Name: Garielle Lutz
Current publication: Garielle Lutz's newest short-story collection, Worsted, is forthcoming from Short Flight/Long Drive Books.
Recommendations: Butterfield 8 (a novel by John O’Hara) and The Dreamlife of Angels (movie)
If you enjoyed this interview with Garielle Lutz, visit her Twitter account for current news.
When did you start writing- and what or who were your early passions and influences? What what is about literature and writing that drew you to it?
Mouthwise, I was mostly nonverbal as a kid. When I did talk, I mispronounced words and misunderstood what words meant (a memory: playing some sort of simple word game with childhood cousins seldom seen, I remember saying “soupcase” instead of “suitcase,” and the better nature and purpose of luggage had to be explained to me patiently). But all the way through the grades, all the way through high school, I wrote little tablet-paper books, fancifully unintelligible things, later stapled with index cards as covers. I only recently have found the old report cards, and they all reported unencouragingly on my deficits in speaking, storytelling, penmanship, and writing skills: Cs and Ds (and even Fs in English during eleventh grade, though I uncharacteristically protested, and the teacher always theatrically changed the grades to As, which I knew I didn’t deserve either, and one day the teacher fell flat on his back near the chalkboard and just lay there for minutes and minutes, nobody else in the room moving, either). I remember that in third grade, I flunked a spelling test and was told to take it home and bring it back with my father’s signature. I forged his name but didn’t fool the teacher, because I’d left out an “n” in “Kenneth.”
I wasn’t a reader in my early years but whiled away days at home by paging through phone books; the Yellow Pages were alluring. In college I was writing poems like “Last night / I saw 1934 / eating meatloaf at the cafeteria.” My junior year, I was writing a little book called Candy Poems in the only poetry-writing class offered at the college, a scatter of buildings lacking any discernible architecture. The professor claimed to be a Quaker. In class one day, we were commanded to write a poem about tomatoes, but I couldn’t come up with anything (I’d never been able to take even a bite of a slice of a tomato; to this day, the things terrify me). Some days the prof claimed he couldn’t see me in the classroom. Another day, I was summoned to the prof’s office for a conference about a poem I’d written about a little boy almost choking to death (it was based on something I’d observed as a kid from the window of my parents’ car as we were driving past a family reunion where the nozzle of a garden hose was being forced into the boy’s mouth). The prof shut the door and explained to me that the poem was really about oral sex.
Grad school didn’t do much for me, either. I was in a writing program that must have accepted every applicant. I wrote a poem about some feelings I’d been feeling. In the workshop, one of the students said, “It must be about smack.” In a fiction workshop, I was the first to submit a story. We weren’t supposed to type our names on the mimeographed submissions. All during the discussion, as the story was attacked, I kept bending forward over the seminar table until my head was almost level with it.
A couple of years later (I was now in a Ph.D. program; I later wrote just one chapter [170 pages long] of a dissertation before I called it quits [the last letter I’d received from my dissertation director referred to me in the third person; I remember one of the sentences: “Does he even know what a dissertation is?”]), a prof saw me in a hallway and said, “You’re still here?” I gave up writing after graduation and didn’t pick it up again until about a decade later. I had just one job during that decade (I still have the same job; I’m in my final month of it), but I was always dreaming about other lines of work. I thought about becoming an underwriter—it sounded suitably beneath everybody else.
For most artists, originality is first preceded by a phase of learning and, often, emulating others. What was this like for you? How would you describe your own development as an artist and the transition towards your own voice? What is the the relationship between copying, learning and your own creativity?
Halfway through high school, I had a friend (I’d met him in sixth grade; we were both playground pariahs, and he was just about my only friend for many years) who was reading Beat Generation and hippie writers (Kerouac, Brautigan), so I started reading those.
In the school library, I read the Paris Review interview with William Burroughs, and the weirdness of it emboldened me in later regrettable ways. The cut-up technique he was promoting appealed to me, but I was too scared of scissors to give it a try. Everything I wrote was private, dream-sourced, solipsistic.
I was still mispronouncing things. “Capacity” came out as “capicity.” I said “by hick or by stick” when I meant “by hook or by crook.” The summer before I went off to college, I bought a Merriam-Webster dictionary and started reading it with a highlighter. I always skipped the pronunciation key. I couldn’t imagine that most of the words in there were ever actually spoken, though in grad school one of the profs said “autochthonous” an awful lot. A woman who enthralled me in those days heard me speaking in uncomical approximations of French. We went to pinball parlors and drove others away (I was speaking the fake French; she was gutturalizing in some unplaceable tongue and was of the conviction that emotional help is best sought in a language not one’s own).
By my mid-thirties, I must have been trying to imitate John Updike, but things weren’t coming out right.
What were your main writing challenges in the beginning and how have they changed over time?
My main challenges from the start were “How did I end up in this language?” and “How do I get out of it?” These remain the hazards. I took the injunction “Just find the words” too literally, I guess. I had to buy one thicker dictionary after another to find them, and they kept playing hard to get. I’d flush out a word like “freshet” and then not know where to put it. Sentences I was writing were full of blanks to be filled. The words I put in them were just placeholders for better placeholders yet to come.
What does writing mean to you personally? What is expressed through literature and poetry that can not be expressed trough other forms of art?
I guess writing, for me, is nothing more than an endeavor to disexpress or unexpress or de-express what the world has conditioned me to express.
How do you see the relationship between style, form, plot and storytelling – and how would you rate their importance for you, respectively?
“Plot” and “storytelling” are alien to my nature. One thing doesn’t lead to another unless the things are simply the words themselves. I understand “form” in only the most inorganic way. “Style” I like, though. It’s the one thing I hope to find on any page.
How do you make use of technology? In terms of the feedback mechanism between technology and creativity, what do humans excel at, what do machines excel at?
I’ve always been late to adapt to any new ways to press words onto paper.
When everybody else was buddying up to the first generation of PCs, I was still typing on a weighty but companionate Smith Corona Galaxie 12 typewriter warming my lap. A few years later, I bypassed the MS-DOS mode by buying my first word processor, a modest little British thing called an Amstrad, which a co-worker had been crooning about. Sears was selling the thing for $349. It was a three-piece outfit—green-screened monitor, clittery keyboard, a timid dot-matrix printer. Amstrad disks looked a little like the then-prevailing hard-plastic floppy disks (I guess this was 1989 or thereabouts) but were incompatible with the disks used by PCs and any other word processors.
I liked the Amstrad—it was easy enough to use, and I loved how faint and spectral the words always looked on the printouts—but after a year or two, Sears stopped selling the thing (they’d apparently been the exclusive sellers of it in the US), and then a year or two later, Sears stopped selling the disks and the printer-ribbon cartridges (which also were incompatible with anything else), but by then some guy in California had started selling all sorts of Amstrad stuff through the mail. I began to worry that my Amstrad would break down, and when another co-worker who’d bought one decided to move up to a PC, I bought his Amstrad as a backup.
Then Amstrads started showing up at Goodwill stores, so I bought a half dozen or so because I must have suspected that the end was near. Then something went wrong with a disk on which I’d just written something pretty long for me (a slew of drafts of a story called “The Pavilion”), and I had neglected to print any of it out (I would usually print, in draft mode, whatever I’d typed during any session before shutting off the Amstrad). The disk went dead. In a panic, I called the guy in California. By this point he had started circulating a sad-looking catalogue of all manner of Amstradalia, because Amstrad users or holdouts now constituted a giddy, weirdo subculture (he was even selling a very expensive adapter that enabled Amstrads to accept regular floppy disks) and told me over the phone that if I sent him the disk, he just might be able to poke around inside it and retrieve anything intelligible. So I dispatched it right away, but he had no luck recovering anything other than what he described as “junk.”
I tried to rewrite “The Pavilion” from memory, but my memory and I have never been a good match. By then I had already been given an old desktop PC that used the older, flimsy, bendable, square kinds of floppy disks, but the whole booting business seemed a little too involving for me, so I bought a Smith Corona word processor (not the kind recommended in a New York Times article) at Sears (I was never a Sears person, though) for a closeout price of $150. This was a two-piece system—(1) an all-in-one keyboard and printer that could also function as a stand-alone electric typewriter and (2) a separate monitor; and this thing used the standard floppy disks and widely available ribbons. I wrote a story called “Meltwater” on it. The rat-a-tat report of the printer kept getting on my nerves, though.
I am leaving out a couple of electronic typewriters, as they were called back then, which I returned to the marts a day or so after buying them, because their displays were limited to only a few lines of text and the ribbons wore out within a few hours of typing. The next thing I bought was the first (and maybe last) laptop-style word processor I’d ever seen (I might have found it at Best Buy). I think it cost only $99. I forget the manufacturer, but this thing was boxy and heavy and had a screen that reminded me of an Etch-a-Sketch screen (feeble blackish type on a gray background, very hard on the eyes). I think I might actually still have it around somewhere. The screen held maybe ten or fifteen lines of text. I can’t remember if I was ever able to hook it up to a printer, but it used the standard disks and even had a very limited sort of Internet connectivity (via an underachieving modem I bought at a farther-away Sears because the local store didn’t stock the more occult add-ons), and when I tried to launch myself onto the World Wide Web, I somehow landed in a motorcyclists’ chat room. The modem went back to the store the very next day.
Things get vague at this point, but I might have accepted another hand-me-down, this time a PC that used the regular disks, and I think it was the hand-me-down after that one, courtesy of my friend from high school, that I finally stuck it out with, and I bought a printer for it, and then a fax machine, and then I started using faxes as a way of postponing the inevitable transition to e-mail, and found faxing rather fun, and after a year or so of slippery fax papers piling up everywhere, I finally signed up for screechy dial-up America Online. (I held on to the console part of that computer for about a decade.)
I no longer have the fax machine or the printer or the desktop. I have a hand-me-down laptop. I would prefer the Smith Corona Galaxie 12 manual typewriter, but it was destroyed when the hot-water tank burst. (Just about everything in my apartments has always been kept in jeopardy on the floor.) The Smith Corona had sturdying, brotherly, broad-charactered pica type. I guess these days “pica” is a word fighting for its life.