The Rumpus Interview with Garth Greenwell
The week I conducted this interview with Garth Greenwell, author of the breathtaking novel What Belongs to You, my five-year-old son first learned the term “potential energy.” My son and I spent that week considering projectile weapons and cars atop hills. My son, who normally likes to shoot objects across the room as compulsively as possible, was surprisingly interested in observing the still, extended rubber band of his catapult and revering the power it held. I kept thinking that this law of physics mimicked the build up to the release What Belongs to You. For some time now, Greenwell has tacitly been working behind the scenes towards its explosive debut on January 19, 2016.
Before there was What Belongs to You, there was Mitko, a slim work of fiction quietly released by Miami University Press in 2010. Though it was exquisite, it did not reach many readers. But Greenwell was not finished with the story of Mitko, the Bulgarian hustler at the center of the work, and the unnamed American teacher who becomes entwined with him. Greenwell wrote on, and the story of Mitko and the American teacher slowly grew into a novel.
Greenwell, who had studied music and poetry and done graduate work in literature, left his job teaching high school English in Bulgaria to attend the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where he workshopped sections of What Belongs to You. He then began to publish literary criticism, some of it of the kind that can alter a writer’s career. Greenwell famously proclaimed Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life “The Great Gay Novel,” an announcement which Yanagihara credits for the book’s first notable bump in sales. He convinced the New Yorker blog to let him make a case for novelist Lidia Yuknavitch’s “wild, remarkable sex scenes,” bringing one of our most unconventional contemporary writers into mainstream view. Greenwell has been producing some of the sharpest and friendliest commentary in mainstream publications, all the while maintaining a strong commitment to championing the work of queer writers and the queer literary community.
Like many others, I opened What Belongs to You with great expectation. I’d read Mitko, and had an idea of what the novel would be. Like Marguerite Duras’s The Lover, the first section of What Belongs to You concerns the shifting power dynamics between two people from different cultures, with different sets of privileges, and how nationality, class, sexual power, and violence can impact that power. But later parts of the novel defy all expectations, especially when it comes to style. One thing remains consistent throughout the novel: the meticulous, gorgeous, crystalline sentences. When I finished What Belongs to You, I was out of breath. It is a great accomplishment, a display of exceptional intelligence, cultural awareness, linguistic prowess, and psychological sensitivity.
The Rumpus: First tell us a little bit about how What Belongs to You was conceived and structured. What Belongs to You is made up of three sections: “Mitko,” “A Grave,” and “Pox.” In 2010, an earlier version of the first section, “Mitko,” won the Miami University Press Novella Prize and was published as a standalone book. Did you know, when you published Mitko, that there was more to the story, that you would continue to write beyond the first section?
Garth Greenwell: What Belongs to You really started with a place. I moved to Bulgaria in 2009 and spent four years there, teaching high school at the American College of Sofia. Bulgaria is a fascinating, beautiful, difficult country, and I fell in love with it. I think the spark of the novel came from the weird experience I kept having there of foreignness and familiarity. On the one hand, my first months in Sofia were a time of intense disorientation: I had never been to that part of the world before; I could barely speak the language; everything seemed strange to me. At the same time, though, and especially as I started meeting gay men and exploring queer communities, both online and in person, I found myself forcefully reminded of my adolescence in Kentucky in the early 1990s. This was especially true of the cruising places I found in Sofia, where all the sudden I found I could communicate fluently: all the codes I learned as a kid cruising the parks in Louisville were the same in Sofia. And when I started to talk to gay men in their thirties and forties, I found they said many of the same things that I heard gay men that age say when I was an adolescent. It seemed to me that there was a similar horizon of possibility, a similar set of assumptions about the world and what it offered.
I started “Mitko” without having any idea that it was part of a larger book, and without having any idea of what I was doing in general. It was my first attempt at writing fiction—I had been a poet until that point, and had never tried to write creative prose—and I felt like I was inching forward sentence by sentence, without any larger ideas about structure or form. It wasn’t until I was halfway through “A Grave,” which is very different from the first section, set off both in terms of story and form, that I realized it was connected to “Mitko,” and it really wasn’t until I was finished with the third part that I began to realize I had been working on a novel, and not three interconnected but separate works.
Rumpus: The first and last sections deal primarily with the narrator, a young, unnamed American man teaching in Bulgaria, and his relationship with Mitko, a Bulgarian hustler who over time becomes something like a friend, though the narrator never trusts that Mitko’s friendship is authentic. The middle section, “A Grave,” is a departure both from the character of Mitko and from the style of the rest of the novel. Some news from home triggers a flood of memories and associations that the narrator experiences while he walks through the Bulgarian city where he lives. While the first and last sections are concerned with action as it unfolds, “A Grave” has a Modernistic, stream of consciousness feel to it. I felt influences like Woolf and Cortázar at work on this section and on the novel as a whole. Can you talk about your influences?
Greenwell: “A Grave” came very much as a surprise. I wasn’t intending to write it—I had ideas for other things I wanted to work on. But then, one hot day when I was walking around Mladost, the part of Sofia where I lived, I was seized by a voice that demanded I follow it. I really don’t know how else to put it, and I haven’t had an experience quite like that before or since. It was a really angry, importunate energy, and I remember I went to coffee shop and started writing on the backs of receipts, on scraps of paper—on trash, really. I wrote the first draft very quickly, and it ended up being a long block paragraph, much longer in that first version than it is in the book. I stuck it in a drawer and couldn’t look at it for more than a year; it made me nauseous to think about it. Once I could look at it again, I rewrote it by hand several times, something that I didn’t do with the other sections of the book. It was really hell to write. And as I said before, it wasn’t until I was halfway through that I realized how it was responding to the story told in “Mitko” (and later continued in “Pox”), that the exploration of the narrator’s childhood was a way to try to investigate some of the weird things about him, especially in his approach to intimacy, the way he seems to disclose everything while actually hiding a great deal of himself away. I think the middle section is the part of the book where the narrator is most vulnerable and available. And I hope the block paragraph format gives a sense of the simultaneity of his memories, how he’s thrown back and forth between various times: his early childhood, his adolescence, the landscape he’s walking through and the landscape he has fled.
Woolf is an important writer for me, someone I read often and who forms part of my ideal of what literature can do. I think the more immediate influences on that second section come from other traditions—Thomas Bernhard, Imre Kertesz, Teodora Dimova, Reinaldo Arenas. I often say that Bernhard, W.G. Sebald, and Javier Marías are my stylistic holy trinity, prose writers who amaze me with their notation of consciousness and voice. In general, I hope that I’m working within a tradition of the novel of consciousness that extends through Proust and Henry James and Thomas Mann and Virginia Woolf, a queer tradition of novel writing that blurs boundaries between fiction and essay and autobiography. Cortázar is less an influence than the writers of the Latin American queer baroque, Arenas and Sarduy and Puig and, above all, Pedro Lemebel. And really, if the book has a patron saint it’s probably James Baldwin, whose Giovanni’s Room is one of the landmarks of my reading life.
Rumpus: In many ways What Belongs to You is about crossing boundaries. The narrator crosses a national border from the US to Bulgaria. His Bulgarian students are largely trying to cross the border, to get out. The narrator, while clearly a linguist, faces language barriers, boundaries he learns to cross through careful study. In his youth, the narrator crosses a line in a split second that forever separates him from his father. In the relationship between the narrator and Mitko, the boundaries are ever-shifting: they are cultural, class-based, power-based, and have no clear definition; the narrator constantly questions what Mitko is to him—Client? Friend? Predator?—and what he is to Mitko—Caretaker? Friend? A mark? From the novel’s beginning, the narrator seems to know there is a boundary between himself and Mitko that is impossible to cross, that they will never truly understand each other or be true friends to one another. Yet they keep coming back to each other. As you wrote their story, did you ever imagine that there was a way for the narrator and Mitko to be true to one another? Or were their cultural differences too insurmountable? And how has your own time in Bulgaria influenced your beliefs on this matter?
Greenwell: These questions get to the heart of the book, and I’m not sure that I have answers to them. There are lots of things that separate Mitko and the narrator: culture and language, material privilege, beauty, access to violence. And, in ways the narrator only comes to understand over the course of years, their relationship is shaped and constrained by the circumstance that allowed it in the first place: the fact that it began when the narrator paid Mitko for sex. But what really interested me was exploring those moments where what they feel for one another—what the narrator feels, what Mitko seems to feel—is ambiguous or confused or overwhelming, full of potential (for love, for violence) that maybe neither of them really understands. I wanted to explore the way that all the mess of humanness is still engaged even in encounters that seem to be fundamentally transactions: how there is still room for generosity, tenderness, anger, betrayal.
Rumpus: Speaking of boundaries, I’m now going to breach the number one boundary you are not supposed to approach with fiction writers!
Many fiction writers recoil when interviewers probe about “how autobiographical” a work of fiction is. But in the case of What Belongs to You, you seem to be deliberately hinting at autobiography. Small markers are your refusal to name the narrator, and by the narrator referring to his loved ones (sisters, significant others) by their first initial. I’m not going to ask you what is or isn’t autobiographical in the novel, but I am curious about how you feel about the question, and about the difference between approaching stories as fiction versus memoir?
Greenwell: The only character who is fully named in the book is Mitko, and even he isn’t given a full name: Mitko is a nickname, short for Dimiter, and his family name is never disclosed. In the first scene the narrator is stripped of his own name, when we learn that Mitko can’t pronounce it, that it’s unpronounceable in Bulgarian. I wanted Mitko to be the only character in the book with a name, which felt to me like a kind of spotlight illuminating him throughout the book. Like a spotlight, it felt like a way of giving him a kind of privilege, of foregrounding him and making him the most vivid thing on the page. And, again like a spotlight, it’s also a kind of vulnerability: he’s stripped of a protection, or the semblance of a protection, other characters are afforded.
I’m drawn to fiction that hints at nonfiction, that blurs or seems to blur the boundaries between invention and autobiography. I take pleasure as a reader in books that tease with a kind of urgency of the real, even if it’s only a manufactured effect. I subscribe in various degrees to arguments about the fictionality of all autobiography, about the way turning something into a narrative necessarily makes it fictional, even if it’s a nonfictional recounting of facts. When I look back at certain things I’ve written I sometimes have the queasy feeling that they’re at once entirely true, a kind of notation of experience, and entirely invented. But I do think that calling a book nonfiction affirms a kind of responsibility to an attempt at truth. Where the novel makes use of material from my life it does so because it’s aesthetically convenient, not because of any allegiance it has to any verifiable facts.
Rumpus: I want to go back to what you said about the narrator and “his approach to intimacy, the way he seems to disclose everything while actually hiding a great deal of himself away.” I was constantly amazed by this narrator’s ability to articulate the most conflicting thoughts and emotions so carefully and clearly. The sentences here are like glasswork. There is obviously great care taken to get each delicate nuance of the narrator’s emotional experience exactly right. At the same time, there is a sense of holding back from the reader on the level of language, which can be formal in its carefulness. This narrator is always extremely aware of how the Bulgarian language is used with him, how even a pronoun choice can be an assault. How much is the formality of his narrative voice his way of keeping his distance from the reader?
Greenwell: Not just from the reader, I’d say: also from himself. In the middle section, I think the narrator is forced to come to grips with the ways in which he has always experienced intimacy as a threat of abandonment, or, even more, the ways in which rejection and humiliation have become so tied up with desire that he can’t really pick them apart. And he also thinks at one point that his pose of availability, the way he seems to offer himself whole to people he loves, is actually a kind of insulation or defense.
Language is a kind of defense, too, and his hyper-articulateness is tied up with a sense of dignity that imposes and depends on distance. One of the reasons I wanted to explore the in-between state of translation was to take that away from him—to make him experience the world without those usual defenses.
Rumpus: You have an extensive academic background. In addition to two MFA degrees, you hold an MA in English Literature from Harvard, where you also did PhD coursework. Why two MFA degrees? And how has your education at Harvard, where I imagine you were expected to present as a critic rather than a writer, impacted your fiction?
Greenwell: My life has had a lot of fits and starts: before I studied literature at all I was a musician, and began undergrad as a conservatory student. I started studying literature in my third year of college, when I took a poetry course with James Longenbach that was pretty extraordinary. It changed my life. My first MFA was in poetry, and it was very much part of a professional trajectory leading to life as a professor. But in my second and third years at Harvard, I realized I didn’t want an academic life, and I left and started teaching high school, a career that lasted seven years and took me to Ann Arbor and then to Bulgaria. Teaching high school was my real training as a novelist: it got me out of my head, and (at least a little) out of books, and invested me in the lives of others and the world around me.
I felt a lot of ambivalence about going back to graduate school for a second MFA. The impulse was really the opposite from what it had been more than a decade before: I wanted to interrupt a career. Being a high school teacher was wonderful, but unsustainable: I needed a way out. I went back to graduate school because I wanted to avoid being a professional, to try to piece together a life that would let me avoid the tenure race and full-time teaching. I’m still trying to figure that out. Iowa ended up being a great experience, not least because as a program it allows an incredible amount of freedom.
As to how my academic training shaped me: that’s a hard question to answer. Certainly it exposed me to ideas that continue to shape my view of literature and the world, and I’m grateful for the years I got to spend devoted to books. I got to study with amazing poets whose work continues to inspire me. But there’s really no question for me that leaving my PhD program was the best choice I’ve ever made. I shudder to think what would have happened to me if I had really never left academia: if I had stayed on that path from graduate school to more graduate school to an academic job. The academy is an incredibly sheltered world, and I do think it’s important for writers to get out from under that shelter, at least for a while, to see what the world looks like from outside it.
Rumpus: Living abroad has a way of forcing you to invest in the bigger world, too, of course. When I was living abroad, like you, I lived in a place where almost no one spoke English and as the only American in the community. The sense of isolation was sometimes suffocating, but also proved essential to me as a writer, because during that time my own language echoed lastingly inside my head; it had no where else to go. How did living outside of your first language shape your work? Did you write about Bulgaria while you lived in Bulgaria, or did What Belongs To You take shape once you returned to the States?
Greenwell: Speaking another language every day was pretty crucial to the book. There were other Americans at my school, and I spoke English in the classroom, but on weekends and vacations, when I would go days without speaking English to anyone, the feel of the language changed for me in exactly the ways you say. English became private then, part of the privacy that was the act of writing. I wrote the novel over three years, and I did have a complete draft before I moved back to the States. I’m still writing about Bulgaria now, and I find it harder without living there—when I go back, as I try to do every year, I fill up notebooks with as many impressions as I can. But it’s easier for me to write about America—or at least about the American south, where I grew up—from a distance.
Rumpus: Do you still play music?
Greenwell: I studied opera, and when I left conservatory I told myself I would never sing in public again. So far, that’s been true. But music is still very much a part of my life. Whenever I go to New York I try to soak up as much live music as I can, including as many nights at the opera as I can manage. Even though I don’t sing any more, singing was my first education in the arts, and it’s clear to me that my training as a musician also shaped me as a writer. I think this is true at the level of the sentence—I think one reason I’m drawn to expansive syntax is that arias are so often exercises in extending language as a means of intensifying feeling. I also think it’s true for structure: I’m not sure any narrative model has been more important for me than Benjamin Britten’s chamber operas.
Rumpus: What was behind your decision to never sing in public again?
Greenwell: I think on one hand I was frustrated by the limitations of my instrument, and also of the conservatory training I was receiving, which emphasized standard rep, whereas my own interests were in early and new music. I realized, too, that the life of a musician, even of a very lucky, very successful musician, wasn’t really the life I wanted: I hate travel, I hate living out of suitcases, I hate the constant anxiety of being on stage.
More profoundly, though, when I was at the Eastman School of Music, I was surrounded by people for whom music was a native language. My best friend, the conductor Alan Pierson, was playing music before he could talk, and I remember marveling (I still marvel, actually) at how much information he can take in by glancing at a score. For me, music was always a second language. I didn’t have a musical background, and I started studying very late, at fourteen. I realized that there was an intellectual content in music, a kind of thinking, that I would never be able to hear. When I took my first poetry class, I felt that I could understand the relationships between words and the formal qualities of language in a way I would never understand music.
Rumpus: Is it fair to say you face a strong ambivalence between the urge towards public expression—writing a novel and performing on stage are two of the most exposing acts I can think of—and more private, intimate forms of expression?
Greenwell: Oh, writing the novel felt so private to me! I think publishing a novel is quite public and exposing, and what’s a little frightening to me right now is the fact that it feels so entirely opposed to the privacy that is writing. I guess I’ve done a lot of different kinds of performing at various times—opera singing, poetry reading, not least high school teaching—and I do enjoy it, at least sometimes. But I find it incredibly anxiety-producing and exhausting. Privacy is more congenial, and I go a little crazy if I can’t spend a big chunk of every day, or almost every day, alone. Certainly I have to be alone to write.
Rumpus: You’ve been publishing essays and criticism recently. In my opinion, you are not only one of the exciting new voices in fiction, but in literary criticism as well. I think writers like Hanya Yanagihara and Lidia Yuknavitch, whose work you have championed, would agree! Is this something we should expect to see more of from you?
Greenwell: It’s so kind of you to say that. I can’t imagine that I’ll ever stop writing about books. I write mostly on books by queer writers and on books in translation, especially from the languages I can read in. Nothing gives me more satisfaction than giving a kind of map to a territory that many readers may not even know exists, like Bulgarian literature, for instance. And there’s such an extraordinarily rich body of queer literature that is under-read and under-regarded by the critical establishment, so many important writers that have never gotten their due. Of course I want to do anything I can to help readers find them.
Rumpus: Can you tell us anything about your next fiction project?
Greenwell: I’m working on a book of short stories that fall very much in the interstices of the novel. They’re all set in Bulgaria, and many of them expand on characters or even scenes that appear in the novel. In the third section of What Belongs to You, there’s an important character who doesn’t appear very often: R., the narrator’s boyfriend. In the time covered by that section, they’re living in different countries, but we know that there was a period when they were both in Sofia. Several of the stories I’ve been working on explore that relationship more fully. And there are things about the world of the novel I wanted to explore that, for whatever reason, couldn’t fit into the book. These stories try to make a place for them. I’ve also begun another project, I’m not sure what it is yet, that’s not set in Bulgaria. I think after two books I may finally be able to write about other places.