August 2005

Beth Dugan


An Interview with Lisa Glatt (and David Hernandez)

Lisa Glatt’s language sings off the page of her two newest books. The poetically named novel A Girl Becomes a Comma Like That, and newest, a collection of short stories called The Apple’s Bruise. Currently teaching writing at California State University at Long Beach, her first two books were poetry. Though she swears she is done with poetry, her prose is full of spare beautiful language with which she guides her characters through their flawed and tender worlds.

The first story in The Apple's Bruise, a little girl, Hannah, who is at the bottom of the totem pole both at home and socially at school, gets hit by a car and finally realizes her power over those around her. She, like most of Glatt’s characters in this collection, is the underdog. The same is true of the characters in Glatt’s novel. Rachel Spark, the main character, is living with her mother as she dies of breast cancer. To blot out this pain Rachel rolls through several bad one-night stands and other forms of quiet self-torture. Watching Hannah work out the world of adult manipulation, knowing she is losing whatever innocence and naiveté she had, you can’t help rooting for her, and the same goes for Rachel. Even if they fail, you want to them try again and again. They’ll get it right eventually, just like us.

Lisa Glatt and her husband, poet and visual artist, David Hernandez sat down to talk with Bookslut about being an underdog, among other things.

You just did a local reading here in Chicago at Barbara’s Bookstore, right? How did it go? Do you like reading?

LG: It went well. I do like reading. Do you know that Barbara’s out there? It’s kind of an isolated little spot so there weren’t a lot of people. So, it was fine. I feel much more comfortable when there is a lot of people. When it’s really small it feels a little… I don’t know. I am more comfortable when it looks like a well-attended event. They were saying it was a new Barbara’s and it hasn’t had a lot of traffic yet.

You read recently at an event at the YMCA by your home in LA, correct?

LG: That was fun.

Do you get nervous before you read?

LG: Not at all. It’s like teaching.

You went from a novel in stories in the first book to a collection of short stories in the second. Why the change? Does one work better for you?

LG: I didn’t make a change. I’ve been working on those things simultaneously and the stories I have been working on I’d say… well, the oldest story in there is probably 13 years old. I sort of rewrite them, I wouldn’t say obsessively, but from the time that one of them is published it’s been rewritten several times. So some of them have been rewritten. Some of them have been published in other places.

I’ve always written stories, and the novel, well, I found myself writing a series of stories about the same character, Rachel. So then someone said that’s probably a novel and then I realized that it was. It had an arc. From the time of the mother’s illness to the time of her death and a kind of natural shape to it. So it happened kind of organically. I didn’t sit down and say okay, I am going to write a novel now. Okay, I am going to write a story. And poems. I did write poems. I don’t know that I will be writing poems anymore.

Why do you say that?

LG: I don’t know. I haven’t written a poem in a long time. My first two books were books of poetry, but I just don’t feel the urge. I don’t know. I think my poems were always really really narrative. I was looking for the story in the poem and now I am looking for the poem in the story, so I’ve always had the same concerns. I don’t like the idea of writing in code. I’m just interested more in narrative. I think the natural outlet for me was telling stories and it had more to do with length of the story then how I was writing.

The only thing that is easier about a story versus a novel is that you are in and out, hopefully in a matter of months. I mean sometimes it would take me years and years. I’ll go back to a story that I have abandoned and pick it up again, but I think novels in general are a much more forgiving form. You can do a little bit here and a little bit there. And hopefully it all comes together in the end, but I think it is just much more forgiving in that way. With a story, it starts and it ends and you have more control of it in that way. I think a lot more is expected of you. Every word is really counted and you aren’t forgiven in the same way you would be with a novel.

So what is your process like? You say that you obsessively rewrite…

LG: It’s not really an obsessive rewrite. The first stories happened, in a way, easier. The less I knew, the better it was. There was more truth and grit and they happened start to finish. They weren’t really obsessively rewritten.

But they are all just so different, when they start and when they end. I swear, for every story it is really different. For the last stories that I wrote, "The Body Shop" and "Dirty Hannah Gets Hit By a Car," I think that they are longer and a little more complicated than some of the earlier stories. So they evolved sort of the way that a novel evolves. They curve and the story is kind of long and unwieldy and out of control and I start to think it will never come together, it will never be one whole thing and then it ends. It’s like "The Body Shop," I had to really fight through. There was the girl in the tree and the stripper being carried off the stage and for that whole thing to makes sense together, I had to force myself to literally sit down… it’s what I tell my students, “Sit your ass down. Sit your ass down.”

So no procrastination. You write when you sit and that’s that.

LG: Yeah! It’s kind of that thing, I don’t know if you’ve heard it but there is no such thing as writer’s block, you just have to lower your expectations. It’s so true! If you are sitting there waiting for genius to visit you or the muse or whatever you’ll never get anything done. I find that especially with fiction and longer fiction. When I was writing poetry and was waiting for the feeling and the feeling came and I don’t think it works like that for fiction. There isn’t that rush. You have to sit there and do some work and hopefully something will happen.

DH: Do I have to be totally silent over here?

No! Please chime in.

DH: I feel that there is something similar between poetry and short stories in that they always start with that first sentence, that first line, the germ of an idea, an image or a situation and you don’t want to know where it is going. The story or the poem kind of leads you someplace. When you are writing a novel you’ve got to have some kind of idea I think. You know?

LG: Well, I just knew that the mother in Comma was going to die and I had that. But I didn’t know that [Rachel] was going to be looking at houses, which is literally where it ended. I think there is a certain amount of not knowing that even goes on in a novel. I think other people might have more of an idea. It was a big thing knowing that the mother was going to die but I didn’t really know the specifics of the novel either. I think it is often language and image that kind of get you going.

Or sometimes in stories it can be situation. Like you hear stories from the news. There was a tree sitter in California that people were talking about and that showed up in one of my stories. In the story "Grip" there is a little girl that is left on the freeway. And that actually, when I was a student, one of my poetry professors came in and said the most terrible thing happened in California. This little girl was left on the freeway by her parents. When they tried to get her off, they tried to remove her, the paramedics, they couldn’t. They had to cut a circle around her hands where she was hanging onto the fence. That is very situational. Where I just literally started to think about what happened to her, how did she end up there.

I know that you teach and you mentioned some of the things you tell your students. How does teaching affect your writing?

LG: Teaching is interesting. I don’t think that I had any idea, or that I really knew… I didn’t learn how to talk about stories and fiction when I was a participant in a workshop. It was only when I was teaching that I started to really understand. You know, the story falls apart here because you are switching points of view. The story doesn’t work in the end here because you are summarizing something that needs to be in the body of the story. You don’t need to write and introduction. I didn’t have any idea about what the hell I was doing before. I did it sort of naturally. Lucky for me I was sort of interested in language and sound and I understood on some level that it had to have some sort of shape. It had to have a beginning and an end but I couldn’t articulate it. I’m sure that people who were in workshops with me in graduate school would say that I was one of the quieter ones, which I know my own students would find very hard to believe because I have so much to say now.

I do the circle thing and I have to stop myself. I say, you guys just go. Then I go, “Okay, wait wait wait wait!” I try to let them talk. I want them to talk so they know it’s a workshop. When I first started teaching I was so nervous, I mean, it was 12 years ago, but you start to understand. You start to understand how things fit together and how you can help people with structure. You can ask what was the story that you wanted to tell. But that’s not here. I don’t see it. What made you start to write this story? What gets you going? You can find out what gets classes going, and if it’s not evident, if you can’t see it you can help them revisit it. I didn’t know if I would be good at it. But I can do a lot there. I have fun, I really do.

It’s great talking to a teacher who loves to teach. There are so many who don’t.

LG: It’s true, but it’s hard for writers to make a living. Lot’s of time they do it because they have to. Obviously I wouldn’t teach as much if I didn’t have to but I would still want to teach.

Many of the stories in The Apple’s Bruise are about children or being right on that cusp of adulthood. What about that time is compelling for you?

LG: It’s the beginning of all of it. In terms of sex and death and everything. Not necessarily death, but you are becoming much more aware of it all. We were just talking about this last night with Gina (Frangello). Her kids are at the age where they are starting to have a lot of questions about death. I was telling her when I was little I always thought there would be a cure.

For death?

LG: Yeah. That whatever I got, you know, like eighty years later, there would be cures for everything. Then it kind of dawned on me, I must have been like six or seven, that someday there would be an end to even me. Even me!

DH: Right, like there would be pill. Death as a headache.

LG: Death as a headache! Well, that time is the beginning of people interacting together. The beginning of what you would be like. You don’t know what you will be like. You don’t know how many times you are going to say no, how many times you are going to say yes, who you are going to be with. You don’t know anything and it’s all right there. You could sort of become anything and you just have to get through it. It’s like when you start a story and one sentence happens and everything owes it’s self to that sentence. I kind of think when you are just beginning to be with people and interact in that intensely social way that we start to interact after puberty, I think it kinds of sets everything up. It’s not that you can’t act against it or change or grow or be different but it is the beginning of it.

A lot of the characters in both books are underdogs. They are a little down and out, and it seems like they have endeared themselves to you in some way. What is it about someone struggling through something that makes you want to write about them?

LG: They are obviously much more interesting that people who aren’t going through anything. I have always been much more interested in that.

Even those who are making bad choices, again and again. These people aren’t struggling and over coming. They are struggling and… struggling.

LG: Right. And making bad choices along the way. I was asked a lot about that with the novel.

But I want to back up and say one thing about working simultaneously. I wasn’t necessary working on the book and the stories simultaneously. I sort of stopped the stories to finish the novel and get back into the novel. But I would stop one and start another, which I don’t recommend to anyone to ever do a project that way. Now I am not doing that at all. I am writing on my next novel and I am going to write that through and then write another book of stories and write that through. I started to write the novel. I had the stories and I went back to them after the novel was finished. So it wasn’t like I said “I’m going to write a novel today.”

What was the other thing?

The underdog…

LG: Right. So, a little bit about my personal history was that I was hit by a car when I was five. It was a serious accident. I lost my spleen. I had an abscessed liver. I almost died and I spent the next eight years in a cast and crutches. They would take one cast off and put one on and I couldn’t walk. Nobody thought anything was terribly wrong. They just thought I was the girl in cast and crutches every year when school would start. They just thought I was very clumsy. I don’t know. They kept doing surgeries so I could walk. I couldn’t walk. When I was thirteen they did this one last operation and I could walk. So that could be my identification with the underdog or the person left out or the person who struggles constantly.

So it sounds like there is an autobiographical angle to some of the things that you write. It’s fiction, obviously, but it is based in your life in some way.

LG: Well, I think that the first story in the short stories, "Dirty Hannah Gets Hit By A Car," the accident itself and the aftermath and all that… but I have my toes. My mother-in-law asked me that. “Are all your toes there? All ten of them? Oh, good for David.”

No spleen but all ten toes!

LG: [laughing] Exactly! But it is kind of weird because with Comma, I really think people thought Rachel was me. She was a teacher, her mother had breast cancer… so the stories [in the Apple’s Bruise] kind of go all over the place. There is not that germ of autobiographical. They say that fiction is a lie and I tell my students to lie like hell. If you get too tied to the truth or any of that and you are too involved in your life and this amazing thing that happened then you should obviously be writing a memoir and dealing with it that way. When you are writing fiction, even if it’s based on your own situation, you should give yourself the freedom to go elsewhere.

It sounds like it was a relief when the second book came out and people didn’t think they were all about you. Is it weird for people to assume things about you from fiction?

LG: Oh yes. You know they just kind of held me responsible for Rachel’s behavior, and Rachel’s bad choices, and what she did. They didn’t come out and ask those kinds of questions but you could see it in people’s faces. Especially when they think I am all the women in the book! Yes, I’ve been very busy. Very busy. Lots and lots of sex. If they think Rachel had a lot of friends, well Georgia had more of friends. I just think that being held responsible, that on some level you did these things, whether or not you did… the book is what the book is.

DH: Someone thought that "Waste" was you as well.

LG: Yes! The pee story. Actually when we first started dating, not the friendliest woman in the world said to David, “Well good luck to you! Now she’s going to want to pee on you.” That was just a story! No one asked me for pee. I never peed on anyone. No one wanted it. No one talked about it. It’s fiction! I’ve always been sort of interested in the sexual politics where people wanting things that other people don’t want to do and where to draw the lines and that kind of thing. That is where that story came out of and now people think that David should wear a slicker to bed. [laughing] The first time we went on a date I wanted to know why you had those galoshes on!

DH: Right. I was scared!

A couple of your characters are very unpleasant people, like Milton.

LG: Very. I am so glad to hear you say that! Some people have said, "You make them so sympathetic," and I think, no I don’t.

Well, Milton wouldn’t be on my Christmas card list. How do you get in the mindset to write these unpleasant people?

LG: I don’t know. It’s kind of the way I do everything, just one sentence after another. "What Milton Heard" was one of those stories that I wrote a long time ago. I rewrote it several years ago and when I went back to it, it had this really didactic preachy ending and it was just awful. It just wasn’t a good ending. It told you exactly how you should feel about women and their place in history and culture and it made me wince. So I went back. And I don’t know if in the original version it was so obvious that he heard what he heard. But I think that it unfolds much better and much smoother now than it did. And it sat like that for six years and I don’t even know if I tried to publish it as it was.

How do you get past your inner censor? What kind of permission do you have to give yourself?

LG: You know, I can remember when I started writing poems. They surprised even me with how much I did not have a censor on the page. Having conversations with people I could be much more protective and not want to say this and not want to say that. Things that I don’t want to talk about, I feel just fine writing about. I don’t know where that comes from really. I just never had that. I had lots of good years of writing where my audience let me say what I wanted. They didn’t put any of that, “You shouldn’t say that” or “You shouldn’t write about that." I don’t know if people actually do that but I know that I hear women especially talk about being uncomfortable saying certain things. I’ve never worried about any of it. You know, my mother was my biggest fan. She was so into it. She just said, “Say anything you want. Tell them that I beat you if it will make a good story. Tell them I beat you and locked you up. Anything you want! That’s how good I think you are.”