Before I conducted the following interview with Garielle Lutz, I knew what all of her readers have long known: she is one of our finest prose writers and one of our most powerful describers of atomized American life. She transforms seemingly insignificant activities—the pocketing of change, the clicking of a pen to pass the time, the watching for a car to arrive in a parking lot—into extraordinary fiction. For many years now, her writing has vivified the otherwise discounted moments of our lives.
What I did not know was how cool she was, how gently she would correct my misreadings of her work, and how many wonderful anecdotes she would be willing to share in this short interview.
Lutz’s new collection, Worsted, is now available from SF/LD Books. Lutz is also the author of The Complete Gary Lutz. Her work has recently appeared in Post Road and Southwest Review.
Marcus Pactor: While most fiction leaps from drama to drama, yours often attends to mundane experiences: the sound a person makes when they stand up from a chair in an auto shop’s waiting room, the way a student’s hand guides a pen across a piece of paper. What compels you to document such experiences so thoroughly and precisely?
Garielle Lutz: I think there’s already confidential drama aplenty in how someone puts her heart and soul into shifting her weight from one foot to the other not a minute too soon, or resituates herself a few inches farther from the only window in a room. I try to do justice to momentous off-the-record adjustments of just that sort. There are quantities of intimate conflict in how the door to an apartment across a hallway can stay shut all day.
MP: On the other hand, a number of your descriptions of mundanity escalate without warning into wonderfully bonkers activity. Maybe my favorite of these sudden escalations occurs in “A Low-Hanging Towel,” when the man downgrades his bathing aids from bath salts and foams to newspapers and cake mixes. How do you decide where and when these bonkers moments will work, or do you discover them in the course of writing?
GL: I’m not sure things like that even count as bonkers. I just think of them as things that come up in daily life, little domestic improvisations, different ways of going about the hours, of making one’s way through the day as if it’s just another crawlspace. (Things like that might be the only traces of autobiographica in my fiction.) Case in point: I haven’t vacuumed my place in years, because of an incident over a decade ago that resulted in two visits from firemen in the space of a couple of hours. Instead, I take an old sock and rub it with maximal indolent force across little spans of the carpet, collecting everything that comes along (I’m always surprised by how many tiny lengths of broken pasta, sometimes only a brittle eighth of an inch of it, get tracked far and wide, especially since I almost never make pasta). I brush everything into little piles about two feet from each other, then use my fingers to scoop up the collectings and deposit them into a plastic supermarket bag, then use the sock again to sweep together whatever I hadn’t been able to pick up with my fingers the first time, then repeat until one zone of the carpet looks speckless enough. This can take hours. I seem to be doing even more of this these days, because of the pandemic. Acquaintances sometimes ask what I do with my time, as if I can make anything of it or from it other than letting it do what it will do regardless—gliding past me on some days, clearing me completely on others. I don’t have time on my hands. I try not to let any of it get on me.
MP: You are as well-known as any American writer for both your sentences and your thoughts about sentences. Yet, so far as I know, the last record of your sentence-related thoughts was published in 2016, in “The Poetry of the Paragraph.” Have your thoughts about sentences and paragraphs and their elemental roles in fiction evolved since then? How so? And which emerging writers of sentences do you admire?
GL: Over the years, I accepted a few invitations to give craft talks, and then I naturally had to come up with something. I had to fill three-quarters of an hour of podium time. That wasn’t easy, especially for someone like me, who has never had any theories about anything, who doesn’t know how to manage abstractions, and who has always proceeded by intuition. So I felt obligated to try formalizing something that to me felt impossible to reduce to precepts, and I kept getting more frustrated. Then I hit on the idea of looking closely at some sentences and paragraphs I had long admired and then trying to reverse-engineer them, trying to figure out how they might have come into being. On some podcast a few years later, I heard the writer of one of those sentences, a writer whose work I worship, remark that my explanation about the sentence had been a little “fancy,” and I am sure I was also way off-base about the other excerpts I had tried to discuss. But I’d accepted the invitations and had to show up to read my printouts aloud and get the whole thing over with. One evening, after one of those talks, I thought I’d probably be invited out for a drink, but as we were leaving the building, the inviter turned to me and said, “Oh, I just remembered I gotta go home.” I decided not to try writing anything about that subject ever again, so there’s just that grotesquerie of a lecture about sentences and that other thing about paragraphic lyricism. Anyone who wants to learn about sentences should study what people have written about having taken classes with Gordon Lish. (The most extensive set of notes I’ve ever seen is on the website of Tetman Callis.) Gordon Lish is the only person I’ve ever known who could make perfect sense about sentences and the threatening clarities that a sentence can occasion. Among young, recent writers who are more than up to the challenge of writing sentences of crucial and delirious truth I’d include you and David Nutt and Greg Gerke and Vi Khi Nao.
MP: One of your most distinctive sentence-writing methods is to transfigure a word beyond its conventional grammatical limits. And, like much of your previous work, hardly a page of Worsted lacks a delightfully mutated word like “strangeningly” or “assassinative.” These words rewire readers’ perceptions of the story world, and they naturally add to the acoustical density of the sentence in which they have been set. But is it only sound that leads you to reshape a word? What else, if anything, is involved in your process of transfiguration?
GL: We’ve got so many words in English, yet the language so often seems to come up short when we’re trying to get something definitively and settledly said. I rarely make up words (strangeningly is one), and I get a kick out of fusspot affixation, but mostly I like to do what little I can to give new life to words that have dropped out of use. The best source of availingly expressive but obsolete words is Merriam-Webster’s New International Dictionary, second edition, from 1934, which some writers and editors still consider the high-water mark in the history of American lexicography. It was in that welcoming hulk of a dictionary that I found assassinative. And in smaller type at the foot of almost each page you’ll find six columns of words that were falling out of use when the dictionary was printed. In that verbicultural basement of sorts is where I found terribility, which I used in one story and much prefer to the workaday terribleness, which looks and sounds ungainly to me. Precarity is all over the place these days—it’s a modern word, dating back to only 1910 (according to the scholars at Merriam-Webster), but I find it pretty hideous; it looks like a word you might expect to find in a primer on back-alley dentistry. I would much rather go with precariousness, which has been around since 1664. I think the words we want are out there somewhere. We’ve simply fallen out of touch with a lot of them.
MP: I am always drawn to stories with radical forms and shifts like “Rules for Tenants” and “Chalazion.” The former piece veers from mangled legalism to my-finger-in-your-face accusation to wondrous portraiture of apartment life. The narrator of “Chalazion” comes and goes until the last third of the piece, when they and their business are cast aside entirely in favor of a third-person story about a woman who wants people to quit mistaking her for a store employee. Did you envision these forms and shifts before writing, or did they come together in the process of work? How was the writing of these pieces different, if at all, from your usual methods?
GL: Funny you should mention those two pieces, because both were candidates for the cutting-room floor. One reader told me, “Those are the ones I’d be tempted to skip,” and that must have settled it for me; in they stayed. Both pieces are based on paragraphic scatter found in castoff drafts that go as far back as four decades. I found them in reamy heaps in boxes taped shut at the back of an impassable walk-in closet during a spell of wondering whether the time had come to start throwing stuff out. I’d been recording apartmentality in all its grossening and morbid forms since first living in roach-replete efficiency quarters in my early twenties. (A telephone came with that place, but it was good for incoming calls only. To make a call, I’d have to mosey off to a pay phone a couple of blocks away. The door to my apartment wasn’t hinged securely; I’d sometimes come home and find it swinging open a little.) In “Rules for Tenants” I tried to present a kind of exploded view of the explodent loneliness and recreational miseries and bitter gastricity of people stacked up in tenantship in some brute of a building in a lesser city whose skyline is mostly notional. “Chalazion” is mostly about that same subcohort of unlovelies once they’ve ventured outside for some employment or for a bit of pairing off for the nonce. The little episodes or sketches were snipped out of dimming dot-matrix printouts and cropped further and then shoved next to each other until the friction felt right.
MP: In the title story, the narrator’s feeling for and relationship with Doroth is more successful than any other relationship I can remember in your work. Rather than fade into nothing, this relationship culminates in something like a not-entirely-unhappy approximation of marriage. The narrator’s wonder at their fortune rings true because of its rarity in your oeuvre. If my reading of all this is way off, will you please set me straight? If it’s somehow even close to correct, what elements in the story led you to its singular I ending?
GL: I can’t be too sure of that—I was under the impression that from a number of angles the narrator’s life was pretty much shot to hell by the final page—but it’s all open to interpretation. That story is the longest piece of fiction I’ve ever written, and I never before imagined a relationship of such duration and emotional scope, so I can understand your perspective on it, especially in contrast to the fate lines of the self-weary troublers coupling destructively through other stories of mine. The narrator and Doroth do seem to have rummaged around in each other to better desperate effect than any infatuates I tried writing about before.
In 2011, Marcus Pactor won the Subito Press Prize for his short story collection, Vs. Death Noises. His second collection, Begat Who Begat Who Begat, is forthcoming from Astrophil Press. His work has most recently appeared or is forthcoming in The Collagist, (b)OINK, X-R-A-Y, and Heavy Feather Review.