Andrew Lipstein’s The Vegan is smart, inventive, and wholly original, one of the year’s finest novels.
The New York Times wrote of the book:
“Andrew Lipstein follow[s] up his first novel, Last Resort, about the publishing world, with The Vegan, which explores more universal themes . . . You root for its thinky, troubled hero, even while you enjoy watching him sweat . . . Not since Jonathan Safran Foer’ s Eating Animals has a Brooklyn writer made so plain a case for greater sensitivity to the natural world. And The Vegan, a pig in a blanket of irony, subversion and humor, is much easier to swallow.”
Listening to music was perhaps the most important thing I did—besides writing—while working on The Vegan, for a few distinct reasons. I wrote the book in just a few months, from Thanksgiving 2020 to the following Valentine’s Day. (Pretty apt for a book that starts with a feast and ends with, well … I won’t say how it ends.) Covid was still a threat then and my wife was pregnant, so we were being safe, our social interactions limited to fireside hangouts in our backyard. When you’ve trimmed off all of the fun, unexpected experiences in life—traveling, impromptu dinners, city gallivanting—music can make up for the narrowing, each song a chance to shift your mind and make you feel different than you did just thirty seconds ago.
The compressed timescale of the project (brought on by both the impending birth of our son and the fact I felt compelled to write night and day) produced some odd habits. I continually burned palo santo. I carved notches into the desk my wife had been begging me to get rid of (I did after I wrote the book). And I listened to music, using it to counter the occasional ebb in spirit—or, sometimes, to achieve the opposite effect in more manic periods.
Finally, I needed to achieve and sustain a mood—a dark, gurgling, off-kilter hum—while writing. To this end, I listened to the same few songs on repeat, especially “Different Trains: America, Before the War” by Steve Reich, and the first movement of “Spring” from Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons (Max Richter’s recomposition). Here are those that meant the most to me.
The Beatles: “A Day in the Life”
This is the only song to ever inform my writing structurally, specifically the crescendos one-third and three-quarters of the way through. Because they’ll eventually collapse onto themselves—giving way to a reset the first time, and a finale the second—the two buildups aren’t bound in volume or messiness or anything by the normal strictures that rule over songwriting. Such limitless freedom is all any artist really wants—and can so rarely justify. Without giving too much away, I used this concept of a reset following an apex to allow my protagonist Herschel Caine to think exactly how I wanted him to, giving him convictions I’d always wanted to see a character take but could never find structure for—until one day I relistened to “A Day in the Life.”
Max Richter / Vivaldi: The first movement of “Spring” from The Four Seasons
I think that using art to capture nature is ultimately a fraught exercise. “Spring” is undeniably beautiful, and as true as a song can be. But I often question how, exactly, “true” anything we create is, a thought I worked into the book. Here is Herschel:
“I loved The Four Seasons, it made me feel like a boy, especially the first movement of ‘Spring,’ which was genius in art, it was truth, this was what spring would sound like forever: rebirth, renewal, reawakening—concepts that were around long before we were, you could play The Four Seasons to a pig or an elephant and they would have to feel, somewhere, what it was all about, what Vivaldi and Richter had captured, truncated, transmuted to fit our conception of beauty. No, maybe it would only repulse them, serve as just another example of our need to abstract everything away from what it actually is.”
Steve Reich: “Different Trains: America, Before the War”
I refuse to look up what this song was inspired by because I want to hold onto my (definitely incorrect) assumptions. Ever since I first learned about the Holocaust, when I was probably too young to be taught such things, I’ve struggled to consider it reality. It was an impossibly recent event, now deeply ingrained in our rhetoric, moralities, and politics, and yet it still feels exactly that: impossible. The more you learn about it the more distant it feels, as if it couldn’t possibly be our air the survivors breathed, it couldn’t be our sky that witnessed such an absence of humanity.
But this song—slowly, painfully, like something burrowing itself under my skin—made me feel that the Holocaust took place in our world, that history is in the ground we stand on. The hours I spent listening to it made me sad to the point of tears, but it gave me something else too, something I rarely feel, which I took straight to my writing desk.
This band is named after a train, which is probably one reason I always listened to it before or after “Different Trains: America, Before the War.” One of the members is an old coworker of mine, Ben Bailes. The repetition, darkness, and hope remind me a lot of writing a novel, and this novel in particular.
SPIRIT OF THE BEEHIVE: “THERE’S NOTHING YOU CAN’T DO”
I’ve always felt that to create anything worthwhile you—at certain moments!—have to have a nearly maniacal belief in yourself. That’s probably why so many artists are raging, broken narcissists. This idea is of course reflected in the song’s title but even more than that its own ambition. It’s impossible to imagine what mental state would allow an artist to try what this song does: using disharmonious, grating shards to create a melody with a surprisingly cogent structure.
At times in my creative process I have felt that there’s nothing I can’t do. Sometimes this produces truly abject and embarrassing prose. But sometimes I eke out an idea a saner side of myself can actually do something with.
The Lightning Seeds: “Pure”
While writing and editing, I used this song to pat myself on the head, as if to say, “Good boy. Good boy.” If I finished a particularly difficult chapter or just did a good day’s work I’d listen. It was like getting home from school and finding three chocolate chip cookies laid out on a napkin. Listen and find out why.
Andrew Lipstein is the author of Last Resort (FSG, 2022), a novel “you’ll think about . . . for weeks after you read the last pages” (Los Angeles Times). He lives in Brooklyn, New York, with his wife and son.