GARY LUTZ = KING. A WORD EXCHANGE

Gary Lutz is a sentence writer of the first rank. He's the best writer you don't know, or if you do, you've been nodding along at the accolades, thinking back to the best, last sentence of his you've read from Stories In the Worst Way, I Looked Alive, or his small chapbook, Partial List of People to Bleach. Even the way he writes about writing scrapes brains. Should be fitted on 3x5 index cards and affixed over your writing area. Or sewn into a suit to have his language vibrate around you at all times. Here are more words to wear.
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CHAMPION
You've stated that you didn't really write the type of stories you wanted to write until nearly a decade after grad school. Can you talk about what triggered the shift toward creating the stories that you were satisfied with? Was it a specific story? A life or literary experience? 
 
LUTZ
Over the course of several years, I chanced upon some remaindered books—short-story collections, mostly, and mostly very slim ones—in which the primacy of the sentence was thunderously evident and in which the voices were unlike any I had ever heard before. The voices weren't "creative writing" voices but terrifyingly vital voices crying out from highly peculiar and perilous solitudes. These were discomforting voices, but having encountered them, I felt encouraged to try once again to find some way for my own solitude to take verbal form. I eventually discovered that all of those amazing books I’d happened upon had been edited by just one person—Gordon Lish. So I aimed all of my new writing at him. 
 
CHAMPION
Along similar lines, you seem able to codify your aesthetic approach. Did this come from stating the approach first and moving toward it or from writing first and then being able to look back at the body of your work up to a given point and making sense from it? 
 
LUTZ
My writing has always been largely intuitive and hit-or-miss. I almost never know what I am doing when I am doing it, but afterward, at least sometimes, I can make out some principles that were at work, especially in light of what I learned from Gordon Lish. And when I'm revising, I try to keep those principles in mind. 
 
CHAMPION
Some of your early work in The Quarterly was written under the pseudonym, Lee Stone. Why did you feel the need to do so and did the name get wrested from thin air or is there really a Lee Stone walking around that you know, and is there a significance to the name? 
 
LUTZ
I had already had some poems, or anti-poems, in The Quarterly when I decided to try writing some short fictions, too, and submit them as well. So I thought it best to do so under a different name, but I wasn't very imaginative in my choice. Lee is my middle name, and Stone is my mother's maiden name. 
 
CHAMPION
Going back to your aesthetic approach, I always felt like you were well aware of yourself as an artist, a maker of word sculptures. The current climate in creative writing workshops, grad school or not, tends toward this weird juxtaposition of a dry approach of the writer as craftsman or craftswoman (it feels like we're discussing woodworking) and the sort of mysticism that revolves around: well you have no control over what you write, only how you write it, you're bound to write what comes through you. Yet the writers I admire I always felt had a firm hand in their understanding of being, for lack of a better term, masters' of their own universes. Can you speak on this? 
 
LUTZ
Some writers claim that their stories “wrote themselves,” but that has never happened to me, thank goodness, because I want to be more than a bystander or an onlooker when words are piling up on a page. And the phrase “character-driven” gives me the creeps. None of my characters has ever spoken to me, or bossed me around, or hit me up for anything. I believe that Gordon Lish once referred to a famous character in American fiction—one of Salinger’s or Bellow’s, I seem to recall—as “an occasion of ink.” That’s the perfect description. I had a muse once—the flesh-and-blood, raven-tressed kind—and she’s cardiacally all over the place in a few years’ worth of my stories, though never in person. I nowadays have to lift the words one by one out of their cramped situations in the lexicon and set them aside each other suggestively and see which ones might turn out to have some kind of vivid and desperate future together. 
I can't help it, but when I have a craving for a story, I reach for a movie. For the past two and a half months, I have craved a story, just one story again and again: the movie Wendy and Lucy. I’ve watched it almost every night since it came out on DVD. I imagine I’ll be watching it for the rest of my life. 
 
CHAMPION
There's such a density of language in your work that Sven Birkerts even said he had to set your stories aside after reading only one or two. Does it frustrate you at all that your work may be too dense for the average reader? Can you talk about who an ideal reader is for you? 
 
LUTZ
There's no readerly obligation to make it through a short-story collection in one go. Some readers can absorb more than others in one sitting, and other readers consume a book only one sentence or one paragraph at a time. Readers commonly refuse to obey the writer's sequencing of stories in a collection, and that is fine, too. There are many ways to move through a collection. My own procedures as a reader are probably abnormal in the extreme, and I’m probably not writing for readers whose methods are orthodox. My ideal reader is Gordon Lish, and there are a couple of other persons I have in my mind as I write, both of whom are writers and editors as well. 
 
CHAMPION
Since you believe that readers can pick and choose their entree into a writer's story collection, how do you go about arranging your stories when it comes to compiling them? Is it chronological? Many writers I've talked to have mentioned setting it up like a record, having an arc to the entire collection. 
 
LUTZ
Well, I almost never listen to an album from start to finish, not even the first time through. One track will seize me, and I’ll play it over and over and over, maybe fifty, maybe a hundred times, before I remember that there are other songs in a progression. Whenever I have to arrange stories into a sequence, I write the title of each story on an index card, then spread all the cards out on the floor—most of my life takes place on the floor—and move the cards around and around. I guess that the resulting organization has an arc, as you put it. Sometimes it’s a matter of positioning a very short piece next to a longer one, or a female voice next to a male voice or an indeterminate voice. 
 
CHAMPION
Touching back on the issue of density, your work seems more brotherly to poetry than it does traditional narrative fiction in that there seems to be more of an emphasis on language over narrative, yet the narrative still exists. Have you ever tried to work in a longer form? I know there's been a natural evolution in that your later stories are a bit longer but do you think, if you were going to move in the direction of novel-length pieces, there would be a natural evolution in the prose as well? I'm thinking of the leaps between Sam Lipsyte's prose in Venus Drive and then in Homeland or even in Barry Hannah's prose between Captain Maximus and Yonder Stands Your Orphan. I've been interested in (for lack of a better term) students of the Lishian aesthetic and their progression between the work they put out while directly under him (books published at Knopf, stories in The Quarterly, etc.) versus the work they put out later working under their own auspices. 
 
LUTZ
It takes me so long to write a single page that a novel will remain forever beyond my grasp. Right now, though, I am working on something that, in combination with some other pieces I hope to write, may develop into a novella—a very short novella. When I first began writing fiction in earnest, I usually had at least two or three stories going at once, but in the past six or seven years, it has been difficult for me to keep even one piece in motion. My concentration on one piece at a time is probably the only reason my stories have grown longer. It may well be the case that for many a Lish student, the thirty-one-issue span of The Quarterly and the years of Gordon Lish’s editorial term at Knopf coincide with the phase in which the concision and ellipticality of the student’s work were at their most extreme. 
 
CHAMPION
You've mentioned your inability to pick up on jokes at times, do you think this helps your writing in a way? I think of Lipsyte mentioning how he looks for the awkward phrase over the beautiful one and Barthelme's idea of the "back-broke sentence." The idea that the awkward is more often than not going to stick with the reader more so than the "beautiful." 
 
LUTZ
I tend to take things literally, and I tend to mishear things. I always watch DVDs with the closed-captioning feature on. I recently had a look at the lyrics of the Pretenders' "Back on the Chain Gang" and realized that for years I'd been mishearing about two-thirds of the lines. If I’m not mishearing, I’m misunderstanding. I once had a short-term job that involved packaging computer disks for mailing. The boss said, "Don't forget to stuff newspaper into each box," and he pointed to enormous stacks of old papers banked against a wall. Much later in the day, he checked in on me and noticed that the huge stock of newspapers had pretty much been depleted. Then he picked up some of the packages that I had sealed for mailing and said, "Why in the world are these so heavy?" There are many things I can't do, such as whistle or snap my fingers or operate miniblinds. It wasn’t until the final month of my final year of gym class that I finally managed to do something resembling a simple somersault. Writing fiction may be the one field of endeavor where it can be to your advantage to have never gotten the hang of things. As for sentences, I think there is a profound difference between beautiful sentences and pretty sentences. The former category is much more encompassing and can include all manner of ungainly but apposite formations. I rarely fall for a sentence that’s merely pretty. 
 
CHAMPION
You've also talked about how you weren't aware of the fact that you needed glasses for a while in elementary school. That you "simply assumed the world was a blurry place." This seems in line with your writing where you seem comfortable reveling in the ambiguity of language rather than pointing to things and naming proper nouns. Blake Butler once mentioned how this type of writing is actually more in line with dreams than Gardner's "vivid and continuous" line since dreams are more often than not fragmentary and only lucid at points with a lot of blurriness in-between. Do you think this has to do with the emphasis you place on sound and rhythm first and foremost or is it more a certain itchiness you get over saying, And then Joan walked into a 7/11 and bought a Slurpee? 
 
LUTZ
I guess I am trying to re-create elusive experience as I feel it, and much of it doesn't involve things or people in the particular. I’m big on the nebulous. I’m interested in what a camera can’t capture. I want to hear human noise that eludes the microphone. Documentarian fiction doesn’t do it for me (with the exception of the late John Updike’s, whose descriptive accuracies and exactitudes I revere). 
 
CHAMPION
I almost don't want to refer to your stories as stories as they are more like great bursts of language and sound over something that follows the outmoded form of beginning-middle-end. How would you describe your works in a single word or smattering of words? 
 
LUTZ
I always think of them as just pieces. If pressed, maybe I could call them constructions, or arrangements. I'm not sure. 
 
CHAMPION
Everyone asks a student of Gordon Lish a question about Lish but I'm more interested in the bonds that exist between his former students. There are bonds, whether tenuous or not, between yourself and Brian Evenson, Sam Lipsyte, Christine Schutt, and others. Did you actually take classes at the same time as some of the others you are linked to or is it more a professional respect? A sort of brother-sisterhood under fire? 
 
LUTZ
I feel more of an affinity with former students of Gordon's than with any other contemporary writers, but I was never in classes with the writers you've named or most of the other writers who are publicly identified as his students. Almost all of them took his classes in New York, but I was in his one-week July classes in Bloomington, Indiana, and in Chicago. 
 
CHAMPION
Lastly, on a separate note, since Lish has just taken up teaching again for the first time in 12 years, there are a bevy of writers who aspire to Lishian aesthetics that have never been able to actually learn at his feet. Most of them do so by, usually, reading the works of Barry Hannah, Hempel, yourself. Do you have any advice for such writers? Little nuggets of wisdom can sometimes come off as toss-offs but I've personally had my entire world opened up by whispered confidences of writers I respected. 
 
LUTZ
One piece of advice would be to slow down. It doesn’t matter if it takes you all night or two nights or even longer to write one sentence. Every sentence should feel like the nucleus of the story in which it will eventually appear. Another suggestion is to keep hacking away at your paragraphs, cut as much as possible, but save what you’ve trimmed away: a word or a phrase from the trimmings might be enough to get a fresh sentence started. I would also recommend entertaining doubts about every word you choose, and enjoy the entertainment of your doubts; live, in fact, to doubt yourself—so that no one else might take your place as the most damning doubter of you and all you do.
 
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