Exclusive: Andrew Sean Greer on His Literary Thriller
Andrew Sean Greer — whose The Story Of A Marriage is like Edith Wharton meets Melrose Place when it was at its peak — was sitting in Central Park outside of the Met stalking a squirrel with a giant peanut and a big blond mustache when we caught up with him. He’s reading with Amanda Eyre Ward tonight in Williamsburg as part of the Pete’s Reading Series. “Amanda and I were best friends in grad school in Montana,” he explains. “For both of us, it was life changing. We didn’t have any writer friends, and suddenly we were in this strange world in the mountains, where all anyone did was talk about writing and reading. We’ve read each other’s stuff and encouraged one another from the start.” After the jump Greer chats with us about mastering the art of the plot twist, obsessing over generations past, and dealing with the fact that we never really know the ones we love.
Flavorpill: You read a snippet of this at the launch party for The Rumpus. I remember that night you were talking about Prop 8, and you were enjoying the oddness of now having to refer to your husband as your ex.
Andrew Sean Greer: Right. I was like, “Oh, I see you’ve invited my ex husband.”
FP: It seems to me like this book is a great way to get mainstream audiences thinking about gay relationships…
ASG: I mean, I have to tell you I hadn’t thought about it in exactly that way when I started writing the book. Oddly the way I wanted to approach it, if I was going to write about a gay subject, was to approach it with no political project at all. It’s so difficult for me to try and not project my own ideas. To have characters and devote myself to them. To focus on what Pearlie’s version of it would be, and try not to have any meaning or purpose outside of that. I thought, if I write it that way, they won’t be able to categorize it as anything except for my book. Which I think it what any writer would want. It seems to have worked. I think if you ever try to focus on some message it will always go awry.
FP: The reader goes through several revelations that force us to confront our own assumptions. Is that element of surprise something you enjoy as a reader?
ASG: I do. I think it’s one of the things I like in a book or a film, as long as it’s done honestly. I’ve been in Europe, and when they talk about this book they are shocked by it because it’s a literary novel that — which isn’t so strange in America — is written to keep your attention and be a page turner, in a kind of genre fiction way, I guess to them. It’s a thriller, they tell me. No one would call it a thriller here. A thriller is a different thing entirely. But I took it as a great compliment. It took it to mean it was focused on storytelling and not on other kinds of artifice. I don’t know. They couldn’t put it down.
FP: Was it hard to keep things ambiguous enough where there were those moments of surprise?
ASG: I mean that was the hardest part. For me, the hardest part of writing any book is never what people think. Like coming up with the idea? Everyone has an idea! It’s the storytelling, and it was a real struggle for me not to pin everything down very neatly. It was sort of terrifying. Surprisingly, I had these storylines about conscientious objector camps, but I didn’t know which character it was attached to. It was just a free floating narrative. What took me so long was figuring out how everything connected and how to tell it so that the reader would have some respite. Once in a while. And then, just when they were feeling comfortable, or ready to go to sleep, I’d change it to keep them interested.
FP: It was originally written as a short story. What convinced you it was meaty enough for a novel?
ASG: I think it’s because it was a terrible short story. And yet, I thought it was the best thing I’d ever written. I’m like, “This is good stuff in here!” but it was all wrong. The tone was wrong. How the story ended was totally wrong. I felt I wasn’t communicating clearly enough how much the time period had to do with the story I was telling. That in a way it’s not universal. It has to do with the limits some people’s lives at a certain moment in history. In my mind. I’m not sure that any book group would be interested in that. I knew it could open up into talking about America, the war, race. It could balloon out into all these topics, and then I had to get it back down under 200 pages.
FP: What it is about you that makes you obsessed with writing about different time periods?
ASG: I’m not a big history buff at all. I’m not a good researcher. I’m terrified I’m going to get things wrong because in a way I don’t care. Somehow I am interested in whether people were the same back then. You know what I mean? It really intrigues me whether they were the same people in different circumstances or different people than us. If we were there, would we feel uncomfortable not because of our surrounding, but because of the kinds of people they were? I mean, the ’50s isn’t that different, but the book I’m working on now is set in 1918. It fascinating to think about the fact that they’re having Civil War reunions. That’s their most recent war. That’s shocking to me.
FP: In the end, do you think the character of Holland dies happy?
ASG: That’s a good question. Yeah, I do. I think so. I’m not sure what happiness would have really meant for him. But I think in his mind he chose happiness. And was happy and satisfied and comforted. For him, as a character.
FP: Is she the Grace to his Will?
ASG: Honestly, I think they had a real, romantic marriage. I think that he was a strange enough character — and this is someting I had to come to terms with, because I thought, oh I have decide what he is — I found it really funny I was nominated for a prize for bisexual fiction. I just thought, well I’m not bisexual. I don’t think I would call Holland that particularly. I thought of him mosty as a guy who was — on the best of terms, wide open to anything — and on the worst, so narcisstic that he just wanted to be adored and it really didn’t matter who it was. It could be anybody who would reflect back on him. And finally, he sort of became a person. He looked around and realized that the only one who could really be a partner in his life was Pearlie. That makes him sound kind of bad, but I think he loved her in a real way.
FP: The idea that “we think we know the ones we love” opens the book. Is that a scary thing to you, or are you OK with it?
ASG: Well, it’s Pearlie’s idea, is my first line of defense. I’m not sure that I feel that strongly about accepting the ambiguity. Although every once and a while… I’m 38. I’m at a point in my life where people around me — their lives are changing again. Your life feels solidified at 30 or something. You’re like, that’s it, I’ve got my act together. I know who I am. And then I’ve watched people around me divorce, move, change jobs — it’s interesting. I think for a lot people it might be upsetting, but for me it’s interesting. I realize that there’s more to people, and we all sort of play roles for a while and then they break open. I mean, certainly, I’ve been with the same guy for 13 years. And he’s about as consistent a person as you would want. And yet, what you wouldn’t want is to be married to someone who never changed ever. I think I’m OK with it. [laughs] I think it’s a good thing. That’s the pleasant surprise of life. Not a tragedy. If you know them off the bat, there’s not much left to do.
FP: The end of the book nods at The Age of Innocence. Are you a big Wharton fan? ASG: I’m a big fan. It’s because I think her fiction is so beautifully written. It’s of high literary quality, but it’s all plot. We look back on books from that time period and it’s like, oh, it’s just Middlemarchian. People sitting around looking at objects and talking about art and things. And it’s not at all. Middlemarch is all plot. Age of Innocence is one beautiful thing after another. And that final scene is so modern somehow. Unsentimental and devastating.