Famed Young Adult Author and Sportswriter Robert Lipsyte Visits Pace

Robert Lipsyte

Robert Lipsyte (Photograph by Sandy Geis)

By Samantha Egan, ‘10

Robert Lipsyte, author and New York Times reporter and columnist, spent a busy day at Pace University’s Pleasantville campus on April 28.

The author, well known for his young adult books and sports articles, attended a question-and-answer session in the morning, hosted a writing workshop in the afternoon, and spoke at the English Department’s Celebration of Writing event in the evening.

Dr. Bette Kirschstein’s Young Adult Literature class hosted the question-and-answer session, which was open to the rest of the Pace community.

 The students asked questions about Lipsyte’s The Contender (1967), a pioneering young adult novel about a high school dropout from Harlem who trains to become a boxer. The book was part of the required reading for Dr. Kirschstein’s class.

Students asked questions such as the age range he recommended for the book and why he made boxing the main character’s sport of choice.

“In the best of all possible worlds [the book would be read by] eleven year olds,” he said. “But I’ve been to too many community colleges where it’s required reading.”

Lipsyte told the class that his career as a novelist began with The Contender, his first book. He said he was contacted by a publishing company that had seen his boxing articles in the New York Times and asked if he would consider writing a book with boxing as its “milieu.”

“I still can’t pronounce that word,” he said, eliciting laughs from the class.

“Boxing was the first sport I seriously covered,” he said, relating the story of his first assigned match. In February of 1964, he flew to Miami, Fla., where Cassius Clay (who later became known as Muhammad Ali) fought Sonny Liston, then the reigning heavyweight champion. Because Liston was expected to beat Clay easily, the Times sent Lipsyte, who had never written about boxing before. But Clay won, thereby making Lipsyte the paper’s major boxing reporter.

Lipsyte said he fell in love with the “odd characters” of boxing. In fact, The Contender became the first of a four-part series focusing on different characters in each book, but still centering on boxing. In addition to The Contender, the books in this series are The Brave (1991), The Chief (1993),and Warrior Angel (2003).

He described how the “madness of a writer,” which causes an author to wonder about what happened to the characters he created, propelled him to continue the story of The Contender in these other books.

“Daydreams became first chapters,” he said.

Interestingly, he did not realize in 1967 that The Contender would be published as part of the young adult genre, which was just beginning then.

“I was fairly disappointed at the time that it was going to be niche marketed rather than a bestseller all over the place,” he said.

Now, however, his views on the genre have shifted.

“[Young Adult Literature] is far more interesting and bolder than American fiction in general,” he said. “In a depressed publishing market, it’s one genre that’s doing very well.”

Although Lipsyte has also written for adults, with non-fiction books such as Heroes of Baseball: the Men Who Made It America’s Favorite Game and In the Country of Illness: Comfort and Advice for the Journey, he stated that he enjoys writing for young adults in particular because “adolescents are still open to change.”

He also commented that his writing style has changed since his first book, and not necessarily for the better.

“I wish I could get back to the clean line of The Contender …I can’t write like that now; my mind is too cluttered.”

A student asked Lipsyte if he feared students will stop relating to Alfred since teenagers today are so different from those in the 1960s.

“It hasn’t happened yet. I’m waiting,” he answered. “I don’t think the basic things have changed at all.”

During the afternoon, Lipsyte met with several English majors and one adjunct instructor to discuss their own writing projects and to offer advice.

Then at the English Department’s Celebration of Writing dinner, Lipsyte gave a more detailed account of his first years out of college, where he majored in English.

“My dream…was to either starve writing brilliant novels that no one wanted to read or sell out to Hollywood.”

Instead, he became an editorial assistant at the New York Times.

“As much as I hated the job, I grew to love the paper and the conventions of journalism,” he said.

Lipsyte also read an excerpt from The Contender. In a scene he called “the heart of the novel,” the main character, Alfred, goes up the flight of stairs to the gym for the first time and meets the owner, Mr. Donatelli, thus beginning his journey as a contender.

Lipsyte revealed that the scene was inspired by a dinner conversation he had with a former boxing manager who told him he would sleep in his gym, waiting for those, who like Alfred, had fears to overcome to begin their personal journeys.

“As much of an English major as I was, it took me a long time to realize I was writing about myself,” Lipsyte told the audience. “That sense of wanting to be somebody …wanting to be a champion, is something we all feel.”

He compared being a contender to being a writer, citing similar traits between the two such as the need for discipline and the need to overcome fear.

“I hope you see yourselves as fighters,” he concluded.