In the Spotlight
Tom Lutz and Nanda Dyssou
In our February member Spotlight, Nanda Dyssou interviews Tom Lutz. Please visit AWP’s nomination guidelines page if you would like to submit an interview to be featured on In the Spotlight.
“For the past three decades and counting, Tom Lutz has been a tireless advocate of rigorous, nuanced, and incisive discourse in everyday life. It is no exaggeration that as founder and publisher of the LA Review of Books, he reinvented the book review for a new era in the early 2010s and brought Los Angeles back onto the literary map. A prolific, award-winning writer, distinguished professor, and citizen of the world, Tom has served as a generous mentor and inspiration to many, myself included. I'm excited to share this interview with fellow AWP members, knowing that the thoughts of this literary powerhouse will inspire you during a time when we could all use more wisdom about nurturing our creative lives.” —Nanda Dyssou
About: Tom Lutz is the founding editor of the Los Angeles Review of Books and founder of the LARB Publishing Workshop, LARB Radio Hour, and LARB Books. He is the American Book Award-winning author of Born Slippy: A Novel, Aimlessness, And the Monkey Learned Nothing, Drinking Mare’s Milk,Crying, Doing Nothing, and other books. He has published over a hundred pieces in journals, magazines, newspapers, and collections and has written for TV and film. He has taught at Iowa, Stanford, CalArts, and Copenhagen and is now distinguished professor and chair at UC Riverside’s Department of Creative Writing.
About: Nanda Dyssou is a Hungarian Congolese writer, entrepreneur, and publicist living in Los Angeles. She holds an MFA in creative writing (fiction) from the University of California in Riverside. Her work has been published in the Los Angeles Review of Books, Locale Magazine, Nonbinary Review, Flashes, and others. She is the founder of Coriolis Company, a literary publicity and marketing agency serving professors, public intellectuals, and thought leaders.
Photo Credit for Tom Lutz: David Walter Banks
Photo Credit for Nanda Dyssou: Nanda Dyssou
Nanda Dyssou: You’re a Distinguished Professor of Creative Writing at UCR and the chair of the department. Lots of young writers go through the program, and some of them succeed while others quit writing after completing their BA or MFA. In your experience, what makes a student excel at writing, and what helps them maintain the writing habit after they finish their degrees?
Tom Lutz: The end of your question is the key—what makes a person write and write regularly? If a student is writing because they have an assignment, that doesn’t mimic the writer’s life except in journalism, where people write on assignment and on deadline. But for most of us, the only thing that keeps us at it is compulsion. I realized early on that I only felt okay if I was writing, if I was in the pleasant throes of a project.
And it is, as I say, pleasant. I have never understood people who hate writing but keep at it—that is a different kind of compulsion than mine. Once someone has felt the pure pleasure of being in the flow of creative activity, it is an experience they want to repeat. If a person finds that that is never happening, I recommend hanging it up and doing something else that gives you a feeling of accomplishment, mission, and engagement.
Dyssou: In the current academic landscape, tenure track positions are scarce, and getting an MFA or PhD is no longer a sure path to securing one. In what ways do you think writers should prepare for a career outside of academia?
Lutz: Well, you are a great example, Nanda—you have built a business that allows you to stay in the middle of the literary world and support yourself. I have a partially-completed book on the 1920s, and that decade has many stories of people who sold their first short story to a magazine and on the strength of that, quit their day job to be writers—there was a market that made writing for a living possible. A few people can still do that—make a good living from their writing—but most cannot, including most well-known writers. Poetry has been a very tough way to make a living for more than a century, but fiction is the new poetry. This is why so many writers, even quite successful writers, have day jobs in academia or in publishing or in unrelated jobs. And so the best way to prepare for a life of writing is to find paying work that allows you the time and energy to do it.
Dyssou: In 2011, you started the Los Angeles Review of Books (LARB), a nonprofit multimedia publication that brought a unique combination of rigorous yet accessible book reviews and essays to Los Angeles, a city that hasn’t always been celebrated as a literary hub. How has starting LARB and serving as editor-in-chief affected your writing life?
Lutz: Well, LARB was pretty all-consuming for its first half-dozen years—I was editing thirty or forty longform pieces a month, making short films, doing audio interviews, managing websites, helping to build a volunteer network, a board of directors, and a series of revenue streams—advertising, events, fund drives, cultivating donors, grant writing—and of course I had my day job at UC Riverside, so there wasn’t a lot of play in my schedule. The main effect was to make writing feel, even more than before, like fun, like playing hooky, instead of work or drudgery. I savored my time alone with my own work, reveled in it. And you can’t edit that much work without honing your sense of syntax, structure, and style—editing made me more attentive to the quirks in my own prose, a better editor of my own work.
Dyssou: What challenges do you expect publications like LARB will face in 2021?
Lutz: LARB lives on the kindness of others—we only survive through our readers’ largesse. And the challenge has always been to multiply our revenue streams and increase our readership and thus increase the number of people in that small percentage who donate. April 2021 will be our tenth anniversary, and we hope to rally our supporters to help sustain us into our second decade and increase our grant funding and our corporate sponsorships. We have put together an amazing staff, and keeping them in house and home has always been our main challenge. We started as a 100 percent volunteer operation, and I’ve remained a volunteer, but as the rest of the staff took on full-time responsibilities, we needed to raise the money to pay them a decent salary. At first it wasn’t much of a salary, but it is getting better each year. Luckily our board chair, Albert Litewka, our board, and many of our section editors are volunteers, and some of our writers still write their pieces on a volunteer basis, too—it takes a village. All of that help makes us punch well above our weight. We’d love to have a billionaire join our merry band—if you know any, send them our way.
Dyssou: You have written eight books, seven of which have been nonfiction and one novel (Born Slippy, Repeater Books, 2020). What, if anything, was different about the experience of writing them?
Lutz: I have worked in a number of different genres, and they each have their own rewards. I always loved big research-based books, because the research itself is also a pleasure, and I love doing the travel books—they are modular, made up of self-contained small sections, and so easy to fit into a busy life. The novel is my true love in the writing world—always has been—and I have until recently just been too much of a coward to dive in. Once I did, I loved it. I have never had so much fun making something, and I am loving it now as I work on the next.
Dyssou: In your latest book, Aimlessness, you write, “There is nothing more natural than aimlessness, nothing more aimless than nature.” You list lots of aimless things, including literary fiction. Is your debut novel, Born Slippy, aimless in a way?
Lutz: Yes. I’m interested in aimlessness as a method, and I‘m trying to reclaim it from an instrumentalist culture that would condemn it. When I was snorkeling in the Galapagos one day, it was egg-laying season, and millions of fish eggs, most in clusters of ten or twenty, encased in a kind of translucent jelly, were floating by. Meanwhile thousands and thousands of fish were poking at them, eating them one by one. And the crabs were pulling them up onshore and gobbling them up, too. And it struck me how many millions of fish eggs are shot out into the ocean every day, and how few become fish—compared to the human child, born into a family, cared for while still in the womb, and then dutifully attended day after day for eighteen years—the fish eggs are dispersed aimlessly, we could say, with no sense that they will be anything but a snack.
And so now think about all the writing that happens in our world, how many people are writing poetry and stories and screenplays and blogs and reviews and answers to interview questions: a bit like the fish eggs from a certain distance. Few will fulfill the intent of their writers and become international bestsellers or critical triumphs or saleable products.
And what do we do with this view of things? For some this is a great sadness, a waste, a sign of madness—what were you thinking?—but I say no, this is what we do, we produce thousands of fish eggs, and only a few become fish, and that’s okay. There is something aimless about the production, but in the end, we get War and Peace and a healthy ocean. I say embrace the aimlessness of the world, don’t fight it. And then look at it from the fish-egg-eating fish’s perspective—they are wandering around aimlessly until they bump into a sack of eggs, and then they have their caviar and wander aimlessly again.
I can hear people saying no, the fish lays eggs to fulfill their species’ being, to do the right thing, to propagate the species, and they go out looking for food—they don’t just bounce into it. And yes, sure, but without an enormous amount of randomness, of aimless production and swimming, the system would fall apart. The same with writing—we need to embrace the randomness, the overproduction inherent in the system, and in some cases there will be bestsellers and critical darlings, and in some cases unpublished manuscripts. In some cases, like Melville’s, the unpublished manuscript will be found and become a bestselling critical darling long after death, but in most cases not. This is okay. Our successes and our “failures”—I have some unpublishable manuscripts and unproduceable screenplays as well—are all part of the way literature works.
But I am also trying to get at something else about the process of writing: that it is always at once both planned and unplanned, intended and unintended, motivated, of course, but so multiply motivated that we might almost say unmotivated. We all know that feeling of reading something and feeling like it is so rote, so conventional, that it feels like it was written by a computer. But as writers we know that the magic happens when we surprise ourselves, when a character takes off on a new tangent, becomes a different person than we had planned, when we allow our writing to proceed not by our predetermined plan and schedule but somewhat aimlessly, when we allow for maximum serendipity.
Dyssou: Midway through Aimlessness, you talk about writing in the back of a jeep, crossing the Mongolian steppe, surrounded by nature yet unable to take it in because you’re so focused on writing. You write, “I’m a wretched failure at taking my own advice, a desperate workaholic alligator trying to pass myself off as a harmless floating log, drifting downriver with the current.” As a fellow workaholic who would desperately like to relax and enjoy those moments that are supposed to be the rewards of hard work, I related to that deeply. Is there hope for us?
Lutz: : Again, embrace it! I really do not believe you and I would be happy sitting on a beach all day doing nothing, day after day. I don’t think we’d be happy after even one day—we’d at least have to learn to surf or something. We are happiest when we are in the thick of things. Is there any purpose to any of it—does anybody really care if we write more, if we promote books more? Yes, maybe, a few people, but we literary types are like the ants or the bees, part of a long line doing the work of the colony, and in aggregate, we add something. It doesn’t matter if today’s task is earth-shattering, or today’s piece of prose has a discernible impact. Together, with all our literary brothers and sisters, now and back into antiquity, we are part of a collective project that is among the most beneficial—in terms of encouraging understanding, promoting ethical thought, increasing empathy, and adding to the beauty in our world. Most of us are not particularly important in that collective project, we don’t leave much of an individual mark, but the project only works because we are all laboring away. Not to mention the fact that we are not, as in so many other occupations, destroying the planet or imprisoning its populations. It’s not fashionable to say it, but literary workers create beauty and progress. So our individual aimlessness, as in the case of the egg-broadcasting fish, we are doing our part. We wouldn’t be happy if we weren’t.
Dyssou: You profess to having a commitment to “nomadism, the life of incessant traveling” and to finding it impossible to think about without romanticizing. You’ve visited 140 countries and counting. You say you keep writing travel books (And the Monkey Learned Nothing: Dispatches from a Life of Travel and Drinking Mare’s Milk on the Roof of the World) to have an excuse to hit the road more. The pandemic, with its travel bans, put a stop to that. It must have been excruciating to have to stay home. Do you feel even more that you are “a nomad without a flock, a shepherd without sheep, a rider without a horse”?
Lutz: Yes, the lockdown reminds me every day how lucky I have been, and I can only hope that I will be that lucky again! In the meantime, my third volume of travel stories, The Kindness of Strangers, is coming out from University of Iowa Press in the fall, and a companion volume of photographic portraits from those travels, called simply Portraits, is coming out from Rare Bird Lit at the same time. So that is keeping me in the travel mode as I prepare them for publication.
And I was trying to get at something else with that last quote—something about the imaginative engagement with the lives of others. I’ve written about this in a half-dozen ways over the years, but here I am emphasizing the distance between my empathetic identification with, say, the nomadic herders of Mongolia, and how radically distinct that is from inhabiting their lived experience. (But of course, in keeping with the argument of the book, it has the poetic value of meaning several other things, dispersing its meaning as you look at it.)
Dyssou: If you could make both the incoming and the outgoing president read one of your books, which one(s) would you choose and why?
Lutz: Trump is uneducable—he learned nothing from calling for the death penalty for five innocent boys in the 1980s and went ahead and pushed for more capital punishment for people who may also have been innocent in the last months of his term while pardoning his criminal friends. He has the sociopathy of a murderer. So I’m afraid he could learn nothing from my books or any others. Plus, he hasn’t read a book since he was twelve—he’s not going to start now.
Biden, I think, should read Doing Nothing, since he was part of the Clinton “welfare reform” movement among Democrats and could learn a thing or two about his culpability there. Of course, what I really hope is that Biden would read Jody Armour’s N*gga Theory: Race, Language, Injustice, and the Law, which would make him rethink his approach to criminal justice reform.
Dyssou: You dedicated your latest book Aimlessness to your “enablers.” Who are they?
Lutz: I started to write a dedication to the people at LARB who had taken on various roles there that I used to fill, like Boris Dralyuk as editor-in-chief, Irene Yoon as executive director, Sonia Ali at the Publishing Workshop and LARB Books—but the list got too long and unwieldy. The point was that by taking on these tasks they enabled me to get back to writing, which is why I have four books coming out in these two years. But other people enable me too: Laurie Winer, of course (first reader, best reader), my kids, my friends, my students, the people I meet on the road and who give me their time and wisdom. I know it is fashionable to discuss this as privilege, but I continue to (again, following Jody Armour) consider it to be luck. Jody discusses the “moral luck” that allowed him to rise from the poverty visited on his family by the unfair incarceration of his father to become a law professor at USC and the “luck” involved in him living in View Park (the Black Beverly Hills) rather than just a half mile down the hill. Many people have enabled Jody and me to do what we do, and it can’t be reduced to the idea of privilege. After all, there are many people with more privilege than Jody and me. And I think he might agree that part of our luck has been to be the recipients of human kindness. That’s why the next book is titled The Kindness of Strangers. My research books relied on so many other works of scholarship—those strangers enabled my work, too. And Aimlessness is a compendium of ideas from writers I have never met.
This brings me back to the idea of literary community. If we are doing it right, we enable each other.