Gary Lutz is a wholly original writer of the short story. The first thing one notices are his startling sentences, like this one from the title story of his new collection, Divorcer: “It was in a dullard four-door with a brat of a rattling dashboard that I sometimes drove to, from, and through these places, then back to my wife and other things she was a baby about.” The sentences, and the stories, in collections such as Stories in the Worst Way, Partial List of People to Bleach, and I Looked Alive, are about sad men and women and their glancing and troubled interactions with the world. Men look for love in public bathrooms and find solace in women’s clothing; relationships inevitably falter and die, leaving behind regretful and longing ex-lovers. In his best work, Lutz displays an innate understanding of the grim compromises of modern life but heightens and glorifies these with his dizzying language. He refuses to let the dreary world force him to write a dreary sentence. I recently conducted this interview with him via e-mail.
Your new collection, Divorcer, contains a number of stories about the ends and aftermaths of relationships. Did you set out to write a series of thematically linked stories?
I had no expectation that these stories, written piecemeal, might one day mingle with one another in a book. It was Derek White, the extraordinary founder and editor of Calamari Press, who convinced me that the stories added up to something. The stories were written during stretches of four summers and the better half of an autumn. The longer pieces took months and months to finish, but one of the shorter entries, “Fathering,” was written in just one week—I’d challenged myself to come up with something quick.
How do you feel this collection differs from your previous ones? To me, the stories seem a bit more narrative driven and perhaps more “accessible” than some of your previous work.
I guess it’s more accessible, or at least a little less willfully disingratiating than my other books, which had more than a touch of solipsism. Even in the lengthier of these new stories, despite their elliptical and fragmentary nature, there is something at least approximating an ongoingness of a sort, if not exactly a plot.
To what degree does your personal experience influence your stories?
To no degree at all, practically. I suffer from E.D.—Experience Deficit. Not much has ever happened to me, and I have never had much luck in making anything happen myself. Anyway, my personal life seems off limits, even to me at the center of it. Somebody should sell pocket-size lifetime diaries with just a quarter-page for each entire year—I could surely get my money’s worth out of one of those.
What is your process for beginning a story? Do you have a sense of what will take place when you begin?
I almost always begin with a mood, usually a new dip of sadness and maybe, at most, just a handful of words, none of which are likely to alight together on the same page. No characters or themes or settings or conflicts or any of the intro-to-lit tackle and fittings. And I’m pretty much limited to the zeroth-person point of view.
Your work often gives the impression of being driven, in some way, by language itself, and I wonder how that works when you are writing.
Almost everything starts with language. The narrators and characters just seem to set foot out of the syntax itself. I’m a lousy describer of the world and its people as they go through their commotions of growth and decay. Maybe I’m just not much of a noticer. I never got the knack of eye contact.
Your work seems to come from a dark place, and the narrators of your stories are often in a state of despair. The characters have terrible jobs and frustrating sex lives. Yet there are also a lot of jokes. The title of the collection before this one for example—I Looked Alive—captures the grimness and humor of your work. Do you consider yourself a pessimist?
I find that despair and slaphappiness are co-morbid states in whatever psychology gets itself stuck inside of the characters that arise on any page I’ve had my way with. I might not be the most happy-go-lucky of guys, though I laugh a lot, if not audibly or even observably. It was my tenth-grade algebra teacher who kept telling me to look alive.
Your sentences are famous for their energy and virtuosity, and you’ve said you want to write “narratives in which the sentence is a complete, portable solitude, a minute immediacy of consummated language.” Do you ever find it difficult to then make those sentences work in concert to form a larger narrative?
When I’m at work on a story, I never compose paragraphically. I write stand-alone sentences. I might fixate on three or four sentences a day. I’ll enlarge them to at least twenty-six-point type on the screen. I’ll futz around in their vitals, recontour their casings, and work a kind of reverse cosmetology on them to bring out any defining defects or birthmarks or swoonworthy uglinesses and whatnot. Only much later will one such sentence overcome its aloofness or diffidence and begin to make overtures to another sentence, which might be pages and pages away in the draft. The sentences eventually band together into paragraphs. The paragraphs, to me, are nervous little cliques or sororities of like-natured outcasts who put up with each other despite the friction. There’s a lot of rubbing the wrong way and very little mating of a peaceable kind. Getting something that might pass itself off as a story out of these uneasy alliances is in fact a pretty maddening and brutal ordeal. Among my deficiencies is a freaky neurological setup that keeps me from seeing wholes. So all I can see are parts, pieces, flickery fragments. I will never be up to writing a novel. It’s all I can do to even read one.
You teach at a college, and I wonder if you feel that your work as a teacher has affected your writing in any way.
I’m not sure that teaching is the word, but I do menial, lecternish things in classrooms. I’m just a drudge, really. This fall I have thus far graded eight hundred and sixty-three writing assignments, and if everybody turns in all of the remaining work, I will have graded one thousand and twenty-six by the end of the semester. That leaves no time or energy or concentration for so much as a fantasy about taking on the trouble of knocking two words together on my own. I’m not complaining.
What books and writers have been the most important to you in the development of your work?
I came to Virginia Woolf only very late, inexcusably late—mere months ago, in fact—but she has become the love of my readerly life. I don’t know how I managed to get through decade after decade with the dopey notion that her fiction was mostly teacups and knickknackery. Before her, the influential writers, for me, had been those belonging to what is sometimes loosely called the School of Lish—especially Christine Schutt and Sam Lipsyte—and urbane stylists and precisionists like Fitzgerald, Salinger, and Updike. These are the writers I reread. I need a writer who from the very first word can bear me away. I need gusto from the get-go.
Your stories have some qualities that one often associates with poetry—the careful weighing of each word in a sentence, intentional repetitions of certain themes and images. Do you read much poetry?
I worship John Ashbery. Who wouldn’t? But the kind of poetry that enthralls me seems to be found more reliably in short-story collections than in poetry books. Something must have happened, because a lot of poets seem to have stopped writing poetry and started making poetry-shaped textured vegetable protein, or prose patties, or something. A lot of the stuff seems to have come straight off a freezer truck.
You’ve cited Barry Hannah as writer who is important to you.
I chanced upon Barry Hannah’s Ray on the “New Books” shelves in the library of the sad-sack campus where I sat through grad school in the late seventies and early eighties. I withdrew the book simply because I was in the mood for something short, something large of type and lavish of margin. I had never heard of Hannah before, nor had I heard of his editor, Gordon Lish, who later became my editorial savior. Ray baffled me and shook me up and tore away at me and persuaded the part of me that had always wanted to be a writer that the time might have come to pack it all in.