An Interview with Gary Lutz
If you’re already familiar with the work of Gary Lutz, you can probably skip right ahead to the interview. If you’re not, a short sample passage will get all of us a lot more mileage than whatever descriptive gymnastics I’ve blown half the morning trying to solder into an accolade.
From time to time I show up in myself just long enough for people to know they are not in the room alone. Usually, these are people who expect something from me -- a near future, a not-too-distant future. What I tell them is limited to the people I have already had myself married against. Everything I say is to the best of my knowledge and next to nothing. It comes nowhere close.
That’s the opening salvo of a story called “Devotions,” from his collection, Stories in the Worst Way, published first by Knopf in 1996 and then reissued by 3rd bed in 2002. I picked that passage because I think that even if it doesn’t embody his whole range (as no single passage from any decent writer’s body of work should), it at least reflects the pointed screwiness of his insight and his fondness for alacritous swerves of phrasing. (Hey look, there are the descriptive gymnastics after all.)
He has been acclaimed by impressive, respectable people such as Ben Marcus, Amy Hempel, Sven Birkerts, Diane Williams, Sam Lipsyte, George Saunders, and Brian Evenson, in tones vehement, ecstatic, awe-struck, and entirely deserved. Kevin Sampsell, in our Bookslut interview last summer, called Lutz “my absolute favorite writer.” I was lucky enough to meet him and see him read at the historic Mercantile Library of New York, where he shared the podium with Christine Schutt (author of, among other works, the radiant novel, Florida, which you should treat yourself to right now).
Lutz is also the author of a second collection, I Looked Alive, published by Four Walls Eight Windows in 2003, and he edits 5_trope, an online magazine devoted to new forms of writing. This interview was conducted via email.
I'm curious about Gordon Lish, who seems to be a figure of great controversy. I've met people who hate him with a truly rare vitriol, but I'm never quite sure why, and then of course there are those who love him. I know that you place yourself in this camp. What does he do that inspires such sharp differences of opinion and flares of emotion?
He was a magisterial presence in the classroom. At the core of his teaching was the necessity of achieving an intimacy between words that involves something more than simply a cohabitation based on obeying the laws of syntax and grammar and semantics and a kind of prose prosody. He was the most exacting teacher I have ever encountered, and also the most generous. Some of the students who enrolled in his classes were probably not prepared for the syllable-by-syllable scrutiny of their sentences that Gordon's teaching entailed. They might have been seeking little more than validation of their talent. But Gordon was never easily pleased. So some went away in bitterness and a few, I guess, in fury.
How did you first find out about him?
When I was nosing about in bookstores in the mid-eighties, I was eventually struck by certain slim books of prose fiction in which the sentences all but protruded from the page and poked out at me. There was Barry Hannah's Ray, for instance, and also his Captain Maximus, written in a kind of brawling, roughhouse aphoristicity, and there was the lovely neurotic one-liner-ish lyricism of Amy Hempel's Reasons to Live. The sentences in those books had a discernible topography, an unignorable spectacularity of contour and relief that was entirely unlike the depthlessness or bodilessness of the sentences I was seeing almost everywhere else. I eventually came to learn that all of the books I had been admiring had been edited by Gordon Lish. When I found out who he was, and where he was (ensconced at Knopf, in New York City, but venturing, come summertime, in a freelance professorial capacity to the Midwest and elsewhere), I jumped at the chance to study under him. I took his class for five straight summers in Bloomington, Indiana, and then once in Chicago.
Where were you coming to him from? Actually, this is a good opportunity to ask for the Abbreviated Autobiography of Lutz -- other than knowing that you're from Pennsylvania, and that you still in Pennsylvania, I don't know really anything about you. Moved a lot? Summer camp? Cartoon featured on cake at 10th birthday? Undergrad? Grad? Origins of lifelong love affair with literature?
I was not a reader as a kid. I usually had my nose stuck in a book, but I wasn't actually reading. My behavior with books consisted of just staring into the things. I know I eventually turned the page and confronted another sheetful of arranged and settled and stilled language, but I wasn't absorbing the sense. In eighth grade, there was a mandatory vision test in the office of the school nurse. She shrieked at me that I should have been wearing glasses for years. I'd had no idea. I must have simply assumed that the world was a blurry place. It had never occurred to me that what I was seeing wasn't the way things actually looked. What I saw when I got my first glasses was different but not necessarily an improvement. I wasn't sold on the virtue of ordinary clarity. Other than that, I don't have the makings of an autobiography. I might have been in a Saturday-morning bowling league at some point. I think I got ousted for not showing up to throw the ball. I drummed rather primly in public-school marching units and orchestras, and intemperately in a chummy garage band. It was my parents' garage. This was toward the end of the age of reel-to-reel tape recorders. We were working on a song cycle called Crap. The summer before I went off to college, I bought an issue of Harper's magazine. I tried to read it, but too many of the words were unfamiliar to me. So I bought Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary and read that instead. Words in isolation, not batched together to form thoughts, began to appeal to me. That is when I began develop a sense of the physicality, the materiality, the dimensionality, the inorganicity of words -- words as things, as matter. The objecthood of words impressed itself upon me. But I felt like a latecomer to language.
I assume this feeling has abated since then. Your stories are linguistic marvels, almost word sculptures, but also case-studies in proper usage, a point frequently missed, or ignored, by your critics. I went and looked at the original Publishers Weekly assault on Stories in the Worst Way, and the most striking thing about it is not that they didn't like it, but that they called it unoriginal. That’s beyond a taste-call; it's simply incorrect.
Stories in the Worst Way definitely took a beating, but if I had been assigned to review it, I probably would've panned it myself. It's not the kind of book that's asking for any wide welcome.
What then, if anything, is the book asking for?
Probably nothing. Maybe "ask" isn't the word. Maybe the book motions vaguely and uningratiatingly toward a certain kind of reader, someone who finds the world amply underintelligible but can't put much trust, or find much satisfaction, in the explanations and affirmations of the undepressed.
Reading that review, it felt to me like Stories got caught up in the knee-jerk anti-Pomo backlash that was going on, which is funny because I'm not sure that your work falls in line with the trends of that era.
I've never seen myself as part of any school or pack or coterie, or any trend, any movement or drift. I've never made an effort to understand postmodernism. I remember that in an interview somewhere, Barry Hannah remarked that postmodernism was too much like homework. What interests me is instigated language, language dishabituated from its ordinary doings, language startled by itself. I don't know where that sort of interest locates me, or leaves me, but a lot of the books I see in the stores seem to lack language entirely.
I've read explanations you've given elsewhere about how the individual sentences are constructed, and I think your notion of characters "less as figures in case histories than as upcroppings of language, as syntactic commotions coming suddenly to a head" is an intriguing one, but there are recurring concerns in the writing that I'd like you to talk about. I'm thinking especially about gender and sexuality. It's interesting to me that you've never really been identified as a queer writer, since your characters tend to be bisexual, anti-monogamists. If they weren't so neurotic I'd be tempted to call them sexual revolutionaries.
It would pain me to be labelled a queer writer, because the classification would be missing the point. The people in my stories suffer attraction to other people, and each person is a novel, consuming totality of life and limb, eclipsing whoever it was that came before. To these people, differentiations of gender, of orientation, don't even register. They're just looking for somebody to ride out some sadness on, at least for a while.
But there's something inherently radical in that lack of discrimination, both in the characters who are riding out their sadnesses sans regard for differentiations, and in the writer who writes them that way. People love -- perhaps prefer -- to talk about the way you construct sentences, but I'm at least as interested in why you choose to tell these stories as I am in how you go about telling them. This non-registration of differentiations is a fundament of your work, it seems to me, and I'm curious if this is a personal/philosophical decision or an aesthetic one.
My characters seem to have involuntarily disimagined the differences between the sexes or between the standard categories of affection, but they cut me in on their hearts only so far before sinking back into the sentences and typography they spirited forward from. They rarely point to anything definite in my life or manage any likeness to people whose passages in life I might have been a party to.
Do you think the degree to which they cut you in has changed? I Looked Alive seems like a denser, more involved book to me than Stories. The pieces seem longer, and more narrative-driven.
I'm not sure why my stories have gotten longer. Maybe it's because I write only one at a time now, so they're grabbier, and they swell out more.
I know you do other stuff besides write, too. I read somewhere that you teach.
I teach classes in business writing and compositon at an outlying branch of a huge institution.
David Gates edited this anthology of stories about peoples' jobs, called Labor Days, and in his introduction he talks quite a bit about the problem of writing "the job," even though it is where most people spend most of their time. A lot of your work is set in offices, which are figured as terribly abstract spaces, marked by even more terrible moments of specificity that happen within their walls. How do you manage the balance, if it even is balance?
There's no balance, no poise or proportion. I had my job before I started writing my stories. I can't speak for myself, but a job does things to a person, deducts a person pretty brutally from life. Desks are terrible places, no matter how many wheels a chair might have. You can't do much about how drawers fill up.
I noticed that both times I saw you give readings you read stories divided into numbered sections... maybe I'm shooting in the dark here, but it felt like it might indicate more than mere coincidence.
At readings, I've taken to numerating the segments of a story so a listener has some sense of where lines had to be drawn on the page, but the numbers aren't part of what the reader encounters.
What are you working on now and what, if anything, might there be for readers to look forward to in the nearish future?
I'm trying to write a third book of stories.
I remember you mentioning in the Believer interview about consciously avoiding brand-names and other markers of culture and era. I think a writer's desire to be unfettered by the stuff of his day makes sense to me in an instinctual way, but I’d like to just hear your take on it.
I would hate to know exactly where and when my stories are set, in what suburbial latitudes those dark days keep coming. My characters seem bent on piecing themselves out of any big picture, and I have to honor their wish. I don't know which is finally sicker -- specifics or engulfing abstractions.
I’m not sure that can be answered, but one effect the abstractions have on me, as your interviewer, is they make me want to hound you for concrete detail. I want minutiae. I want you to name names. What are the albums you'd take to the desert island if they sent you? The books and films? What are your brand allegiances when buying cereal, personal computers, and shirts? Did you ever go to a Grateful Dead show? What kind of car do you drive?
My desert-island playlist would be all songs, not albums, and would have to start with "A Sister's Social Agony" (Camera Obscura [the one from Scotland]), "New Haven Comet" (Luna), "Over Time" (Lucinda Williams), "Nothing Came Out" (the Moldy Peaches), "So Stark (Like a Skyscraper)" and "Here" (Pavement), "Hello Halo" (Parker and Lily), "Name Etched in Home-Room Chair" (Alsace Lorraine), "An Ocean Apart" (Julie Delpy), "Past, Present, and Future" (the Shangri-Las), "Haligh, Haligh, a Lie, Haligh" (Bright Eyes), "Tears Are in Your Eyes" (Yo La Tengo), "It's Getting Late" (Galaxie 500), "These Days" (Nico), "By the Cathedral" (Keren Ann), "Marion Barfs" (from the Requiem for a Dream soundtrack), "You You You You You" (the 6ths), "Lie in the Sound" (Trespassers William), "I Can't Get No Satisfaction, Thank God" (the Softies), "I Wanna Die" (Adam Green), "Bobby, King of Boys Town" (Cass McCombs), "I Was Born" (the Magnetic Fields), "Is It Wicked Not to Care?" (Belle and Sebastian), "I Have Forgiven Jesus" (Morrissey [Live at Earls Court version]), and "I Know It's Over" (the Smiths [Rank version]). Books? Were I deprived of the contemporaries I admire, I would ask first for Salinger (especially Seymour: An Introduction), F. Scott Fitzgerald's three adult novels, and all of E. M. Cioran. A few months ago, I was watching lots of movies over and over, and they were mostly Eric Rohmer movies, especially The Aviator's Wife, Summer, A Summer's Tale, and A Tale of Winter. I haven't eaten cereal in a couple of decades, and when I did eat it, I ate it dry and unbowled -- Alpha-Bits was one I favored. All of my computers except my current one, a Gateway laptop, were hand-me-downs. (I wrote my first book on an Amstrad word processor, a British contraption, something Sears once sold.) My haberdashery comes largely from the "50% Off" and "75% Off" racks at Target. I saw the Grateful Dead only once, at a grassy amphitheater outside Pittsburgh, in June of 1991 or 1992. They stank that night, and somebody smashed my windshield, but I was a fan. I drive a 1993 Saturn, but only because my previous car suddenly caught fire (people were honking horns, rolling down windows, shouting, "Hey, buddy!"), and when I managed to make it to the closest garage, the guy said, "This car is shot," so I walked from there to a used-car lot -- it wasn't very far -- and committed myself rapidly to a sedan. I remember the salesman saying, "I owe you an apology."
I'm also curious about your abiding interest in the human arm.
As far as arms go, I think they're the one part of the body that tends to get short shrift in fiction, even though they're the place where the trouble between people usually gets it start.
Justin Taylor is the editor of The Apocalypse Reader (Thunder’s Mouth, June 2007). See more of his work at http://www.justindtaylor.net/