I was never a big Gary Lutz fan. There. I’ve said it. I had a couple of his books on my bookshelf, but I didn’t read them. Or I read a story here, a story there. Over the years. I was aware. I got it. (I thought.) Language. These books and stories and this author are about language. I get it. I didn’t care (that much) about language. (I thought.)
Then last summer I opened up submissions for Short Flight/Long Drive (SF/LD) Books. I read a bunch of slush. Nothing really did it for me. I mean, lots of things were interesting (books, I mean) but nothing made me have to publish it. (When you only publish a book or two a year, the books have to make you publish them.) I’d been reading slush a good six to eight weeks when I logged in late one night and saw the name Gari Lutz in the slush. I did a little shiver thing I do when I’m surprised or caught off guard. I shivered, even though it was seventy-five degrees at night. Was this the Gary Lutz? Or an imposter? Why was Gary spelled Gari? I didn’t get it. I thought someone was playing a practical joke. But as soon as I clicked open the document, I knew it had to be Gary. Or Gari. Lutz. No one can write like this as a joke. No one can write like this. Still, it was a bit of a mystery. Why was Gary or Gari Lutz submitting to SF/LD slush? Why not just email me directly? Or someone better/bigger than me? I didn’t get it. But I read the manuscript – the stories that are Worsted (best title ever, by the way!) – and I emailed Gari.
Since that time I have become a huge Garielle Lutz fan. I fell in love with the stories in Worsted at the same time I was falling in love with Gari. Not, like, erotic, romantic love. Like, best friends love. Like, talk multiple times a day love. Like, when I read anything critical of Gari now, I get really, really mad and want to fight people because they are obviously ignorant and don’t know Gari because anyone who knows Gari knows she is the kindest, most generous, loyal, funny, down-to-earth, devoid of ego, humble, kind – did I say kind? - writer I have ever met. Not to mention hugely talented. I think the hugely talented part goes without saying but, there, I’ve said it. She is hugely talented and she is very kind and when Worsted comes out very late this year, do yourself a favor, and pick it up. You will laugh out loud a lot. I promise.
Let’s talk first about your name change because I think people might be confused or just not know about it, especially since the Tyrant book just came out in December under the name Gary Lutz. Would you like to explain when and why you changed your name and your preferred pronoun?
“Gary” always felt like a misnomer to me, something I had to put up with to keep the peace. When I started writing, I tried to think of “Gary” as a harmless pseudonym I could eventually shuck off. But I’m now way too far along in life to allow that name to keep sticking to me. Even as a boy, I was a girl—a weird, quiet, drab, indrawn, friendless, double-jointed but clumsy-walking, Lennon-loving, eye-contact-avoidant, oppressively homely girl everyone kept their distance from and no doubt had reason enough to fear.
As I say in the introduction, I found your manuscript (Worsted) in the slush pile!! I think most people, like myself, would be shocked to find a “Gari Lutz manuscript” in their slush. You later told me you doubted I’d want it and you’d planned to just put it out through Amazon yourself when/if you never heard back from me. Ha. This floored me. (I think you heard back from me within days, maybe a day? I don’t remember. but soon!) Do you have no awareness of your own name recognition and of the passionate fan base for your work?
Yeah, I was going to self-publish Worsted as an e-book on Amazon. It seemed like the quickest and simplest way to go, and I figured that anybody who was interested in my writing would eventually find the book easily enough. Then, while fooling around online one day, I saw that SF/LD had an open-submission period, so I decided to submit the book as Gari. I had no expectation of hearing back, so I was thrilled when you e-mailed me a few days later. You said that at first you thought somebody was impersonating me!
You also have no agent and almost never send your work out to journals or magazines. You seem to possess almost no ego, that I can tell, at least. Or the smallest ego I’ve ever encountered in another writer, certainly in a writer as celebrated as yourself. How do you explain all of this, Gari?!?
I can’t imagine I’m the sort of writer an agent would want to have anything to do with. Doesn’t everybody have an ego, though? I mean, doesn’t an ego come standard with the human psyche? I have no illusions about myself—or at least I hope not. In the past few months, two women who love dogs and who know me very well (but don’t know each other) told me I’m a lot like a dog. I can definitely see the dog in me.
What I noticed most when reading your manuscript (Worsted) aside from your vast knowledge of the English language and grammar (good luck trying to edit, Gari, anyone! She wrote a book on grammar!) is the sly but often guffaw-inducing humor. I don’t think I realized, or that you’re given enough credit for, the extent of your humor in your work. Or maybe this book is funnier than the others? which do you think it is? and do you feel funny? when you write and in general as a person? are you drawn to humorous writers and people?
I’ve always thought of my fiction as funny. I’m always surprised that some readers don’t seem to get the jokes. One reviewer of my first book wrote that even cheerful people would want to blow their brains out after reading it. For a while in my thirties, before I started writing fiction again (I’d quit after grad school), I was writing one-liners and submitting them to those joke sheets that radio stations used to subscribe to (one was called Orben’s Current Comedy; I’m not sure if it’s still around), so that the DJs would sound funny. I never managed to break into that world. (I sold two gags.) A few years ago, I agreed to be publicly interviewed at a bookstore in Brooklyn after a few other writers had read some of their work as part of a literary journal’s tenth anniversary. The other writers were pretty serious, so when the interviewer started asking me questions, something came over me, and I improvised a kind of stand-up routine about the comforting permanence of divorce, how it’s one of the few things in life you can count on lasting forever. I think I just ended up baffling everybody! I love to laugh, I love people who make me laugh, and I still keep joke books around, though most of the jokes aren’t funny, at least to me. And I love S.J. Perelman’s early books.
I think it’s probably common knowledge your chief influence is the infamous editor Gordon Lish. What could you say about Gordon that no one else has said? or what personally drew you to him as a sort of mentor/editor/teacher? Did he ever make you cry and is being made to cry maybe a good thing, on occasion?
I took the courses that Gordon was teaching at Indiana University (in Bloomington) for a few summers. They were five-day, all-day improvised lectures. A week or so before I drove out there for the first class (it was the longest drive I’d ever taken at that point in my life), he’d told me that he was going to put me under contract at Knopf. I was such a disappointment to him during that first class, though, that he changed his mind about the contract, in front of all the other students. I was staying at a Motel 6 at the edge of town and was crying to my friends over the phone every night. (I’m all for crying, as long as it’s sincere. I can always count on writing to drive me to tears.) By the time I left Bloomington, I knew I was finished. But I didn’t completely give up—I rented a box at Mailboxes Unlimited in a town about forty-five minutes from where I was living, and I started sending him stories under the name Lynn Schuyler, though there was no fooling him. Within a year, it dawned on me that he picks on people only if he knows they can take it and only if he knows that it will shake them up improvingly. And “picking on” isn’t the right phrase: what he does is inspire and incite. What might not be widely enough known about Gordon is that he is extraordinarily kind, loyal, supportive, generous, and sweet.
On a similar note, it may not be known you, for a short time?, were a mentor or guide of sorts to Ottessa Moshfegh. Did you know then, how many years ago? she would be a big stand out writer one day? have you, like I, read all her books more than once and maybe even once or twice drooled on them? (Hi, Ottessa! Hit me up when you decide to lose Luke for a real woman. j/k.)
Oh, no, I was never her mentor or guide. When I met Ottessa, it was as plain as day that she was a genius of the rarest kind. There’s nothing I could have taught her or told her that she would not have already long known. In fact, she could have been teaching me. We got together for lunch and dinner a few times in the early aughts when I was in New York, and one summer we e-mailed a lot. She was already a fully formed, entirely original, hilarious, and heartbreakingly wise writer, and it was clear to me that she was going to be the literary star of the century.
Who is another writer(s) you have drooled over? that you keep coming back to/look forward to reading?
Among the other living writers I’ll never get my fill of are Christine Schutt, who to me is the supreme poet of our era (though of course it’s technically fiction that she writes) and Sam Lipsyte, the funniest and most observant writer on earth (he’s the only one who reliably makes me laugh), and James Wolcott. As for writers no longer with us, I’m afraid I’m a goner for Jean Rhys.
OH! I was so excited when I discovered you and I share a love of John O’Hara –Appointment in Samarra, BUtterfield 8, Pal Joey, a zillion New Yorker stories, and on and on. What book of his did you read first and what was it about his writing that made you want to read more? For me it was Appointment in Samarra and its wit and its ending. It has one of the most visual, memorable endings of any novel I’ve ever read. And somehow he can make the most devastating moment feel equally light and comical as well as heartbreaking and heavy.
It was O’Hara’s stories I started reading first, and at first I wasn’t crazy about them, but that’s only because I didn’t yet know enough of the world and couldn’t appreciate just how completely he understood people. Early on, I was reading him mostly because I was homesick (I grew up about forty-eight miles from him, and he often wrote about the neck of the woods I was missing). I eventually read the early novels (I’m actually rererereading BUtterfield 8 right now, and I reread Appointment in Samarra about once a year [it’s my pick for the Great American Novel]). Of the New Yorker’s three big Johns (Cheever, Updike, O’Hara), O’Hara soon became the biggest to me.
Is now a good point in the interview to talk about Michelle Williams? You and I first struck up a conversation or friendship years ago – ten years ago? more? – in discussing the movie Wendy and Lucy, which you said you watched on repeat hundreds of times? What is it about Michelle that draws you to her as an actress and what is it that you get out of watching the same film over and over? More recently we talked about both watching the Before Sunrise/Before Sunset series on repeat … do you want to speak to what draws you to those movies, also? Julie Delpy being another of your favorite actresses …
Michelle Williams and Julie Delpy—and Rebecca Hall!—are definitely my favorite actors. Their intelligence and warmth and emotional depth really get to me, and I’m not someone who ever before had any cinematic heroes or crushes. I remember when you and I were talking about Wendy and Lucy during the month or so I was on Facebook, over a decade ago. I’d been watching that movie almost every night for well over a year, and I was relieved to learn I wasn’t the only person who just couldn’t stay away from it. (I love—and require—lots of repetition. Watching movies over and over isn’t appreciatively different from listening to a song on repeat, which is the only way I listen to music. There are lots of albums—even great ones—I’ve never listened to all the way through, because I keep wanting to hear just one song again and again and again.) I recommended another movie to you at the time—oh, no: it was just a clip from a movie I had sent you a link to—and you found it upsetting. I guess I’m just drawn to downers. But I really love the Before movies, too, and there’s some joy and light in those. I’d love the fourth movie to find Celine and Jesse holed up with their kids in Paris during the pandemic and driving each other beautifully crazy.
Maybe at some point – now? – we should talk about your new book Worsted that I’m unbelievably thrilled to publish at the end of this year through SF/LD Books. It’s a collection of all new short stories – none of them ever previously published? Except, of course, today, here on Hobart. When did you start writing it/the stories in it? And how is this collection/these stories different – in your mind – from your previous collections/stories?
Well, my collected-Gary-stories book was originally going to be brought out in hardcover by my dream publisher. (The dream went as far back as my high-school days.) I’d accepted the offer but then withdrew after I learned that the publishers of my previous books (small, labor-of-love indie presses) would be required to cease reprinting and selling them. So that was that. I very happily went instead with wonderful Giancarlo DiTrapano, at Tyrant Books. After that book was in galleys, I opened a heavily sealed box at the back of a closet and found hundreds of faint printouts of pieces I’d started writing as far back at the 1990s (when I was working on Stories in the Worst Way) but never finished and only dimly recalled. Those became the foundation of Worsted, and Worsted became my longest single story collection. All of the stories include sentences written decades apart. Worsted—I’m ecstatic that you’re going to publish it!—doesn’t seem to be as cryptic or oblique as my “Gary” books; the air in it might be a little easier to breathe.
How do you respond (inwardly or publicly) to criticism? Of your work or of you as a person? Do you read/follow your reviews and what people might say about you on social media and such. (You don’t have any social media, do you? Just Facebook?) And do you ever wonder how your work would be received if you had chased the bigger presses/gotten an agent/etc.? Does it matter, do you think? The size of the press publishing your work? the size of your audience?
I can’t imagine there will ever be a large readership for the fiction I write, but I’m very grateful to the people who do read it. I know that some people really, really hate my stuff. I don’t have any social-media accounts, but it’s easy enough to read what gets posted about my writing.
Until very very recently you taught at a small branch campus in a small town in Pennsylvania. How many years and what courses did you teach and sort of similar question to above: why didn’t you try to get a showier job teaching at a big time university in a bigger city for more money and maybe a slightly bigger apartment? Surely you could have gotten a job at a university in NYC. What drew you to stay in a tiny Midwest city instead?
I’ve never been the right person to be teaching writing, or anything else for that matter. In fact, by the time this interview goes online, I will have given up for good. I’ve been flailing in classrooms since the fall of 1983 (though I’ve lost count of how many leaves of absence I’ve taken over the years). I’ve taught all varieties of freshman composition, and business writing, and a grammar-and-copyediting course. I taught creative writing only a few times. I wasn’t any good at it. I would have crashed and burned if I ever ended up teaching fiction-writing at a prestigious school, though at one elite place where I was interviewed, the L-shaped faculty office they showed me would have been roomy enough to live in very comfortably (there was even a sectional sofa in there). And if I lived in Manhattan or Brooklyn, I’d just be walking the streets all the time and getting nothing done. I get little enough done in suburban Pittsburgh, because the streets of Pittsburgh keep pulling me onto them. Pittsburgh is a woefully underappreciated city. I sometimes hear it referred to as NYC’s seventh borough (Philly is the sixth).
I think the one word most associated with the name (former name) Gary Lutz (now) Gari Lutz is language. How important to you is language and is there anything else as important, to you, in writing? And is it the same with the books you read?
I think language is so important to me because it was such a struggle for me to learn it. As a kid, I had no aptitude for words, or for anything, and my report cards (which I recently chanced upon after about four decades) prove it. I got lousy grades in writing, reading, spelling, everything. And I was not a vocal child. If I were in elementary school now, I’d probably be diagnosed as autistic by the end of the first couple of weeks (I didn’t get diagnosed until I was fifty-nine) and as learning-disabled (though I’ve never been tested for ADHD). When I read, it’s almost always the language I’m paying attention to—the sentences, the clauses, the phrases, the words, the letters in the words, the punctuation marks. The exception is when I’m reading John O’Hara—I read him to try to learn everything about human nature.
Recently I was reading Andy Warhol’s Diaries (3rd time!) and his voice reminded me somewhat of you, his wit or something, something about the way he observed people. Also, it said at the very end, almost the last sentence in the book, that when he went into the hospital the final time, he was able to recite for the nurse his health card number from heart. No one else in her experience had ever done that. That felt, to me, like something you might do. Do you know your health insurance number by heart, Gari? Do you keep a diary?
During my high-school and undergraduate years, Warhol was my hero and my role model. One reason was that he wasn’t especially verbal. I loved the halting way he talked. Other reasons were the way he dressed (at the second Factory, when he started wearing suit jackets), his work ethic, his pallor, his obsession with Truman Capote (another person I worshipped), and his clammy embrace of the whole Woolworthy world. I was done in when he died. I don’t know my health-card number by heart, but I’m less than half a year away from Medicare, and I think Medicare numbers are identical to Social Security numbers, and that’s a number I do know. I usually can’t remember even my cellphone number, though that’s the only phone number I still have. I’m not good with numbers of any sort, but friends are always surprised by how well I remember the tiniest and least dirty of the diurnal details they’ve divulged to me over the years. I was never a diarist, though I think of all the letters, faxes, and e-mails I’ve sent as a kind of running diary. A couple of hundred decades-old letters have been returned to me, and another couple of hundred will be on their way soon. They’re part of an elliptical memoiristic thing I’ve been fooling with.
Finally, what is it about Burger King that you love so much and have you been able to get Burger King now that we’re all in quarantine?
When I was growing up, in Allentown, Pennsylvania, I had no real reason to ever eat at fast-food-chain restaurants, because the local independent, one-of-a-kind sandwich shops were out of this world. There seems to be nothing like them out here (I gave up the search more than two decades ago), so I started eating at Burger King, and I eventually discovered one swank BK in particular where the fare and the servers are exceptional (the Smiths and solo Morrissey are in rotation on the playlist). But I haven’t been there in almost two months, because it’s now drive-thru only because of the coronavirus, and there’s something wrong with the driver’s-side window of my car (the window won’t open). It’s very sad.
Oh, sorry, one last question. You baaaarely ever drink, and I mean barely. Like, a couple sips of wine a month, at most? SIPS! And have never used/taken drugs? Or smoked cigarettes. And you call yourself a writer?? Jesus, Gari. What vices do you even have? Aside from Burger King. Please tell me you have a vice. Diet Coke? Should all artists/writers have vices/be crazy? What makes you feel crazy?
As a freshman in college, I had my first and last sip of beer and one paper cup’s worth of Andre Cold Duck. In grad school, on a whim, I walked into a liquor store and bought a bottle of peppermint schnapps, brought it back to my cockroach-colonized apartment, and set it aside for months. Then one Saturday night, out of sorts, I found the bottle and started drinking wholeheartedly. When I was about a third of the way through, I thought I smelled bacon burning somewhere down the street. I kept telling myself, “Gosh, that’s a lot of bacon! I could really go for some!” I learned the next day that a department store a few blocks away had burned to a crisp. So I must have been drunk that night. (That was the first and last time.) I was later involved with two alcoholics, though it took me awhile to learn that not entirely unpivotal fact about them. I sip some wine maybe four or five times a year, and only from those little bottles that always make me think of the miniature merchandisal bounty in those little toy shopping carts (I’d always wanted one), and only Cabernet Sauvignon, because it’s rumoredly low in sugar. I’ve never smoked a real cigarette (over the years, I did hold a lighted one a couple of times), but in seventh or eighth grade, there was a local psychedelian nightclub called the Zoo that hosted Teenybopper Saturdays in the afternoon, and I’d roll a sheet of memo-pad paper up into a little tube, secure its shape with cellophane tape, daub some Day-Glo orange-red paint at one end of it, position the other end between my lips, and, presto!, I had a sophisticating cigarette for all the world to see under the black lights of that utopian dance floor. (It’s just that nobody ever paid any attention.) Plus I’m awfully afraid of matches, lighters, stoves, ovens, anything with flames, anything that can get too hot. Drugs—prescription only, and then only with reluctance (I can’t swallow pills). Diet Coke—I had to give it up three years ago. I’d been downing about a gallon a day for a couple of decades (after I gave up regular Coca-Cola), and then something weird started happening to my throat (I had to get an endoscopy), and now my body will no longer abide carbonations of any kind. Until a few months ago, my default vice was chocolate (in candy, brownie, cookie, cake, and cupcake formats), between one half and three-quarters of a pound of the stuff almost every night. But I’m now in a blood-sugar danger zone and am trying to make do with sugar-free Russell Stover chocolate. As the old proverb goes, though, “Excessive consumption may cause laxative effects.” I think writing itself might be best understood as a vice—maybe the craziest of them all!!!