Gary Lutz, a masterful prose stylist, is the author of three short-story collections: Stories in the Worst Way, I Looked Alive, and Partial List of People to Bleach. A fourth, Divorcer, is forthcoming from Calamari Press. On July 14th, he will be reading at the Soda Series in Brooklyn with Mary Caponegro and Tim Horvath. From my forthcoming review of I Looked Alive:
Unlike most people’s stories that appear clean and remedial in their telling, Lutz’s have already been lived in, occupied for a long time, and they have a stifling air similar to the curmudgeon’s den in Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape, where no one dusts, no one keeps house, and the whole enterprise stinks with the ancient odor of paper and page. Their minds ragged and rugged from overburn, Lutz’s unloved, unlived, destitute narrators squawk their findings: “It is said, isn’t it, that you “make” love because it’s otherwise not really there?” (“I Have to Feel Halved” p.45)
In this interview, we spoke mainly about his new story in the 2011 NOON, “To Whom Might I Have Concerned?” A wonderment of dazzling sentences and rigorous thought, it is 27 pages, one of his longest stories.
Gerke: What I adore about your sentences is how surprising the language in them is—simply, how you say things in the most imaginative and yet at the same time unimaginable ways. “She had a grove of terribly bone-brown hair, and eyes a little incivil,” and “Their love was the kind of unmuted love, rummagingly physical, you get only from friends about to ditch you.” So many associations arise with these descriptors. “Bone-brown,” besides its wonderful alliterative value, makes me think of the only bones we normally get to see, those of skeletons. (“Incivil eyes,” could have easily been “uncivil eyes,” was that for the musicality of the preceding “i” in “little” and the two other in “civil?”) “Rummagingly” instantly calls up rummage sales and pictures of people scrabbling through boxes of used stuff carelessly—the perfect word corresponding to friends who really aren’t friends. I would assume (maybe wrongly) you might never write a sentence like, “Sally was short, with long brown hair.” Do the intricacies of your language follow your perceptions of people you see or imaginings of pictures you have in your head? Or are the words with you first, looking to attach themselves to peels of consciousness like swarming bees?
Lutz: Thank you. Most of my sentences make it to the page in one of the two ways you’ve described. Either it’s a Lishian kind of operation in which one word, having found its way to me, draws other words toward it and starts some syntax, or else I’ll glimpse something or someone out in the world and try to memorialize that glimpse, putting words to my memory until I get a close-enough match. I try to be faithful to the way my nervous system handles the world. I can take in only one little thing at a time, and then only haltingly. There’s not much ongoingness, not much of a big picture, in my processing of inner and outer experience; there’s just a stutter of encapsulations, one after another. Maybe that explains why in my fiction the sentence and not the paragraph seems to be the unit and why there rarely seems to be a plot.
Gerke: The phrase, “we were not so much a couple as a twofold loneliness” made me think how much characters speak of and experience aloneness and disconnection in your stories. There is a sadness illustrated and dramatized so richly, I feel the sadness is transfigured and a sympathy is reached after such darkly comic lows, like a viewer might respond to the hapless, on-screen Buster Keaton or a reader to the cavalcade of Beckett’s grotesques. Also, in the writer’s life, when one is often alone, they seemed primed to examine such a topic. Since people are often hiding behind others in your fiction only to find themselves more or less worse off, how do you see the possibilities for human union and its large, capricious cousin, love?
Lutz: Love tends to get revised out of most relationships, I find. But I’m stuck believing in love, though whenever it’s the genuine article, at least one of the parties is likely in for trauma later on. I write mostly about people already destroyed. The most they seem to hope for is an emotional circumstance in which their aloneness can butt up against somebody else’s in a way that offers fugitive and unimproving satisfaction of a kind.
Gerke: I noticed in this story and others the use of short, pithy phrases in quotes summing up some attitudes, like professors writing “As you like,” and “Then go right ahead,” on the character’s papers. Also this sentence: “She had taken ‘brush with death’ to mean ‘apply death smoothly and gently to your life.'” But these short, cryptic sayings also share a commonality with the very few lines of dialogue you use like: “This has been dainty,” and “Just be yourself; nobody else wants to.” These phrases and lines of dialogue have the brevity and pith of dictionary definitions, where a string of words mean just one word and vice versa, exemplified in your story by this sentence: “I said, ‘Mrs., pronounced misses, to be construed as the conjugation meaning suffers the absence of.'” Is it a stretch to think your well-known status as a grammarian and devourer of dictionaries, books of grammar and usage, and other books devoted to the technicalities of words and speech heavily plays into the way your fiction forms? Also, do you believe these phrases and bits of dialogue serve as rectifiers for the often heard clichés and other cultural nuggets, as “old school,” “been there, done that,” or “don’t go there,” (phrases so undercooked they still hold the hide of the cow they came from)?
Lutz: I guess I like definitions and compressive statements; I like things that sound definitive and compacted and quietingly final. I prefer the concentrated versions of anything. I’m not big on dialogue, though the last couple of things I’ve written have a little more of it than usual. My characters aren’t the type to speak when spoken to. They tend to be sneaks, hard cases, cool customers, or people of the self-silencing sort. Dialogue isn’t something I turn to books for, either. In fact, I usually feel cheated when I buy a book that turns out to have dialogue in bulk. I find myself reading around the talk to get right to the descriptions, the ruminations. If I want to hear people in conversation, all I have to do is park myself somewhere public and eavesdrop.
Gerke: What book, story, or section of prose have you re-read the most? What about it spurred such an interest?
Lutz: The Great Gatsby, Seymour: An Introduction, and Sleepless Nights are three things I keep frequenting. They read almost like reductions of bigger, lesser books they might have been. Everything in them is in its richest and purest form. The same goes for Christine Schutt’s A Day, a Night, Another Day, Summer and Sam Lipsyte’s Venus Drive, two books I’ll never get enough of, because they’re so giving, so bottomless. The page-counts aren’t high, but I can’t think of two fuller books.