An Interview With Gary Lutz

Gary Lutz’s background is obscured, which is his preferred way. He was raised in Allentown, Pennsylvania, and has spent the majority of his time near Pittsburgh, where he crafts intricate and idiosyncratic stories in an unadorned apartment.

He was tutored by the esteemed editor and educator Gordon Lish “for a period of twenty-six days between June 1992 and June 1997” and regards himself “fortunate to have been there.” Under Lish, he developed an individual voice, employing compression and maxim to weave together narrative components into unconventionally beautiful forms.

His characters grapple with the heaviness of day-to-day life, ruminating on the details of their own psychological issues. In the story “Slops,” a college professor with colitis records all the bathrooms on campus in a small notebook.

In another, a man disseminates leaflets and gives forty-five-minute lectures (with diagrams) in pursuit of a potential wife. Lutz takes painstaking care with each sentence, building a language of remarkable insight, repressed feelings, and reinvented terms.

Lutz has released two collections of short stories —Stories in the Worst Way and I Looked Alive — which all who are interested in the power of language should read. He also edits fiction for the online experimental journal 5Trope.

Back in the summer of 2005, a discussion was facilitated with the aid of various computers.

— Ross Simonini

In his writing, Simonini explores the complexities of life and the importance of understanding the perspectives of others. He delves into the topics of how our decisions and relationships shape our lives and how we can learn from the disparate points of view of the people around us.


It appears that you have an unconventional approach to composing writing–something related to crossword-puzzle word books.

Gary Lutz has never done crossword puzzles, however he resorted to a book called The Master Crossword Puzzle Dictionary due to his dissatisfaction with thesauruses. This book contains the largest collection of words, surpassing even the most comprehensive dictionaries. Unfortunately, it is out of print and the second-hand copies are costly, reaching up to $750. He believes it is essential to be aware of the words that are in the language, as many of them rarely appear in print. He finds it beneficial to have a lot of words in front of him when writing, as the one he needs might be in the stream, even if he has to alter it a bit.

BLVR: Do you employ a systematic approach when altering words, making use of several resources? Or do you rely more on instinct?

Attempting to traverse from one end of a sentence to the other can take an interminable amount of time. As part of this process I often find myself introducing words to each other that would, in any other context, never interact.

My motivation to couple them together is often based upon a shared interior vowel or the same consonantal shell, or any other instinctive feeling. It’s almost a strange kind of matchmaking, and to keep the words from getting too comfortable, I might choose an atypical preposition to evoke a feeling of unease. This entire process is primarily driven by intuition and is probably rather unorthodox. I never have preconceived plans.

BLVR: What is the primary objective in composing sentences? What is the desired outcome for each sentence?

In my opinion, a sentence should be considered as a “quasi-independent unit of tended language, deliberate in every syllable”.

Every sentence should present something new and exciting to the reader, and a paragraph should be a string of these fresh verbal offerings. When judged based on this standard, a lot of writing might come off as restrictive, unfulfilling and ungenerous.

Perhaps readers should not have to endure an entire paragraph or pages just to receive something they haven’t experienced before.

BLVR: Your sentences demand more of a reader than what is normal due to their fullness and complexity. Such as “There was no need to even come face to face to be stuck in failing familiarity forever”, which has a straightforward meaning, but is expressed in a strong and heavy manner. Do you consider there is an ideal way to comprehend one of your sentences?

GL: Reading, in the same way that writing does, is a very personal and irregular activity. I would never dream of suggesting someone else the way to do it. Personally, I take pleasure in sentences that cause me to pause and study them, or at least look at them with surprise.

BLVR: So, grammar is essentially a way of conveying instructions to readers on when to think, pause and read, right? Given your enthusiasm for accuracy and grammar, I had thought that you would be more meticulous in the reading process.

I’m content with whatever interpretation readers take away from my works; in fact, I’m even happy if they are completely perplexed. There are times when I’ve read a book thoroughly, yet still had no clear notion of what it was about – and I still enjoyed it.

BLVR wanted to know which ones.

GL: I found the works of Roland Barthes to be quite enjoyable, but I had difficulty understanding them due to my lack of capability in dealing with abstract concepts. It took me a while to comprehend the phrase “No news is good news”, as I initially believed it meant that all news must be bad. I was slow in understanding the realities of life, and when I did, I was somewhat disappointed.

BLVR: Are you ever inclined to consider yourself a traditionalist, given that your attitude towards ambiguity is inclined more to the experimental, while your fascination with grammar appears to be more traditional?

I believe it is beneficial in some way for prose that appears to be striking in its disruption or overthrow of the customary, to be found to be simply pedantic grammar beneath the surface. (Apparently, I have a Victorian soul.)

If I did not have the strong belief that precision in these issues was futile, I would not have had a lasting, even peculiar interest in prescriptive grammar and punctuation. As an instructor of English writing and business writing, I am culpable of discussing the comma extensively.

Do you have any advice to impart, perhaps in the form of a comma?

The Age of the Comma may be over, but it was a great time to be alive and to be a wordsmith. Sentences had a certain level of exactitude. Nowadays, you can read a theater critic in a prominent magazine write that Sweet Charity is “Neil Simon’s sanitized musical version of Fellini’s Nights of Cabiria.” Without the comma, the phrase suggests that there are two stage adaptations of the Fellini picture, with the sanitized one being the one under review.

A few weeks later, in the same magazine, a film reviewer refers to “a new movie version of Bewitched,” suggesting that there was a previous movie version of the sitcom (which there wasn’t).

Prescriptive grammarians would say that, in each case, a pair of coordinate adjectives have been incorrectly presented as if they were cumulative adjectives, with the result that the first adjective has been confined to one “musical version” or “movie version” even though that is at odds with the writer’s original intention.

BLVR: What’s the deal with hyphens? It’s always so hard to get a definitive answer. I’m a fan of them, but I can’t help but feel a bit shady when I put them to use. Is that a normal feeling?

The hyphen is a much-neglected punctuation mark, although I was personally captivated by it back in third grade.

I was even so enthused that I started putting hyphens between all of my words – until the teacher made me stop. However, the hyphen is valuable as it ties words together into couples, threesomes, and sometimes even foursomes. It is especially useful when placed in front of nouns to clarify things, like in the phrase “short fiction workshop” which would otherwise imply a workshop that is of brief duration.

It is also important to note that when a noun is preceded by an adjectival compound whose first word is an adverb not ending in “ly”, one should not put a hyphen between them (e.g. “a nicely-turned phrase” is incorrect).

The complexity of the hyphen’s rules may be daunting, but the New Yorker magazine back when William Shawn was in charge is a great source of guidance. Despite the complications, I eventually fell in love with the hyphen and its nuances.

BLVR: What was your method for learning punctuation? Are there any specific resources you would suggest?

I gained an understanding of the use of commas by observing the punctuational techniques in the New Yorker during the final decade of the William Shawn term. The magazine set itself apart by adding commas to sentences like “He lived in Trenton until his death, in 1999” and “I visited her at her house, in Newark.”

Other publications, however, would often omit these commas, leading to confusion around the situation. Sadly, there is not one single source that covers all the topics related to this subject.

BLVR: What age were you when you first got into language?

At the age of nineteen or twenty, I was in college, and had changed majors every semester until I ended up in English. Unfortunately, it seemed that the very thing that gave the field its name was never taught.

I went to a college counselor and was advised to buy a book called How to Study which taught an outdated method called SQ3R. Reading then became a process of highlighting certain parts of the text.

Fortunately, I had one professor who scared me enough to make me learn, and then I stumbled upon Modern American Usage by Wilson Follett, which offered a comprehensive analysis of sentences and their issues.

Fighting my impulse to color the book instead of reading it, I persevered and reread it multiple times. After getting my diploma, I moved on to an M.A. in creative writing, and then took a break from writing for more than 10 years.

BLVR: How did you feel about your graduate program?

GL: The stories I wrote that were accepted in graduate school lacked substance and were fabricated. As a result, I became disoriented and lost my enthusiasm for writing. I then obtained a job and worked, and in my free time, I meandered through stores until they closed.

BLVR: In what way were they insubstantial and inauthentic?

GL: My stories were a sleepy sort of lyrical experience. The dialogue among the love-struck young men and women was often cutting and silly. It was a writing style of no real importance. I was unaware of any better way, and no-one advised me to stop. Eventually, I think I came to a realization about it.

II. In my first book, I made reference to McDonald’s in one of the stories, and Coca-Cola in one of the stories in my second book. Although this is the only extent of it, I regret the level of detail.

BLVR: In one sense I totally comprehend your opinion that film is “the ideal storytelling medium” and that you don’t read fiction for the story. Yet, in another way I ponder: if language is the only thing powering fiction, why not switch over to something that is exclusively reliant on language, such as poetry?

When it comes to cinema, it’s a great way to move characters from one place to another without spending too much time on mundane activities.

Viewers can take in the environment, the weather, and the music, as well. There’s no need to explain how someone got in a car, or went to the restroom. Writers of short stories are taught to write their scenes like plays, but I disagree.

I think it’s more efficient to write a script or movie than a sentence or paragraph. As for the debate between fiction and poetry, there’s a lot of overlap between the two. Some people think my writing is more poetic, but I prefer the old definitions of poetry.

In terms of paper usage, it’s more economical to consider my writing as prose, as it provides the reader with a full page.

What techniques do you employ when crafting stories that don’t rely on cause and effect?

GL’s writing approach doesn’t involve questioning why or what comes next; instead, they are only concerned with discovering the things that are beyond the logical.

Rather than looking for answers, they ask themselves “Is there anything else?”. Their primary focus is on the things which are outside of the norm.

BLVR: Would you say that you refrain from incorporating a single idea or concept throughout your works?

We sometimes underestimate the power of words to find homes in the right places. They often seem to gravitate toward the right mood or tone, and this is how a story can take shape. The language may be steeped in sorrow, or there may be a certain tilt or pitch to the narrator’s voice.

There is even the possibility that the words are being spoken from somewhere out of the reader’s view. But regardless of the setting, writers should respect the boundaries of the story. Within those borders, all sorts of ideas are allowed to be expressed and explored.

BLVR: Could you elaborate on the concept of acoustical daisy chains? Are you implying that, at times, phonetics might be the linking element (such as sound transfigurations)?

No matter what I do, it’s never a precise or systematic approach. It’s just that, in the most ideal of conditions, a word appears to initiate a sentence and the language is made aware of this spark of inspiration.

Then, the most harmonious term to the first word will eventually join in, and a third word will follow suit sensing a connection with the initial two and thus forming a pattern.

When this process continues, with each word having an affinity to its immediate neighbors, the written piece acquires a certain character and tone. That is, in essence, what Gordon Lish taught me — or at least, that’s how I understood it.

Do you believe it is essential that writing should flow when spoken aloud? Or do you find the written look of a piece more interesting?

In my view, a sentence should be both expressed coherently when spoken and also be aesthetically pleasing when written. Therefore, I am conscious of how it reads when laid out on the page.

BLVR: Now that you have gravesites to tend to, do you still appreciate watching films?

GL: Yes, I do. It seems to be a recurring pattern of mine; every two years or so, I encounter a film that I can’t seem to get enough of. I was like this with Requiem for a Dream, Ghost World, The Last Days of Disco, and most recently Before Sunset. I always make sure to activate the closed-caption feature, as I find it beneficial to have the dialogue reach me in two ways.

BLVR: To what extent do you think movies have influenced your writing?

When I was a young child, I was exposed to Breakfast at Tiffany’s at a drive-in theater, forever imprinting on my mind a romanticized view of New York City and its people.

The only television show that had a significant effect on me was The Honeymooners, whereas I have been influenced more by the ridiculous dialogue on talk radio and the more extreme forms of popular music. Unfortunately, this has had a negative impact on me in different ways.

Do you make a conscious effort to omit any references to popular culture in your writing?

I used the names of McDonald’s and Coca-Cola in two of my books. Looking back, I regret going into such detail. Additionally, I don’t use place names or eras in any of my stories.

BLVR: It is uncommon to observe authors referring to certain patterns in popular culture without exhibiting contempt or being sarcastic. In fact, it almost appears to be improper to not include some form of sarcasm, as if popular culture and literature are perpetual antagonists.

I’m often moved to tears by popular songs and movies, and I don’t become defensive when I talk about what I love. However, I have never felt a desire to incorporate them into my stories.

This is because when I’m reading a fiction piece that mentions a particular song I like, the tune begins to play in my head, and I’m diverted away from the narrative.

Additionally, the description of the song title is often not as fascinating as the song itself, and the writer doesn’t attempt to describe it; the title is just there, probably as a type of prompt. I can’t see what’s to be gained by redirecting the reader’s attention outside the story.

But, I do adore it when authors go to the trouble of inventing performers, song titles, and even lyrics, and then make the reader hear the music with writerly brilliance. DeLillo and Lipsyte have achieved this.

As for the wider use of popular culture, I realize that there is a type of modern fiction that is like journalism and can become perishable over time, but it can also be a great deal of fun to read currently.

Nevertheless, if we look back to the author John O’Hara, who is known to have filled his stories with plenty of class-indicating details, we won’t find the same type of brand naming and name-dropping which are common in contemporary fiction.


Fiction has the capacity to manipulate time in a way that is not possible in film. It appears to be independent of time.

In my opinion, this is the case. There is a sense of liberation from the chronological timeline, allowing for an exploration of a character’s inner world.

BLVR: Your tales often explore the uncertainty of a character’s inner feelings. While some big topics like gender and sexuality are hazy, small details about that character are described in great detail. So why is it that these characters have difficulty knowing themselves?

My opinion is that human beings are almost entirely unknowable, even to themselves. My protagonists and characters appear to accumulate a great deal of individualized information about the places and their physical entities, or the common activities they complete during a regular day, or anyone else they could be involved with in a sudden misfortune of attraction. But they are stuck when it comes to forming a comprehensive and dependable image of themselves.

They do make declarations and judgments all the time; they express opinions and develop assumptions with a strength resembling a manifesto. However, their generalizations cause them to be further and further removed from themselves; they seem to be expelled from any kind of permanent understanding they might be attempting to establish.

They cannot even use first-person pronouns to describe themselves without sounding both evasive and boastful. I cannot state that I know who these narrators or characters truly are. In most cases, I am not even familiar with their names, and if I tagged them with names, I would think that I was disrespecting them. Furthermore, gender, sexual orientation and the like appear to shift with these people.

BLVR remarked that it appeared the author had as much detachment from their characters as they did an understanding of them. This was an uncommon thing to hear from a writer, though it could be argued that it was like the awkward and clumsy exchanges between real individuals.

In my opinion, the characters I create are not so much representations of individuals I’ve encountered in the real world, but rather phenomena of language that have arrived at a head. I don’t consider them to be simplifications, exaggerations, or amalgamations of people I’ve come across in mundane life; my only connection to them is through the words I use to construct them.

BLVR: Are abnormal phrases like “You could touch for a couple of bucks” the source of your inspiration? Do you agree with Sam Lipsyte’s idea that a writer should start stories from these kinds of phrases? Is language the driving force behind your work and the narrative that follows?

For me, it’s similar to what Sam, a scribe whom I esteem highly, experiences. Occasionally, a single word or expression, frequently an unassuming member of the English language, will follow me around, appearing everywhere I go. Eventually, I have to confront it.


BLVR: Is there any chance you would look into creating content in any other form than the short story?

I think that, as a reader, I have a fondness for the enclosed atmosphere of short fiction. When I was younger, some potato chip packages used to have a disclaimer on the back saying something like “This package is sold by weight, not by volume. Contents may have shifted during shipping.”

This reminds me of many of the books I enjoy, which may not take up much room but are still packed with weighty and meaningful content, at least to me.

BLVR: How will the stories in your latest work differ from those you have written previously?

I’ve been writing mostly medium-length stories for the past five years, however, I would like to challenge myself by attempting to write either longer or shorter stories. Writing a lengthy story is intimidating for me, since I tend to delete the majority of material that I create. On the other hand, I believe that writing something very brief would be even more daunting.

BLVR: I figured that someone who creates such concise, well-crafted tales as yours would be passionate about revision. Do you usually discard a lot of your work?

I tend to discard the majority of what I write and then rummage through the debris. It’s a time consuming process.

What is a regular day like in the life of Lutz? What is the usual routine of their work, the writing habits they have, and the rules they have set for themselves when it comes to their work? Apart from the substantial editing, what else makes up their daily routine?

GL states that their days normally begin and end with listening to the radio; from Monday to Friday they tune in to Howard Stern and Phil Hendrie. For eight and a half months of the year, they have a job and spend their summers at their laptop. At one point, they even wrote parts of their first book while soaking in the bathtub for hours, and right after they woke up. These days, the only way they can write is on a keyboard.

To stay alert, they usually listen to music in the evening. On Saturdays they either walk around Pittsburgh or take a ride on the light-rail car to the end of the line and back.

Lastly, Sundays are for chores, since they have been living their entire adult life without furniture, so their domestic postures are restricted. Yet, they still do a lot of laundry.

BLVR: In your own estimation, what is the finest piece of writing that you have created?

I’m never satisfied with the stories I write. They leave me feeling frustrated.

BLVR: So, what do you do to remain engaged?

It is conceivable, perhaps, that I will not someday let myself down. Regardless, I cannot think of any other option.

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