Nothing Left Over Chronicles a Life Well Lived

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After almost four decades in publishing working to serve writers, Toinette Lippe discovered that a friend’s challenge had turned the tables on her.

In April 1999, when Lippe told Joel Fotinos, publisher of the Jeremy P. Tarcher imprint at Penguin Putnam, over dinner at Manhattan’s Sarabeth's Kitchen, that she had decided to leave her full-time job at Random House, "his response was immediate, ‘Then you can write a book for me,’" Lippe recalled in a recent interview with BTW.

Fotinos even had a title -- Nothing Left Over -- and he explained that it should be a book about how a person could live a life characterized by growth, service, and the value of experience rather than the mere quest of acquisition. As Lippe writes in Nothing Left Over: A Plain and Simple Life (published this month by Jeremy P. Tarcher/Putnam), "The thought would never have occurred to me on my own."

She told BTW that her first reaction was to tell Fotinos that any number of experienced writers could tackle the subject for him. "But he looked at me and said, ‘the difference between those other writers and you is that they write about it and you live it,’" she said. Lippe considered the offer for a fortnight, until she finally said to herself, "are you out of your mind, just say yes. So, I finally said yes." As she notes in Nothing Left Over, "One of the most practical teachings I have received in my life is ‘Go though the door that’s open.’"

After making her transition from full-time work for Random House, Lippe began writing Nothing Left Over, exploring new dimensions of a familiar enterprise. Initially, she explained, she needed "a trigger," some daily event that would act as a catalyst, "something that floated into my mind to write about."

Through her reflections on such daily activities as shopping, visiting with a friend and her two children, or even procrastinating, Lippe began to distill the insights of a full and uncompromising life. The early days of writing were challenging, and she noted, with characteristic honesty, "No, it was not enjoyable to write the book … but it was enjoyable to read what I had written."

Originally from England, Lippe entered publishing in the early ’60s. She left London’s André Deutsch to come to the U.S. in 1964 ("for a year," she noted, with a laugh) to work for Bob Gottlieb, then at Simon & Schuster. Lippe made her life and career in New York City, moving to Alfred A. Knopf, selling subsidiary rights, and, in 1989, founding Bell Tower, part of Random House’s Crown Publishing Group (for which she is still acquiring and editing titles).

Lippe is both composed and engaging in person, quite comfortable sitting for a few moments to consider a question before answering, or tossing one back to her questioner. She is decidedly honest in her replies. "I would talk this way with anyone -- I write the way I talk: I don’t have anything to hide, so why not share what I know?"

The book’s tone reflects that candor, as Nothing Left Over considers the implications of a life that questions received wisdom and strives to retain its focus on the present. As she writes, Nothing Left Over is, "an exploration of how to live so that supply does not exceed demand or consumption; how to share whatever you may have with everyone else, not holding anything back in a miserly way; and how to trust that the universe will respond to you in the same way that you respond to it."

The book is devoid of saccharine or maxim, though Lippe is not without strong opinion, on everything from good writing, to child rearing, to the best way to pack for a weekend trip. As she writes, "There are certainly times when it is better to say nothing at all, but if you are going to speak, why not say what you mean? Get right to the point."

Further, as she interweaves memory with insight in an often wry, self-deprecating tone, Nothing Left Over becomes, too, an effecting memoir.

It is the story of a determined person facing the challenges of love, motherhood, career, divorce, and the illness of loved ones with less a clear-eyed certainty than a commitment to respond to events with awareness and compassion, and to stay committed to "a kind of interior housekeeping." As she writes, "each time you drop an old attitude or habit, it is like spring cleaning: more space becomes available. There is room to move about and examine the situation from a new perspective, and everything feels freer and lighter. If you clarify the mind and relinquish some of the curious ideas that have become lodged there (most of the time we aren’t even aware of them), then you will be free to enjoy all the glorious things that are in the physical realm."

Before the conclusion of the interview, Lippe tells of a number of fortuitous turns in the road to publication her book has taken, from her editor’s first suggestion to the art director’s choice of Lippe’s favorite typeface, Centaur. With a publicity tour and media reviews still ahead, she is expectant but happy, and grateful. Speaking of karma, she notes that "it’s true we’re always talking about it, but what we seldom say is that it’s not so clear who’s going to get the result." -- Dan Cullen