The Right Wrong Note: A Conversation with Garth Greenwell


Garth Greenwell’s new book, Cleanness, is both a formal and thematic expansion of the world of his first novel, What Belongs to You, which was hailed an “instant classic” by the New York Times Book Review. A fully immersive, sensual experience powered by a clear love (and mastery) of the sentence, Cleanness renders relationships in shades of dark and light, cruelty and tenderness, and, yes, filthiness and cleanness. The stories here are polyphonic, and, when taken as a whole, offer up incredibly satisfying surprises and reversals.

Greenwell’s work has been translated into a dozen languages. His fiction has appeared in the New Yorker, the Paris Review, A Public Space, and VICE, and he has written criticism for the New Yorker, the London Review of Books, and the New York Times Book Review, among others.

Greenwell and I met over brunch in his hotel room at The Standard in SoHo. After our interview, we continued to discuss art at The Whitney. To finish off a perfect day, we watched Portrait of a Lady on Fire by the French director Céline Sciamma, which, given its themes of erotic desire and its relationship to art, felt like a fitting coda.


The Rumpus: One of my favorite moments in Cleanness is in the book’s final chapter, “An Evening Out,” when your narrator, after leaving behind some of his deeply ingrained feelings of shame for a moment to take pleasure in Bulgarian nightlife with his former students, comes across an old dog, Mamma Dog, as he’s stumbling home drunk. The way you describe this dog as a pet someone once cared for, now abandoned, a pet your narrator decides to take in despite her filthiness, feels emblematic of your work as a whole. I read in your New Yorker interview that Mama Dog was a late addition to the narrative.

Garth Greenwell: Momma Dog was a surprise. She felt like an angel appearing at the end of that story. I originally thought that “An Evening Out” was going to end with the narrator on the stairs outside his apartment. I thought he might throw up or something, and generally feel miserable, and that would be the end of the night. It was such a relief when she showed up because she shifted the story into a new key, a new harmonic world. And then that made me realize that “An Evening Out” would be the last chapter in the book; I had found the key the book had to end on. I do think of it as a happy ending. I mean, in my moral universe, this is a happy ending.

Rumpus: In conjunction with “Little Saint,” which precedes this chapter and gives us a vision of a kind of queer utopia, there does seem to be a lift at the end of the book. These two stories are both forgiving. They’re very compassionate.

Greenwell: I hope there is a lift. You know, I hope that this is a better book than What Belongs to You. And one of the things that makes me feel that it is better is that I think it’s more capacious, that it holds more emotional notes. I don’t think What Belongs to You is as joyless as some people thought it was, but I do hope joy is more evident in this book.

Rumpus: Even in Mladost 1-A, a Soviet-style block apartment complex where much of the book takes place, I sensed more joy.

Greenwell: You’re the first person I’ve talked to about the book who has actually lived in these places.

Rumpus: We share an interesting connection to Bulgaria. We met at Sozopol, the Black Sea setting you chose for your story “Harbor.” While we were both at the seaside, you were the one who told me about your job at the American College of Sofia, which you were preparing to leave. I ended up teaching my classes in your classroom and living in your apartment. My students saw me as an extension of your project, since I was another writer and was also gay and taught the same grade levels and texts you had taught. I had read your novella, Mitko, which became the first part of What Belongs to You, before coming to Bulgaria, and in many ways I saw the country first through your eyes. It was an immersive experience unlike any other, and as a new writer, it gave me so much insight. I created an exercise for my students that was adapted from one of your exercises, a creative writing prompt based on Dubliners, and the way you explained the components of the short story form was illuminating. It helped me to read not only James Joyce better but to understand the elements that make up almost all good fiction. What strikes me most in this exercise is your insistence that setting be mappable while also being emblematic. Can you explain a little about how you first came to see setting in this way, and if these ideas still hold true for the fiction you write and read?

Greenwell: I think teaching that exercise had a profound effect on my writing. It made me understand the necessity of aiming not at for multitude of sense data, but rather for a pungency of sense data. That has become an important principle for me. One of the things I made students do in the exercise was account for the logistics of movement through the city. That was really hard for me as an early fiction writer. With a story like “Decent People,” which concerns the 2013 Bulgarian protests, I had to put a lot of people on the page and move them around an entire city. I don’t think I could have done that in What Belongs to You. And also, when I was writing the story, I knew that it was the last time I would be writing about Sofia.

Rumpus: I did feel it was different from your other stories.

Greenwell: It was my farewell to the city. One of the things that I love about being a writer is the way it calls you to attention when you’re in a place or a moment that you’re likely to write about. It’s a weird bifurcation, because on the one hand, being an artist and knowing at every moment that something might be material in a sense draws you away from experience, and you can feel a kind of distance from your own experiencing. But in another way, being an artist makes me experience moments more intensely. It trains my faculties in a way that makes me a more intense experiencer.

Rumpus: I remember when we were in Sozopol together, you had your notebook out all the time.

Greenwell: Absolutely. I think writers should always have a notebook. You never know when you’re going to experience something that feels aesthetic to you, or experience something that feels like it belongs in a frame.

Rumpus: How do you know when a moment is calling for you?

Greenwell: How do you know when a building is burning? But you don’t always know what you’ll need from an experience. I went back to Bulgaria for a month or two every year while I was working on Cleanness, and I started obsessively recording sense data. Because while I was writing these stories, I would get stuck if I didn’t have the right sense data to capture a particular moment. There were stories that I couldn’t finish because I couldn’t remember how a certain street corner smelled at 2 a.m. I would scold myself for this, I would say to myself, This is ridiculous, just put a walnut vendor there and say it smells like walnuts. But I just couldn’t do it. I can’t invent details of place, I don’t know why. I can invent interactions, I can invent emotional dynamics, I can invent characters, but there is something in me that will not allow me to invent place.

Rumpus: Does it feel like a kind of betrayal if you don’t get place right?

Greenwell: I guess it does feel like a kind of betrayal. I don’t accept the validity of that—I don’t think invention is betrayal. So it’s interesting to me that I feel that way. Obviously, you always invent, even when you don’t intend to—in part because you remember things wrong. I remember going to the bathrooms at NDK for the first time after I had written them in What Belongs to You. Of course they weren’t exactly as I had written them. And I remember feeling, as I walked into this place, that these weren’t the real NDK bathrooms, as though my story captured a more real reality. So there’s this way in which, yes, I feel so desperate to get it right, but then once the thing is made, there’s this switch and the story becomes authoritative and reality is no longer authoritative. The absurdity! But I do think I’m maybe more cautious with Bulgaria than other places. Bulgaria is less described in English literature. If I say something wrong about San Marco in “The Frog King,” that’s not going to be anybody’s only experience of San Marco. But if I get something wrong about the bathrooms at NDK, that may be the only experience a reader is going to have of that place.

Rumpus: In another New Yorker interview, you describe most of your stories in Cleanness as “long takes.” This feels particularly apt for “Gospodar” and “Little Saint,” which mirror each other in intensity and theme yet also function as reversals. But what I am most interested in is this decision to extend a scene and thereby capture all of the fleeting feelings of a moment which are lost to time. Do you find inspiration for this in other art forms? I was thinking of the long takes in French New Wave, for example, or the way a painting’s details might be revealed through a careful, steady gaze.

Greenwell: I’ve always been drawn to art that demands a kind of extended meditative engagement. One of my favorite operas is Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande. One of the things that happens in late nineteenth-century opera is a moving away from a kind of narrative structure of recitative and aria into a structure of a more continuous texture. In Pelléas et Mélisande, for example, there aren’t really arias that you can excerpt. I like that continuity of texture. I like this experience in film as well, in something like Hitchcock’s Rope, for example. The ongoingness of the action and the ongoingness of the act of observation generates a lot of emotional heat. That’s very appealing to me. So, yes, especially in the two stories you mentioned, those had to be single take stories.

Rumpus: Can you elaborate a bit more?

Greenwell: Well, another reason both “Gospodar” and “The Little Saint” needed to be single takes was that I wanted them to be aesthetic experiences in the way that S/M encounters are aesthetic experiences. A good S/M encounter is a kind of artistically formed experience. It’s structured in the way that theater is structured or in the way that a poem is structured. I think a long, single take helps to recreate that.

Rumpus: Sex has become one of the subjects you’re most known for writing about.

Greenwell: I think the fact that people talk so much about the sex in What Belongs to You says more about mainstream American publishing in 2016 than about my novel, because there’s only about three pages of explicit sex in that book. I knew that there was more I wanted to do with sex as a writer. I had an intuition that the combination of very intense sexual experience with the recursive, phenomenological, Jamesian sentence I’m attracted to would yield discoveries. And so when I wrote “Gospodar” I gave myself the assignment to write something one hundred percent pornographic and one hundred percent high art. I wanted to try to go as far as I could, which is scary, really scary, because it took me to such a dark place.

Rumpus: So writing a story like “Gospodar” required a kind of moral courage to finish it?

Greenwell: I’m not sure I would describe it as moral. It required determination. I do think art making is a risk-taking endeavor—and not just the risk of making bad art, but the risk of causing harm to oneself. As I wrote “Gospodar”—and also the second section of What Belongs to You—I thought, This may do harm to me. I think that to make serious art, you have to be willing to take those risks, which are genuine existential risks. The history of art is full of people who go into the abyss and never come back. I know that we’ve come to a place now where we’ve rejected the heroic romantic myth of the artist, and that’s fine. But when I think of Frank Bidart and where Frank Bidart has to go to make his poems, that seems heroic to me. I think artists take risks that we benefit from, and I feel very grateful to them for that. But this is the biggest tension I feel between being an artist and an educator, because my primary responsibility as an educator, above all else, is to keep students safe. I will never tell a student, “What you need to do in order to transform this from a good story to a great story is to throw yourself into an abyss.” I will never say that to a student.

Rumpus: Do you tell them some version of that? Do you tell them of the complications involved?

Greenwell: I might go meta. I might provide them with some version of what I just said. But I will never tell a student they must do this.

Rumpus: Because we don’t know if it is even true for them.

Greenwell: Yeah. We don’t know anything about what making art is like for other people.

Rumpus: In some ways, just experiencing something outside of the university environment, for some of them, will be a psychic risk.

Greenwell: I also think that certain stances toward the world pose psychic risks. Part of being an artist is learning to trust your impulses. And if your sense of urgency is leading you in a particular direction, that’s where you go. I remember describing something like this to a friend. I said, You know, if I’m going to write “Gospodar,” about being the submissive partner in an S/M encounter, I’m going to have to write a companion story from the other role. I think I knew that there was a kind of moral peril involved in writing the latter. And I knew it would be harder to write from the perspective of the dom, because I think one’s default sympathies are with the sub. And so to occupy the dom position presented a different kind of writerly challenge. It was like there was a landscape and I had tried to paint half of it and I had to paint the other half.

Rumpus: That’s very To the Lighthouse of you. Was it Lily Briscoe? She’s sitting at the dinner table and she thinks, If I just move the tree in my painting a little further then the whole thing will come together.

Greenwell: That’s right: It was like a tree that suggested a landscape. Once I knew these stories would mirror one another, I had a sense of the structure for the book. I knew that the stories featuring R would be at its center and that they would be chronological, that they would have a beginning and a middle and an end. The rest of the structure came to me much more slowly. And then there was the conversation about whether it was a novel or a story collection, and I felt that neither of those labels applied. I’m really happy for people to call it whatever they want to call it, but (although this is a very precious thing to say) if I could call it anything, I would call it a song cycle. I think of each story as a center of emotional heat, and that the book is composed of these centers of emotional heat without the stitching of novelistic exposition. I expect the reader to do some work.

Rumpus: There does seem to be more work in this book than in What Belongs to You.

Greenwell: I like work that challenges me, and I want to write challenging work. Simplicity can be a very beautiful thing in art, but there’s a kind of facile simplicity, a sort of immediate legibility, that often leaves me disappointed. I never want to feel that a work of art wants me to feel a single thing—that’s almost my definition of manipulative art. I think one of the things we mean when we talk about a feeling being “profound” is that it contains its opposite. I want to make art that is complex in this way, and some of that complexity will be registered in the kind of sentences I like. One of the principles of composition that I really believe in—and it also comes from music—is the idea of the right wrong note. I remember in high school, at the Interlochen Arts Academy (the place that saved my life, where I came into myself as an artist) there was a wonderful composition teacher who was also the choir conductor. We were singing Ralph Vaughn Williams’s setting of “Full Fathom Five,” and there is a wonderful moment where the choir is holding this shimmering chord, and then there’s this really strikingly discordant note that comes in. It’s a wonderful effect. And I remember this teacher saying, So much of composition depends on finding the right wrong note. That is something that’s lodged so deep in me as a principle of beauty, finding the right wrong note. It explains why I’m drawn to sometimes quite awkward constructions.

Rumpus: But the only way to strike that right wrong note is to be in so much control over your art that the reader recognizes it as an aberration.

Greenwell: Yeah, that’s the thing. You have to create the right frame in which intention can be felt as opposed to error.

Rumpus: I want to talk, finally, about the use of epiphany in your stories.

Greenwell: There’s a prejudice against epiphany right now, a feeling that it’s a contrivance. But I think it’s a genuine human experience: we do have moments that feel like a sudden acquisition of knowledge, and I’m interested both in that experience and in the status of the epiphanic as a mode of knowledge. In “Mentor,” the first chapter of the book, a student speaks from within an experience of overwhelming, adolescent love, an experience that seems to give him access to authoritative truths about his life, and about life in general. The teacher, who is outside of that experience, feels a desire to puncture the intensity of it. But it’s a profound experience, that first knowledge of love, and I wanted to take it seriously. I don’t want to have an ironic view of what, from within moments like that, feels like knowledge or meaning. But I also wanted to register my skepticism about the portability of such realizations beyond the frame of a particular moment. That’s something else that feels important about the book’s structure: having these framed chapters allows me to inhabit epiphany, to be reverent toward epiphany, while also retaining some skepticism about its portability. You can allow the story to be suspended at its end in a moment of epiphany or beauty. But maybe you can’t carry that epiphany into the next story.


Photograph of Garth Greenwell by Oriette D’Angelo.

Garrard Conley is the author of Boy Erased (Penguin 2016), a finalist for the Lamdba Literary award. His writing can be found in Time, Vice, The Virginia Quarterly Review, and on, BuzzFeed, and elsewhere. He is at work on a forthcoming novel and lives and teaches in NYC. More from this author →