×
header-image

An Interview with Gordon Lish

[WRITER/EDITOR/TEACHER]
“THERE IS NO REALM WHEREIN WE HAVE THE TRUTH.”
Lish’s list on writing:
1. Loosened association
2. Antic behavior
3. Autism
4. Morbid ambivalence
by Vernon Chatman and John Lee
Illustration by Charles Burns
header-image

An Interview with Gordon Lish

[WRITER/EDITOR/TEACHER]
“THERE IS NO REALM WHEREIN WE HAVE THE TRUTH.”
Lish’s list on writing:
1. Loosened association
2. Antic behavior
3. Autism
4. Morbid ambivalence
by Vernon Chatman and John Lee
Illustration by Charles Burns

An Interview with Gordon Lish

Vernon Chatman and John Lee
11 Snaps

Ignore the fact that he’s written about eating shit, or about stabbing someone in the eye and hearing the particular click as the knife tip punctures a contact lens. Forget the fact that he was so sure Dean Moriarty was a real person that he moved his entire family to San Francisco to hang out with “the man,” or that he published a story under the pretext that it was written by Salinger. Gordon Lish is the Andy Kaufman of the literary world. A maniac of publishing, wit, and dessert, Mr. Lish is a mythic figure—a supra-monster, distorting and bending American fiction in its own shiny be-stabbed eye.

At the peak of his powers, Lish dubbed himself “Captain Fiction.” As a teacher (for Gary Lutz, Amy Hempel, Will Eno, etc.) he railed for perfect, compressed sentences; as an editor (for Raymond Carver, Esquire, the Quarterly, etc.) he slashed and compacted with line-item-veto fury; and as a novelist (the infuriatingly riveting Extravaganza: A Joke Book) he is capable of some of the most grandiose, gleeful overindulgences imaginable. He has long ceased publishing and writing, but his influence is out there, watching you, breathing.

Lish and friends used to meet and eat weekly in the now-defunct “Pork Store” on Broadway and Broome—Lish’s favorite haven for marinated meats—where he would hold court with whoever was within arm’s reach. Because he is so reluctant to answer any question put directly into his face, and since most of his novels are written in letter-form, we were forced/honored to interview him via chicken-scratch postcards. The results are a hodge-pong ball of randomalia that leak secret truths about a “man” who is unknowable, untouchable, un-unintelligible.

—John Lee and Vernon Chatman

Dear Mr. Lish,

  1. Can you infuriate people into liking you?
  2. Does it matter? The infuriation. The liking.
  3. What is that which hammered you into the shape you are in?
  4. What matters most? (A list.)
  5. Describe the perfect description.

John Lee

Gordon Lish replies:

According to my staff, this was to have been a one-question, per leg, letteration. Yet you ask, in yours last, excuse me, five questions. Tell you what: I’ll, to the best of my ability, answer one, a word I just had to italicize at my own expense, and another, if we are counting all such exertions obtained from me so far—replying to one of the five, you see—em dashes, earlier, ignored at the worsening peril. To wit: what is that which hammered you into the shape you are in? All right, if this is what you want to know. I, Gordon Lish, will tell you what hammered me into the shape I am in. Was maybe seven, when, come summer, was required to spend it killing Japanese beetles. Oh, and, remaining bent to the grass, dig out, tear out, wrench out—with all my defeated wiles—crabgrass.

Yours truly, etc.,
Gordon Lish

*

Dear Gordon Lish,

Vernon and I saw you read at The Fez almost a decade ago.  You started to read a story, but then interrupted yourself to look for your watch, and got confused because it wasn’t on your wrist.  While looking for your watch in all your pockets, you proceeded to tell an entire story about your father. Then you got a little heated and felt sick.  We always thought this entire thing was an act and we loved it, but it wasn’t. You were actually getting sick. You were actually in need of help. How can we take you seriously when we don’t know the difference between the truth and the act?

John Lee

 

Gordon Lish replies:

There is no realm wherein we have the truth.  All endeavor is an act, including, of course, the composing of this postcard.  Oh, there is one exception, City Bakery’s peanut butter cookies. On the other hand, the baker’s baking is an act.

*

Dear Gordon Lish,

Last night I had a dream.  You, Vernon, Alyson, some tour guide/private detective and myself were swimming in a bay just north of Hollywood.  The private eye was not the most informed guide, but we forgave him because we concluded PI’s are about gathering information not teaching.  I decided to swim ashore, only to come across a beach covered in thousands of half-birthed sea turtle eggs. Not wanting to crush them, I tried to wade through the shallow water, but that ended up bruising the eggs.  My dilemma was to crush a few or bruise many.

I woke up and wondered why you were in the dream, and two thoughts came to mind.  I could have wadded in the water, waited for the eggs to hatch, hurting none of the turtles.  And, you, Gordon Lish, are about accuracy and jokes, not about interpretation and dreams. So, my question to you, what’s the funniest dream you’ve ever had?

John Lee

Dear Questioner,

You are asking me, Gordon Lish, what is my funniest dream?  So since when is there such a thing in the world as a funny dream? I am telling you, in all of my life I, Gordon Lish, have yet to undergo the experience of what a person, in this person’s right mind, could intelligently refer to as funny dream.  Let me give you every assurance that not once in all of my days have I, Gordon Lish, even possibly chuckled a little bit when, you know, when officially asleep.

Yours in truth,

Gordon Lish

*                               

Mr. Lish,

Mr. Lish, Mr. Lish. Only you can answer these questions directed only at you and your eyes only, Mr. Lish.  I come to you with desperation tearing at the throat of my fingers as they strike at the keys of my board, Mr. Lish.  My keyboard, Mr. Lish, for the typing. But with each individual word, (oh shit, maybe could it be with each individual letter?) that passes under your cruel gaze, you grow ever more disappointed, I fear.  (Did you just curse ‘fucks you!’ at a consonant?) Ever more bored with every wasteful key I press, each extraneous button I push, so I will skip right along to the point forthwith and post haste. In kissing adieu to all further ado, I steal now away through the dark night of these preliminaries to illuminate for you the (main) matter at (freshly washed, I can assure you) hand.

You see, I had a terrible dream last night, which left its claws in my gash of a mind of a brain, that is to say, only you can soothe it.  You, if you haven’t yet been moistened to death. In a tub of Jergens, yet, oh I hope not. Not yet. I cannot hope yet.

My dream remains fuzzy, so I fight all of speed and time to get it all down:  I dreamed, I fear, that my friend and your associate John Lee had a dream about you.   His dream, thankfully, remains woefully clear in the frozen bank of my memory’s (chamber box?).

In his dream (that I had) you were you—but you were also an institution.  Do you know, a building? Made of stone and concrete. A structure itself, on the Upper East Side of Manhattan.  And folks, specifically folks who knew what they were after, would pile inside and get what their hearts told them to snatch and then file right on out again.  This continued until boulders began tumbling out of your uppermost windows. They were large and rough and they damaged other buildings as they rolled and lolled, but left not a scratch on any man.  And from every (eventually) stopped boulder grew, eventually, a harem. These ladies were plenty good enough and plenty game, and enough to fill the rest of the night for me. But soon they fell apart where they stood, and laid, disemboweled as though from your imagination, Mr.  Lish. (Oh, I know you are not interested in dreams.)

Needless to state, I awoke screaming. And I awoke wet, and, to be perfectly honest here, in certain (dark, unknowable) places, totally dry.  John also, in my dream, I believe, remained, as he woke (in my dream), dry. However, and we are tenderly approaching the meat here, someone (and I don’t know who) in my dream did not wake up.  Refuses to wake up. Can not be shaken awake.

Kindly send me your thoughts on this issue, or kindly cruelly reject the idea of sending me your thoughts on this matter forthwith, and please, do, if you can (and can you must), answer in the form of an institution.  For reference.

Vernon

Gordon Lish replies:

See a doctor.  Have you seen a doctor?  My advice is for you to see a Jewish doctor.  Jewish doctors are more likely to keep you alive since they are less likely to believe they are releasing you to an afterlife.  But you need a mental doctor. Too bad—once one of those doctors gets you, that’s it for you for life.

Love and Kisses

Also eat at Franks

*

Dear Mr. Lish,

I greedily inhaled your letter pockmarked July 14th, advising me to seek the services of a Jewish mental doctor. Vilst my Jew doc savior remains unsook, what a wonderful opportunity for you to tell me about the nuthouse.  Did it help for you to be in the nuthouse? Was there value in it? What if anything did you get out of your nuthousular experience?

Vernon Chatman

Gordon Lish replies:

Terrific. It imparted to me the appearance of a quality not to be had by other means.

*

Dear Mr. Lish

When you were in the booby hatch, did you write?  Did you get to touch any of the boobies?

Vernon Chatman

Gordon Lish replies:

Yes, yes, to “touch” them over the eight-month course of my opportunity to “touch” some of them—two whilst (one could mingle with be-boobied ladies for an hour a week when one had attained a residence on an open ward), and then another two of these thereafterward. My stars, just how crazy do you fellows think I was!

*

Dear Gordon Lish,

Why ‘Captain Fiction’?  What are your powers?

John Lee

Gordon Lish replies:

Captain Fiction’s powers?  There are seven of them. One is the power to see the heart of the writer through a single word.  The other six I forgot.

Yours in Christ,

G.L.

*

Dear Mr. Lish,

In the mental place, what did the mental doctors say about you?

Vernon Chatman

Gordon Lish replies:

What did “the mental doctors say about me in the mental place”?  Well sir or Sir, they did not say it to me, save for one psychiatrist.  He came to chat with me the day of my discharge, advising that I not stay at the party until the last dog was dead.  I was a kid and made little of this council. Now that I am a big boy, I see the value—belatedly—added. Yet I also see the loss of life in the protecting, first of all, of oneself. Dead fuck the dog and so on.

*

Dear Mr. Lish,

The other day in the Pork Store, as I was savaging a plate of pork with my jagged mouth, you said that you are both repelled by and attracted to the sight of brutal physical violence.  I once saw a man getting his head slammed against a cement curb while the gathered gawkers chanted “Burrito! Burrito!” (the assailant’s nom de plume) as they were literally splashed with blood.  (Hey—maybe he was named after a pork burrito—oh, possibilities!) And you said that one way to escape being haunted by visions of that kind of violence is to write about it. How does that work? And how much of your writing do you think is exorcism?

Vernon Chatman

Gordon Lish replies:

No, I am not “haunted” by “visions” of violence.  What I said was this: if violence comes within my (ken?), I am both repelled and compelled by it, terrified yet delighted, fastened to the sight, yet aching to run away, at least turn away, but that I find that I succumb to the desire to look, am transfixed appalled but in thrall.  All writing rids the writer of his accomplices, these being the events of his life insofar as he can recall them and pervert them for his disguise.

P.S. This is a borrowed ballpoint.

*

Dear Gordon Lish,

When people ask about what made us, we tell them – read Lish, watch Bunuel, and listen to ODB.  What do you tell people? What made you?

John Lee

Gordon Lish replies:

Quim

(a.k.a ginch, gash, gumbo)

*

Dear Mr. Lish,

When they talk about you, what do you like them to say about you?

Vernon Chatman

Gordon Lish replies:

That he was a man who knew the value of a cookie.  Also the ditto of nookie.

*

Dear Gordon Lish,

The other day in the Pork Store, you indicated, in your way, that you collect enemies the way some people (like, for example, you) collect wives.  Why is it good or important to have enemies? To Fight? Who is on the Shit Lisht?

Vernon Chatman

Gordon Lish replies:

My father’s first, even though he was perfectly swell to me and did all he could do to supply me with safety and probably loved me as much as a father must. Yet, yeah, he was the first person I made an enemy out of and was tickled pink about it.

*

Dear Gordon,

You mentioned that you moved to San Francisco hoping to meet Dean Moriarty. And that after reading Salinger, you truly believed that the Glass family was real. Do you consider this the unique gift of fiction—to immerse you so much in characters as to inspire the delusion that they are real?

Yours,

Vernon Chatman

Gordon Lish replies:

So, how were the eats at Frank’s?

*

Dear Gordon Lish,

Doesn’t the contract, the fantasy, if you will, fall on the shoulders of the bookworm? Shouldn’t the reader pour his heart and soul into a book, committing every word to truth?

John Lee

Gordon Lish replies:

That’s right. Committed. It was an involuntary comital. I was absolutely eligable.

*

Mr. Lish,

The other day at the Pork Store, you failed to bring up the fact that your “novel in jokes,” Extravaganza, is “literally” a paradox, in that it is “literature” which concerns itself with a “pair” of “docs” (or doctors, if you will), the primary paradox being that only one of them is actually a doctor (or “doc,” if you will) and the secondary (or self-canceling) paradox being that the book is not, in fact, actually, it turns out, a paradox at all. My question for you is: Do you who create and craft literature ever find literary analysis tedious? Pointless? Or lame? (Circle one and explain.)

Vernon Chatman

Gordon Lish replies:

Listen, buster, I, Gordon, am not circling anything, OK?

*

Mr. Lish,

Of course I know that “Lish Is Love,” but illuminate for me one more time, articulate for me why is Lish Love?

Vernon Chatman

Gordon Lish replies:

Why is Lish, you ask, in love? Lish is in love by reason of all that has given all others to claim themselves in love. Except in Lish’s case, it’s rather more special on account of its being Lish’s case.

*

Dear Mr. Lish,

I thank you kindly for answering the question “Why is Lish in love.” But the question I really wanted answered is “Why is Lish love”?  Meaning, why, oh why, does Mr. Gordon Lish embody Love itself? Why is it that you are a living embodiment of Love itself?

Vernon Chatman

Gordon Lish replies:

As a stratagem, I say—to evade invasion, I say. To keep all comers at bay, I say. Intactness first. The proproprium is prime, all be it pussy is really nice too—once you’re, you know, as Seneca says, cured.

*

Dear Gordon Lish,

Below is a list that I posted over my bed that you, Gordon Lish, created about writing.  Can you tell me a story that explains this list, Mr. Lish?

      1 Loosened association.

      2 Antic behavior.

      3 Autism.

      4 Morbid ambivalence.

John Lee

Gordon Lish replies:

The items listed concern the devising of a method I once advocated as productive of a state conducive to the creation of an act of imaginative writing different from all other acts of the kind, the aim being to bring about an artifact of singular character. There might have been a fifth cue also possessed of an initial A. But there just as well might not have been. How many components would you say contrive to effect the singularity of a City Bakery peanut-butter cookie?

*

Dear Gordon Lish,

Cookies are on the way. Shall drop some off with your doorman sometime soon. Get your mouth ready.

Gordon Lish replies:

Thanks.

*

Gordon Lish,

In all your years of teaching, who was your favorite student? And which child of yours is your favorite child?

Vernon Chatman

Gordon Lish replies:

In all the hours of my teaching, I, Gordon, by far, was my favorite student. Same goes for my favorite child—it was never not I. But if there were a peanut-butter cookie in it for me, I’d say whatever you said I should.

[The cookies are delivered]

 

Gordon Lish writes:

Never in all my days have I been as tested. Get this: Beloved is making for to depart. There is discovered on the monopodium at the door a paper bag, a note. Beloved says, “What’s this?” inspecting. Gordo quesses, then in folly says, “Oh, it must be the peanut-butter cookies promised me by Chatman and Lee.” The lady tarries, eatingly. Or eatishly?

*

Dear Gordon Lish,

You’ve talked about being the ghost author of many books – I won’t reveal names because you’ve asked me not to – but did you, Gordon Lish, write a book called Mysterium?  It’s on the internet as you having have written it. Should I correct this with all my might, or do you take credit for it?

John Lee

Gordon Lish replies:

I wrote a book and called it Mysterium.  It was to have been my last novel. I withdrew the thing from publication when I had read to galley 45% the first proofs.  How there occurs any reference to any of this anywhere beats (scares) the hell out of me. Next question?

*

Dear Gordon Lish,

I’ve read accounts of your teachings and classes.  A lot of people didn’t like the process. They felt abused, berated and destroyed.  Yet, in the end of it all, they felt like you did teach them something. So my question to you, Gordon Lish, is this…Can you infuriate people into liking you?

Vernon Chatman

Gordon Lish replies:

Three people appear to “like” me. Two of them appear to be “you and Vernon.” The third person begs to keep herself unidentified. None appears to have been bullied into “liking” me, but people—hah, “people”!— and their much-vaunted appearances, are you serious?

*

Dear Lish,

Who has been your greatest teacher?

Vernon Chatman

Gordon Lish replies:

In the classroom?  Oliver Sigworth—for the style of his pacing—preening—posing, or is it posturing?  Reminiscent of the Matador Manole’te. Not in a classroom? Emmanuel Levinas.

*

Dear Gordon Lish,

You, Gordon Lish, have written a few novels.  Some of those are communicated through letters. What is it about the letter that you like?

John Lee

Gordon Lish replies:

The literacy of it.

*

Dear Mr. Lish,

You, as you know, are a man who, as you are aware, likes to have his lid flipped—what, then, was the last, the most recent piece of artistical expression (this sentence notwithstanding) that truly flipped (true psychosis excepted) your infamous lid?

Vernon Chatman

Gordon Lish replies:

Most recent instantiation? McCarthy’s The Road. Read it a couple of weeks ago and it still has me by the neck. Also DeLillo’s new play Love-Lies-Bleeding. Lidishly speaking.

*

Dear Gordon Lish,

Who edited your books?                                 

John Lee

Gordon Lish replies:

You’re conning me, right? But what I could use an editor for is for keeping me from using the same preposition more than once when I answer somebody’s question. Or is it, like, you know, an adverb?

 

More Reads
Interviews

An Interview with Barry Lopez

John O'Connor
Interviews

An Interview with Hari Kunzru

Stephen Piccarella
Interviews

An Interview with Kasi Lemmons

Maori Karmael Holmes
more