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Newly Fraught and Alien

Gary Lutz interviewed by David Winters.

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3:AM: I’ll begin with a question on what you’re most known for: your sentences. I first encountered your work relatively recently, when Ben Marcus put out your story ‘People Shouldn’t Have to be the Ones to Tell You’ in The Anchor Book of New American Short Stories (2004). For anyone unfamiliar, I’ll quote its opening gambit:

‘He had a couple of grown daughters, disappointers, with regretted curiosities and the heavy venture of having once looked alive.’

When I picked up this piece, I’d been looking for two things. First, a story to bear out my hunch that life is just something that’s done to you. Second, a prose that could claim at least some of the rigour of poetry — what you’ve since called a ‘poetics of the sentence.’ What struck me was the way you achieved both of these together, not merely ‘with’ but ‘through’ each other. Grammar and narrative seemed densely embedded, in a way that was rare and new. Could you say something about the relationship between story and sentence in your work? Does the story come first, or only later, as an emergent property of the ‘right’ syntactical arrangement? If it’s more important that words hang together than that they advance something, how do the stories themselves end up so compelling?

GL: I guess I write with the sentence as the unit mainly because my neurology seems to limit the reach or the scope of my apprehension of experience. Continuities and sweeps and ongoingnesses are often beyond my grasp both as a person and as someone touching words and arranging them into formations. Individual moments seem more within my capacity to capture. I can spend large blocks of time within the enclosure of a single sentence, so by the time I get finished with a sentence, there might be a lot of emotional stress on the words. I think there can be a kind of micro-narrative unfolding within a single sentence, and I think that emotions can surge in the tiniest sectors of a sentence; the story, to me, needs to be in the syntax itself, not outside it in plot points or story arcs or whatever they are called. When a few sentences of the sort I’m talking about get stacked into a paragraph, without transitional cushioning between them, there can be a halting and faltering effect, a bustle of emotion, that is faithful, at least, to my way of going through the world. My pieces seem to be built up out of those stackings and pilings-up. There’s nothing organic or natural about the procedure.

3:AM: Should I take it as read that the same rule holds true of your characters? The people who get caught up in your words, or fall foul of them, seem somehow ‘generic’, or interchangeable (I mean this as a compliment) and they famously fail to lay claim to biographies. A favourite example is this one, from ‘Mine’:

‘Do what I do: come from a family, have parents, have done things, shitty things, over and over and over.’

They remind me of characters in Beckett or Bernhard: it’s as if they ‘ventriloquize’ another, unnatural voice that has run itself into the grain of what’s going on. Maybe a character’s not much more than a knot or whorl in the workings of that voice. Does that sound accurate? Are you at all interested in seeking greater ‘depth’ or ‘variety’ of characterization? What’s the use of a character, for you?

GL: Talking about the possibility of there being characters in my fiction puts me a little ill at ease, because I almost never seem to think in those terms. But, having been invited to consider the matter, I can see that in the things I write, something or other achieves, for a short spell, a vocal state, a vocal condition, though the words soon enough drain out completely. I guess that if there are characters at all, they are bodies of language, and their limbs and lineaments are typographical. These verbal presences, call them what we must, have a hard time going into detail about themselves; things tend to come out in summary form, as if everything has already been concluded and can be recounted but not changed. I do not draw or crib from outer life, but sometimes I get the feeling I might be trespassing on some inner one of my own. I’ve never really thought about introducing a wider assortment of human doings into my writing; I wouldn’t want to have to invent or observe. I would rather not describe what’s out there. People, I imagine, can already see it for themselves.

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3:AM: If it’s true you intrude on an ‘inner’ life, where in your life does your writing come from? You’ve implied its emotional tenors and textures map onto your own. Is literature then a career, a craft, or maybe a dodge, a displacement, a window on what’s gone wrong? How does writing fit into your life, and what’s on your mind that draws you to do it?

GL: My writing isn’t a career or a craft or a hobby or anything like that. It is more like a tiny annex to my life, a little crawl space in which I occasionally end up by accident in the dark. Cramped quarters can be a great place to call up one’s vocabulary and try to find words to mate with one’s feelings. John Ashbery once said his poetry is about “the experience of experience.” Maybe my writing is about the trauma of trauma.

3:AM: Ashbery’s name often occurs in the same breath as yours. You’re also linked to the likes of Sam Lipsyte, Christine Schutt, and others connected to Gordon Lish. I don’t want to put you in some kind of ‘school’, but how do you feel about this as a context for reading your work? What’s more, is your relation to Lish one of clear-cut ‘influence’, or are there ever any shades of anxiety, or ambivalence?

GL: Gordon Lish is one of only two or three persons about whom I have never felt any ambivalence, and he is the only person from whom I have ever learned anything worth knowing. I took his class six or seven times. My regret is that my intelligence was too limited for me to absorb everything he said. Some of his students, such as Christine Schutt and Sam Lipsyte, obviously absorbed it all. The only downside of having studied with him — it’s ultimately not a downside, though, and I’ve heard much the same thing from others who have taken his class — is that almost every book or story or sentence begins to look feeble and unfinished. Very few literary performances can measure up to what he expects and what his students learn to expect.

3:AM: You’ve touched elsewhere on your taste in film, citing directors like Kelly Reichardt and Eric Rohmer. A picture like, say, Pauline à la plage is (unless I’m wrong) a smoothly plotted work, without obvious formal novelty. Your writing, by contrast, seems to have a stake in its materiality — it wants (I think) to flag up the thickness of its form. If this is true, does it signal a difference between writing and film, for you? What can one do that the other can’t?

GL: Time moves differently in movies (especially if you are watching the film in a theater, and not at home with the remote control) than it does in sentences on the page. In the theater, the movie is unstoppable. The sentence, if it is doing every one of its jobs, does not want you to desert it for another. It wants you to peer into each of its words, into the characters that form it, and the sentence wants you to consider the relations, acoustical and otherwise, between one word and another. The sentence wants to slow you down so that you might witness everything the writer has caused to happen inside it. Chance and randomness and accident should have little or no part in what goes on inside the sentence. But in a movie, even the most carefully considered shot can introduce unintended and sometimes undesired bits of imagery, abrupt whims of the weather, and suchlike, that are extraneous to the vision of the director and cinematographer. The writer has a more effective filter and can exert complete control over everything that fits into the frame of her sentence. The filmmaker determines the rhythm of the viewer’s experience when the film is viewed in a theater, and that’s one reason why I think movies are better suited to storytelling than sentences and paragraphs are. It’s the reader who determines the rhythm of her experience with sentences on the page.

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3:AM: Your story ‘This is Nice of You’ featured in John Yau’s Fetish collection. Would it make sense to speak of a ‘fetish’ at play in your work? I’m not sure I mean something sexual, so much as a force of obsessive attachment, whether focused on people, objects (a strand of hair; a shade of paint in ‘Meltwater’) or words. Even reading these pieces feels, in a way, fetishistic. One fails to exhaust them, returning to rework one’s mouth on their language. Does any of this ring true for you?

GL: The narrators in my fiction seem to find ways to devote themselves absorbingly to whatever’s available in the limited and limiting orbits of their lives, and the devotion is often to things, preferably organic, discarded or sloughed off by another person in passing. The narrators seem to either import into these things a lot of rogue emotion of their own or try to squeeze something of sustenance from them; something they can import into their own emotional system. The narrators are attachers and fixaters, and their obsession is not only with the things themselves (usually parts of something larger and not anything entire unto itself) but with the words that name the things, and there’s a tendency to bend or deform a word, often by forcing onto it a prosthetic prefix or suffix, an artificial appendage that disables the word from doing its usual business. Yes, I think there might be some fetishizing of language going on. The words begin to lose their workaday lexicality in the mind and in the mouth. The aim seems to be to invade the word, despoil it, drain out the signification, then load the word anew and leave it looking and sounding newly fraught and alien.

3:AM: I’m put in mind of the ending of ‘Daught’, with its redefinition of ‘daughter’ as ‘a person, pushedly female, who daughts.’ This may well be a case of what critics call ‘baring the device,’ but is it also, more simply, a punchline? What could you say about the status of humour in your stories?

GL: I’ve never enjoyed narrative-form jokes, but I love one-liners, and the rhythms and cadences of one-line gags have often found their way into things I write. I think there’s much humour in my fiction, despite how sad or despairing it may seem to some readers.

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3:AM: You have a new collection forthcoming from Calamari Press, called Divorcer. I’ll leave this question wide open: what can we expect?

GL: Divorcer seems to be more unified than my other collections, because all of the entries are about the disintegration of relationships of various kinds and the anguish of breakups. It might be more sorrowing than my other books, and it was written during a shorter span of time.

ABOUT THE INTERVIEWEE
Gary Lutz is the author of Stories in the Worst Way, I Looked Alive, Partial List of People to Bleach, and Divorcer.

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ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER
David Winters is a writer of fiction and criticism.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Thursday, July 14th, 2011.