Last summer, I saw an optometrist named Dr. Eyeler, who diagnosed a small, red lump on the inside of my lower left eyelid. “It’s a chalazion,” Dr. Eyeler said. Who what? She repeated the word and I asked her if she would write it down. She put it in green on some stationery, with instructions to warm compress and use ointment. Then the treatment didn’t work — Dr. Eyeler had warned me this could be the case. The lump, purportedly, was harmless. If it bothered me, could have it scalpelled off, like a needless clause in a sentence.
I did not expect to see the word “chalazion” again, not because the chalazion impairs my sight, but because for thirty-some years the word hadn’t existed for me. And yet here it is, a cuddle party of harsh vowels, in the table of contents of Garielle Lutz’s latest book Worsted. Reading Lutz’s new collection of stories, it is impossible not to get stimmed by words, their weird inner and outer workings, how they worry up all kinds of lurking inevitabilities begging to be eyed via phoropter, w/ slit lamp. I conducted this interview with Garielle Lutz in email and Google Docs.
The title Worsted calls back to Stories in the Worst Way, your first collection. How are these books in conversation?
Yes, Worsted seems to me in direct address to Stories in the Worst Way, but I can imagine all of the books telling each other off, having it out with each other, putting each other in their place, because each would like to think of itself as the definitive refutation of the others’ shrieked or paltering claims about the merits and disgraces of unlovedness and lonelihood.
The word “worsted” brings to mind fabric, worsted yarn — a close-textured surface with little to no nap. Or an opposite form of “bested” — outwitting someone. A friend I told about the book heard “wursted” and thought sausage. The stories contain much material, and even enact a kind of un-witting with their language. Not sure re: sausage. How did you arrive at the title?
A couple of years ago, while taking my favorite unabridged dictionary (Merriam-Webster’s 1934 model of the New International) out for a spin, I freaked when I saw that worst could do duty as a verb, so I right away reached for the thing, let it flex and eventually relax into its past-participial posture, and realized I had a title for my book. I love the word in part because it probably looks like a typo (maybe a misprint of wasted), and in part because I long ago had a crush on a strip-mall haberdasheress, and in part because the word just seems to fit the fulfilledly defeated characters I usually make a fuss over in my stories. (For some months now, my editor has been steering me toward liverwurst, but I don’t like taking a number at deli counters — I don’t like it that the arrowy little ticket you have to pull out from the dispenser is pointing right at you, as if your wants, your basest carnivorous cravings, literal or otherwise, have long been overknown.)
For many writers, your essay “The Sentence Is a Lonely Place” is a north star, the light that led to your fiction and also the fiction of Christine Schutt, Barry Hannah, Sam Lipsyte. For me, it was a guide to reading, and writing, leading, with style. Were you surprised by the response to that essay, the cult status it has assumed?
That thing about sentences was first given as a lecture, and I was surprised and even a little shaken to learn that anybody remembered any of it the next day, let alone thought there might be something to it. That was the first (and third-to-last) time I ever accepted an invitation to give a pep talk about craft. And the horrible thing is that while I was writing it — it took me weeks — I was often beset with the suspicion that what I was coming up with was in fact a parody of a craft talk. But I knew I couldn’t get up in front of a big roomful of intelligent people and talk about how I actually write, because they’d think I was putting them on, so I tried to force myself to metaphorize, one of the many things for which I have no aptitude. I expected to be called out, booed, kicked to the curb on 116th Street. All I was really doing, I realized, was retailing a trial-size version of Gordon Lish’s poetics of the sentence, Consecution Made E-Z, so to speak, which I had long ago had to work out for myself, to fit whatever I could get out of Lish’s masterly, philosophically pitched lectures into the tiny circumference of my tiny, abstraction-resistant brain. To this day, I’d recommend that anyone wanting to learn how to write sentences that even begin to approach the world-stirring virtuosity of Schutt and Hannah and Lipsyte drop everything and seek out the notes from Lish’s lectures, especially the ones delivered in living rooms in Manhattan, from anyone fortunate to have been present for them.
In an interview with The Paris Review around the time Divorcer was published, you talked about the “zeroth person” being your only option for point-of-view. How do you think about the zeroth person?
All I meant was that I write about null-and-void types, self-eclipsing people who’d feel they were overstepping if they claimed to be deserving of a “first-person” point of view, a vantage that, whenever I’d stop to think about it, sounded awfully elitist or self-aggrandizing. But I wasn’t coming at the term, or coming at anything else, for that matter, from a writing-workshop turn of mind.
And maybe point of view, in general? I always spot crafty takeaways (i.e. in “Cheap Night: “I have never liked feeling a point of view being trained on me too sharply.”) in your work.
I didn’t come up through an MFA program, so I never had to learn anything about craft. I did somehow walk off with an MA in English with a “concentration” (of a most diffuse sort) in “creative writing,” but that was back in the 1970s, when a person could fail at things, as I then did, not only comprehensively but also with near-complete invisibility. There might have once or twice been handouts about action rising and falling, and proper plottage, and characters either flattened out or of comely rondure, and the importance of setting, and some ruling or another to the effect that the principal character must change by story’s end instead of deepening only further and only partway forgivably into who she already was at the start, but I believe we had to pass the handouts back at the end of class.
Also, bodies. I come to your stories to feel that contorting self-estrangement so many of your narrators express (“I enter myself from behind.”).
I guess I write about people who court a kind of divorce from their very selves and aren’t all that unhappy when they start getting results.
Reading Worsted straight-through, I notice more in common, narrator-to-narrator, in these stories, than not. What relationship do the narrators share?
I think that, on balance, the narrators in this book might be a little more subdued than those in my other collections, it doesn’t take a sea change for them to get from one day to the next, they’ve already had their fill of childhood, they scrape by quite nicely in their sleep, they know how to find their way home with the groceries, they ache maturely and with tact, they’ve kept up with the rent, and yet they’re still the most miserable, rotten, self-pitiful, self-repellent cusses into whose slack-eyed, bloody-mouthed faces you’ve ever slammed a door when they’ve come, with luggage and momentum, to claim you’re their mom, or pop.
I love the moments of formal undoing: In “Worsted,” for instance, a character named Doroth talks in a “commotional, bullet-pointful way when she should have already been getting sleepy,” and what follows is a bullet-pointed list. There’s “Rules for Tenants”: an officious-ish list. The “unsightly… abomination” of a block quotation in “Chalazion.” “Unnatively” is one four-page paragraph (that spans a semester). Do you plan for these moments of formal efflorescing or do they happen “naturally”?
I don’t plan them, but there’s nothing natural about their turning up on the page, either. I’m after the unnatural. I’ve always loathed bullet points — there’s something assaultive and grisly about them — but they do seem to suit the character of Doroth in the title story. And I’ve always had a weakness for the boilerplate of leases at their eeriest, though the crush of all those unsumptuous clauses and of all that stipulational nitpickery can really put a crimp in any plans for a bouncier life, or at least one a little less balked. I used to teach English of various freshmanic sorts and learned early on that a lot of students are big on block quotations, mostly because they let you get away with wider margins for a few lines. And doing away with indents altogether was a fave way for the rosterlings to be a little revolutionary when a five-paragraph comp was due at 8:30 a.m. (I always tried to bask in the thwartedness I felt when I had to pencil in all those pilcrows.)
Lots has been said/written/asked about your sentences, and I underlined/starred hundreds here, but I found myself thinking more about your paragraphs. An interesting test: Could each paragraph stand alone as a micro-fiction? I think maybe. How do you build paragraphs?
I build them up out of solitarian sentences. I never write anything straight through. I might write ten or twenty utterly unrelated sentences in a row and let each keep to itself, with triple-spacing above and beneath, and then I’ll later read through the day’s batch and see whether any two or three of them seem as if they could get along with each other without getting clingy (I’m struck by the term anxious attachment, which comes up a lot these days in discussions of romantic disorders), and, if so, I’ll pen them up together in a paragraphic enclosure and hope that they’ll stay civil enough and not try to break out. I think any one paragraph should have sufficient character to be able to stand on its own multi-sentence feet and not need outside help.
These come about when loner paragraphs seem to be looking for a little friction and seem ready to start bumping up against others of their own, mutually repellent kind. I try to avoid stacking paragraphs atop one other in ways that might suggest sequentiality of thought or feeling. Instead, it’s a matter of breaking up the ball and chain of cause and effect, breaking the chokehold of bruisingly vulgar logicality. By this point, it’s almost as if the paragraphs are already banding together on their own, starting to gang up, and by the time they’re pushing me around instead of vice versa, I figure my work is probably done.
It took me years to start feeling less and less creeped out about using the word story to designate the stream of oncoming sentences in anything fictional I’ve written, but these days the definition has been welcomingly elasticized to the point where almost any paragraphic buildup of language with feeling of some sort coursing all the way through it seems to qualify almost automatically.
Ensuances, narcotica, enqueering, thunge, flomp, exaction, doodlehusks: Your ability to ply/ploy/play with language is radical and compelling. Do you mold and remodel the vernacular while you write? Or do you decoct words and bring them to stories?
I used to draw up lists of words, but that stopped a couple of decades ago, because I never seemed to bother looking at the lists when I finally got around to writing. So now I just wait until the word I want raises itself up out of the alphabeture of other words already present in the sentence I’m working on. And if that doesn’t work, I’ll goof around a little. I’ll take a piece of paper and set a few words down onto it and then poke around inside them and see what comes out. Sometimes what I eventually, stickily, divine in those languagey entrails is a word I would have never found in any other way. We too easily lose our playfulness with language as we age and ramify and stink up the world with our yearning. Two or three times during a long class taught by a bully I had to take twice in grad school, the prof (he spoke in a sham but unplaceable accent) marveled at what he took to be the uncanny resemblance between a telephone handset (this was in the old days) and a pistol. He thought there was something brilliantly apt about the comparison he’d drawn for us, though it seemed awfully labored to me. But then he recounted how, at a family gathering the previous week, a niece or a granddaughter whose leg had fallen asleep blurted out, “It feels like there’s ginger ale in there!” I couldn’t help wishing for that girl to come teach the class.
In addition to portmanteuing and verbing nouns and onomatopeoia-izing, you repurpose vanilla turns of phrase, often, to start new sections in stories: “I make it a point not to keep up with people.” “The day had come. Or at least the sun had come out.” “This should be just enough about my second wife.” How do you think about this language reclamation?
I’m all for every sort of peculiarism of diction, every stripe of vitalizing obscuration it’ll take if, for instance, the task set before you is to describe, once and for all, that crackly handclasp of your stepmother’s at the assisted-living pavilion, but underneath all of that depictional intemperance you’re dead set on letting yourself have a private, final say on just how reborn you felt, for maybe just a sec, because of nothing more than how exaltingly that hollow-faced but sunny-haired maiden manning the express lane at Food Circus earlier in the day handled those boxes of store-brand boil-in-bag brown rice you’d set out so tentatively, even bashfully, on the check-out belt — in a fix like that, I mean, if you’ve already got a sentence soaking in your most solipsismal drippings, it certainly can’t hurt to throw the reader the lifeline of something on the order of a prefatory “To be fair,” “To be sure,” “To this end,” “That being said,” “Which is not to say,” “You’ll be happy to learn…,” or suchwhat. (Why can’t more avowals of affection or fast-food orders or past-due threats to one’s life start off in just that way?) A lot of the handsomely uncalled-for sentences I most love to read are the ones that force just enough bewilderment and life-poisoning clarities straight through some familiarly ceremonial blatter and gab.
What other art, beyond literature, informs your writing these days?
Some movies I watch over and over are Maren Ade’s The Forest for the Trees, Erick Zonca’s The Dreamlife of Angels, and the mesmeric, middle-period Eric Rohmer films, particularly The Green Ray. I’ve yet to tire of listening to the Smiths. I love the photographs Lauren Leja takes on her way to and from work, then posts on her Invisible Commute site.
Who are you reading right now?
I’m re-rereading Greg Gerke’s deep-reaching, elegant essays in See What I See, a dazzlement of a book. Also reading Vivian Gornick’s The Odd Woman and the City.
For a long time, your biography said you taught, and somewhere recently I read that you’d stopped teaching. Has this changed your way of working and writing?
I did teach for a long time — nearly four semestrally packed decades — and I retired a few months after the pandemic struck us. The pandemic has had a much more appreciable effect on my life than retirement has. The effect has often been one of my turning away from words on paper (both mine and anybody else’s) and any words already in my head. I do a lot less of everything. It’s a time of torpor.
Do you write by hand? Typewrite or computer your stories? Pens or pencils? What is your revision process now? Has it changed?
I wrote the beginning of one of my first stories, “Slops,” with a dull-pointed (but otherwise still sleek) miniature-golf score-keeping pencil on sheets of paper taped to the tile of my bathroom while I was soaking truantly in the tub. (That little string of sentences was the only thing I ever wrote that I didn’t later rake through rigorously and then hotly, punishingly, revise and remake.) The remains of the first lines of another story are still penciled on an expanse of plaster opposite the sink. But my handwriting long ago took a turn for the cryptical. For years, I typed on a manual typewriter sunk into a pillow plumped on my lap to dampen the clatter of the keys. (I’m against making noise.) Then the last ribbon — it was of the old two-tone (half-red, half-black) variety — wore out, and nobody was selling the things around here anymore. Now I type on an EZEyes ancillary keyboard I found for ten bucks among other clearance dejecta on an endcap at Big Lots, but the letters have started to wear off of the keys. The keyboard is jacked into a reconditioned Chromebook, practically the kiddie kind, that I bought through the mail about halfway through the first year of the pandemic. Before that, I had a heavyset hand-me-down laptop that couldn’t connect to the Internet, which was fine, because I didn’t have Internet anyway and wasn’t about to pay for it. I got through the final, shelter-in-place month of my final year of teaching by grading papers on a reconditioned legacy iPhone, also a hand-me-down.
I was interested to learn how extensively you edited the Collected Stories, and how long the new pieces in that book had been gestating. When were the stories in Worsted written?
When I was preparing the collected-stories book, edited by the late Giancarlo DiTrapano (may he repose now in glory), I slashed away at a lot of the phrasing in two longish stories from my Divorcer book. (“Womanesque” shed the most sentences; it’s a much lighter thing now and gets around a lot easier.) Most of the other stories in that omnibus collection have suffered adjustments to one degree or another, usually just word substitutions to eliminate inadvertent repetitions throughout the book and across the span of my post-forties writing life. By far the longest of the new pieces in the collected-stories book, “My Bloodbaths,” was something I’d been working on piecemeal for a quarter of a century. That’s also true of all of the stories in Worsted. I started writing them in the early 1990s, when I was in the sick-bay throes of disgorging Stories in the Worst Way, but then set them aside for years; I shoved heaps of faintly, cheaply inked printouts into big cartons that I later sealed before moving, at the turn of the century, from one apartment house to one where roaches weren’t welcome, and it wasn’t until I opened the boxes a few summers ago that I saw how much material I had on my hands and decided to do something with it. So most of Worsted takes place in a dot-matrixy world a few decades ago, when people got billed punitively for long-distance calls, when on practically every other street corner there was a pay phone awaiting passersby with grievances that only just that very instant started occurring to them, and e-mail was mostly Hotmail or AOL Mail in its serif-clipped, Arial babyhood. I decided not to bring anything up-to-date except my moods, my thyroidal status, the time I waited almost three weeks to replace the burned-out light bulb (45 grace-sharing watts) in the only lamp in my windowless kitchen, my revised preferences in budget chocolate, the rather strikingly new arthritic slant to the distal phalanx of my right pinkie finger, my feelings about morning sun, my discovery (I’d had to get married to find this out) that when I’m screaming in my dreams I’m screaming even louder in real, unneighborly life — all of this stuff has been swept tidily between the lines.
When the erotic enters your prose, it’s almost never in the writing about physical intimacy. Thinking of, like, “Written at Work”: “Linni? The closest I ever got to myself was when I watched her take me into her eyes.”
The characters I tend to write about are asexual to a fault but not exactly aromantic. When suffering the encroachments of somebody else’s overheating heart, people like these can only blunderingly approximate the under-the-linen vernaculars and physical fluencies and genital knack and know-how of the sexually typical individual. From the perspective of the asexual, anybody sitting halfway across a room is always going to look a whole lot more alluring than somebody an arm’s-breadth away and already inching closer.
Worsted is the first collection you’ve published as Garielle Lutz. I fear this is a little sappy, but: What has bringing this book into the world, as Garielle, meant to you?
It feels nondeceptive. Gary always felt like a pen name, vague and evasive, wide of the mark, a label slapped onto the placebo version of a person.