When I first came to New York from Oklahoma, most of my reading list had been relegated to the classics and a few copies of Penthouse Letters I’d looked at with Talmudic intensity. It wasn’t all my fault. The only novel I’d had to read in high school was The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and the community college I’d attended while fighting with women and working odd jobs hadn’t required too much, either. Ivanhoe may have been a requisite. Contemporary fiction, to me, meant Raymond Carver, who had spent the last twenty years dodging controversy from the grave…though I doubt he cares. If you ever want to feel stupid for a time—if you ever want to drag yourself down through that sort of dark social experiment of the heart in a city where everyone is sparkling and thin and wants to know something—I beg you go to a New York City reading, complete with your Southwestern drawl and your awkward ways, and mention the short stories of Raymond Carver as the next hot thing. It could be said that I spent some nights drinking alone, though it was nothing new and I’m not sure I am worse for it.
But, but, but: New York is not as hard as the best crime shows would have you believe. Almost as an act of charity, the writers I would meet hesitantly began to dole out lists of the writers I needed to be reading, with many of the usual suspects being young literati making headlines across the literary scene. There was a period of trial and error, nights spent in public libraries in the discovery of the next great literary star. Most of the writers were on the right lists. I did not like most of them. I felt like I had read them before, better incarnations from earlier times in which people knew how to tell a story if only because there wasn’t much better to do and people had learned to be good at it. A good night meant telling stories and dancing the Charleston and not too much else. Or this is how I picture it, which is likely all wrong.
The most intriguing name on this revolving list, for me, was Gary Lutz. He didn’t seem to have the grand commercial draw that most of the other writers on the list had, though his name was being given to me twice as often and with the greatest of intensity from both fans and detractors. By this time he’d published three collections—Stories in the Worst Way, I Looked Alive, and A Partial List of People to Bleach, though he has a fourth collection, Divorcer, forthcoming from Calamari Press in October 2011—and he had been published in all of the places that would later go on to reject me: journals like NOON, Conjunctions, Unsaid, Fence, New York Tyrant, and The Believer, to name a few. He had received a literature grant from the National Endowments for the Arts by then, but it felt like the way to best get your hands on his stuff was through the back roads of some literary black market. My copy of A Partial List of People to Bleach came to me through the mail looking not unlike a pamphlet of Communist propaganda: hard-colored, with staples through the spine. It became clear to me that if Gary Lutz was not yet a household name, almost every writer in New York was keeping an eye on what he was doing, if somewhat nervously. Even those writers who didn’t “get” Lutz’s work seemed to have read his books three or four times, and that interested me.
What I found did not disappoint, though I had never read anything quite like it. There was an attention and care given to syntax and to sentences that I did not understand, but I could not turn away. In one of those fictions from A Partial List of People to Bleach, “Six Stories,” Lutz’s protagonist says, “I kept waiting for someone to say something in a language that wasn’t shot.” And with Gary’s writing, you know exactly what that means. His fiction does not contain those stock phrases or predictable blocks of words that the mind has learned to chew through only to discard. There is flesh and bone, something like a meal. There is an exactness of syllables and sound at the forefront, sure, but there is also an underlying humanity that drives the heart of each of his stories. “What could be worse than having to be seen resorting to your own life?” Lutz writes in Stories in the Worst Way. What can I tell you? If you’ve never felt that, then you’re not a man, so go back to mother.
I began setting up my interview with Mr. Lutz almost a year ago, but the details and our schedules—he has one, I don’t—put us a little bit off our intended time frame…but the wait was well worth it. We discussed a variety of topics, including writing programs, Gordon Lish, Barry Hannah, first and last sentences, punctuation, plot, place names in stories, et cetera, and I can honestly say there’s probably not another writer working today who I would rather talk to more about sentences and the art of composition. If great writing is in any way akin to pornography—if it is one of those things that can only been known when seen—Gary Lutz is startling and brave and pornographic in his descriptions of life and the human heart. His words seep from the inside out and leave a stain. His work is part attention and part devilry, touched with a particularity of difference that makes the world alien and new through his eyes. If you don’t know him, you’ve been held hostage long enough. Now is the time.
The Fiddleback: A lot has been made about the proliferation of creative writing programs across the country. Many writers have come out openly to declare MFA programs a blessing or a joke. While you have taught creative writing courses sparingly, I have it on good authority that you are an excellent instructor and also know that you often credit Gordon Lish for teaching you “whatever [you] might know about writing.” With those things in mind, what can be taught in a writing class? What cannot? Do you perceive any outstanding flaws within the workshop system?
Gary Lutz: I’m afraid I live far outside the circumference of the debate. I have never studied in an MFA program, and I’m too inexperienced with workshops to have ever formed an opinion one way or another. But I recall that when the question of what can be taught was posed to Donald Barthelme, his answer, famously, was “notions of the lousy.” That response says almost everything to me. The exception, as always, of course, is Gordon Lish. There is nothing about the art of writing—from the macro level to the micro—that he has not taught, and he has taught with a passionate precision that continues to haunt his students for decades afterward. But a teacher like him comes sublimely along maybe once in a century.
The Fiddleback: We have both studied with Gordon Lish. At different times, former students have written scathing accounts of his lectures and teaching methods, occasionally depicting him as a rigid and demeaning taskmaster who may or may not give ample potty breaks. You and I, on the other hand, have admitted to enjoyable experiences. I am very sure I would be plowing a wheat field or mopping a floor somewhere in Oklahoma had I not met him, for better or for worse. If you had not met Gordon Lish, where would you be? And what’s to be made of these conflicting accounts?
GL: I, too, have always found Gordon extraordinarily generous and deep-hearted and inspirational. I wasn’t smart enough to catch on to even a fraction of what he was teaching, but were it not for my having studied with him, I would have never written any fiction, let alone a book or two. I am among the many he rescued. I have never encountered anyone else who cares as much about sentences. Those who vilify him were most likely offended by his refusal to dispense unmerited praise.
The Fiddleback: You are often noted for your ability to create marvelous first sentences. What, in your mind, makes for a good inaugural sentence?
GL: It has to sound as if it has never been said before and could have been said only by whoever is saying it. It has to sound as if there is nothing else for that person to do with what’s left of life except getting that one thing finally said.
The Fiddleback: Now that we’ve mentioned beginnings, can we talk about endings? What do you look for in an ending? How do your endings come to pass?
GL: I don’t so much arrive at an ending as get stuck there. The one place I can’t get out of—that’s where things always come to an end.
It is not in my nature to care about plots. I do not see storylines in life. Life hits me by the instant. My writing is a record of one instant after another, with causality mostly drained away. I am trying to describe how life and the world look and feel to me.
The Fiddleback: In the January 2009 issue of The Believer, you published a lecture on sentence-level writing entitled “The Sentence Is a Lonely Place” that has been met with varying degrees of acclaim and utter disdain throughout the writing community. Are there, in retrospect, any amendments you might add?
GL: Some readers may have mistaken that little piece for a manifesto, but it makes no such claims for itself. It isn’t an argument or a call to arms. The piece makes itself clear to be nothing more than an attempt to figure out how a few sentences by a few writers I have admired came into being. That’s all it is—a tiny talk about tiny things. When read aloud, it was supposed to last forty minutes. I have not looked at it or thought about it ever since the printed version came out.
The Fiddleback: In “The Sentence Is a Lonely Place,” you define consecution as “a recursive procedure by which one word pursues itself into its successor by discharging something from deep within itself.” It could be argued that both art and the very order of the natural world—if the Fibonacci sequence is to be believed—follow some degree of consecution. Have you discovered any notable pitfalls from your use of consecution? Are there ways in which consecution pervades a good story on more than the language level, or is it chiefly a guide for syntax and sound?
GL: Gordon Lish has talked at great, enthralling length about consecution. The term, as I understand it, refers to a procedure by which a writer might achieve astonishingly subtle forms of continuity—from word to word, from sentence to sentence, from paragraph to paragraph—that deepen the continuities attainable by grammatical, syntactical, and rhetorical means alone. Consecution remains, for me, a mystical ideal. Whatever consecution there might be in my fiction, however much of it is the result of conscious application of Lish’s principles, is limited, I guess, to acoustical patternings and the slowly forming typographical body of any sentence—the way the words and the characters constituting the words consummate their intimacy and together become one thing, something no longer divisible. But mine is a very narrow and elementary version of consecution, nothing like what goes on in Virginia Woolf’s The Waves, say, or in the work of Christine Schutt, whose practice of consecution reliably attains the profound.
The Fiddleback: I’ve read lots of interviews and articles in which you discuss parts of speech, syntax, and the like. How does punctuation play into all of this? Are there any thoughts, for instance, about the dash or the hyphen or the semicolon—or any other punctuation mark—which you keep in mind or carry with you? I’m reminded of Vonnegut characterizing semicolons as hermaphroditic.
GL: I once found myself invited to insert commas into the typescript of a book written by a writer who took pride in not knowing the first thing about punctuation. So I entered commas wherever there was reason enough to do so. I positioned the things for precision and nuance and for the good of the reader. I wanted to prevent unintended ambiguities and other wastes of a reader’s time. The writer screamed bloody murder. I have since learned to walk away from people throwing fits. I have also learned how easy—and often necessary—it is to stop reading almost everything.
The Fiddleback: Many of your contemporaries regard you as a master of language and syntax, a sentence-level writer with few if any peers. While this is a great honor, is this enough? Are there any particular aspects of fiction that trouble you or that you make an active effort to improve upon? What are your thoughts on character and story arc as you approach a new piece of work?
GL: I just do what my nervous system wants done or allows me to do. It is not in my nature to care about plots. I do not see storylines in life. Life hits me by the instant. My writing is a record of one instant after another, with causality mostly drained away. I am trying to describe how life and the world look and feel to me. The world has already been plentifully described otherwise. I have nothing to add to those descriptions and see no reason to try. Characterization is no concern of mine, either. The last thing I want to do is to bring somebody new into words. I practice birth control of a typographical kind.
The Fiddleback: You and I have a shared affinity for a short novel by Barry Hannah entitled Ray. Can you speak to the influence that Ray—or Barry Hannah in general—has had on your work? Have you had any flirtations with writing a short novel of its ilk? I know that the last time we spoke, you were attempting a longer piece of fiction.
GL: The closest I ever came to writing a short novel was a couple of summers ago, when I decided to use Roman numerals in lieu of titles for the segments in what was, for me, a story lengthier than usual. I have long been in awe of Barry Hannah’s work—the way he could be both brutal and tender within the confines of a single line, the way his diction bolts from one register to another within a single phrase.
The Fiddleback: It was once posited to me—rightly or wrongly—that the reason Barry Hannah was not taught more in university writing courses was because of the perception that his fictions have a tendency to be politically incorrect. What is the role of political correctness in the writing of fiction? Should it have a role?
GL: Writers ought to be exempted from the strictures of the politically correct, whatever that unsightly modifier might still mean to anyone. I included Ray on the list of assigned readings in a course I once had to teach. Almost everybody in the class hated the book (every book came in for a lot of hatred, but more of it seemed to be directed at that book than toward the other masterworks). It wasn’t because the book was politically incorrect, though. I think it was mostly because the book requires some degree of initiative from anyone holding the book open. We can’t fault a writer for writing for readers, but we can maybe fault some buyers of books for impersonating a reader.
The Fiddleback: You steer away from unnecessary names and counting within your stories, especially if the names and counting do not signify. This lack of specificity is alien to many readers. Are there specific instances within your work in which these numbers or names do feel important and necessary to the overall composition?
GL: I once sat very unhappily through a craft talk in which the writer urged the students to make use of place names in their poems. This writer really had a thing for place names. I was unhappy because the writer read some things that sounded a lot more like MapQuest printouts than poems. I like at least a little poetry in poetry.
Too many passages in contemporary fiction strike me as indistinguishable from passages in feature articles in glossy magazines. The overspecificity has a lot to do with the wearying similarity. What draws me to the fiction I read is the verbal presence, the intimacy, of the narrator, and not the details. Journalism is something I read for the details alone. (I’m not talking about literary journalism, naturally, and I am not talking about creative nonfiction, which, I keep being told, is not to be spoken of at all.) When I am reading fiction from decades ago, what I want is a sense of how it felt to feel oneself alive back then, not a depiction of what the world of those days looked like. There are already ample photographic records of that. Why bother doing what can be done so much better in another medium? Painters figured that out.
I feel no need for inventories, for head counts. Writers of fiction don’t need to take attendance. Isn’t it said that a mother duck cannot count her ducklings and cannot tell when one has strayed away? A writer of fiction should be more like a mother duck, in my ignorable estimation.
The Fiddleback: I once had the opportunity to sit in on a college-level writing class that had been assigned your stories on the same day that you were to give a lecture on the campus. Strong and polarizing constituencies began to form on many different issues related to your work. High on the list of circulating topics were the notions that you were either a genius or a madman, and that regardless of whichever one you may turn out to be, you would certainly bear some strong internal or external resemblances to your protagonists. This associating of the protagonist to the author: does this happen to you often? Why do you think this is or is not so? Without making any assumptions as to which question most applies to you, are there any dangers to writing fiction that draws heavily from life? Are there any dangers to writing fiction that does not draw heavily on life? Do you see yourself as polarizing?
GL: I am not one for drawing from life, especially my life, from which there has not been much to draw. Anyone seeking me out as a living embodiment of my fiction is going to end up awfully disappointed and possibly full of rue. I am none of the people I have written about. I am ordinary to the point of invisibility. I am also mostly nonverbal, and when I talk, I do not talk like my narrators. Have English teachers stopped teaching their students to avoid mistaking the narrator of story for the author? I seem to have lost track of what it is that English teachers do. I do not see myself as polarizing. Why should I have to see myself at all? That is somebody else’s affliction, not mine. I learned long ago how to prepare myself for a day without recourse to a mirror.