Insinuative Curvilinearities: A Conversation with Garielle Lutz

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Forget “a writer’s writer”—Garielle Lutz is your favorite writer’s favorite drug, and not the kind that might get legalized if the right people win a couple of votes. Released earlier this month from SF/LD Books, her new story collection, Worsted, feels illicit, begging to be discussed in hushed tones even amongst hip company. The book’s quiet ravishments of lives brushing up together isn’t incriminating; it’s the style that’ll get you blitzed. Lutz reminds us that sentences themselves can be pleasurable.

Worsted feverishly accelerates through a career’s worth of preoccupations: “unrenewable romances,” “venerealizing double binds, affections filched,” “[failure] at both asceticism and lechery.” It’s also Lutz’s longest story collection. She’s shown she can flex far beyond the pungent one-pagers that come to familiar readers’ minds, though this is old news to those whose bookshelves exhibit 2019’s The Collected Gary Lutz with a spine thick and bold enough to make Lutz a household name.

Mark Baumer once said he’d like his work to be large enough to do “considerable damage” if thrown at someone. Depending on where in her library she found herself, a short story reader intent on making you hurt would do just as well to reach toward the ever-growing catalog of Lutz as toward Amy Hempel or Diane Williams. More than just another projectile, Worsted strengthens the case for a Lutzian school.

As a wannabe acolyte, I was psyched to correspond with Garielle about prolificacy, what’s redeeming about being online, and the inescapable intimacy of laundry.

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The Rumpus: You said to Elizabeth Ellen that “[Worsted] doesn’t seem to be as cryptic or oblique as my ‘Gary’ books; the air in it might be a little easier to breathe.” What do you think accounts for that atmosphere?

Garielle Lutz: I have some inklings of what the difference is. This was the first time I ever tried working with drafts and fragments I’d put aside a very long time ago. Much of what is in this book had its start in the 1990s, and some of it goes as far back as the late 1970s. Whatever might have been cryptically recorded in any of this material was lost to me when I opened the sealed cartons in which all of the typed papers and dot-matrix printouts—hundreds and hundreds of pages—had been packed away at the turn of the century. Lots of this stuff I could barely remember ever even writing. Reading it, I couldn’t recover the person I’d been back then, or whatever I might have been trying to encode into the sentences. So, working on this book has felt a lot like editing somebody else’s stories.

Rumpus: Have you shed those past selves, or do some crop back up like retro fashion trend cycles? Is there anything in the archive left to mine?

Lutz: I don’t know—I guess people just become more fully and irreversibly whoever they already always were. The book I am working on now is called Backwardness. It’s sort of a memoir and is based on letters, journals, diaries, notebooks, emails, faxes, and receipts from four decades.

Rumpus: The repurposing of material that resulted in Worsted sounds like a continuation of what began in the final section of your decreasingly Complete collection. Has some degree of scrounging been part of your process all along, or have you unearthed some new productivity along with the old sources?

Lutz: Something wrong with me prevents me from seeing anything whole and leaves me seeing only little parts of things, and that must be why I gravitate to old sheetfuls of paragraphic scrappage and sentence piecery I try to play around with until I feel I’ve got the start of a screwball lamentation or something. Until I unsealed those boxes in my closet, I’d had no idea of how much I’d written decades ago, especially during times when I thought I wasn’t writing at all. (It’s a lot easier to forget about something typed out wantonly after work and tossed into boxes than something hoarded in a computer’s memory.)

A couple of the shorter pieces in this new book are formed almost entirely from shavings from early versions of two stories in my first book, because I’d scraped so much off the reddening faces of those things back then that there must have been an awful lot of razor burn, and I’m no longer sure why I’d gone to such extremes. I’ve never been productive, but I’ve always gone through a lot of paper.

Rumpus: In the titular novelette, “Worsted,” you write, “Everybody I know has a secret life, but they no longer seem bothered enough to keep the secrets even decently concealed.” You recently joined Twitter, where without your prior book’s publisher’s corroboration, I might have wondered about impersonation or more likely not have found your account at all. Aside from being a place to stockpile files, is the computer (and its offer of digital contact) helpful to your work? What do you make of writers and readers spouting off into the void?

Lutz: I used to love overhearing what people were saying in eateries, in stores, in crowds, but anything public is out of the question now, and although I’ve been listening to talk radio more than ever, on Twitter I learn about what’s going on in the independent-press world; I love being pointed toward books and music and movies, and above all I love the wit, the pithiness, the candor, the evolving slang, the goofing around, the offhand passions, the audacities and exaltations and minutiae. I’m not sure it has any effect on my writing, though. I was a latecomer to computers and the internet, and I made do with dial-up until this past summer.

Rumpus: Whose and which recommendations have you found worth following lately? Are you strictly a terrestrial radio listener, or have you dabbled in podcasts?

Lutz: There’s just so much. It’s like being at a party and feeling unembarrassedly mute and free to just drink in whatever everybody else is talking about. I haven’t been out to a bookstore or a record store since the pandemic hit, and until I started exploring Twitter, I’d never heard of indie presses like Apocalypse Party and House of Vlad or journals like Neutral Spaces and The Creative Independent. I listen to earthbound radio on dinky, battery-draining portables and dollar-store headphones, and talk radio isn’t what it used to be. I miss Art Bell’s hushaby overnight symposia on flying saucers and interdimensional pests. I miss Phil Hendrie, who had a bedtime show on which he’d conduct deliriously duping interviews with crackpot guests who were actually just Hendrie himself speaking in different voices: The “guests” would be in high dudgeon over one outrage or another (the high-school girls in shorts and clutching “CAR WASH!” signs to lure drivers to roadside Saturday-morning band-club fundraisers, for instance, are just hard-hearted tarts who ought to be ashamed of themselves), and then dial-roaming first-time listeners, not in on the joke, would call in to tell off the guest. Matt Drudge once presided over a weekly three-hour gala of chilly but charmful innuendo and swoony bumper music on Sunday nights, with an exclusive warm-up half-hour that only WABC would broadcast, and I tuned in devotionally.

Most of all, I miss Joan Hamburg’s morning show on WOR out of New York City, though I could rarely pick up the signal. She’d dilate on the practicalities of sophisticated life in a vanishing supper-club Manhattan I couldn’t stop pining after. She could make advice about dry cleaners sound like the stuff of steamy romance. These days, talk radio is mostly routine syndicated fare about politics and sports, so I listen mostly to local generalists. My favorite here in outer Pittsburgh is Chris Moore, who claims to be the only host whose callers hang up on him, instead of the other way around. I’m not yet smartphonically advanced enough to figure out how to listen to podcasts.

Rumpus: Your listening sounds mostly profane, but also somewhat sacred. The confrontationally quotidian and theatrically mundane are currents in your work, too. Laundry isn’t just a background fact of life in these stories—it’s an intimate concern. What’s so consequential about chores?

Lutz: I don’t know what it is about laundry that makes it almost all that life comes down to these days, but not for nothing is “Laundromat” still considered a proper noun, with capitalization compulsory in most editorial quarters. And once you’ve chosen a washer there’s the certitude that other people’s spectral concentrates and effluvials are getting stirred in with your things. It gets even worse once your load makes it into the dryers and you opt for the “high heat” setting—the conviction, I mean, that something ghastly of the previous user’s life is cooking itself for keeps into everything delicately cotton of your own. The Laundromat can be pretty much the only place to mix with other people.

Rumpus: Apartments are another place your characters’ psyches collide. Is mutual snooping an enduring goad for your imagination?

Lutz: Living in an apartment house does put ideas into my head sometimes. I never snoop, but my ear-plugged ears tug and pull at any sounds reaching me through walls and floorboards and ceilings, then try to resolve them into words or explainable human doings and phenomena. One night last year I heard foghorn sounds coming from below. These came in a continuous cycle that began with a two-second blast every twenty seconds, then a twenty-second blast, then a ten-beat rest, then a blast that would last about half an hour. The next night, I heard what sounded like somebody hatcheting through walls down there. This is the best place I’ve ever lived on my own, though. The two people in the unit next to mine seem to be pursuing the domesticities of late middle age with a program of self-shushing almost as exacting and as rigorous as my own, but I still wish that faucets had silencers on them.

Rumpus: Noise is an imposition, as is appearance, in the new collection. One character is “inconsiderately pretty,” and another has “punishing beauty.” When the narrator of “Worsted” is treated for dermatological blemishes, the doctor says, “Very clever, [y]ou must be very pleased with yourself.” How accountable are we for the ripples we make?

Lutz: We’re always guilty. I’ve always written about people whose lives are messy and digressive, unfortunates of limb and lineaments, often with nowhere else to go but their bathrooms and beds, not exactly flaunting their homeliness but now and then going partway public with a fresh imperfection (one day a sty, say, just the pinkly vivid comedy of a pimple on the eyelid), and then maybe, on their afternoon rounds of the snack bars and the marts, just this once finding themselves in proximity to somebody exemplary but relenting (somebody no doubt similarly confusing the here and now with the merely here or there), helping themselves to any misdispensed friendship or affection until it dries up, then having to look after themselves again, as if all that meant was that part of them had already gone ahead and then had to pivot around for any glimpses of the part still trailing.

Rumpus: Relationships in these stories are transactional, nonpossessive, or interchangeable; occasionally longer-lived but mostly over. Whenever there’s loss, it does its damage but doesn’t linger. The dense and dextrous perspectives distract from prevailing devastation. How much emphasis do you place on effectuating a tone?

Lutz: I guess that for the typical character in these stories, the minute she first realizes she’s in a relationship is often the very minute she finds herself already elegizing it or laying the groundwork for a heart-freshening grief. The life of such a character is typically short on action but long on summarizable self-debasement, and effort has to go into summoning the exact tang and sting of every first flush of loss. There are only so many words, and so many of them keep being keen on stopping short.

Rumpus: I’d browsed The Gotham Grammarian—your “book of rules and guidelines for anyone who believes that correctness and precision still matter”—online before, but recently picked up a paper copy, the tangibility of which only heightened my intimidation by your proficiency with English. Is there a system dictating which structures of language you’ll willingly heed and which you feel the freedom to flout?

Lutz: I started teaching myself grammar, syntax, punctuation, and usage when I was in college, because the professors assumed we already knew everything about clauses and commas and collective nouns, or maybe they didn’t want to be bothered with teaching any of it, or maybe they didn’t understand it very well themselves. I was afraid of coming across as grammatically uncouth, and in those days (the mid-1970s) my guide was the New Yorker (I no longer feel that way; for one thing, the magazine has blurred the distinction between “convince” and “persuade,” though it’s still the master of American hyphenation).

I’ve always felt that if you’re writing something even a little offbeat or unconventional, it might be a good idea to obey the rules (unless you have strong reasons for not doing so). What distresses me is the number of times I have to reread sentences in routine journalism or commentary to figure out what the writer (or editor) actually meant. Last summer, the New York Times ran an op-ed (about the 2020 Democratic National Convention, which was conducted virtually) with the title “A Convention Without Convening That Succeeds” instead of “A Convention That Succeeds Without Convening.” The adjectival dependent clause (“That Succeeds”) needs to be positioned next to the noun (“Convention”) it’s intended to modify.

A couple of books I’d urge upon anyone serious about the subject—books I swear by on almost every point—are Garner’s Modern English Usage, fourth edition (1,120 pages!), by Bryan A. Garner (David Foster Wallace raved about him), and the first edition of Wilson Follett’s Modern American Usage: A Guide, edited and brought to completion by Jacques Barzun (start with the nine-page entry bearing the headwords “Sentence, The,” and your life might change; mine did). I’ve always found The Chicago Manual of Style less helpful on grammatical and punctuational matters than Words into Type, another copyediting guidebook, though the latter hasn’t been revised since 1974. The canonization of The Elements of Style has always baffled me, because that’s a book originally intended for first-year college students (its coverage is therefore very limited).

Rumpus: In his introduction to The Complete Gary Lutz, Brian Evenson called your work—with some evidentiary heft—”untranslatable.” Giancarlo DiTrapano recently said of that same book, “some things I have no business in… Garielle wanted me to edit these pieces, and I was like, ‘Gari, I can’t even begin to.’” Elizabeth Ellen wished “good luck” to anyone trying to edit you. Have you been deprived of some collaboration you crave?

Lutz: There’s been a lot of collaboration over the years. Elizabeth Ellen in fact did carefully edit Worsted—both the first version and the second version (which is at least twenty thousand words longer than the first). She made many suggestions about cutting sentences or rephrasing parts of sentences, and I made almost every one of those changes. Elizabeth is a very astute and generous editor. I’ve been edited pretty frequently, and I’ve always been very grateful to anyone who was willing to take the time to read what I was writing and offer comments, because I always knew I wasn’t achieving what I had wanted to do and was messing up all over the place.

When I look back at my books, I wish I had changed a whole lot more in every one of them. About a quarter of my first story collection was edited by Gordon Lish, and he is a genius, so it was a thrill to have received his guidance. My second collection went unedited, although a girlfriend at the time helped me with three stories that I found especially frustrating to write; she was very exacting. Kevin Sampsell did a lot of editing of my third collection (and also made loads of comments on a little chapbook of mine he later published). Kevin always goes over everything. Derek White made a good number of very helpful edits on my fourth collection. My Complete book was just a gathering of stories that had already been published, so I could understand why Giancarlo thought they should stay the way they were; I did end up making a couple of hundred very tiny changes on my own, mostly when I was going through the proofs. That book also included twenty thousand words of previously uncollected fiction. David Winters read one of those stories and suggested that I change the opening sentence, and I did so. Jane Unrue suggested many changes in my second grammar book; one change involved completely restructuring the first half of one chapter. She was right about everything.

Rumpus: Affinities mutate and iterate in these stories in a way that allows for an almost hopeful reconfiguration of the self. It comes up a few times, but I’m thinking specifically of the muddled solace of the final story’s last lines, which I’ll not quote out of context, as the ending deserves to be earned. What makes you sanguine amid the fog?

Lutz: Aging might have something to do with it. As I said, the bulk of this book was first drafted a third of a century ago, and when I found my way back to it, a lot of how I feel these days must have seeped into the reshaping of old passages and the writing of new ones. Whatever I’ve done with the book is probably a reflection of who I am now, with realistically lowered expectations and with a calming and sweetened acceptance of loss and defeat, maybe even an embrace of it all.

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Photograph of Garielle Lutz courtesy of Garielle Lutz.


Crow Jonah Norlander lives in Maine with his family of humans and hounds. He is the managing editor for X-R-A-Y and co-editor of HAD. His stories appear in Hobart, New World Writing, Back Patio Press, and elsewhere. He tweets at @crowjonah. More from this author →