Through Arthur Less, “an author too old to be fresh and too young to be rediscovered…”, the bumbling protagonist of his 2018 Pulitzer Prize for fiction-winning novel, Less (Abacus), Andrew Sean Greer, 48, deliberates on the writing life and what it means to be a middle-aged homosexual man in search of love and meaning. In this interview on the sidelines of the Zee Jaipur Literature Festival, Greer speaks on a writer’s relationship with anxiety, the wisdom in comic novels, and what language means to him. Excerpts:
The most obvious question to begin with, perhaps, is, ‘What does one ever ask an author except how?’
I have no idea. I looked over the first pages of this book a few weeks ago — pages from 2014 — and I could not make head or tail of them. Not the same character, not even the same name, tone or plot, but, some of the same sentences! Isn’t that odd? Somehow, I was working on the same themes of loss, love, death and time, but in an unhumorous way. I thought I had thrown away the whole novel to write Less — but I had not. Instead, I cannibalised it for its best sentences and built a whole new house from them. And I don’t remember doing that at all.
What is the role of doubt in a writer’s life?
I think writing without doubt means writing completely from arrogance — a book that is all ego. We have seen a lot of these books over the years, often written by men who look a lot like me: middle-aged white men. They are certainly impressive, but they lack empathy and emotion. Doubt is what makes the writer revise, rethink, reconsider. My anxiety about how I could possibly portray people from other countries and cultures led me to work very carefully on characters other than Arthur Less. I hope I gave people dignity.
And a writer’s relationship with vanity?
Mixed. Middle age is a time for many men and women where the urge to be desired has to be confronted. In a way, we are absolved from participating in that awful contest anymore. But its replacement — respect — takes a long time coming. So the time in-between is uncomfortable, which is why, I think, we see so many middle-age novels. Like adolescence, it is a time of loss, but also a time of becoming.
The great American novel is mostly serious — a white, male author deliberating on the woes of the world. You do a lot of the same in Less, except that you write with joy and humour, something that you tweeted was one of the hardest things to do. Did you deliberately set out to subvert the tropes when you began work on the novel?
A terrible admission: it was supposed to be a deeply serious novel. But I just couldn’t do it. I was sick of those giant white male tomes, and here I was about to write one! So, one day, while swimming in the San Francisco Bay, it struck me that the way out was to ridicule the form, and the writer as well. A careful reader will pick up references to all kinds of novels throughout the book, but it isn’t necessary to find them to enjoy it (I hope).
Why do you think comic novels have become unfashionable?
I think they have always been fashionable; they have merely been deemed, recently, undeserving. I have no idea why. Almost any great writer you know will name her favourites and say Toni Morrison, Doris Lessing, Leo Tolstoy…and PG Wodehouse. Or, some other comic writer — Muriel Spark, for instance. But that last part hardly ever gets reported. It’s an open secret that people’s favourite books, the ones they return to, are often thoughtful comic novels. Certainly Cervantes led the way, and Voltaire, and (Laurence) Sterne, and so on. It’s a long, glorious tradition. As for why it’s treated as a vice, well, perhaps, I’ll blame the Modernists. But I’m happy to be someone’s vice.
Has your life changed very much since winning the Pulitzer?
Utterly, completely and also not at all. An entire world has been opened up to me (look at me, here in Jaipur!) but also it’s allowed me the freedom to sit in my home and write, which is what I have been doing steadily for 25 years. What is astounding, and my favourite part, is meeting audiences of young people who have read and loved my book. That has never happened to me before. I am stunned.
What does age mean to you? You write in Less that there is not much of a generation ahead to show what this phase of life could be about.
The saddest thing I ever lived through was the AIDS crisis in the ’80s and ’90s, watching friends from high school and college die, knowing I could be next. Tens of thousands of men in the US, millions around the world — a whole generation lost. I thought I had survived, only to realise recently that not only did I lose those men, but I lost the only role models possible to show me how to get old. They were the first visible gay men and they died before our eyes. So now we have to invent how to go forward.
That brings me to the question of representation in writing. Arthur is criticised for being a ‘bad gay’. Who gets to decide these parameters and who gets to tell the story?
That is an ongoing conversation in the writing world. It is, of course, ridiculous to call someone a ‘bad gay’ (something that I invented, though it goes through my head) as much as a ‘bad Indian’ or a ‘bad feminist’ (title of Roxane Gay’s book). As writers, we are called to represent our communities, tell their stories, but, also, to speak honestly, which often goes against the story the community has about itself. That sets up a conflict. But our job is always to ourselves and to readers. I do think writers have to think carefully about characterisation of those unlike themselves. And, if you feel you can’t do it, then don’t do it.
What is the hardest part of writing?
Sitting in a chair every day and thinking ‘Well, maybe it’s over and I’ll never write a good sentence again.’ And doing it anyway.
Your sentences are so exquisitely crafted, it makes me wonder about your relationship with language. What does it mean to you?
Oh, what a wonderful question! I spend a long time on sentences, on their rhythm and sound. In previous books, it was for beauty and nuance, and, in this novel, it helped to create the comedy. The wordplay was great fun for me. But I do think it’s funny nobody every asks writers about words — we are asked about themes and politics and characters — when, of course, what we care most about are words. That’s what we talk about with each other. But (I suppose) it’s as boring to read about as a carpenter talking about nails.
What sort of a reader are you?
I’m a ‘bad’ reader. I read entirely selfishly. I read old books, I read books, I linger on one book for months or finish it on a plane. But I’m terribly ill-read. Luckily, I’m not trying to impress anybody: I read only for the book I’m writing now, which means I study everything very carefully to see how it’s done. If I find nothing to learn from a book, I drop it even if I’m having a good time. I’m so desperate for inspiration.
There’s a lot of travel in your book; you divide your time between two continents — San Francisco in the US and Donnini, Italy, in Europe. What does travel mean to you and how does it affect your writing?
It’s hard to travel and write; I can only write if I’m stationary for a long time. But travel also fills up the senses, fills me with stories, and forces me out of my comfort, which forces me to pay attention. You can’t just live in a closed room. You have to see the world, even the world outside your room, if you’re going to tell stories from it.
I am curious to know if you are interested in fashion. Do you, like Arthur, travel with a suitcase full of clothes, ready for most occasions?
Ha ha ha ha, oh my gosh, if you saw my suitcase here! I came packed for New York, Chennai, Kolkata, Jaipur, Paris and London. I have a gigantic down coat and linen shirts. It’s ridiculous. I also have galoshes in case it rains. But since, for me, fashion is about transformation and feeling new, it’s so tedious to have the same clothes on book tour endlessly. So I have shopped in India, of course. How could I not?