Suspend Your Disbelief

Breath and Voice: An Interview with Garth Greenwell

"I wanted to be true to the narrator’s feelings—his sense of anger and need—and I wanted to avoid the temptation to resolve those feelings."

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Breath and Voice: An Interview with Garth Greenwell

"So little of the book was clear to me when I began writing": Garth Greenwell discusses What Belongs to You, his debut novel from Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux, with Mary Stewart Atwell.

It’s not every day you realize that one of your favorite people in the world is also your favorite new novelist. I had been an admirer of Garth Greenwell’s creativity as long as I had known him (um, let’s say a long time), but it wasn’t until I read his debut novel, What Belongs to You (Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux), that I understood the depth of his talent. What Belongs to You follows an unnamed American protagonist who has taken a job teaching in Bulgaria, and centers on his relationship with a young local man, Mitko, first encountered in a basement bathroom at the National Palace of Culture. Over the course of the novel, the connection between the two men appears at times purely transactional, at other moments threatening, at others startlingly tender. Along the way, the protagonist meditates on the death of his estranged father, on sexuality, and on the possibility of intimacy across class in heartbreakingly beautiful prose.

I know I’m not the only writer to feel that my happiness for successful friends is occasionally, shamefully adulterated by moments of envy. (Why don’t I have that fellowship/advance/number of Twitter followers?) It’s an ugly habit, and one that I was happy to find myself suddenly released from when I read Garth’s novel. He’s that wonderful, and the novel is that good. Read it, and experience the pleasure of being in the presence of an artist born to the work.


Mary Stewart Atwell: When we first met, in 1994, you were studying to be an opera singer at the Interlochen Arts Academy. When we reconnected in graduate school, in 2000, you were getting an MFA in poetry from Washington University in St. Louis. The next time I saw you, in 2011, you had just published your novella, Mitko, and were a few years away from beginning an MFA in fiction at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. In between, you received an MA in English literature from Harvard and taught high school for several years, in both Michigan and in Bulgaria. I include this chronology not to make you sound scattered—you’re certainly not—but to underline the point that I’ve always been in awe of the breadth of your talents and interests. Can you talk a bit about how you came to consider yourself a fiction writer, and how your work in other art forms has influenced how you write fiction?

Garth Greenwell: Oh, I worry sometimes that “scattered” might not be all that inaccurate a description. For whatever reason, it does seem as though as soon as I sense any kind of trajectory to my life, I have a need to make a break. Maybe it’s a deeply American thing, to be addicted to beginnings. But what I’ve always loved about being a writer—and writing has been the one constant in my life, really—is that nothing is irrelevant, everything is fuel. When I left music school [at the Eastman School of Music], I decided that I wouldn’t sing again in public, and I haven’t—but it’s very clear to me that studying to be a singer (though I didn’t know it then) was also a kind of writerly training. I know that my attraction to a certain kind of syntax, my love for the elastic potential of English sentences, has as much to do with those years I spent singing extended, bel canto lines as it does to the study of literature. And the weird athleticism of operatic singing, which engages the whole body—there was a teacher at Interlochen who always sang barefoot, so that she could grip the stage with her toes—gave me a powerful experience of the physicality of words and phrases. The great Bulgarian soprano Ghena Dimitrova said in an interview once that she imagined the breath as a fountain of water, and the voice as a ball riding on top of it. A similar sense of breath and voice is central to how I feel sentences.

I studied poetry in college and graduate school, as both a writer and a scholar, and I was surprised when I started writing prose several months after I moved to Bulgaria. It didn’t really feel like a decision; I simply started hearing sentences that weren’t broken into lines. But even before then, my poems had started becoming more narrative. Again, I don’t really know why—but my suspicion is that it had to do with teaching high school. Before I left graduate school, I had spent years having my most powerful relationships—this is an exaggeration, but not by all that much—with books and my own thinking about books. When I moved to Ann Arbor and started teaching, I found myself thrust into proximity with the lives of the seventy adolescents I saw every day. I cared for them more than I could have anticipated–I fell in love with them, really, which means I fell in love with their stories. In an important sense, high school teaching is an occupation of long looking, and I was fascinated both by how much I saw and by how much was concealed from me. It was a wonderful education for a novelist.

9780374288228I want to quote the first line of your debut novel, What Belongs to You: “That my first encounter with Mitko B. ended in a betrayal, even a minor one, should have given me greater warning at the time, which should in turn have made my desire for him less, if not done away with it completely.” Looking back at the book, I’m struck by how those two themes that shape so much of the main character’s experience are laid out in that very first sentence. Did you always know that this was going to be a story of desire and betrayal, and how desire can constitute a kind of betrayal?

So little of the book was clear to me when I began writing. Mitko, the first section of the novel, was the first piece of fiction I had written, and while I had a general sense of the story, I really felt like I was writing in the dark, feeling my way forward with each sentence. Certainly I didn’t have any idea that after that first narrative arc the book would continue with two more parts.

So I can’t say that any particular thematic was central to the conception of the book. But I guess I do think betrayal is central to my understanding of desire, as maybe is inevitable for anyone who grew up gay in the south in the 80s and early 90s. When your first sense of desire is that it’s something to be guarded against and hidden, then of course it always has the potential to betray you.

But I don’t think this is an experience of desire specific to queer people. I think desire nearly always requires lowering our usual defenses, that in moments where we give way to desire we reveal aspects of ourselves we usually guard—and so it makes us especially vulnerable to betrayal. And desire is so often a disruptive force, something that’s always threatening to betray the plans we lay for ourselves and our lives.

When I first read the book, I mentioned to you that I kept thinking about Henry James. I was thinking about a section where the narrator walks through the city of Sofia, remembering a chain of events that determined the course of his relationship with his father—it reminded me of a famous scene in Portrait of a Lady when Isabel Archer sits in front of the fire, reviewing the events of her life in what seems to be real time. Transcribing that first sentence, however, I can’t help noticing how Jamesian the prose style is, and how each succeeding clause seems to revise, and even threaten to reverse, the one that came before. What does James mean to you as a writer, as a gay man, and as an American who has spent a significant amount of his life in Europe?

I think James is the great example of the privilege various kinds of otherness and exclusion afford: he’s the great writer of observation, of standing to the side of life and seeing what the players on the stage are likely to miss. He’s also a great writer of the melancholy of that position. I love his sentences, the fastidiousness of judgment he encodes in syntax, the self-correcting—almost, as you say, self-erasing—movement of his thought. It’s a kind of syntax one also finds in the great 17th-century English prose writers I fell in love with in college. And James is crucial to many of the modern and contemporary poets who have been important to me, from Eliot and Stevens to Carl Phillips and Jorie Graham.

I think James is also the patron saint of the 20th-century prose writers who are something like a holy trinity of stylists for me: W.G. Sebald and Javier Marias, in whom the influence is clear and acknowledged, and Thomas Bernhard, who pushes Jamesian fastidiousness to the point where its apparent order becomes chaos.

The narrator’s painful relationship with his emotionally abusive father occupies the center of the novel, and that pairing serves as a counterpoint to the affair with Mitko that begins and ends the book. Not to be simplistic, but one could even say that the narrator’s futile attempts to help Mitko are in some sense an effort to reconcile with the father he refuses to visit at the end of his life. I’m reading Edward St. Aubyn’s Melrose novels right now, and I’ve been thinking about how hard it is to represent a relationship with an abusive parent in an emotionally honest way. How did you strike that balance, making us feel the horror of the narrator’s experience without verging into sentimentality?

9781450762144I wrote a draft of that middle section very quickly, then put it away for more than a year. When I could finally look at it, I worked on it for two more years, re-writing it several times from scratch. I wanted to be true to the narrator’s feelings—his sense of anger and need—and I wanted to avoid the temptation to resolve those feelings. It was a struggle to assert any kind of control over the material.

I think the narrator’s relationship with his father sets what will be his basic assumptions about love; it draws a kind of horizon of possibility for him, and so determines to some extent his relationship with Mitko. Certainly I think it sets the shape of the absence the narrator tries to fill in various ways in the book.

Even though the novel is so internal and so deep in the narrator’s consciousness and experience, I felt very strongly as I revised that both the father and Mitko need to be available to the reader as something more than occasions for the narrator’s thoughts or feelings, that they need to be apprehensible as objects of interest and empathy in their own right. The extent to which the book achieves that is one measure of its failure or success.

Class, and the privileges of comfort that class affords, is the ever-present subtext in the narrator’s relationship with Mitko. The narrator regrets living “a life of inhibition and missed chances,” though he also acknowledges that it is “a bearable life, a life that to some extent I had chosen and continued to choose.” The narrator sometimes offers Mitko help over and above what is required by their transactions, and I wondered whether he was motivated partly by a tendency to romanticize the poverty and danger that Mitko lives in. Was there ever a chance for the narrator and Mitko to have an honest, genuine friendship, or do the class differences between them preclude that possibility?

I think the narrator feels genuine concern and grief for Mitko, especially in the third section of the book, and that he genuinely wants to help him; I also think those feelings are mixed with other, less admirable motives. I’m not sure that the narrator romanticizes Mitko’s poverty; what he certainly does romanticize, though, is the idea of the help he can offer; he lets himself have, at times, a romanticized sense of himself as a potential savior. Another character calls him out on this toward the end of the novel, and I think he comes to see, at least in a limited way, how this idea has inflected his relationship with Mitko.

The question of class and how it mediates and complicates relationships is deep and intractable. And not just class, but also other kinds of privilege—the accident of national identity, say, or of health. There’s no question that the whole relationship between these men is colored by the first exchange between them, when the narrator gives Mitko twenty leva for sex. Money, class, privilege, citizenship—their relationship is qualified by all of these things. But I don’t think it’s fully determined or exhausted by them.

The cover of Mitko, when it was published separately as a novella, featured a Muybridge photograph of two wrestlers. When you look at the series of images as a whole, there’s no ambiguity about what’s happening: one wrestler is throwing another. But looked at individually, removed from that context, the image seems to me remarkably lyrical and multivalent, full of possibility. I think something similar is true of the relationship between Mitko and the narrator. Step back, and the arc of it seems clear, determined by the conditions of their lives and the circumstances of their meeting. But as a writer I’m interested in exploring the moments, however brief, where the feelings between them exceed those circumstances, where other possibilities seem available to them.

Garth Greenwell

Garth Greenwell

When we met as high school students in the mid-nineties, you were the first openly gay person I had known. In the time I’ve known you, you’ve always been open about your sexuality, and the novel’s frankness about sex is one of its pleasures—it seems to me that you write with a freedom that is unusual among novelists in general, gay or straight. At the same time, the narrator seems to feel that his sexuality has set him somehow apart—that he’s forever an outsider, an observer, and that that set-apart status is both a privilege and a curse. How did you negotiate what might seem like a contradiction in your treatment of sexuality? Is the narrator’s feeling of apartness an effect of living in a homophobic culture, or is it simply who he is?

I don’t think that last question has an answer. I do think queer people are taught to assume certain things about themselves, and it’s very hard for me to imagine anyone successfully insulating themselves from those lessons. I think all of us struggle to free ourselves from them. That said, Augustine in the Confessions offers the most compelling account I know of desire and the shame of desire, one that’s immediately recognizable to me as a gay man in the 21st century. So what’s culturally specific and what’s a kind of trans-historical sensibility or psychological type? I wouldn’t know how to begin to answer the question.

I see what you’re saying here, and it’s very clear that the narrator is a fully developed and complex individual, not, as you say, simply a psychological type. At the same time, I was struck by the moment in the third section of the book where, as the narrator waits for the results of an STD test, it occurs to him that “I wanted the world to have a meaning, and…the meaning I wanted it to have was chastisement.” Six months after the Supreme Court struck down the remaining bans on same-sex marriage, it’s painful to think of this narrator anticipating censure and disapproval simply because of who he is. Is this reality changing as attitudes change?

I think the sources of the narrator’s desire for chastisement are complex, everywhere inflected by sexuality but maybe not reducible to it. That said, I certainly hope that changing attitudes toward queer people in the United States will ease some of the shame that has been such a large part of the queer experience for so many people. The continuing discrimination and violence queer people face, and the heartbreakingly high suicide rates among young queer people, suggest that this isn’t happening very quickly, even in the United States. And of course it’s worth remembering that much of the world remains much further away from acknowledging the legitimacy, much less the equal value, of queer lives.

Your novella Mitko, published in 2011 by the Miami University Press Fiction Series, was revised into the first part of What Belongs to You. Were there particular strategies that you used when shaping a self-contained piece of fiction into part of a novel?

It really wasn’t until I was well into the third part of the book that I realized I was writing a novel, whatever that means, and I felt some anxiety about the relationship of the parts—especially the second part, which is a digression from the book’s primary narrative. Two things helped. The first was reading Damon Galgut’s novel In a Strange Room, which shows remarkable confidence in the power of juxtaposition and tacit connection between apparently discontinuous parts. The other was Lan Samantha Chang’s novel workshop, the first class I took at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Sam is a brilliant thinker about structure, and the student work we talked about each week was freakishly strong. I left the class with greater confidence in my own intuition that the book’s three parts made a coherent whole.

You’re engaged with European and world literature in a way that most American writers, to their detriment, are not. Who are some overlooked authors who deserve more attention in the States?

9781940953090It seems to me that innovation in English literature has always been provoked by encounters with literature in other languages: Chaucer reading Petrarch, Coleridge reading German philosophers, Pound reading the troubadours. And so I do think it’s worrisome that so many American writers seem less interested than they should be in other literary traditions, and that literature in translation is so underemphasized in many MFA programs. And not just literature in translation: I think it’s important to encounter other literary traditions in the original languages, too, to have a sense of different prosodies, different patterns of syntax.

As for overlooked writers: there are so many, and so many that I’ve overlooked myself. I’ve written a bit about Georgi Gospodinov, whose new book The Physics of Sorrow has found a level of international success almost unprecedented for a Bulgarian writer. Two other Bulgarians who deserve to be much more widely read are Teodora Dimova, whose novel The Mothers is fierce and more than a little terrifying (there isn’t an English-language edition yet, but a translated excerpt is available online), and Angel Wagenstein, whose work I’m only discovering now. Wagenstein is well known in much of Europe, and it’s time for him to be recognized in the English-language world. His masterpiece, Isaac’s Torah, is available in English, translated brilliantly by Elizabeth Frank.

Finally, a writer who’s not European: I think it’s a tragedy that the great Chilean writer Pedro Lemebel, who died a year ago, is not better known in the States. He worked mostly in short forms, crónicas that mix fiction and nonfiction in a way that maybe is uncomfortable for Anglo readers. Only his single, very great novel, My Tender Matador, is available in book form in English. I’ve written about my admiration of Lemebel, who I think is a world treasure, a genuinely heroic figure and one of the most brilliant stylists I’ve ever encountered. Everyone should read him.

What translations are in the works? Will there be a Bulgarian translation? Do you have any input in that process?

There will be a Bulgarian translation, and I’m thrilled that the brilliant translator Nadezhda Radulova has agreed to take the book on. She has translated a couple of my poems, and her process involves numerous, meticulous questions—so I’m looking forward to working with her as closely as she feels will be helpful. It’s a privilege to have her translate my book.

What are you working on now?

I’ve had a hard time getting real traction on a new project since finishing the novel. I’m working on a book of short stories, also set in Bulgaria, that I hope I’ll finish in the next couple of years. And I’ve also started working on something else, which is still very unformed and uncertain. After several months of travel, I’m excited to get back to my desk and see what comes of it.

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