Gary Lutz’s past is a bit vague, which is how he likes it. He grew up in Allentown, Pennsylvania, and has lived much of his life outside Pittsburgh, where he builds tight, unusual stories in an unfurnished apartment. He studied with the highly respected editor and educator Gordon Lish “for twenty-six days between June 1992 and June 1997” and considers himself “fortunate just to have been present.” Under Lish, he developed a unique voice, using compression and aphorism to cohere narrative fragments into untraditionally beautiful shapes. His characters spend their time enduring the weight of everyday life, dwelling on the minutiae of their own neuroses. In a story titled “Slops,” a college professor with colitis maps out all the campus bathrooms in a small notebook. In another, a man passes out pamphlets and gives forty-five-minute presentations (with charts) in search of a prospective wife. Lutz labors at each meticulous sentence, word by word, to create a language of striking insight, peripheral emotions, and reinvented vocabulary. Lutz has published two short-story collections—Stories in the Worst Way and I Looked Alive—both of which should be read by anyone even mildly interested in the capacity of language. He also edits fiction for the online experimental journal 5_Trope.
This conversation took place over the summer of 2005, with the help of many computers.
I. “THERE ARE BOOKS I’VE ENJOYED PAGE BY PAGE WITHOUT HAVING ANY IDEA OF WHAT THEY WERE ABOUT.”
THE BELIEVER: I’ve heard you use some unusual methods for generating prose—something to do with crossword-puzzle dictionaries.
GARY LUTZ: Well, I’ve never done crossword puzzles, but early on, in my impatience with thesauruses, none of which are very generous, I chanced upon a book called The Master Crossword Puzzle Dictionary, which houses the largest stockpile of words to be found outside of the best unabridged dictionaries, and I’ve recommended it here and there to people who are interested in precision. The problem is that it’s out of print, and secondhand copies are priced as high as $750. I think you have to know what’s available in the language, because a lot of our words rarely make an appearance in print anymore, so a book like that can have real utility. I find it helpful to have lots of words passing before my eyes as much as possible when I am trying to write, because the one word I feel I need the most might just be somewhere in the stream, though I might have to chop part of it away or twist it a little or elongate it affixationally.
BLVR: When you manipulate words like this, is it a technical process? Are you using many reference materials? Or is it mostly intuitive?
GL: I think that a lot of what I seem to be doing when I try to get from one end of a sentence to the other—a crossing that can take hours, days, weeks—is introducing words to each other that in ordinary circumstance would never meet. I might pair them off because they share a throbbing interior vowel or the same consonantal shell, or because I have some other hunch that they belong together, even though anyone else might write them off as entirely incompatible. I guess I work my way through a sentence by instigating these relationships—a perverse sort of matchmaking, apparently—and then to keep the words from getting too cozy, I might reach for an uncustomary preposition that plunges the sentence into some queasy depths. The whole undertaking seems to be largely intuitive and probably unnatural. I never have any ideas.
BLVR: In general, what do you want to accomplish with your sentences? What, exactly, should a sentence do?
GL: I guess I would define “sentence” as “a quasi-independent unit of tended language, deliberate in every syllable” or something close to that. Ideally, as I see things, every sentence should bestow a fresh verbal bounty on the reader. A writer needs to give in every sentence—a writer is someone who is forever bearing gifts. A paragraph should be a sequence of replenishings. Judged by this standard—which I of course fall short of every time—a lot of writing might seem costive, unsatisfying, maddeningly ungenerous. But maybe readers shouldn’t have to wait out half a paragraph or entire pages just to get something they haven’t had before.
BLVR: Because your sentences do have a sense of fullness and density, they obviously ask more of the reader than most sentences. Something like “There was no need to even come face to face to be stuck in failing familiarity forever” has a simple enough sentiment but an intense, thick delivery. Do you think there’s a “right” way to read one of your sentences?
GL: Reading, like writing, is a private, intimate, and unnatural act. I wouldn’t want to tell anybody how to go about doing it. As a reader, I find that I like sentences that make me stop and stare into them, or at least gawk.
BLVR: But isn’t grammar basically just a way of telling someone how to read—how to think, when to breathe? And considering how interested you are in precision and grammar, I would expect you to be less easygoing about the reading process.
GL: If a sentence of mine finally finds its way out into the world, readers who move their eyes over it are free to make of it whatever they want. If a reader sees something I intended, that’s fine by me, and if a reader sticks with a story and sees something entirely different or is completely baffled, I’m OK with that, too. There are books I’ve enjoyed page by page without having any idea of what they were about.
BLVR: Which ones?
GL: Some of the books by Roland Barthes (in translation). The one about fashion, the one about Michelet, the one called S/Z—I savored them without comprehending them. But I am lousy at managing abstractions and am blunder-headed in general. Until a couple of years ago, I’d thought the expression “No news is good news” meant that all news is necessarily bad. Punch lines can take weeks, months, to clobber me correctly. I was late to learn the facts of life, and they were something of a letdown.
BLVR: Your acceptance of ambiguity seems more on the experimental side, while your interest in grammar seems more traditional. Would you ever call yourself a traditionalist?
GL: I think it helps somehow if prose that on the surface might seem vivid in its disrupture or overthrowal of the conventional is ultimately discovered to be pure grammatical fussbudgetry underneath. (A friend tells me I’m a Victorian at heart.) I probably would not have had a long-enduring, even morbid fascination with prescriptive grammar and punctuation if I weren’t convinced that exactitude in such matters was a lost cause. As a teacher of English composition and business writing, I am guilty of talking a lot about the comma.
BLVR: Any comma wisdom to impart?
GL: For all I know, the Age of the Comma is over. But it was a beautiful time to be alive and to be fingering words. Sentences had precision. These days, you see a theater critic in a prominent magazine describing the Broadway show Sweet Charity as “Neil Simon’s sanitized musical version of Fellini’s Nights of Cabiria.” Without a comma separating “sanitized” from “musical,” the phrasing implies, unhelpfully, that there are at least two stage musical adaptations of the Fellini picture, that the versions differ in their degree of sanitization, and that the sanitized version is the one under review. A few weeks later, in the same magazine, a film reviewer refers to “a new movie version of Bewitched”—implying, misleadingly, that there was at least one previous movie version of the sitcom (there wasn’t). Prescriptive grammarians would say that, in each case, a pair of coordinate adjectives (adjectives individually modifying a noun) have been erroneously presented as if they were cumulative adjectives (adjectival pairs in which the first adjective modifies the duo formed by the second adjective and the noun), with the unhappy result that the first adjective has been thrown into a restrictive role—distinguishing one “musical version” or “movie version” from another—even though that is violently at odds with each writer’s purpose.
BLVR: What about the hyphen? No one ever gives straight answers about hyphens. I love them and yet I feel somehow seedy when I use them. Is this normal?
GL: A little book needs to be written about the hyphen—it would be a very consoling book, at least to me—because the hyphen is the most neglected punctuational device we’ve got. I went a little nuts when I first took notice of it, back in third grade. I started putting hyphens between all of the words in my sentences. I thought that was a way to keep things from falling apart, but the teacher made me stop. (That year I also bought a vocabulary-improving book. The first chapter offered the adjectives “eldritch” and “gelid.” I tucked them into a paragraph I had to write in class, and the teacher told me to quit making up words.) The hyphen, though, is the sweetest of punctuation marks, because it unites words into couples (and sometimes threesomes and foursomes). It’s an embracer. It does most of its most important business in front of nouns, and its business is to make things clearer. If somebody were teaching a workshop devoted to short fiction, for instance, too many people would describe it as a “short fiction workshop.” But that would mean it was a fiction workshop of brief duration. A hyphen between “short” and “fiction” would formalize the union of the two words, and they would together serve, in conjugal fashion, as a single adjective. But not all of the words in adjectival compounds preceding nouns should be hitched together with hyphens. You should never force a hyphen into the space between an adverb ending in “ly” and an adjective or a participle (“a nicely-turned phrase” is always wrong), but if the word ending in “ly” is an adjective, a hyphen is required (“a sickly-looking dog”). Things get very, very complicated when a noun is preceded by an adjectival compound whose first word is an adverb not ending in “ly.” Do you write “a once popular singer” or “a once-popular singer”? A few years ago, trying to recover from a traumatic breakup, I made a study of hyphenation patterns in the New Yorker magazine back when William Shawn was in charge. I made the hyphen my lifeline, and I put my trust in William Shawn and his grammar genius, Eleanor Gould Packard. I noticed that the New Yorker would publish a formation like “a not too pleasant afternoon” but also “a not-quite-pleasant afternoon.” A phrase like “a once-happy child” would sport a hyphen, but “a once promising student” would not, so I concluded that you put a hyphen after “once” if it’s followed by an adjective, but you leave the phrase unhyphenated if “once” is followed by a participle. I tried my best to suss out all of the underlying patterns (I was really, really grieving, and may have been missing all the obvious points), and I compiled a biggish list. But I started finding inconsistencies: something like “an ever so delicate girl” would show up in one issue and “an ever-so-prissy girl” in another; something like “a much recorded song” in one article and “a much-visited city” in another. A further source of big trouble for me was whether to hyphenate an adjectival compound that follows a linking verb. Do you write “She is well thought of” or “She is well-thought-of”? None of the manuals addressed this matter to my satisfaction, so I again turned to the New Yorker for guidance. I eventually fell in love with somebody else and slept deeply for a while.
BLVR: How did you develop your knowledge of punctuation? Any good books you could recommend?
GL: I learned commas by making a study of the punctuational splendor of the New Yorker during the final decade of the William Shawn regime. The New Yorker seems to have been the only magazine to see the gorgeous fitness of inserting a comma in a sentence like “He lived in Trenton until his death, in 1999” or “I visited her at her house, in Newark.” Virtually every other publisher would run those sentences without commas and thus fuddle things by implying that the man died more than once and the woman owned more than one house at the time. There’s no one book, unfortunately, that covers all this stuff.
BLVR: At what age did you first become involved with language?
GL: I was nineteen or twenty. I was in college, and had been changing my major every semester until I ended up in English, which, it turned out, was the one field of study in which the very thing that gave it its name was the one thing that was almost never taught. That might have been a good thing, because I’d never learned how to study. I went to a counselor at the college, and he gravely counseled me to buy a book called How to Study. The book advocated a method called SQ3R, which I never got the hang of and which was rendered obsolete anyway by the arrival of the highlighting marker. Reading was transformed into an activity whose desired outcome was the yellowing of certain regions of the page. I had one professor, fortunately, who threw many salutary scares into me—he was the only person from whom I ever learned anything in a collegiate setting—and then I happened upon a book called Modern American Usage, by Wilson Follett, which offered a magisterial consideration of sentences and their sicknesses.
I had to overcome the inclination to color the book instead of reading it, but read it I did, many times. I eventually graduated and then packed myself off to an M.A. program in creative writing, and after graduating from that, I gave up writing for a little over a decade.
BLVR: Did you have a negative reaction to your graduate program?
GL: The stories of mine that met with approval in graduate school were stories that I knew were shallow and completely fake and not worth the reader’s moment. I became confused and lost interest in writing. I found a job and went to work, and after work, I just walked around stores until they closed.
BLVR: What was so shallow and fake about them?
GL: My stories were drowsily lyrical ordeals. There was a lot of catty, undire dialogue involving lovelorn youths of ornamental sensitivity. It was all writingprogrammese of the most inconsequent sort. I didn’t know any better, and nobody told me to stop. Eventually, I must have leveled with myself.
II. “I MENTIONED MCDONALD’S IN ONE STORY IN MY FIRST BOOK, AND COCA-COLA IN ONE STORY IN MY SECOND BOOK. ALTHOUGH THAT SEEMS TO BE THE EXTENT OF IT, I REGRET THE SPECIFICITY.”
BLVR: You have called film “the perfect storytelling medium” and have said that you “don’t read fiction for the story.” In a certain sense, I completely understand your point. But in another sense I wonder: if language is the only driving force behind fiction, why not just abandon fiction for something purely language-driven, like poetry?
GL: I think that movies are the ideal medium for getting characters from one place to another without making a big deal out of routine movement, and at the same time you can get the colors of the rooms or the neighborhoods, the weather, and emotionally convenient music on the soundtrack. Nobody has to come out with dulling declarations of “Then she got into the car” or “There he goes to the bathroom again.” How-to books on the short story instruct writers to block out scenes as plays in miniature. Something in me wants to counter: Then why not just write a play or movie script instead? Why not try to do in a sentence or paragraph what can’t be done in a shot or filmic sequence? Anyway, I am not one for plots—I think I recall somebody having remarked that the word “plot” itself gives off a whiff of burial dirt—and I find the concept of “cause and effect” to be tediously overrated. As for fiction versus poetry, the border between the two seems less secure than ever. A lot of writing passes back and forth without anyone summoning the authorities. Some people have told me that what I write is poetry, that it could be laid out as such. But I am a sucker for the old notions of poetry and would never think of my paragraphic jitter in that light. Besides, regarding my stuff as prose is a much more cost-efficient use of paper. The reader gets a full page.
BLVR: How exactly do you write outside of “cause and effect”?
GL: Well, for one thing, I never ask Why? or What next? There’s got to be more to life than logic, sequentiality, psychology. The only question I put to myself when writing is: Anything else? I’m interested only in whatever’s beside the point.
BLVR: Does that mean you avoid unifying ideas or themes in your writing?
GL: Sometimes I think we don’t give words enough credit for knowing where they truly belong. You’d be surprised by how quick certain words can be at giving up their seats in a snug lexicon and throwing themselves at the first perfectly rotten mood that comes along in somebody with a pencil. Sometimes the words just seem to come and claim their places. So the unity of a story might then be evident in the peculiar scope of the overall vocality. There might even turn out to be a kind of acoustical daisy chain discernible from one end of a story to the other. Or the language might be steeped in a single, unspecified grief and take on that tint or coloration through and through. Or there might be a limital tilt or pitch to a narrator’s leanings. Or the verbal matter might give the impression of having been spewed exclusively from a tiny, ramshackle elevation somewhere out of the reader’s sight. Another way of looking at this, maybe, is that the motions of even the most centrifugally active mind or heart have a circumference, and the writer of a story should probably respect or even celebrate the fixity of that circumference. But within those limits, anything should be welcome to clamor on behalf of itself or rise to an occasion or veer off into ultimately pertinent digression.
BLVR: Can you talk more about acoustical daisy chains? Are you saying that,sometimes, pure phonetics might be your unifying theme (like sound translations)?
GL: Nothing I ever do is that methodical or scientific. It’s just that in the most favorable of circumstances, a sentence-starting word at long last presents itself, and the language at large gets wind of this little instigation, and then whichever word in particular is feeling itself to be the most acoustically sympathetic to the first word will eventually throw itself at it, and then a third word arrives on the scene and senses an affinity with what the first two are doing and figures itself into the emerging pattern. If you can keep this up, if every word has such deep attraction to its neighbors to the left and to the right, the prose coheres and takes on a distinct character or tonality. This is part of what Gordon Lish taught me, if I understood correctly.
BLVR: Do you think it’s important that writing can sound fluid when spoken? Or are you more interested with the visual, on-the-page aesthetic?
GL: Both, actually. A sentence, at least as I see it, has to come out of the mouth in a plausible, presentable way. But I try to be mindful as well of its paginal life, its typographical predicament.
BLVR: So, despite the burial plots, do you still enjoy films?
GL: I do. Every couple of years or so, I seem to find one movie and then watch the thing over and over—sometimes every night for weeks. I was like that with Requiem for a Dream, and then Ghost World, and The Last Days of Disco, and, just recently, Before Sunset. I always watch with the closed-caption function on, because I like the dialogue to come at me doubly.
BLVR: What sort of effect do you suppose film has had on your writing?
GL: I was five or six when I saw Breakfast at Tiffany’s at a drive-in theater. That movie filled my head with every radiantly wrong idea about New York City and its tenantry, all in a single, potent, life-lasting dose. The only TV series I ever took to heart was The Honeymooners. But I’ve spent most of my life listening to screwball talk radio and pop music in its more pathological forms. Those, I know, have taken various tolls on me.
BLVR: Your stories almost never reference pop culture. Is this purposeful?
GL: It is. I mentioned McDonald’s in one story in my first book, and Coca-Cola in one story in my second book. Although that seems to be the extent of it, I regret the specificity. But, for that matter, I don’t mention place names or decades, either.
BLVR: I rarely see writers reference specific movements in pop culture without being insulting or at least sarcastic. In fact, it almost seems impolite if there isn’t some sort of cynicism, as if pop culture and literature are eternal enemies.
GL: I’m often moved to tears by pop music and movies, and I don’t turn defensive or ironic when I talk about what I love. But I’ve never felt any desire to include pop culture in my stories. Maybe it’s because whenever I’m reading a piece of fiction that mentions, say, a particular song I like, I start hearing the song in my head, or I start longing to hear the record, and I feel as if I’m being seduced away from the story. And the sentential setting of the song title often turns out to be less enchanting than the song, and more often than not, there’s no attempt to describe the song; its title is most likely just there on the page as a kind of shorthand or prompt, which the writer obviously hopes will be evocative. I just don’t see what’s gained by directing a susceptible reader’s attention outside of the frame of a story. I love it, though, when fiction writers go out of their way to invent performers, song titles, even lyrics, and then, through sheer writerly brilliance, make you hear the music. Don DeLillo has done that. Sam Lipsyte has done that. They keep the reader entirely inside the story. As for the wider use of popular culture, I realize that there’s a type of contemporary fiction that borders on journalism and might be subject to similar perishability, and I also realize that decades from now, that sort of fiction can acquire a kind of time-capsule value. And it can be enormous fun to read right now. But if you look back at a writer like John O’Hara, who, it’s often been said, stocked his fiction with loads of social-class-signifying details, you won’t find the kinds of brand name particularity and “name checking” that are all over the place in some of today’s fiction.
III. “AS FOR GENDER, SEXUAL ORIENTATION, THAT SORT OF THING SEEMS TO COME AND GO WITH THESE PEOPLE.”
BLVR: Fiction can seemingly bend time in ways that film could never do. It can almost exist outside time.
GL: I think so. One feels less beholden to the chronological, and freer to enter the inner space of a character.
BLVR: A lot of your stories experiment with the ambiguity of a character’s “inner space.” Sometimes large things like sexuality and gender are obscured while other, more nuanced aspects of character are attended to with very deep precision. In this sense, why do your characters have such difficulty understanding themselves?
GL: I venture that I belong to the school of thought holding that human beings are vividly unknowable, even to themselves. My narrators and characters seem to amass lots of peculiarizing data about the spaces and bodies they inhabit, or the routine transactions they manage during the course of a day, or any other person they might blunder up against eventually in an antic calamity of attraction. But they seem to be stumped when it comes to forming any kind of big, reliable picture of themselves. It’s not that they can’t generalize— they make pronouncements and judgments left and right; they come out with strictures and formulations of an almost manifesto-ish vehemence—but their generalizations seem to carry them further and further away from themselves; they seem expelled from any lasting sense they might be trying to make. They can’t even apply the first-person pronouns to themselves without sounding at once evasive and self-aggrandizing. I don’t claim to know who these narrators or characters really are. In most cases, I don’t even know their names, and if I stuck names on them, I would feel that I was violating them. As for gender, sexual orientation, that sort of thing seems to come and go with these people.
BLVR: It sounds like you distance yourself from your characters about as much as you acquaint yourself with them. That’s pretty unusual to hear from a writer. On the other hand, maybe it’s more normal, more like the unrefined and clumsy interactions between real, flesh-and-blood people.
GL: Well, I think of my characters less as figures in case histories than as upcroppings of language, as syntactic commotions coming suddenly to a head. The characters aren’t reductions or enlargements or composites of persons I might have run across in daily, unshapely life. So I don’t have any dealings with them, really, other than as specimens of phrasing.
BLVR: So if the characters and the plot are only a consequence of your prose, what do you write from? Sam Lipsyte has said he usually starts stories from abnormal phrases that catch his ear, like: “You could touch for a couple of bucks.” Do you sympathize with that? Is language itself your impetus?
GL: It’s with me sort of the way it is with Sam, one of my all-time favorite writers. Every once in a while, a word or a phrase—in my case, an ordinary-looking citizen of our language, more often than not—will just seem to be harassing me, even stalking me. It’ll start showing up wherever I go. Eventually I’ll find I have to do something about it.
IV. “I’VE LIVED MY ENTIRE ADULT LIFE WITHOUT FURNITURE, SO MY DOMESTIC POSTURES AND POSITIONS ARE LIMITED.”
BLVR: Do you have any intention to work in any mediums outside the short story?
GL: I guess that, even as a reader, I just prefer the intimate enclosures of very short fiction. When I was growing up, some packages of potato chips used to carry, on their backside, a rather defensive notation along the lines of “This package is sold by weight, not by volume. Contents may have settled during shipment.” That puts me in mind of most of my favorite books, which may not consume very much space but nevertheless have an unignorable density and heft, at least to me.
BLVR: What will your new stories be like, in comparison with your previous work?
GL: I’d like to write longer short stories or shorter ones, instead of more of the medium-length ones I seem to have been writing in the last half-decade. Writing something long would be very difficult for me, because I evict almost everything from the little structures that somehow get themselves erected. But writing something very, very short would be even more terrifying, I imagine.
BLVR: I would expect someone who writes such compact, tight stories as yours to be avid about revising. Do you throw away much work?
GL: I trash almost everything I write. And then I go through the trash. I’m slow.
BLVR: Besides massive editing, what constitutes your work schedule, your writing habits, your self-imposed rules? What is a typical Lutz day?
GL: I listen to the radio. My weekdays begin with Howard Stern and end with Phil Hendrie. In between, I have my job eight and a half months of the year and my spells at my laptop during the summers. Some of the pieces in my first book were written in pencil on sheets of paper taped to the wall above my bathtub while I soaked for hours and hours, and parts of others were written right after I woke up. But that was before I seemed to know what I was doing. These days, I can write only on a keyboard. I try to stay alert. I usually listen to music for an hour or so in the evening. Saturdays I walk around Pittsburgh or ride a light-rail car to the end of the not very long line, then ride back. Sundays are for choring. I’ve lived my entire adult life without furniture, so my domestic postures and positions are limited. But I do a lot of laundry.
BLVR: What’s the best thing you’ve written, in your opinion?
GL: All of my stories are disappointments to me. They gall.
BLVR: Then how do you keep yourself interested?
GL: There is the possibility, maybe, that I might one day not disappoint myself. Anyway, I can’t think of anything else to do.