Interviews

"A Version of Me If I Had Taken a Different Path"

An interview with Tom Lutz, the author of the new novel "Born Slippy."

The author of several non-fiction books, including And the Monkey learned Nothing: Dispatches from a Life in Transit, Tom Lutz publishes this month his first novel, Born Slippy. The book follows Frank Baltimore, a down-and-out carpenter in rural New England who lands a job building a mansion in Connecticut. The eighteen-year-old Dmitry is one of his crew mates. The young man is charming, he’s from Liverpool, and he’s a sociopath. Literally.

Years later, Dmitry has moved to Asia where he’s built a fortune on the misfortune of others. When Frank is re-introduced to his former protege, he falls in love with the younger man’s wife. A heart-thumping story blending thriller and literary fiction with the best elements of noir ensues. I spoke with Tom about what inspired this book, what it was like to shift from writing nonfiction to fiction, and how his work as the editor of the Los Angeles Review of Books influenced his writing.

Amy Brady

All through the book you pose questions about personal responsibility: How much responsibility do we have for the actions of others? Should we feel regret for not being a better friend, mentor, or model for how to be in the world? These are questions I haven’t seen explored before in quite the way that you explore them with Frank. What inspired Frank’s character?

Tom Lutz

Frank was just me at the start—a kind of ‘alternate history’ me, because I did have a period in my life, for a bit less than a decade before I ended up going to college, when I was an autodidact carpenter with a big chip on his shoulder. At first, I thought that’s who he would be—a version of me if I had taken a different path. But he quickly became his own person as I wrote him, a man with very different commitments and troubles, and a man with a code of ethics that he was passionate about but not particularly good at following.

Amy Brady

In a similar vein I’d love to know where Dmitry came from. We’re living in a world where compassion and empathy feel increasingly rare, and his character seems to exemplify this. Is Dimitry inspired by anyone—or anything—in real life?

Tom Lutz

Yes, Dmitry is a version of a kid I knew when I was young, who I remained fascinated by because he was so blithely unconcerned with what anyone thought of him. I think when we are young, we are easily seduced by narcissists, because the narcissist seems to have that self-contained, self-confident, self-determining autonomy that we want so badly for ourselves. This is probably why cults are particularly successful with young people—Jim Jones, Charlie Manson, David Koresh all had that aura of self-sufficiency, even though, we have to ask, if they are so self-sufficient, why do they want a cult? The older we get, the less we have patience with people like that. I remember a colleague I had who would talk about himself endlessly and eventually say, ‘enough about me, what do you think of me?’ I found it very funny and charming at first. After a while it was just obnoxious. We come to recognize the lack of empathy at the core of the narcissist, and eventually we reciprocate. And as Manson, Jones, and Koresh (and my own Dmitry) show, the lack of empathy can be deadly. That friend from my youth is nowhere near as evil as Dmitry, though, and he never, as far as I know, ever killed anyone….

Amy Brady

You’re a published nonfiction author—this is your first novel. What inspired the switch from nonfiction to fiction writing? Did you always know you had a novel in you?

Tom Lutz

I always wanted to be a novelist. As a young man, I hitchhiked around the country, worked odd jobs, wandered the world, racked up fringe experiences, all with the idea that they would—as they did for Bukowski or Henry Miller or Kerouac or Hunter Thompson—become novels. I was very unclear what the process was that turned the dross into gold, and although I made a few stabs at it, wrote a few short stories, started a few novels, I was somehow never led to the obvious conclusion that I needed to sit down and write for a thousand hours. But then I had kids, and accidentally ended up going to college and realizing that there were people, called professors, who read books for a living, and I’ve basically been in school ever since. Part of that was as a PhD student of history and literature, which meant I started writing academic books, then trade books (like my histories of tears and slackers), then travel books, and then I finally stopped procrastinating, and wrote the novel.

When I did, I kicked myself for not doing it sooner. I have never had so much fun writing, never found so much pure pleasure in the work.

Amy Brady

Speaking of switching genres, Born Slippy combines several different kinds of fiction: noir, the thriller, literary fiction. There’s even an element of romance. Did you set out to write a book that so easily moves between categories?

Tom Lutz

I understand there are people who can sit down and write whatever they want, but that is not me. I have worked in quite a number of different genres (academic history, literary theory, literary criticism, popular history, literary essay, memoir, travel, op-ed, original feature film in a couple genres, film adaptation, TV) but in each project I have landed somewhere that was not exactly my intention. I have the original book proposals for some of my books, and they describe books that were never written. Born Slippy I wanted to be a straight-ahead thriller, but it turned into something else. Once I see how each book is turning out, I can recognize what it’s trying to be and help shape it, and so make the most of the accidents that have happened. But the fundamental stuff of it happens willy-nilly. I hope I managed to bring the different generic tendencies in Born Slippy into a coherent whole—I tried, anyway—but they showed up on their own.

Amy Brady

In addition to writing books you’re the editor of the Los Angeles Review of Books (LARB). As a writer and editor myself, I’m always thinking about the reciprocal relationship between those two roles. How does your editing influence your writing? And vice versa?

Tom Lutz

Editing LARB was very good for my writing, I feel. One of the things I wanted LARB to do was to translate academic work for a general educated audience, and that meant I did a lot of rewriting as well as straight line editing. For many years I oversaw all pieces on the site, and did primary editing on some 40 articles a month. This was a great bootcamp in concision and clarity. I think it made me a much better editor of my own work. I also, as part of my work with LARB, especially for our book club and on the LARB Radio Hour, which I hosted for a number of years, ended up talking to many contemporary novelists. I think this helped me stop idealizing novelists, let me put them on less of a pedestal. I do think, as I’ve said many times, that the novel is the queen of the sciences, the most sophisticated form of understanding ever developed by human beings, and so talking to many of my favorite novelists helped me pull them from the empyrean into my own orbit and eventually give myself permission to try to join their ranks.

Amy Brady

Born Slippy has already been compared to the work of Graham Greene. Who are some of your writerly influences?

Tom Lutz

I love Carl Hiaasen and Elmore Leonard, and the other classic noir writers: Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, and Patricia Highsmith. I spent years as a scholar focusing on American literature over the last century and a half. I wrote about Henry James, Willa Cather, WEB DuBois, Theodore Dreiser, Edith Wharton and many other classic writers, taught writers from the 1920s and the Harlem Renaissance, as well as courses on immigrant fiction, contemporary fiction, and noir fiction and film.  All of that has fed into my sense of how to go about the business. All of it has had an impact, and none of it do I feel I have quite lived up to. It’s still a club I aspire to.

Amy Brady

What’s next for you?

Tom Lutz

I’ve finished the next book, which is a short volume for a Columbia University Press series on topics in philosophy. It is titled Aimlessness: An Introduction. I think it is a quite fun book that enacts its topic, and builds its case while pretending to be aimless itself. I discuss Deleuze, Nietzsche, Cioran, Weil, Lao Tzu and others while using the nomads of Mongolia—I was traveling in Mongolia while I wrote a big chunk of it—as a prime example and counter-example.

I am deep in a TV show, a historical drama set in the 1920s and 1930s, as well as a novel about mass incarceration and a sequel to Born Slippy that I’m calling, to myself, Still Slippy. I’m not quite done with this strange little group of misfits.

FICTION
Born Slippy
By Tom Lutz
Repeater
Published Jan 14, 2020

About Amy Brady

Amy Brady is the Editor-in-Chief of the Chicago Review of Books and Deputy Publisher of Guernica Magazine. Her writing has appeared in Oprah, The Village Voice, Pacific Standard, The New Republic, McSweeney's, and elsewhere. Follow her on Twitter at @ingredient_x.

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