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A Thimblerig of Time: An Interview with Andrew Sean Greer
Ed. Note: Greer will be reading at Powell’s Books in Portland this evening, 7:30pm.
Kyle Minor: Like many readers, I first learned about your work when John Updike reviewed The Confessions of Max Tivoli in the New Yorker. He spoke of how his own teacher, John Hawkes, once astonished his class by saying, “When I want a character to fly, I just write, ‘He flew.'” Updike called this a “dizzying freedom” that “holds an opportunity to dramatize certain existential questions that mark the beginnings of philosophy in a child.”
In Max Tivoli, you used that freedom to simply allow a man to age backwards, toward the end of questions Updike described so elegantly: “Why am I—my consciousness, my mind—in this body and not another? Why do I exist now instead of in the past or the future? Why does time only move forward? What would it be like to live life backward, from old age to infancy?”
You embrace a not-dissimilar freedom in The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells. Magic (and, it seems, electroconvulsive therapy) makes “a thimblerig of time,” and the narrator knows how “They say there are many worlds. All around our own, packed tight as the cells of your heart. We cannot go there–we would not survive in most. But there are some, as I have seen, almost exactly like our own–like the fairy worlds my aunt used to tease us with . . .”
As with Hawkes’s flying, and Max Tivoli’s reverse-aging, the mechanism by which Greta Wells spends three months cycling through variant versions of her life, in 1985, 1918, and 1941, is never clinically explained. I think that’s because, as Updike implied, it doesn’t matter. What does matter, I think, is the questions that are raised by the juxtaposition of the three timeframes in which Greta is living. I wonder, though, if the questions that interest this book most might have moved out of the realm of the exclusively existential, and in the direction of questions about the relationships between individuals and society, systems of power, cultural consensus about who belongs to which role, and what that means for those assigned by virtue of, in the case of this book, gender (or, to easily extend the metaphor, by ethnicity or nationality or religion or sexual orientation.)
Were these the kinds of questions you had in mind? Are these the sorts of habits of mind that animate the writing of a book where character, as preeminent as you make it, is preceded by a conceptual conceit?
Andrew Sean Greer: The difference might solely belong in the choice of narrator—namely, a woman. In Max Tivoli, his quandary was really an opportunity to think about the body, the anxiety of self-perception, which is why the book seemed (unexpectedly) to register both with older adults and with teenagers—people whose bodies do not seem to reflect their sense of themselves. Being “trapped” in a body covers a lot of territory. But Greta’s “magic” moment takes her, as you say, into a different set of power structures; her surprise is not who is in the mirror, but how the same person could be utterly changed, even physically, simply by the time in which she lives.
The novel, as I wrote it, became a kind of battle against the expectations of each era. Men struggle with “what do I want to do with my life?” which is enough of a struggle. But I think the thoughts many women have (“what is expected, what is allowed, what if I just say screw it and do what I want?”) complicate the simple expression of self. That really interested me. The magical element of both books is done away with quickly (Karen Joy Fowler advised me just to go for it, without explanation) so that I could go ahead with my real interests. Which turned out to be interpersonal. She is NOT interested in changing history; she doesn’t think she could make a change in any case. But she wants to change personal histories, though of course that often seems like meddling when people do it to us.
This could also be why some might try to categorize the novel as sci-fi, or even romance, because it deals in impossible situations, and charts varieties of love, but I don’t think that’s a helpful way to think about books. We don’t care what’s in the beaker Dr. Jekyll swallows, just the results. I’m happy with speculative fiction: given this, what now? But that describes everything: given a captain obsessed with a white whale, what now?
KM: It’s been quite a few years, now, since David Foster Wallace predicted that the “next real literary ‘rebels’ in this country might well emerge as some weird bunch of anti-rebels, born oglers who dare somehow to back away from ironic watching. The new rebels might be artists willing to risk the yawn, the rolled eyes, the cool smile, the nudged ribs, the parody of gifted ironists, the ‘Oh how banal.’ To risk accusations of sentimentality, melodrama.””
Maybe it was a deceptively easy thing for him to say, since his career began with a cold brainy approach to literature that seemed most happy to show off all the things he had learned from the postmodern masters of the Sixties and Seventies. If he wanted to grow and deepen as a writer, there really wasn’t anywhere else to move but in the direction of a deepening empathy, a push toward meaning-making and the risk of writing through the points of view of characters whose wants and desires and fears and loves were offered in their sincere fullness. The reader was meant to experience the moment by moment through the characters, rather than viewing the characters, as before, as objects of study.
But for Wallace, even late Wallace (save a few passages from his posthumous and incomplete novel The Pale King), all of it came packaged with the armor of his self-conscious hyper-cerebrality, and the hipness of his mixing of dictions high and low, and perhaps most of all the testosterone-heavy gender-normed heterosexuality, a thing to be safely embodied even as it was being examined and picked apart.
That’s not you, though, or at least this one reader hasn’t experienced your books in that way. The interior life gets its play in your books every bit as much as it does in Wallace’s, but your impulse from the beginning seemed to be more strongly in the direction of the sensory, the relational, the emotionally reflective. There is room for wonder, and there is always a big space created for the longings and losses that are the price of love, sure, but which also amplify the experience of love, a position for which it seems Proust is at least one antecedent.
In your Daily Beast essay–Boys Don’t Cry: In Praise of Sentiment–you write: “As it is in the schoolyard, so it is in the book section: the only style that gets a male writer beaten up is wearing his heart on his sleeve.” A few of the reviews of The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells which have appeared since the essay’s publication seem almost to be parodies of the critical position toward sentiment that you described, a development that was inevitable only because you were right in the way you observed its flourishing in American literary culture.
Why do you think anything from a male writer that whiffs of sentiment is in for such harsh treatment by the critics? And do you think your willing acquaintance with sentiment is the same thing as sentimentality? Because when I think of the last few novels, I think not only about how they have made me cry, but also of the cleverness of their structures, their formal relationships to their titles, and how in so many ways they are haunted by the knowledge that death will be visited upon everyone. In addition to being expressions of the consciousness of the individual characters at the level of the sentence, the paragraph, the section, they are also machines that force the reader to see what has been blurred and domesticated by familiarization. There is a near-invisible cold precision, I mean, that is covered over by the warmth of the prose, and what it calculates and sets into motion is an offsetting darkness. Probably you have a more considered way of talking about these things.
ASG: That seems as well-considered as anything I’m likely to come up with, but I will say my inclination is towards cleverness, and it is one I fight against; I’m not sure I’ve ever written a piece of fiction that isn’t, somewhere underneath, whirring with mental machinery. But I discovered long ago that the clanking sound it makes is not emotionally gratifying, and I have forced myself, with each novel, to go ahead without any plan at all in order to work my way into dark corners that no outline would ever have allowed. That leads to a lot of dead ends, but sometimes it leads to surprises.
I have found, in studying Proust, that his novel is actually very carefully orchestrated—almost literally orchestrated—but only an obsessive reader would ever notice it beneath the flourishes of prose. Equally, the constant literal message of the long book is one of disappointment, disillusion, and bad timing, but the prose itself is so ecstatic—and Nabokov works this way as well—that the content and style, being in conflict, produce something that feels very much like life. A great friend and reader, Daniel Handler, told me when he’d finished reading yet another draft of Greta Wells that it was both my most cynical and most romantic book. How can this be? My point, which I often stress to students, is that cleverness is not enough. Not by half. It is so fun, so strong, so smart, so impressive. But it isn’t what I go to fiction for. The brilliance of Pnin, for instance, isn’t the discovery of the “hidden narrator”—it is the moment when he thinks he has broken the blue bowl. What we remember of Proust is not narrative strategy of implementing an “I” removed in time from the true narrator, but that “I” remembering his grandmother knocking on the wall between them as he went to bed. Clever belongs to the architecture, hidden in the walls, so that the thing won’t fall apart. You may not get accolades for it—because no one will notice it—but you will set to work on creating an emotional life in the book. And readers—not necessarily critics—will respond. I hope.
As for sentimentality, I want to make it clear that my essay focused a bit on male writers and the pounding they get for showing a little heart. Female writers–well they are simply ignored for it. That is another essay, and a necessary one. But I have already experienced, with this very book, a bullying tone from male critics. The New York Times, in a short lovely review, accused the novel of being “sappy” and myself “an eloquent softy.” I feel I remember both of those, in different words, used in the schoolyard against me as a boy. It’s like I’m going on in drag; public shaming is necessary for what I’ve done. What can you do? I wear both as badges of honor–apparently I am pissing people off. Specifically: men.
KM: It seems like one big challenge for the writer of a book like The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells might be the management of information. My thought on reading is that the structure is doing a lot of the heavy lifting. We have three historical timelines, and then we have the throughline of the daily calendar, which runs us a day at a time from October 30 to January 21. And we have the signposts, the moving of the clock at the beginning of every chapter, and the maps of Manhattan up front.
Those solutions seem too elegantly simple to have accompanied the first draft. What kinds of strategies did you try and reject? How did you settle on this one?
ASG: Well you’re found me out—NONE of them existed in a first draft! I had no pattern to her awakenings, but just had her wake up when and where I felt would create new tension. Then I had to go back and decide on a pattern—you can’t believe how all-over-the-place it was—and rewrite the entire book along those new lines, keeping the tensions I had created in place. Madness. Like building a house, living in it for a month, and understanding only then that the bedrooms should be on the first floor.
As a writer, you can decide to cheat it and just build new walls. Or you can take a deep breath—and start all over. Twice. Three times. I wanted readers never to be lost, so I tried to give simple visual clues instead of long descriptions—I think those come across as anxiety. So does historical information. I ended up with a wall of cork board, covered in pins and index cards and string. I transferred that to butcher paper with colored markers. I’ve never worked that way before but it allowed me to see the entire novel almost as a scroll of sheet music. Honestly, the structure of piece didn’t fall into place until almost the last minute—about four months before I turned the book in! Crazy, eh? But by then I had memorized it all, and could shift things around like a puzzle you have been staring at all afternoon. Until at last you see it all.
KM: Why did you choose a female protagonist this time? Did Greta have a real-life antecedent? Did choosing a woman allow you to stake out and thereby claim some extra ground in your fiction in general? Or did the choice have something to do with the times about which you were writing? Because, clearly, the range of what was possible for a male protagonist would not have been reduced and beholden to cultural limitations in some of the timelines as it is for a female protagonist.
ASG: You’ve nailed it—in fact, I did begin with a male protagonist. In third person. I wanted to try something I hadn’t done before. And I found that his journey through the ether was not particularly troubled, and he seemed to be having rather too much of a good time. I didn’t see how he could change except by becoming a cad, with mistresses in every “port” so to speak. And, unlike Max Tivoli, he didn’t have the excuse of thinking of himself as a “monster.” When I threw away those pages (about a hundred or so) I sat for a long time wondering what had gone wrong. And then I realized it could only be a woman. She would be torn by public attitudes. She could be a mother in one world, alone in another. I decided on first person because I wanted to be as close to her as possible. I have always said that, for me, finding the narrative position is the most important choice in creating a novel. The rest seems always to flow from there. Not from the initial idea—from the person telling it. But doesn’t that seem natural, for a storyteller?
KM: How did war and the Spanish influenza and so forth enter into the novel? Did you choose the dates you chose because of their concurrence with these kinds of big public events, or was it the other way around — the kind of lucky accident the writer integrates into the story, and amplifies, and generally replaces anything that could be described as luck with the measured extra layer hard work can make possible?
ASG: This sounds totally weird, but I chose the dates simply from my gut. They interested me. I had no idea why. It panicked me, not knowing why. It was what you describe as “luck” when, one day, in the library, I drew a diagram of the different times and realized that war, in both, would return her husband from war and simultaneously send him away. I saw that plagues would haunt two other worlds, and do the same. I had no idea what that meant, but I will tell you one of the most pleasurable moments in writing this novel was when I got to write “At six am that morning, her husband left for war” and, two pages later, got to add “At six pm that evening, her husband home from war.” One of those few magnificent payoffs after a year of writing.
KM: This is a question about literary politics and identity politics and marketing and aspiration. Unlike many well-known writers who are gay, you are not known primarily as a gay writer, by which I mean: you haven’t been assigned to a separate shelf in the back of the bookstore, the circumstances of your publishing are broad and by now rather privileged, and readers haven’t been given the impression that your work is for gay people rather than for everyone.
My understanding of how these things work — on the publishing side and among the GLBT community — is limited, and, as with so many of these kinds of conversations, it’s probably foolish to assume that there is some kind of monolithic publishing world or one single and uniform gay community. But I would imagine that many writers who have been pigeonholed as gay writers (or black writers or women writers or Midwestern writers — take your pick), would be interested in knowing how you managed to avoid the big shelf modifier in front of “writer,” and that others might be resentful that you haven’t more often foregrounded gay characters or built the major lines of your career on the themes of the gay rights narrative.
I also have the feeling that this is the kind of question many writers don’t want to be asked, because the questions and their competing answers can be polarizing, even among groups of people who otherwise agree about many things. And then there is the complicating factor of the conventional publishing industry “wisdom,” which says that heterosexual readers won’t carry on with a book once two men start having sex in it — a subject unavoidable when one of your primary subjects is love and its persistence and transmutation over time.
But what are your thoughts about these matters, and what kind of response has your work received from the hybrid, messy, geographically-everywhere coalition of people that I’m calling, for lack of more descriptive terminology, the gay community?
ASG: As they say in the political world, I have been trying to thread that needle throughout my career. There is a fear inside me, I admit, that I am both about to plummet out of the public eye for something too “homo,” and that I’m not bravely addressing an essential part of my experience. I’ve already seen this latest book get slammed by a critic who seemed to find Greta’s brother’s subplot merely “titlliation” with “offstage trysts.” Odd, because he has as serious and lasting a romantic situation as any of the straight people. But apparently at least that reader refused to engage with a gay love story seriously. A review of my last book in The New Yorker had a similar tone. I understand a certain generation of straight men are never going to come around, but it chills any writer to think the bullies are still waiting around the corner with a stick.
I asked my college thesis advisor, Edmund White, about gay literature just a few months ago, during a filmed interview, and he said that in the eighties, publishers, surprised and delighted by the new interest in books by African-Americans, Asian-Americans, immigrant stories, started all kinds of imprints with books about gay people. They assumed it would be a new explosive market. But it failed. And why? He said, just as you have mentioned, that it’s because, at least in those times, blacks and asians and jews all had unique experiences, but also had children, and families, and houses and universal experiences readers could relate to. Men having sex in a truck parked on the Hudson? Not, apparently, what America was ready for. So the imprints shut down. And gay writers found themselves in a special shelf, away from other fiction. Readers didn’t want to know about those things! And honestly? They still don’t.
Politically, gay lives are on the front page every day. Everyone is interested in marriage, military, adoption. But nobody really wants to hear about that honeymoon trip. Or the women who don’t have a kid. Or a gay man with a wild sexual life who is single, atheist, and completely happy. Or rather: no writer has yet made that work for the masses. The challenge I put out there is for someone to make it so. It is the challenge I still put out for myself. I get a lot of guff from gay literary people for not having gay main characters—-I am called what one literary organization calls “an assimilationist.” Didn’t mean to be that way. I’m just still searching for the right novel, the right protagonist, the right style to make something that engages a general reader in the inner lives of gay people. Not as a political feat, but as an unexplored bit of literary terrain. That’s not to say there haven’t been wonderful books about gay people. But you know something funny? Some of the best—such as Andre Aciman’s Call Me By Your Name—are by straight writers. And why not? They can access the lives of these characters without the self-pity that I think holds me back, and without the dangerous cliches that come from living too close to a subculture.
I can’t wait to see what lies ahead. It is still wide open for some great young writer, straight or gay. But it cannot be written from pity. Or to prove something. The book I’m longing for can only be written—as is true of Bellow, and Morison, and Tan, and Roth, and all subculture writing that has come before—with an authentic eye, with affectionate honesty, and with the purpose to connect.
KM: I wanted to ask you about your literary education. You didn’t study at Iowa or Columbia or any of the other traditional seats of literary power and access, yet from the outside it seems you have a savviness about the way one moves through the literary world that matches a certain confident and occasionally lyrical elegance that elevates and distinguishes the prose and captured the attention of your early champions.
So how did you do it, both of these things? How did you make your way through a career that would be the envy of many, and how did you make yourself into the writer you are. I know that the University of Montana was a starting place, but I have an image in my mind, right or wrong, of a determined and hungry young auto-didact leaning over a volume of Proust and saying, in opposition to what all your peers must have been doing back then: I’m going to do it like this.
But that’s not the story, right? What is the story? How did you do it?
ASG: I like that story. And I’m delighted to think of my career as one to envy; I think being born in the right time aided this (Greta Wells aside). There were simply more outlets. I could, for instance, publish a debut collection, a debut novel, fail at both and be allowed to keep writing. The pressure is on now to have—not a normal career built over time—but a Hollywood hit. In literature? What are they thinking? I have what I recognize in some of my students: stubbornness. This does not do well in all interpersonal relations. But it means I just kept going without understanding that this was all a really bad idea. A novel about astronomers. A book about a man aging backwards. Stories about witches. Terrible, terrible ideas.
But I had a thing in my head that was highly colored, hugely populated, deeply sad but threaded through with hope. I have had that in my head for decades. And so each book is merely a try at making it. I guess I always thought: well, if I’m going to sacrifice everything for this, I’m going to do it my way. Why risk poverty, loneliness and failure for some idea of “what’s going to sell”? If you bomb at that, you will have sacrificed everything and your dreams. It’s a completely stupid way to go about life. But other writers recognize it, and breath a sigh of relief.
And I think that’s why so many have been so supportive over the years. As for that picture of me at Montana angrily insisting on my Proustian ideas—well I’d have to ask folks who were there, like David Gilbert and J Robert Lennon. But yeah, I kinda remember it that way. I think I was more disdainful, petty, angry, unhappy and pompous than I am now, if that seems possible.
In those days, I had a million ideas, and time enough to expect I would make them all. The sad thing about time passing is that I know I won’t. How many books do I really have left, even at 42? About six. That really puts a new pressure on me that never existed in those days!
KM: Last question: What have you been reading over the past year or so? This deep into your career, does the reading still have the power to influence and shape your work the way it must have when you were young enough that you hadn’t yet read almost everything?
ASG: I am delighted to say the influence is just as keen! But, having read so much, I can now stand in front of my bookshelf and think Which books contain the key to the novel I’m working on? And I pull them down, put them beside my desk, and hope the osmosis works. For the next book I’m working on, I’ve already felt the influence of two Roths—Philip and Henry—along with Javier Marias, Virginia Woolf, and Hilary Mantel. I found reading Roth’s The Plot Against America alongside Henry Roth’s Call It Sleep was a breathtaking view, through fiction, of the Jewish immigrant experience in the twentieth century. Not that I’m writing about Jewish immigrants.
But I was able to see how the same circumstances, with different narrators, at unequal distances from the moment, could create unique imaginative experiences. Proof that no material has been covered too thoroughly. It gave me the nerve to tackle some history I was afraid was too tired and wrung out, and places that seem so familiar. Always always more to see, to say.
Andrew Sean Greer is the author of five works of fiction, including The Story of a Marriage and The Confessions of Max Tivoli, which was named a best book of 2004 by the San Francisco Chronicle and the Chicago Tribune. He is the recipient of the New York Public Library Young Lions Award, the O Henry Award for short fiction and fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the New York Public Library. Greer lives in San Francisco. His latest novel is The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells.
Kyle Minor is the author of two collections of stories: In the Devil’s Territory (2008) and Praying Drunk (forthcoming, 2014).