‘Be a decent person’: Andrew Sean Greer

‘It’s not the Arc de Triomphe that’s important, but the people under the tree,’ says this Pulitzer winner

Updated - October 14, 2018 07:31 pm IST

Published - October 12, 2018 03:28 pm IST

More is less: ‘I’m coming from a funny position as a gay man’.

More is less: ‘I’m coming from a funny position as a gay man’.

The 2018 Pulitzer Prize for fiction was won by Andrew Sean Greer for his novel, Less, which is about a “minor novelist” Arthur Less, who accepts a series of literary invitations around the globe — a festival in Mexico, teaching in Germany, a retreat in India — just to avoid attending his ex-boyfriend’s wedding. In his youth, Arthur was the boyfriend of an older, “genius” Pulitzer-winning poet, Robert Brownburn. Then he spent nine years with Freddy Pelu, a man much younger than himself, only to be ditched before his 50th birthday. Less is a charming novel that hilariously exposes the humiliations and uncertainties of a writer’s life. It also offers a rare glimpse into the meditations of a middle-aged homosexual who has come of age during the AIDS epidemic, whose generation feels they are the first to explore the land beyond 50. It’s a particular stroke of genius that with Arthur Less, Andrew Sean Greer has created a character so endearing — bumbling naively through the world in his signature blue suit — that he manages to sway the judges of a most coveted literary prize in his favour. Greer says he was as surprised as anyone that his book won. “We expect 800 page epic tragedies to win. But charm, just charm? Impossible… It means Jane Austen could never win a prize.” Excerpts from a telephone interview:

What is the importance of humiliation in a writer’s life?

It keeps us from being arrogant. It keeps us in doubt, and doubt is where we question our ideas, reframe them, reinvent them. I think it’s part of the creative process.

I love how you described Arthur living with a “genius” — there’s always hierarchy in the writing life, don’t you think?

There is, and it’s absurd. Wonderful writers work in obscurity and others are plucked for fame for no reason. Chance is greatly at work. We should definitely not feel status towards one another — that’s something others have put on us. Because, in the end, we’re all toiling away in a dark room pulling our hair out. Let’s not get too cocky.

Arthur is criticised for being a “bad gay” because the gay characters in his novels suffer without reward. Could you talk a little about responsibility and representation in writing? Who gets to tell whose story etc.?

It begins with the writer’s first responsibility, which is to pay attention and tell the truth, and that means to create only real human beings and complex characters. I think the responsibility grows when writing about people from other cultures or races. You have to think a lot about what you’re doing. That doesn’t seem like a new idea to me. It’s surprising to me to hear writers say, I can write whatever I want to. I think, of course you can, but with great responsibility, as before…I’m baffled by white writers who bristle at the idea that they have to carefully consider representing other cultures. Aren’t they specifically considering everything? Language, imagery, history, plot? And they think they get a pass when it comes to people? Baffling! It doesn’t have to be divisive. Basically, be a good writer. Be a decent person. Yes, it’s hard, but it’s your job.

It seems like a really divided moment with regards to cultural appropriation and censorship, either by self or others…

I’ll say this. I’m coming from a funny position as a gay man. I feel that people like me have been left out of literature for so long that I’ve always been grateful when someone included a real gay character. My favourite love stories are André Aciman’s Call Me By Your Name and Annie Proulx’s Brokeback Mountain, neither of them gay men. And if they hadn’t been allowed to write that because they weren’t writing about themselves, we wouldn’t have had those stories.

So, for a group that’s mostly invisible, I would never want to stop people writing about us because then we wouldn’t exist again, because I remember a time when we didn’t. I want more writing about queer people, not less. And as complex as that might feel, it was worse when we didn’t exist at all.

One of the things you talk about in the novel is about ageing, and how because of the AIDS epidemic, Arthur doesn’t get to see many of his friends grow old…

In America it has been forgotten that a whole generation of men and women lived through that and watched our friends die, and it was awful to live through. It’s recently occurred to me that the second tragedy of it is that we don’t have role models, so we’re having to make it up. I certainly know many men in their 60s and 70s, but not a generation of them. There’s no set way to do it.

But then I realise, you broaden that, and it’s probably true for lots of people who don’t fit into the normal idea of how you travel through life — middle-aged women whose children have left, or if they didn’t have children, partners, and are figuring out how to be alone, so it’s this new phase of life where you have to find how to be a person again.

There’s a lot of travel in this book — I’m interested in how geography has affected you as a writer.

For me it turned on that sense of paying attention that a novelist needs. In your own place you tend to get immune to details, which is dangerous, and in travel you don’t have to go to famous monuments, you just have to be anywhere and everything is new and different. It’s not the Arc de Triomphe that’s important, but the people under the tree.

As a person, as an American, I realised how wrong I was about what’s normal, how people should interact, and how arbitrary the American assumptions are. It was really liberating.

What is the thing that surprises you most when you re-enter your own country?

How dependent we are on technology. In San Francisco people believe they can use their phone to solve any problem they have, but when I was travelling an app was not going to solve your problem. You have to find out where to go by talking to someone, and these personal interactions are fading away a little in the U.S. because we have this technological empire at our disposal. It’s pushing us away from each other. The obvious thing you’d think I’d say is that we have this ridiculous tyrant running our country, but that’s not apparent when you first come into the country. The first thing is the phones and computers and chords everywhere.

Philip Roth once described writing as a kind of craziness. When writers ask other writers about their habits, he said they were basically trying to figure out, is she as crazy as I am. Is the writing life a kind of craziness for you?

It is crazy. It feels like you’re in a relationship with yourself, where you’re always trying to experience new things but always returning and wrestling yourself to the ground. I think that’s why in the book when Arthur describes being with Robert, it’s sort of like Robert has another lover, whom he’ll never meet, but that’s Robert’s true love. And so it is selfish and self-centred and narcissistic.

Your novel features a really snazzy blue suit. I’m interested in what style mean to you...

I was in Italy when I won the Pulitzer and I was going to go straight to the ceremony in New York and had to figure out what to wear. I was with a writer, Terry Tempest Williams, and I was going to order something online, and I said to her, I think I should wear something really serious and Pulitzery, and she said, No, Andy, the most important thing you can do is to show a defiant expression of joy. Wear the red suit! She pointed to a red suit, and that’s what I bought and wore. I definitely had the brightest outfit at the Pulitzers, which made me very happy.

The interviewer’s latest book is Girls Are Coming Out Of The Woods.

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