Garth Greenwell: On His New Novel and the Universality of the Gay Experience
Author: Steven Cordova
January 18, 2016
“I feel very strongly that this is a gay book and that it participates in a recognizable delineated tradition of gay writing, and that’s a tradition that has been absolutely crucial to me as a writer. I get impatient with people who say that placing a book in that kind of tradition is a limitation, that it diminishes a sense of a book’s universal reach.”
It’s not easy to have a tête-à-tête with writer Garth Greenwell. Not because his growing list of successes—articles in The Atlantic Monthly, The New Yorker, and a short story in The Paris Review—have gone to head. On the contrary, he’s as warm and lighthearted as he is pensive.
No, the only reason it’s hard to have a sit down with Garth is because, at the time of this interview, he is living far away in Bulgaria. He was, however, in New York City during November 2015, and we took advantage of the situation to discuss his much anticipated debut novel, What Belongs to You (FSG), the follow-up to his novella Mitko. The novel is an emotionally charged exploration of lust and longing, that centers on the relationship between a gay American teacher living in Bulgaria and a charismatic local young hustler.
The conversation went on after the recorder was turned off, but here is what we got on record.
I think it’s fair to say What Belongs to You is a semi-autobiographical novel. To what extent?
That’s genuinely a hard question to answer. I mean, in some sense, the division between genres seems kind of arbitrary to me. Both fiction and nonfiction can be more or less interested in invention. Invention is less interesting to me as a writer; though I love it as a reader. It’s less interesting to me as a writer than trying to approach experience, whether imagined or not, in a way that goes into the greatest possible depth. So that’s more interesting to me than a fecundity of invention.
I’m drawn to books that play with a narrator who invokes the author, and that is certainly the case in What Belongs to You. I think all of the biographical facts we have about the narrator map onto my life more or less directly. And certainly it is in some way an attempt to put my experience of consciousness on the page. Part of the aesthetic pleasure I take from reading W.G Sebald, or Thomas Mann, in certain of his books, or Proust, is the pleasure of never being sure whether something is autobiographical or not. All of which I think sounds coy and not directly answering the question. But it does seem to be kind of an unanswerable question. I guess I would say this: the distinction for me that does feel meaningful between fiction and nonfiction is that nonfiction has a kind of greater allegiance to the truth, to a kind of fact-checkable truth. The reason that I call what I write fiction is that, in my book, when I make use of that kind of fact-checkable [information] it’s totally without allegiance to the truth.
You emailed me some stories that have recently appeared in other publications—The Paris Review for one—and you indicated that they are part of project that extends What Belongs to You. Can you elaborate on that?
Yes. The book I’m working on now is a collection of short stories, some of which I actually wrote in breaks between writing the three parts of the current novel. They’re in the same narrative voice, and they’re all set in Bulgaria. A character who appears in the third part of What Belongs to You, the narrator’s boyfriend, is a main character in many of these stories. A whole section [of the next book] will be about their relationship. So in that sense I am working on a book that does feel like the same project as What Belongs to You. I have no idea what will come after that book. I am drawn to writers whose work is in some ways one big book. To me, Sebald reads that way. Proust is another great example. That said, I also do love reading books that are deeply inventive. But right now, what I’m working on does seem like a continuation of the same project.
I think that What Belongs to You is really going to resonate with gay readers, partly because of its many insights about being gay, about desire, some of them downright philosophical. How did you arrive at such wonderful epiphanies?
There’s a weird writerly history with this book because I had never written fiction until “Mitko,” the first part of this novel. Before that, I’d only ever been a poet. I did an MFA in poetry 15 years ago, and half of a Ph.D. where I was focusing on poetry as a scholar. And so a lot of the writers who really shaped my sense of what I want to do in literature are poets. That said, even though I’d never studied fiction as a writer or a scholar, I’d always read novels voraciously.
I feel very strongly that this is a gay book and that it participates in a recognizable delineated tradition of gay writing, and that’s a tradition that has been absolutely crucial to me as a writer. I get impatient with people who say that placing a book in that kind of tradition is a limitation, that it diminishes a sense of a book’s universal reach. I think that is just wrong. I think the way that literature works is by deeply investing in individual experience as a way of reaching a kind of universal resonance. And I think that to ascribe diminishment to that is nothing other than homophobia, really—a sense that in some way queer experience has less access to the universal than straight experience or white male experience, etc…. There’s no question to me that the gay tradition is important to this book and to me those crucial writers are people like Edmund White, people like Proust. And then there’s also a way in which the novel, I hope, is participating in the tradition of the novel of consciousness, which is that philosophical bit. Which is also, really, when you look at it, a very queer tradition. Proust is a forefather here. Henry James is queer and wrote novels of consciousness. Thomas Mann, too. The three prose stylists who I think of as my kind of holy trinity are Thomas Bernhard, who also is quite queer, and then W.G. Sebald, and Javier Marias, who is a living Spanish writer. The three of them take a fairly European tradition of the novel of consciousness and bring into it contemporary concerns with identity and with history in a way that feels very compelling to me. And also just in term of the shapes of their sentences, which I think are extraordinary.
The middle section of What Belongs to You is a single paragraph. There are lots of people who write block paragraph books, to me the two most important are Bernhard and the gay Cuban writer Reinaldo Arenas. And a tradition of poetry quite queer that extends to devotional poetry from the 17th century, which is what I focused on a scholar, and the person who for me is the most important living American writer, Frank Bidart. My teacher at Washington University was Carl Phillips, who was very important to me, particularly in terms of thinking of the elasticity of English syntax. Henri Cole was a teacher of mine. I think he’s master. Those are some of the influences. And then going further back I think the ur-text for the novel of consciousness and the novel of consciousness approach through sexuality is Saint Augustine’s Confessions. That’s a book I lived with for a long time. Augustine makes a statement, interrogates it, and therefore remakes it; that motion of consciousness is something you find exquisitely in Proust, in James and in Elizabeth Bishop, in John Ashbery, and Frank Bidart, and Carl Phillips. That sense of a mind in motion, of someone who’s not making assertions but trying to feel his or her way forward through an understanding of experience—that’s the motion of mind I want to capture on the page.
The only writer you didn’t mention that I thought you might is D.H Lawrence.
That’s an interesting case. Why did you think that?
Because Lawrence, like James, though he has very different style, is concerned with desire and looks really deeply and psychologically into emotions and motivations as they’re mitigated by the power differentials.
That’s very true. I love Lawrence. When I was doing my PhD. general exams where we had to sit at a table with a professor who quizzed us on the history of literature from Beowulf to Salman Rushdie—a horrible experience. Actually it was fine. But during the preparation for it, one of the ways we kept ourselves sane was keeping a list of the hottest moments in English literature. And one of them is in Sons and Lovers and it’s when Paul has sex with an older woman in the bushes by the side of the road and they’re listening to people pass by. Which is hot enough. But the sexiest part of it is after the sex when he switches from calling her “you” to calling her “thou.” He goes into dialect. The whole temperature of their relationship changes. That’s one of the key moments in literature, given how such a small shift of addiction puts you in a different world. But I often feel that there’s a kind of confidence that Lawrence has in the experience of sex and the experience of desire. There’s a confidence about the rightness of desire and how desire becomes this source for transcendental meaning. And that’s just diametrically opposed to my experience which, you know, has always been an experience of desiring something I shouldn’t desire. And desire has always carried with it, for me…
Shame and guilt…
…shame and guilt! I was raised in Kentucky, first generation off the farm, so I don’t have to look far to see where that shame and guilt comes from. But even when you get past that part of it, the part about being raised in a deeply homophobic culture, I just feel deeply suspicious of the idea that the fact I desire something means that I have any kind of claim to it. Desire gives Lawrence access to this sort of self that is so incredibly authentic; it becomes mythic. Desire gives him access in a very affirmative way to this sort of universal assertion. For myself, desire gives me access, in this very complex and self-contradictory way, to the universal experience of ambivalence and doubt. In that way, I feel very different from him, but I love those books.
Poetry? Any plans for a book of poems or is it not where you’re at at the moment?
It’s not; I haven’t written a poem since I started writing prose. I went to Bulgaria in 2009 and the first couple of months I was there I finished this poetry manuscript that I had been working on for years. And it was after I finished it that I had this weird experience that I still don’t fully understand, of sort of hearing language that I knew would not work in the lines. And I started writing prose, not having any idea what I was doing. But it was clear to me when I finished the first piece of prose that it was better than any of the poems I’d written–that it, in a way, demolished the poems. And since then, really, everything has come to me in prose. It seems all the things I wanted to do in poetry [I was able] to do in prose. For a long time I felt really distant from poetry. And then, when I went to the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, in my first month in the town this totally bizarre thing happened which was I was set up with this poet, a Spanish poet named Luis Muñoz, who’s my boyfriend.
I didn’t know he’s a poet.
He is a poet and he’s actually a kind of fancy poet.
Fancy, meaning his style? Or fancy meaning a good publishing history?
He’s had a big career in Spain. And he’s really known in Spanish language poetry which I had no idea about it until I did that creepy Google-stalking thing and found all these articles about him. Iowa has one of three Spanish-language MFA programs in the United States. And Luis is the poetry professor in that program and he has this extraordinary unbelievable knowledge of the poetry of the Spanish tradition. I mean, he just quotes at impossible lengths the work of Federico Garcia Lorca. He introduced me to a whole sort of world of poetry that I had only the most glancing acquaintance with before knowing him, including poets who have become really deeply important to me. Being in a relationship with Luis is like having your hand on this live wire of poetry all the time.
I read your article on Spanish writer Pedro Lemebel and I haven’t read the one on A Little Life yet, because I want to finish reading the book first. But what about other projects that bring LGBT or LGBT-related voices forward? That seems to be an enterprise for you. Are you working on any other projects in this regard?
There are two things I sort of champion, and it’s great when they come together like they did in Lemebel, and they are gay literature and then literature in translation. I care deeply about those two things and I think American readers don’t care enough about them. So any chance I have to advocate for those writers is one I want to take. I don’t know if I have a sense of any large project. I always keep an eye out for any gay books that are coming out in hopes that they provoke me to write a piece in which I feel I can provide a kind of map for a body of work that seems significant to me and for readers who don’t even know the territory exists. That feels like a much more meaningful piece of writing for me than just a review.
I really feel that Lemebel is one of the greater writers of the 20th and early 21st centuries and that he is a heroic figure. His significance is absolutely recognized in the Spanish-speaking world. It’s not in the English-language world and I think that’s because even though his very great novel, My Tender Matador, is available in English, his real body of works were the crónicas he wrote over his entire working life and in which he really wrote about Santiago for Santiago. That’s very different from a writer like Pablo Neruda, who conceived of himself as a world writer. Neruda was interested in connecting not only with Latin American poetry but with European poetry and American Poetry. And he’s a great poet, in that way. But Lemebel is the opposite. With Lemebel you really feel like he’s writing for a coterie of his best friends. He’s writing for drag queens in Santiago. He doesn’t give a fuck if anyone else is going to read it. The last thing Lemebel wants is to be commodified in a way that allows him to be sold as Neruda was sold. And this gets back to the very first things we were talking about. Lemebel’s pieces about drag queens in Santiago are to me as great and as universal as literature gets.Those pieces need to exist in English and there needs to be some awareness among English readers about what a great writer he is. I’m going to Santiago for the first time, hopefully next month, and I would like that to be the beginning of some kind of larger project about Lemebel and his significance. Because to me his writing doesn’t get any greater.