Earlier this year, I interviewed writer Tom Lutz at the Strand. The occasion was the release of his new novel Born Slippy, the story of two men — Frank, a self-taught carpenter, and Dmitry, an ambitious and amoral figure — whose paths cross again and again over the years. What begins as a wry character study slowly becomes a moral thriller along the lines of Graham Greene, making for a thrilling read. Before our event, I spoke with Lutz at a nearby coffee shop about his novel’s genesis, his work with the Los Angeles Review of Books, and more.
To begin with, you were saying earlier that you had grown up in the New York area and subsequently went west, and that’s the path that Frank follows in this book as well. So were you intentionally drawing on that East Coast expat experience on the West Coast that you’d had?
Not really, in that his experience was completely different than mine. I mean, I’m drawing on my experience of California and I’m drawing on my experience of Connecticut and Massachusetts. I mean, there’s a sense in which — I was a carpenter before I went to college. There are ways in which this is an alternate history of my life. We start from some of the same points and then immediately — this is the fun of fiction, right? You have an idea for where your character is and then they become someone else on you.
Did Frank begin as someone more similar to you and change from there?
Let’s just say that his name, at first, was Tommy. Because I had never written a novel before, I wanted to feel like I knew what I was doing, so I started with myself. I think that the traits of myself are largely erased at this point. They’ve largely been replaced by the character that he became, except for a couple of little details — like that I was a carpenter.
Had you always wanted to write nonfiction, or did you make a conscious decision to break from what you’d done before with this book?
I was always a novelist, a procrastinating novelist, my entire life. I just finally got around to it. I actually published a couple of stories in my undergraduate magazine. I was around 30 at the time. I published a couple of short stories then and I kind of thought that was my path. When I started going to college, I realized that there were these people called professors and they read books for a living. And I thought, this is for me. And so I went straight through from undergraduate to grad school. I became a professor and I thought of it as a day job that would allow me to write novels. I think what happened was that I read so many great novels that I started to despair about my own ability to do it. That slowed me down. Being a critic gives you a certain relation to a genre. And that’s a funny thing to negotiate.
Doing a lot of freelance book writing — it can be rewarding to read a really mediocre book because it’s a reminder that not everything is the best thing ever.
Partly, running the Los Angeles Review of Books led me to a number of books that I read because we were going to do an event with the author. So I read a lot of books that were touted very highly and I thought, well, I might not be Henry James, but I can do that. I know I’m not Toni Morrison, but this one? Yeah, I can write something like that.
You had mentioned you’d always wanted to write novels. Did you have a sense that it was always going to be some variation on this novel ,or was this a more recent thing?
No. I think in the very beginning, when I was in my 20s, I thought it was going to be Jack Kerouac and it was going to be my fascinating life. And so like, you know, I was doing the things that would make that possible, like riding freight trains and hitchhiking around the country and wandering around Europe. I was doing all of the stuff that would help me write those novels. The only thing I wasn’t doing was sitting down and writing, which turns out to be part of the process.
It’s funny that you mentioned that — you’d talked about Frank as a character with similarities to you, but for all that he is very much an archetypally non-American character, Dmitry kind of ends up taking a lot of those characteristics,.
I wanted to talk a little bit about names. Frank’s last name is Baltimore, and then you have Dmitry, who is English, but who has a Russian first name, which gives a hint to his family’s history. Frank is an archetypal self-made American small businessman, which seems pretty straightforward. But Dmitry’s name, much like the character himself, is much more contradictory. Was that something that you had in mind from the outset that he was going to have all of these dimensions and contradictory elements, down to his name, or was that something that emerged from your writing?
A bit of both. I’ve read my E.M. Forster and I know the difference between a flat and a round character, and I wanted my characters to be very round, which meant giving them as many contradictory traits as possible. When the main character was named Tom, everybody kept calling him Tommy and he corrected them all the time. So when I decided to change Tom’s name, I needed a name with diminutive. And Frank and Franky became the one that worked. And I liked e that he is both Frank and not at all Frank. Right. And so that made sense. And Dmitry was originally Boris, but then The Goldfinch came out and that guy was Boris, and my executive editor at LARB is Boris, and that seemed like a cruel thing to do to him. I wanted another Russian name, so I changed it to Dmitry.
Towards the end of the book, when Frank meets several members of Dmitry’s family, you get a little bit more of a sense of that dynamic, but there also seem to be a lot of things unspoken. Was that something that you had to write out as you were doing previous drafts, in order to get a sense of family history — and to get a sense of what kind of family could produce this very charming but also very sociopathic character?
I thought through his family in a number of ways. At one point, I was going over something and I realized that Dmitry and his wife had aged five years, but the children had only aged two years. I realized I was going to have to get a bit more systematic about this. I made a big chart with everybody and everybody’s age in each of the different years the book takes place. And so that helped me kind of flesh out some of the families involved, and the backstories. I wrote a TV pilot and a bible for a historical drama. I did it with a writing partner; he had written a lot of things before and written with other people. His process was always to talk everything through before we sat down to write a scene. And so I started doing that with myself.
Is that also something that came up as far as the structure was concerned? You keep returning to the scenes of them working on the house in Connecticut even after the narrative has moved forward in time. Was that structure always what you had in mind?
That evolved. The original draft of this was in the first person, and it was chronological. It just went straight through. It turned out that it was very lopsided. There was a too-long period of sitting around hammering nails into boards, and not enough action. It was taking us too long to get to the key moments. So thinking about it and the classic three act structure, I realized that the only way to keep some of that earlier stuff in was to put it in as flashbacks later. And then I did a version of it that was very, very choppy. It was10 pages in 2000, 10 pages in 2001. Very, very choppy. And then reading that through at one point I thought, man, that’s too much. So I made it into bigger chunks. It was a long evolution. I turned it into third person. I changed it back to first person, then changed it back to third person again.
Was there one moment that made you decide that close third person worked better than first person for this?
I think that for a lot of the places where we’re getting slightly bad information from Frank, it started to make less and less sense. Everybody loves a unreliable narrator, right? But I wanted a reliable guy who was an unreliable narrator, and that worked better as third person.
One of the threads in the beginning of the book is about Frank being very ahead of his time as far as being conscious of his environmental impact. What led you to impart that element of his character, which seems very contemporary?
The environmental movement really starts in earnest in the first years of the 20th century. It had a real heyday, starting with Silent Spring through the Whole Earth Catalog. So I think that it’s not at all kind of ahistorical for him to have this kind of ethos — especially being a kind of backwoods guy who feels a little bit alienated from cosmopolitan modernity. it kind of justifies his decisions to himself. And so I think it, I think it made a certain amount of, makes a certain amount of sense. It’s certainly come to the forefront in ways in the last decade that it wasn’t in 2000, exactly.
One of the things that I found interesting about the novel is that you’re writing about two characters who are — very differently — making a very good living by providing a service to the even wealthier. Where did that element of the novel come from?
I knew that I wanted Dmitry to be in finance. I wanted to have something to say about global capitalism and neo-imperialism. So I knew that there was going to be an element of it. And I knew that Frank was going to see himself as the opposite of that. But then Frank becomes more and more successful and he doesn’t get rid of his old view of himself as other than the Dmitrys of the world until Dmitry actually points it out to him and says, we’re doing the same thing again. And you’re in the 2%. Maybe you’re not in the 1% quite yet, but you’re in the 2%. I like that little moment of revelation as well.
Frank doesn’t quite become a globetrotting espionage hero, but he’s booking flights around the world and dealing with mysterious safe deposit boxes. Was it a challenge for you to start with two guys building a house in New England and gradually moving to explosions in skyscrapers and a more jet-setting narrative? How did you keep those two elements realistic relative to one another?
You know, there are two kinds of answers to that. I think one is, when I wrote my first book, it was my PhD dissertation and it was on the year 1903. When I proposed it to the dissertation committee, I outlined 13 chapters that I was going to write about. One of them was going to be about early American imperialism actually, right? So some of these ideas are part of my whole intellectual journey, let’s say. One chapter was going to be on health, and one was going to be on gender relations, and one was going to be on architecture. It had all of these different things.
When I finished the dissertation, 400 pages later, I had just gotten through chapter one. And so I thought, okay, I misimagined how much a book could fit. I think I had a similar problem with this novel. Once I started, had a sense of the whole. But that first part kept taking up more and more space and more and more room. Part of it was accidental. I knew I wanted to get to the derring-do, but there was just a lot of that other stuff. And so the question was, how do they continue to fit together? And I think that they do because it’s just kind of continuous backstory to who these two characters are. And to the extent that what I’m really interested in is what the impact of this sociopath is on a slightly less sociopathic person.
There were a couple of allusions to The Third Man in your novel. Was that a sense of — if you’re writing a book like this, it’s better to acknowledge the presence of Graham Greene?
You know, my friend Steph Cha, who’s the noir editor at LARB — her first novel opens with a woman who is obsessed with Raymond Chandler. And I always loved that because I think that there’s a way in which those of us who are writing in the genre, especially on the literary end of it, we feel belated. And to acknowledge that belatedness, and to be honest about that belatedness makes a certain amount of sense. There are lots of lots of other people in the book, by the way. There are 50 or a hundred sentences from other books that are salted through the thing, that are just there for kicks.
Both Frank and Dmitry are, in their own ways, exemplars of a kind of do-it-yourself philosophy. The finance scam that Dmitry pulls off in college is incredibly resourceful, and also incredibly unethical. Frank is very self taught and becomes very successful both in his business and in his intellectual life. As someone who founded a publication, I’d guess that you have some of that DIY ethos as well. What was it like writing something that showed the good side of that resourcefulness along with the bad?
That’s a very interesting question on a number of levels for this book, and in general. For this book, if the difference between a kind of DIY or an entrepreneurial approach to life and some kind of more standard approach — that is, where instead of deciding how to do what you’re going to do and what it is that you’re going to do, you become part of a corporation, whether it’s a corporation of two people or three people or 100,000 people, right? So you’re making a decision to let that corporation direct your activity. We have lots of examples of people doing that in really bad ways and to really bad ends.
It’s true that the majority of criminal activity is less corporate. I mean, there is organized crime as well where you kind of are a little less DIY. If you’re willing to think outside the way people do things, that may mean that you’re also willing to think outside of the way people agree things should be done on an ethical level as well as a practical one. It’s an interesting question. The fact is that I am an entrepreneurial guy.
My father once said to me that he thought that was probably the best I could do. He was a corporate executive and he thought that because I was a bit of an outlaw that maybe entrepreneurial-ism made sense for me. And so there,, there is a relationship between the two things. But if you think of it that way, Ralph Nader’s an entrepreneur. Mother Teresa was an entrepreneur.
There’s a scene late in the book where you see that Dmitry has created a library of all of the books that Frank had quoted to him. It’s an impressive library, but it’s also a very formally “classic” library. I was wondering if this was your way of showing the limitations of kind of having a fixed canon without leaving room for anything else?
Frank, our reader, is a guy who never went to college. Right. And then we have Dmitry, he’s a guy that went to college and graduate school, but not in order to read literature. So neither of them have access to the way we talk about literature now. We never see either of them reading a book review. They’re not part of literary or intellectual culture. He’s kind of a used bookstore reader, which means he wanders through and bumps into people that are in the used bookstore.
You’d mentioned your own writing about the early 20th century. Were you drawing on your own experience with reading that canon as you were coming up with Frank’s reading list?
Part of Frank’s reading was my reading before I was in school, absolutely.
Something that you talked about earlier is the fact that Frank hates being called Franky, but characters keep doing it to him. Do you ever begin thinking of him as Franky yourself as you were writing?
Oh, I always think of him as Franky. His desire to be called Frank is just a funny little tic of his. That’s part of his basic insecurity in life. He’s Franky; everybody else is right.