek my fortune as a book and movie writer. I never went. I hated my new job (I was basically the copyboy in the sports department) but I loved working at the paper.

 

At 21, I became a reporter. I covered the first spring training of the New York Mets in 1962, and in 1964, I was sent to Miami Beach to cover the heavyweight championship fight between Sonny Liston and Cassius Clay. Because most people thought Liston would knock out the kid in the first round, the editors didn't send the real boxing reporter. Why waste his valuable time? So they sent another me instead. Cassius Clay whipped Sonny Liston and guess who became the new boxing reporter?

And I started my professional fiction writing career. Here's how I got the idea for The Contender, my first YA novel. Two nights before a fight, I took an old boxing manager out to dinner. His name was Cus D'Amato. He told me about a gym he once owned in a tough neighborhood in Manhattan. It was at the top of three dark narrow twisting flights of stairs. He often slept at the top of the stairs, with a gun and a German Shepherd. But he slept with one ear open, listening for a kid who would come up those stairs alone, at night and scared, but willing to conquer his fear to become somebody, a fighter, a contender.

 

When I got back to New York after the fight, there was a letter waiting for me at The Times from Ferdinand Monjo, an editor at Harper & Row (now called HarperCollins.) He had enjoyed reading my boxing stories. Would I like to try my hand at a novel with boxing as its milieu? I had to look up the word milieu (it means setting) before I answered his letter. You bet, I wrote, and I have a title: The Contender.

Soon after the book came out, I became a sports columnist, and got very busy traveling and writing for the paper. I left in 1971 to write novels and movies (although in New Jersey not California) and didn't write another YA novel until 1977. It was called One Fat Summer, and it was sort of about me. I was a fat kid growing up in Rego Park, Queens, New York City. Not an athlete. Read a lot. Started writing so I could make up stories in which thin kids died horribly. I think my parents were happy I was a reader and too fat to get into trouble. My dad, Sidney I. Lipsyte, was a principal and eventually director of all the New York City schools for emotionally-disturbed kids. He died in 2004 at the age of 100. My mom, Fanny Finston Lipsyte, died in 1998, at 90. She had been a school teacher and guidance counselor in the New York City public schools.

I finally lost my weight at 14 when I lied about my age to get a job cutting the lawn and tending the yard of a nasty old man who worked me thin. I think I lost forty pounds that summer, but I'm not sure. I always used to jump off the scale when it rolled up near 200.


I had wanted to write about that summer since I'd lived it. But I was afraid of writing about how I had hated my body and was ashamed of myself for being different (i.e. being fat). It wasn't until I was writing an article for Mother Jones magazine about books I had read as a kid and saw the words "in the prison of my fat" that I got the courage to face the painful truth of those years. And once I did, the book rolled out. I made up the characters and the adventures of that book, but not the emotions.

Most of my YA novels have come from my experiences as a journalist, either for newspapers (I've also written for the New York Post and USA Today) or for television (I've been a correspondent for CBS and NBC and had a nightly public affairs show on the PBS station in New York, WNET Channel 13, for which I won an Emmy.)

There were three sequels to The Contender: The Brave, The Chief, and Warrior Angel, and they all came from stories I covered on Indian reservations.

In 1991, I was invited back to The New York Times to write a sports column and a cityside column called Coping. I loved that, too, especially when the all-stars Joe Lelyveld was the executive editor and Neil Amdur was the sports editor. That was a great decade, lots of fun, great stories and even some prizes. In 1992, I was runner-up for the Pulitzer Prize in commentary for the sports column, and in 1996, I won the Meyer Berger Award for Distinguished Reporting from Columbia University for the Coping column. (In 1966, I had won that same award for the sports column!)

In 2001, I won the Margaret A. Edwards Award from the American Library Association for lifetime contribution to Young Adult Literature. That one sent me back to the computer to write more books. I left the The New York Times again after 2002 and got back to writing fiction (although working occasionally for ESPN keeps my sports knowledge current).


The best prize of all came in 2004 when my grandson, Alfred Major Lipsyte, was born. He's the son of Ceridwen Morris, a screenwriter, and her husband, Sam Lipsyte, a much better novelist than his old man. His sister, Susannah Lipsyte, is a terrific writer, too, but she's a lawyer and mostly writes in legalese. I have a wonderful family.

 

The last few years have been spent writing and traveling with my wife, Lois B. Morris, who is best known as a writer of books and magazine articles on mental health and psychology. We live in Manhattan, and that's the rundown on my life so far. Stay tuned for sequels.