October 09, 2021
It’s hard to say when I read Garielle Lutz’s work for the first time. I know that a professor suggested Stories in the Worst Way. But I think I already had purchased Divorcer by that time, though I cannot recall if I had read it. Her work knocked me out.
Lutz’s work is wholly and completely singular, a feat that feels as difficult as ever, though a phrase that feels ubiquitous in our times. But I dare you to find another living writer doing what Garielle is doing. Something that strikes anyone when first reading Lutz is the surgical precision, the kaleidoscopic vocabulary. Much of her work is a masterclass in defamiliarization.
There is not much that can be said that hasn’t already about her genius, and if you are reading this interview, you know it already. She has, for writers like us, completely changed the game and though I know many who cite her as an influence or claim her as one, I can think of very few for whom I can see her fingerprints. Her latest book, Worsted, feels both a continuation of Lutz’s previous work, and something exciting and new from the writer who has been thornily typing out life’s most ordinary adventures for over twenty years.
Garielle and I talked about teaching, retirement, and influence, her latest work, and what’s next.
I know that you taught creative writing as a Visiting Writer at various colleges and universities, but I believe you have mostly taught composition during your time as an academic. Can you talk about teaching composition versus teaching creative writing—if they are completely opposite to you, if you find yourself a more productive creative writer while you teach one or the other, etc.
I’ve always been drawn toward menial but personally meaningful jobs, and at most colleges, the most menial sort of faculty employment seems to be teaching freshman composition. When, during my second or third year of teaching it, I told the chairperson that I had no desire to teach anything else, another prof in the department took me aside and said, “Bad career move.” I didn’t have the heart to tell him that I didn’t think of teaching as a career. I needed a job to support myself, true, but I’d always thought of “support” in its most literal sense–as a way of simply holding up. I found teaching composition to be an unsullying use of my time, a way to keep myself grounded. I’ve long felt that somebody somewhere ought to be telling students the truth about commas, about clauses, about the dark enchantments of specificity. Teaching comp is, of course, dirty work, because among the many papers coming at you every week you can always expect that more than a few of the pages will be provocatively grease-spotted and crudded with smudges and splotches and crusts–byproducts of all-nighter practitionings with snack foods, cosmetics, bodily discharge. On one page it might look as if smidgens of clay have been pressed deep into the paper stock; on another, you might come upon the dark bloods of whatever insects were still alive and crushable that month. As an instructor, I always felt it my duty to return the papers promptly and scrubbed reasonably clean. I tried my best with thicksome, stone-colored ink erasers that worked pretty well on certain strains of smutch, and there were chemical treatments that didn’t call for all that much ventilation. Some days I resorted to little more than dollar-store wipes. (The pages would often be warped, though, by the time I was done with them.) Other days the filth would be obstinate, irremediable, permanent. You had to accept that there was only so much you could do. By the end of my workday (I did all my grading in my office at school), I’d need to get far away from words on paper, from any further verbal circumstance. So, no, I never did any writing of my own during the press of the semesters. When I returned to my apartment after work, I always reached for my electric guitar. It was a cheap, solid-body thing I never plugged into an amp, because I wanted the chords I fingered to come out as alluringly trebly and inaudible as I could manage. More often than not, these were nonsense chords, not the simple, stalwart C, F, and G of the recognizable blues. The music I produced lacked any universality whatsoever. I wrote my stories during the summers. I never taught creative writing often enough to draw any conclusions, other than that the students were always smarter than I was.
Do you feel like your process or approach to writing has changed over the years, or do you find yourself still writing in the same manner? If it has changed, how?
I was never a fast writer, was always a dawdler, a layabout, but the pace has slowed even further in the past few years. I long ago read somewhere that a writer, or any other sort of artist, is usually granted only fifteen years in which to come up with something decent, and after that, the work sinks into mannerism and the bitter brittleness of self-parody, or else completely dries up. That sounds just about right to me. I might have had a good month or two here and there. I feel I can live with two or three little things I’ve put into words.
Congratulations on retirement! How has retiring from teaching impacted your writing? I’m sure in positive ways, and am curious to hear those, too, but have there been other, more unexpected ways?
I’d never given much thought to retirement until things started turning a corner at school. The floor was more and more often being referred to as “the ground,” as if we were no longer inarguably inside anywhere anymore. The ubiquitous typo “a women” was now welcomed into freshmanic discourse as a “valid colloquialism” and an “overdue and essential conflation of the Many and the One.” If, on a Tuesday, I said, “The paper is due next Thursday,” at least half the class would think that “next” Thursday meant “this” Thursday. The date of a momentous meeting of the faculty congress got “pushed back” a week, but that left some of us wondering whether we’d already attended it or whether it was yet to come. Worse, things kept rolling under the increasingly heavy, unbudgeable furniture in my office. Keys, coins, charms, markers, bracelets, engraved tokens of teacher’s-pet affection, binder clips in once-in-a-lifetime colors from an odd-lots store–I couldn’t coax any of them out with rulers or a coat hanger. I no longer had an in with any of the custodians. The campus was at the hardscrabble edge of town, and I’d been living at an apartment complex a stone’s throw away, to be spared a commute. A cross-country train stopped right across the road, but only once a day, at a time convenient for neither arrival nor departure. A bus ran every two daylight hours from all the way out here in the outer county to the city. I often took the bus to the city on days I didn’t teach. After every mile of advance, the bus had to backtrack a couple of miles to reach the glades and crossroads where, in all weathers, people boarded in shorts, sleeveless concernments, and running shoes so majestic, even cathedral-like, that it was hard for anyone to get very far on foot. The city itself, once we finally arrived, was a boarded-up backdrop whose streets all ran desultorily to the east. I’d walk for hours. To catch the bus back, you had to remember that the outer-county buses never stopped where the municipal buses stopped, but the stops for neither of the carriers had ever been marked. You had to rely partly on feel. The buses headed to the outer county had to be flagged down with an elaborate sequence of toreadoral flights and flourishes of the arm. My classes were always on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Wednesdays were interregnal hell. The new edition of the in-house human-resources manual was insistent on the point that, all too often these days, there was too fine a line to be drawn between resignation, firing, and retirement. I had stacks and stacks of papers to pack and seal into what were now called “burn boxes.” People started catching their death of what turned out to be not a cold–first in Wuhan, China, and next in Washington state. I gave my office keys to a cleaning lady, drove home, noticed (on my way up some steps) that I’d recently begun to cling to every railing in every stairwell, unlocked the door, and then, first things first, snipped the collar off a spurned turtleneck to serve as my first stopgap mask.
People have brought up the connection between the title of the first Gary Lutz book, and the title of your latest collection, the first as Garielle. In what ways, if at all, was this intentional/do you feel these two collections are in dialogue with each other? Or are they not at all?
I’ve been thinking about this a lot. A little while back, a New York Times op-ed column by David Brooks, entitled “Is Self-Awareness a Mirage?,” advanced the thesis that we probably never have any idea of why we actually do any of the things we do. For much of my adult life, I’ve assumed as much myself, because have any of us ever encountered anyone as fierce-heartedly mysterious, as wholly unknowable, as our own selves? Who doesn’t wake up in the middle of the night and realize, with a fright, that everything about her life–from the first remembered self-bafflements of toddlerdom to the last thing she was doing before she shoved off into sleep (feeling, in this instance, some pangs of belated, petty empathy for a former co-worker, no doubt)–must have been part of the case history of somebody else entirely, surely not herself, because her only reconnoitering with herself, if she’d ever even been afforded any, must have been only in some dream that was smartening up, recomprising, and refining the dribs and drabs of some day definitively different from the one she has just brought to a finish? Case in point: too many times in my life–on urban sidewalks, in stores, in eateries–I have been accosted by people who claim they know me, who insist we once spent oodles of gallingly domesticized time together–and I try to explain to them, to no avail, that they have me mixed up with somebody else; and at first they say, “Stop pulling my leg,” and the next thing you know, they start getting a little combative, and eventually they throw in the towel and wander off, but after a certain point, I always thought, Gosh, maybe they’re right, maybe they know who I must be, or must have been, and maybe the person these people were bearing in mind was actually out there somewhere and walking unnotionally around, and what if I bumped into her someday–what would come of either one of us? Things like that kept going through my mind when I was writing my first book–suspicions, I mean, that nobody could count on themselves to be who they really were, that the margins of every error kept getting wider and wider the older you got. Every once in while there’s a newspaper story about somebody (often drunk or stoned) bumbling into somebody else’s apartment by mistake and making himself at home, helping himself to whatever’s most enticing in the refrigerator, settling himself onto a receptive couch, and turning on the television, and you have to wonder whether that’s the only homecoming a guy like that will ever unalloyedly enjoy. The inevitable aftermath of cozy little slip-ups of that sort must have been what I was going for in my first book, and for the title of it I wanted something that sounded stumbly and wrong-thoughten and flirtingly hospitable to every grossening misinterpretation. Thus: Stories in the Worst Way. Worsted, the title of my latest book, though, was just the result of my having loitered in a favorite unabridged dictionary. It was news to me that “worst” could do duty as a verb, so I took advantage of its past-participial disposition, which means bested, gotten the better of–something true, I imagine, of just about every character in the book. My first book and my latest one seem to be locked into some sort of staring contest with each other.
Do you ever think of the work you are doing, the kind of writing that you seem interested in and creating, as part of a lineage—beyond the Lish school? Do you feel connected to or see yourself in the tradition of any other movement or style or writers?
I guess any lineage I could see myself part of is whatever lineage there might be of short books, crabbed, sulky, irking little things, volumettes full of pained, paining yowls about emotional misfiguring, books probably best kept distant from anyone else in domestic vicinity.
Do you like music or film/do you feel influenced by or draw inspiration from mediums outside literature? Many writers, I think especially now, get their writing described as “cinematic.” But ultimately, I’m not positive that is a compliment. I think the best books are unadaptable, the best art, and therefore writing, entirely specific to its medium, cannot be recreated elsewhere. Your work really seems like this to me. I suppose these are two questions, do you like music and film and do you draw inspiration or influence from them, but I’m curious about both.
I go through spells when I watch loads of movies, and then for long stretches I won’t watch anything at all. I wish I could draw inspiration from movies. I’ll watch a movie and tell myself I need to write some dialogue. But I almost never write even a line of it. My stories are more like conclusions than reports of anything actively ongoing. My stories just jump up out of language in summation of the inelations of the everyday. I don’t seem to have ever regarded life cinematically at all. But my stories might have something in common with music, with songs, and I sometimes do listen to lots of music, usually a single killjoy song on repeat. I tend to listen obliteratively, to wipe out everything else except the song. Because isn’t that what a good song is supposed to do–annihilate every other blastable thing in this sphere? I always find it weird that a lot of people listen to an album over and over for years but reread a beloved book maybe just two or three times in their entire lives.
What about the short story still excites you? After several years writing, you seem as interested in it as ever. Is there ever going to be a Garielle Lutz novel, or do you find in the story everything to satiate you?
My individual fictions started getting a little thick around the middle during the last half decade or so (my longest piece, the title story in Worsted, tips the scales at thirteen thousand words), but I’m never going to write a novel or even a novella, because even as a reader I’m most often drawn toward short-haul fiction, the kind that’s actually poetry but without the wide ragged-rights, and anyway my fiction has already started to narrow itself out again.
What is your writing like these days? Are you working on anything you want to share?
I’ve been working, in fits and starts, on a memoir-like endeavor that consists of snippings from letters, journals, diaries, notebooks, logs, diatribal typings, handwritten threats to self, near-exact transcriptions of telephoned wailings on a moon-crowned mid-semestral Sunday night, flyleaf itemizings of roommates’ malformations of person and of character, unmailed harangues occasioned by outings to the local discount houses, further definitive proof that the body eventually settles all old scores, tallyings of demerits earned by “friends,” a flaneuse’s guide to the heart-sinking six-square-block central business district, meditational bombast about Burger King, interlocutions overheard at Laundromats and luncheonettes and on buses and escalators, extracts from personal-ad responses, block-lettered misreckonings of romantic enterprise, the alternate chorus of an inurbanely titled sorrow-struck ballad of blinds-drawn-at-all-hours apartmentative life (from the click-tracked “chocolaten stupors” version), day-is-done remembrances of classroom disgrace, excerpts from the most blistering “student evaluations of teaching performance,” the incomplete inventory of a prevailing partner’s secreted overnight bag’s gallimaufry of out-of-character slumberwear, doodledly annotated supermarket receipts with inexpert cross-hatching, autobiographical errata (misreports of bathroom gallantry, of “lunch things,” of mistfalls during eye contact gone awry), documentation of human dishevelment witnessed not even halfway through overnight layovers in the Greyhound terminals of second-tier metropoli, yet another unruled index card’s worth of the first drearings of yet another fresh fluster of love (some of the collated material dating as far back as the mid- and late 1970s, when I was inching woe-wrinkledly out of my teens), along with reminscential and self-denunciatory entries I started writing in the early months of the pandemic, when I felt it my duty to make productive use of my time as a flutterheaded shut-in surrounded by towers of boxed boil-in-bag brown rice and Great Value “Mixed Chili Beans” in fifteen-ounce cans. The book is called Backwardness and isn’t a memoir in the standard, book-pitch sense, because there’s no narrative through-line or thematic curvature from loss to recovery, there’s nothing strictly calendrical in the ordering of the entries, and I suppose the tone ranges from the Octobral to the slaphappy. The book, in sum, is a mass of slattern paragraphs, and I wouldn’t exactly call it introspective. It will be my longest book, because I seem to have always done the most writing during long stretches when I was somehow under the impression that I wasn’t doing any writing at all.
What are you reading these days? Is there anything new getting published that is exciting you?
Anyone who only occasionally browses the major organs of review, the prominent saddle-stitched head-shop tabloids and such, might easily, excusably, form the impression that no more than a couple of dozen people are out there writing book-length works of fiction anymore. There are lots of other writers, though, and many of them are good and quite a few of them are extraordinary, but you’d never know that, you’d never even hear of them, unless you push your way past the entrenched, established periodicals, or unless you’ve got feelers of an especially well-developed sort. Not much of what I read and cherish enjoys much (or any) deserved attention and acclaim, but three books that I’ve recently loved to death, and that are not yet out in the world, will prove, I hope, to be vivid exceptions. Those are Anna DeForest’s A History of Present Illness, Greg Gerke’s In the Suavity of the Rock, and David Nutt’s Summertime in the Emergency Room.
Garielle Lutz‘s most recent book is the short-story collection Worsted (Short Flight/Long Drive Books). Previous books include The Gotham Grammarian (Calamari Archive, Ink) and The Complete Gary Lutz (Tyrant Books).