“I’ve heard other novelists say this, which makes me feel like I’m not crazy, that the problem with every novel is finding the key to it, finding the way in.”
Andrew Sean Greer is the author of three novels and one collection of short stories. He is a New York Public Library Cullman Center Fellow, and is currently working on his fourth novel, which is allegedly about time travel. His latest book, The Story of a Marriage, has appeared on many lists as of late, including Washington Post Best Books of 2008, San Francisco Chronicle Best Books of 2008 and The Financial Times Best Books of 2008.
Greer first exploded onto the proverbial literary scene with his 2004 best-selling novel, The Confessions of Max Tivoli, which chronicles the life of a man who ages backwards (not to be confused with the mediocre yet wildly popular film adaptation of the F. Scott Fitzgerald short story, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, which nearly caused Greer to have panic attack.) Max Tivoli got a rave review from John Updike (RIP) in the New Yorker.
From regulating the passage of time through the tracking of a comet in his debut novel, The Path of Minor Planets, to documenting 19th century San Francisco through the eyes of an anomaly in Max Tivoli, to negotiating the painful politics of race, love, marriage and war in The Story of a Marriage, Greer always manages to ground his imaginative and sometimes fantastical stories in real emotional power and careful language. He usually lives in the Bay Area but currently resides in the West Village, where this San Francisco-to-New York transplant managed to track him down for a chat.
RUMPUS: So, you’re living in New York? How long have you been here?
GREER: I’ve been here since September 7, and it’s January so…that’s four months? Wow, it’s been a long time. I love it! It’s exciting, and, just in terms of literary life you run into people you would never normally run into. Like, last night we went to dinner and there was Salmon Rushdie. That’s just kind of amazing to me.
RUMPUS: What are your favorite things to do in New York when you’re not working?
GREER: I get really trapped in the village. It’s a lot of walking around. I’ve only been to central park once. I mostly go to the bookstores and go to thrift stores.
RUMPUS: So, right now you are working at the New York Public Library as a Cullman fellow. The terms of the fellowship state that each recipient has to be reliant on the library’s stacks. Can you tell me about what you are working on now and what kind of research you are doing?
GREER: The great irony at the library right now is that there’s lead poisoning in the stacks, so we’re not allowed to take any books out! So, I can’t believe that we’d have to be reliant on the stacks because they’re not accessible.
Are people disappointed?
GREER: For some people it actually took them awhile to catch on because they weren’t really using those stacks. There are also all these other smaller libraries in there that haven’t been affected. For me, the historical and genealogical library is the one I use. I’m working on, I’ll say, it’s a time travel novel. I haven’t written very much of it. That’s the dirty secret of the Cullman center: The writers don’t write their fiction there, they just do their research.
RUMPUS: You aren’t originally from San Francisco yet so much of your work takes place there.
GREER: Are you originally from San Francisco?
GREER: Oh, you are so lucky!
RUMPUS: I know, I am really lucky. I just went back a couple weeks ago after a year and I forgot how beautiful it is.
GREER: I had gone to San Francisco when I was 20, one summer when I was in college, and always knew I would go back there. For fiction writing, and for Max Tivoli, setting the book in 19th century San Francisco made it work in a way that’s hard to explain. It was very easy to find characters that I wanted to use, easy to find settings and costumes, it just made it easier. The Story of a Marriage is also in San Francisco. I tried to put it in Kentucky because it’s based on a story about my grandmother in Kentucky. But I couldn’t do it there.
RUMPUS: And in The Path of Minor Planets, not a lot of it is set in Northern California, but some of it is and it always kind of comes back there.
GREER: You read that?! Nobody read that book. Yeah, I guess he does have an apartment in San Francisco…
RUMPUS: Yeah, right at the end and that’s one of the best parts of the whole book, when his character finally finds himself happy in San Francisco.
GREER: Well, for that one I had just moved to San Francisco. It’s just such a malleable landscape. People go there to reinvent themselves and, God, what is a novel about except that? If you are choosing Massachusetts you are choosing people in a strict society that won’t let them move. But San Francisco has this Western landscape of solitude and beauty, and also the intense urban experience too.
RUMPUS: In The Story of a Marriage, how did you make the decision to write in the voice of an African American woman, and how did you approach this challenge?
GREER: Oh my god. I mean, I’ve heard other novelists say this, which makes me feel like I’m not crazy, that the problem with every novel is finding the key to it, finding the way in. I spend the first year just turning it over and over and writing pages and pages, and throwing them away, just to find my way into the book.
For The Story of a Marriage, I tried it lots of different ways, from different points of view, and it came down to first person, San Francisco, retrospective, wistful. But in a lot of ways it still wasn’t working. In the beginning, I had a white woman. But then, I thought wow, it’s really annoying to hear her complain. I mean, she has it hard in the 50s, but at the same time she has so many options, why wouldn’t she leave? I just don’t get it! Also I felt like I was being cowardly. That’s the feeling I get before I make some crazy move. That I was being cowardly, and I wasn’t really addressing, in 1953, the real issue. And then I thought, oh God! Please! I don’t have to do this, do I? No, I don’t! But for me, the book became so much more interesting to write when I realized that here was a white man coming to buy a black man. It doesn’t feel very romantic. It feels more complicated. It’s made a lot of people really mad. The book was very controversial in the UK of all places. It was the most controversial book of the year among the blogs. I think because they are having an argument in Europe in general about the novel, and how natural or artificial it should be, and the book came across to some people as very artificial and manipulative.
RUMPUS: How did you arrive at the decision to reveal such a major secret at the beginning of the story? I mean it propels the plot because the rest of the book relies on those details, but when I read it, I was like woah! This is something crazy to put at the very beginning.
GREER: It happened by accident. It was a surprise to me, but then I realized, and you do this when you write a book, is you write a lot more than needs to be there, and then you look for everything that repeats. And it’s in that repeat in things that you see the theme unfold, which is not something you can decide beforehand. It’s different from what you thought you were writing about, and you just have to go that way, and not the way you planned. For me, it was a book about assuming things about others around you, and about ambiguity, and about the solitude of our lives and the invention, the way we almost completely invent the people around us.
RUMPUS: Max Tivoli received so much critical acclaim and attention, did you feel anxious about releasing this one, just knowing that people would take notice? Especially since you were taking a risk writing in a voice so different from your own?
GREER: The thing I was more afraid of was that it would be ignored. The thing I was really afraid of is that Max Tivoli would be the book that people would notice and that would really be it for me. Then the great thing happened, which is that John Updike reviewed Story of a Marriage in the New Yorker, and he hated it! Hooray! It was good news. It made me cry, I was sad. But, to be taken that seriously again was such a shock and an honor. I realized that people hadn’t forgotten about me. You never know when you put your book out how other people are going to read it. You can’t even talk about your book until it’s out because you don’t even really know what you’ve done, it’s the weirdest thing.
RUMPUS: So, all of your books have a historical element to them.
GREER: I really didn’t expect that to happen. I am a terrible researcher. And I’m not a history buff. I think it’s like renting a furnished apartment versus an unfurnished one. It’s all done for you, but it’s not quite to your taste. You have to replace some items and paint some of the walls, but it’s just so much easier. When you set something in history it comes with its own sets and costumes, and own characters already.
RUMPUS: What is your research process like? I mean, you said you aren’t a good researcher but you can write a book about comets and then Max Tivoli, there must be something to it.
GREER: Actually, I think you fake it. The trick to it is to put in as little as possible of what you research, as little as you can possibly stand because the less you put the more it looks like you know. It looks like the tip of the iceberg. But if you put in everything, then they know that’s all you know.
So, in every book I remove so much detail. You can’t believe what I’ve had to remove from my books! The Story of a Marriage to me doesn’t have any research in it at all but, really, you can’t believe what didn’t go in there. I had huge binders of newspaper clippings that I got.
RUMPUS: Is that how you got a feel for the time period? Through looking at old newspapers?
GREER: That’s it. Yeah. I couldn’t figure out another way to do it so I just read the newspaper in 1953, through almost the whole year, every day.
RUMPUS: A lot of your fiction is fantastical. But the characters and the intensity of all of their emotions are very real, and very relatable. To what extent is your work grounded in your own experiences?
GREER: None of it is autobiographical to me at all, not even in a hidden way, which seems to be the only way I can work it out. You know, the way in your dreams you work it out and it doesn’t seem like it’s you at all. With novels, you are in the realm of metaphor, and that’s the part I love. For Max Tivoli, I sat and I thought about the first boyfriend I ever had, and about that feeling of intense love and passion. I thought about that every single day. For The Story of the Marriage, I wasn’t married at the time, but I thought a lot about other people’s marriages, the people I knew.
RUMPUS: You mentioned that The Story of a Marriage was based on a story that your grandmother told you.
GREER: My grandmother told me a story about a young man who took her aside one day and said, I’ve been your husband’s lover since the war and I want to leave with him. This is in rural Kentucky in the 1950s. But I don’t know anything more than that. She said no, and sent him away. He was a schoolteacher in town, but that’s all. My dad would be furious when I talked about it. Everyone believed that she was a crazy person and that it couldn’t possibly be true. She never left him, they stayed married the whole time and they never talked about it, which is why in The Story of a Marriage they don’t talk about it. A lot of people ask why she doesn’t confront him. And I tell them, for me that’s how it was. My grandmother was a chatty woman but she didn’t chat about that. It was too dangerous, somehow, for her. After he died she’d tell it to anybody who’d listen. She said her only regret in life was that she hadn’t slept with more men.
RUMPUS: On the topic of love, “We think we know the ones we love,” is the opening line of The Story of a Marriage, and “We are each the love of someone’s life,” in the case of Max Tivoli. Both refer to one person loving another, but don’t suggest that love is something that necessarily exists between two people. I was wondering about your feelings towards love and the institution of marriage.
GREER: Oh dear God! I’ll give an easy answer first. What I think I’m doing is just making conflict and resolving it in ways that aren’t entirely sentimental. I want to create emotion that is intent and strong, but not cheese ball and there’s a fine line. I think a lot about compromise and how much I really dislike it as time goes on. It’s almost an untenable institution, and yet I’m married and very happy so, we’ll see what happens, But I’m very curious how people work it out. Sometimes they don’t, but sometimes they do and there is some other reward, some different kind of love than the new, young, passionate love.
I remember talking about this with a high-school group, they had read Max Tivoli. One of them had a question was about the difference between young love and adult love, and how could people settle for the kind of love that seemed to exist in marriage in my book instead of this intense passion that Max has? I said, I can’t describe it to you, but it is longer lasting. Intense passionate stuff isn’t sustainable.
A lot of people think of Max Tivoli as a romantic book but I think he’s a very destructive character, and I think that kind of love is very selfish and thoughtless and hurtful and exciting and thrilling and what life is all about. All of those things at the same time. I’m in conflict I guess.
RUMPUS: Ok, this is my last question. What is your editing process like? You say that you write so much and you throw a lot of it away, and that sometimes you’ll try an angle and it doesn’t work and scrap it. Once you find a way into your novel, what’s it like after that?
GREER: Well once I do that, I write three pages a day and I get to a certain point where I do look back on it. Usually the novel reaches a certain breaking point, where the plan doesn’t work anymore and you have to give it up and it feels like it’s a crisis in the book. And it’s great for the book but terrible for the writer. But I don’t show it to anybody until I have a complete first draft. And I don’t talk about it with people, I tell them misleading things about it, like that it’s a time travel novel…because I don’t want anyone’s input. Not because I’m a GENIUS, but I just don’t think you should say anything to a novelist except to keep going, because they don’t know what they are doing so you can’t know what they are doing. They are really just finding their way in the dark.