STILL A CONTENDER
MICHAEL CART is the editor of Taking Aim: Teens and Guns (Harper Teen, 2015).
Robert Lipsyte’s modern classic, The Contender (1967), the timeless story of would-be boxer Alfred Brooks’ coming-of-age, is celebrating its golden anniversary
this year with the publication of a special anniversary edition.
What better time to interview the author, who received the
2001 Margaret A. Edwards Award for “significant and lasting
contribution to young adult literature”? Here are excerpts from
CART: How did The Contender come about?
LIPSY TE: I remember the moment vividly: a chilly night in
Las Vegas, November 20, 1965, sitting in the dark outside a casino hotel, near a deserted swimming pool, with an old boxing
manager I had taken to dinner. He was very old, I thought then.
I realize he was younger than I am now. Once he had trained
champions; now he was washed up. He had come to Vegas to see
the Muhammad Ali–Floyd Patterson fight, which I was covering
for the New York Times, and to look for a job. No one wanted
him. As he talked about his glory days, he described a gym he
ran in a tough Lower Manhattan neighborhood. He slept in the
gym, with a big dog and a gun by his side. Late at night, he told
me, he would listen for footsteps coming up the three dark, narrow, twisting flights of stairs. He was waiting for a kid to climb
those steps alone, at night, and fighting his fear of the unknown
because he was so driven by the desperation of his life on the
A kid like that, he said, using his fear as fuel, willing to risk
the dangers of those dark stairs to learn how to box, had a
chance to become somebody, a chance to become a contender.
As a boxing writer, I knew that a contender was a challenger
for the championship, someone on the way up, someone with
promise. Becoming the champion is often a matter of luck, but
being a contender is about your own hard work, dedication,
The image of those stairs stayed with me through the Ali-Patterson fight and all the way home. I was inflamed with
questions: What kind of kid would dare to come up those steps?
What would be going on in his life? What would he find at the
top? I also wondered what I needed to do to become a contender. What were my narrow, twisting stairs? I had published some
short stories and written a nonfiction book, the autobiography
of comedian-activist Dick Gregory, but I had never written a
novel—would the chapters of a novel be my steps up to becoming a contender?
Amazingly, when I got back to the Times’ newsroom, there
was a letter from an editor at Harper & Row, Ferdinand
Monjo, who wondered if I had ever thought of writing a book
with boxing as its “milieu.” I’m still not sure I can pronounce
it properly, but I love that word. I called Mr. Monjo up: “Yes,
I’ll do it,” I babbled. “The book will have three flights of stairs,
a kid hero, and I’ll call it The Contender.” Mr. Monjo said,
“Go right ahead, dear boy,” and in my blissful inexperience, I
thought that was a contract.
CART: Did you have any sense at the time that you were helping
usher in a new genre (i.e., young adult literature)? Did your editor?
LIPSY TE: She knew. Ursula Nordstrom, the presiding genius
at Harper’s Children’s Books, probably the leader in the field,
invented YA to build on her success as Kids Book Queen. And
she had Charlotte Zolotow on the bench! But I had no idea. I
thought I was just writing a novel with boxing as its milieu. I
think I was slightly put off when I found out I was writing Kid
Lear. They scrubbed out my sex scene, mild as it was.
CART: Your second novel, One Fat Summer, was published in
1977. Did you find that the world of YA had changed in any appreciable way?
LIPSY TE: Well, it was so much better, more fully realized, all
those great writers. But, again, as with The Contender, I pretty
much saw One Fat Summer as a one-off, so I didn’t really think
about the market all that much. It wasn’t until after the book
was published that I began to think of myself as a YA writer. I
loved the young audience, especially compared to sports-page
readers. The books meant something to them beyond just agreeing or disagreeing with my “take.” I still get mail from moms
and dads who read the books as kids and passed them on to their
kids. I get chills from that.
CART: You’re still writing these many years later; how has the field
changed over the course of those decades?
LIPSY TE: It moved on, for good and bad, became more commercial as reading levels dropped (I think YA goes up to 34
now). I blew it. Should have written Zombies in the Outfield and
followed with The Last Team on Earth. Hey.
CART: Does being a YA writer bring any special responsibilities?
LIPSY TE: You bet. Like truth telling. Standing up to censorship, showing the possibilities, exposing the real world.
CART: You once told me that if there is an overarching theme to
your work, it is “becoming.” What did you mean, and do you still
LIPSY TE: Kids are in process, and YA lit is not there only to
entertain; it’s to help light the way, dispel the fake fears, make
kids brave for the real fears, help them become contenders.
CART: In that context, you added, “If you’re very lucky, you’re an
adolescent forever.” What did you mean?
LIPSY TE: I hope I meant that I’d like to be in process until
checkout time, still learning, having new adventures that scare
me, trying to get better.
CART: Thanks, Bob, and happy anniversary.