Author Interview "Tom Lutz"
Tom Lutz is the founder and editor-in-chief of the Los Angeles Review of Books. He is also the author of And the Monkey Learned Nothing; Drinking Mare's Milk on the Roof of the World; Crying: A Natural and Cultural History of Tears; Doing Nothing: A History of Loafers, Loungers, Slackers, and Bums in America; Cosmopolitan Vistas, and American Nervousness, 1903: An Anecdotal History. His latest book is Born Slippy: A Novel. For more, go to tomlutzwriter.com
You’ve written travel narratives, cultural histories, and other nonfiction books. What made you switch to fiction?
I was always a novelist, in my own mind, I was just procrastinating with those other books.
I’ve always read novels, and I’ve spent most of my time as an academic writing about novels and novelists, and since starting Los Angeles Review of Books, almost all of my interviews, for the site and the radio show, and in public events, have been with novelists. I’ve always thought the novel to be the queen of the sciences, and it is maybe for that reason, the sense that I would be treading on the holy of holies, that I kept chickening out. I started quite a few over the years, but they never seemed good enough.
Still, I knew it was something I needed to do, that I wanted to do. Writing feature screenplays and a TV pilot gave me the sense of how much fun it could be to immerse in a fictional world as a writer rather than a reader, and that’s what finally got me hooked. When I finally got down to it, I was very happily surprised. I’ve never had so much fun as a writer as I had writing this book.
For the uninitiated, why “Born Slippy” and what other titles did you consider?
My first working title was The Unlucky Lovesong of Franky Baltimore. I was pretty sure that wouldn’t be the actual title, as was everyone I ever mentioned it to, and I later settled on Sugarfish. There is a scene when the main characters are deciding on a password for a bank account, and Dmitry looks up and sees a sign that says “Sugarfish”—it’s a sushi restaurant in Los Angeles—and I loved how that name collapses sweet and savory, sweet and yucky, straightforward and fishy, and coming out of Dmitry’s mouth it sounded vaguely sexual. My editor in London hated it. He suggested Born Slippy and once I listened to the lyrics (it is a song that was a big dance hit in the 1990s, and was made more famous by being on the soundtrack for the movie Trainspotting), I saw why he thought it was a good idea. Dmitry is, after all, a slippy mofo…
What drew you to noir as a genre?
I’ve been having a conversation about noir with Steph Cha for LitHub, and she is a true expert—she has three thrillers in her series about a Korean American accidental detective, and she’s LA Review of Books’ noir editor. One thing she said really struck me; she said, “Noir strikes me as an honest way of looking at the world, one that reckons with evil and social malaise in a real, cutting way.” We can often think that genre books are escapist, that we go to them for entertainment, but the great writers in the form (Graham Greene, Highsmith, Chandler, Hammett, Ellroy) are interested in the most fundamental issues of good and evil, guilt and innocence, corruption and redemption.
Your protagonist is described as a bit of a loser, your antagonist as a charming sociopath. That duo suggests some comedic elements may be at play.
Yes! I’ve always love Carl Hiaasen and Elmore Leonard, whose numskull crooks are an endless source not just of tension but of humor. And I love Quentin Tarantino and the Coen brothers for the same reason. But the writer I really would like to become is Patricia Highsmith. I think following Tom Ripley’s psychopathic antics is horrifying and laugh-out-loud funny at the same time. On the other hand, maybe this is just me—I did notice I was laughing louder than anyone else in the theater at Scorsese’s The Irishman…..
Were there any characters whose motivations you struggled to understand?
In a way, the entire book is an attempt to understand Dmitry, the antagonist. His particular form of narcissistic amorality is something we all deal with at some time or other, either on the world stage (don’t worry, I’m not going to slip into politics) or in our personal lives. I think that the core of that form of evil is at the heart of all our transgressions—we decide, at some point, whether it is something tiny like shoplifting a candy bar as a kid or larger like cheating on a spouse—that we are going to let our desire of the moment trump (still, I’m not going to go there) the social contract. Most of us are the kind of people who do that rarely, but Dmitry is the kind of person who does that always, with gusto. It is an attempt to use a very evil character to think about the nature of evil for all of us.
Frank, my protagonist, is the kind of person who (and again, I assume we all do this to a point) manages to find good reasons why following his desire is the right thing to do, rather than the wrong thing to do, even though his reasoning is flimsy and full of holes.
And I wanted to explore the dynamic between the two of them, because, as Oscar Hammerstein wrote, “you’ve got to be taught.” In the era of #metoo, it is worth looking at how men learn misogyny, and I think this kind of male relationship is one of the classrooms for it.
Can you talk about the writing process?
There’s no place I’d rather be. I wrote a book about the work ethic (Doing Nothing), and for that I researched people’s attitudes toward work and work satisfaction, and found what I expected, which was that when people are in the flow of their work, when they are exercising whatever skills are necessary to perform that work, they tend to be very happy, and it doesn’t matter if that work is artistic work, or assembly line work, or manual labor, or accounting. I
found great satisfaction as a line cook, and, like my character Frank, hammering together 2x4s to frame a wall. But the writing process engages me on so many different levels at once that I find it deeply pleasurable. I’ve never understood the idea of the tortured artist. I mean I’m depressive, and I love going into my writing trance when I’m depressed—because it makes me feel better—and I love indulging negative emotions while I’m writing, but that, too is pleasurable, much more pleasurable than feeling them without writing it. But I’ve had colleagues in academia who actually hate writing, for whom it is torture. That’s one version of hell: publish and perish.
Your novel opens with a revelation that seems like a climactic moment in the life of your protagonist. Were you following any genre conventions or was that choice made after writing the book in a more linear manner?
Yes, there is a convention where the big event opens the book (or film) and then we backtrack to figure out how it came to be, often picking up the action at what screenwriters call the third act break, or two-thirds the way through. I had started chronologically, but there is a lot of character work that needs to get done when the two of them are young men, and it isn’t all edge-of-your-seat exciting. So putting the big explosion first helps establish some stakes for them both, and gives the development a bit of oomph right from the start.
Have you ever been to Taipei?
Yes, I was in Taipei a decade or so ago, and again just recently. I was surprised that, while some of what I remembered about it was accurate, not all of it, so I made some last-minute changes… I also had a friend who knows the city very well, and who lives there part of each year, Eileen Chow, read the manuscript. She thought it worked fine, but she was bowled over because she had a friend whose story paralleled that of Dmitry, and even wondered if we knew the same person…..
The Golden Gai and other parts of Tokyo and the section in Vietnam are from personal experience, as are all the American settings. But although I’ve been in Indonesia, I’ve never actually been in Jakarta, where some of the action takes place. And oddly, that section feels even more real to me than the others.
Tell us more about your travels.
I’ve now been to over 130 countries—it is an obsession, almost a sickness—but because I get invited to give talks and readings around the world, and because I’m on an academic work schedule that allows me chunks of time where I don’t have to be anywhere in particular, I’ve managed to get almost everywhere.
People laugh, but I once was flown to the Netherlands for an event, and found a ticket that let me stop over in Ireland on the way in and in Bolivia on the way home, all for only an extra hundred dollars or so. And on trip to a book festival in Hong Kong, I’ll add a couple weeks and jump around to as many countries as possible (Hong Kong is among the best few hubs in the world). I don’t mind long bus rides and terrible accommodations—I once rented a room at a truck stop in southern India for fifty cents (I didn’t take my clothes off and wrapped my head in a t-shirt, since the bedding—well, best not to describe it).
I do quite a bit of writing on these trips, on the long plane rides, in the airports, on the bus or train, in the hotel on those long nights when it isn’t safe to be walking in the city after dark, at the restaurants and cafes. Travel for me is like a mobile writers’ retreat. I also read my students MFA theses on the road, and edit and do other work for LARB. My office is my laptop, so it can be anywhere.
I take notes about the places I visit, but I rarely write about them right away, while I’m there. For a number of years I found myself writing about Laos while I was in Ecuador, or about Swaziland while I was in Azerbaijan. It is a very odd double displacement to leave my hotel after a morning writing and realize I am not only not home, but not in the country I was just writing about, that I am somewhere else altogether.
You are the editor of The Los Angeles Review of Books and you teach at the University of California. How are those roles different than the writing work you do?
It is part of every full writing life to do a lot of reading—and so I am very lucky to be able to read for a living. In both those roles—at UCR and LARB—reading is the primary thing I do—reading for the courses I teach, reading for the Review, reading student work, reading the work I edit for the Review. And all of that editing—reading student work is basically just editing, too—all these years has been great for my writing, I think. It certainly has taught me to think about what I might be doing wrong, line by line—not while I’m writing, because that would be deadly, but when I’m editing my own work.
The main difference is that there is a public-facing part of my other jobs—actual, face-to-face human interaction—rather than the kind of full-on privacy of writing, or the somewhat imaginary kind of interaction I am having with you now or the imaginary relation to a ‘reader’ while writing. Yes, there are a few public readings when each new book comes out, but that’s a tiny part of the writing life. Teaching requires in-person contact, of course, and at LARB I ran a radio show with live guests, I interviewed many authors, I am very involved in fundraising to pay the staff salaries (I’m a volunteer) and pay the writers, I manage that staff, and I represent LARB in many venues. So it is public work, rather than the exquisitely private work of writing.
Does being a critic make writing easier or harder?
I do think it took me a very long time to finally write the novel I always wanted to write because I was intimidated by the beauty and elegance and wisdom of the writers I was writing about.
Who was your first reader?
My first reader was Ms. Reese (or Ms. Riis, I don’t really know), a junior high English teacher who took me aside after reading my epic poem about how Betsy Ogden broke my heart and told me I had a gift, that I was a very talented writer. Thirty years later, I told this to my best friend at the time, who was in the same class, and he said that Ms. Reese (or Ms. Riis) took him aside and told him the same thing, and that he just thought she was crazy, because his writing was crap. In other words, my first reader, in executing some pedagogical method of building self-esteem in her students, sent me down this writerly path. I’m just lucky it hasn’t been a complete disaster.
My first reader for the last twenty years, including for this book, has been my wife, and I’m her first reader. When she liked this one, I knew I was onto something.
How much research was involved in writing this novel and what was the most surprising discovery you made while writing Born Slippy?
Google Earth has changed the research for writing about place—you can check your memory, you can get distances right, you can get right down to street level. The train ride from Hanoi to the Chinese border I remembered as a 10-hour, overnight ordeal, and so it was a surprise to find it was less than 200 miles. The track is so bad and the train so old, that it could only average twenty miles an hour. It felt like we were going faster because of the swaying and lurching on the bad track.
How do you feel about the reception of your novel so far?
I’m thrilled. One always wonders if anyone, at all, will ever open the cover! The main thing, for me, at this point in my life, is that if enough people read it, I won’t feel like an idiot writing another.
What’s next for you as a writer?
I’ve finished a small book for a philosophy series at Columbia University Press called Aimlessness: An Introduction that I quite like, and I’m about two-thirds through The Kindness of Strangers, the third volume in the travel series. Some very good producers are shopping a historical drama pilot and bible I wrote, so I might end up doing more work on that.
Then I’m going to dive into Still Slippy. I’ll let you guess what that one is.
Born Slippy -- A literary thriller that wanders the globe
Frank Baltimore is a bit of a loser, struggling by as a carpenter and handyman in rural New England when he gets his big break, building a mansion in the executive suburbs of Hartford. One of his workers is a charismatic eighteen-year-old kid from Liverpool, Dmitry, spending his summer before university in the US. Dmitry is a charming sociopath, who develops a fascination with his autodidactic philosopher boss, perhaps thinking that, if he could figure out what made Frank tick, he could be less of a pig. Dmitry heads to Asia and makes a neo-imperialist fortune as an investment banker, leaving a trail of corpses in his wake. When Dmitry’s office building in Taipei explodes in an enormous fireball, Frank heads to Asia, meets Dmitry’s wife, and things go from bad to worse. A literary thriller about misogyny, unembarrassed rapacity, and unrestrained capitalism, Born Slippy will appeal to fans of Elmore Leonard, Patricia Highsmith, and Edward St. Aubyn.
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