Interviews StoryStudio Classes

Staring Into The Abyss

An Interview with Garth Greenwell about his book, "What Belongs to You."

Garth Greenwell’s debut novel, What Belongs to You, was released in 2016 to breathtaking praise across the literary world. Andrew Solomon of The Guardian called it “the best first novel I’ve read in a generation.” The book offers readers an unflinching look at queer desire. What Belongs to You explores the roots of its narrator’s grappling with shame and sexuality, and how the two often intermingle.

As Greenwell has described it, he spent twenty years writing in absolute obscurity before publishing his debut. After the book was released, and went on to receive accolades such as the British Book Award for Debut of the Year and longlisting for the National Book Award, among others, Greenwell used the opportunity to speak directly to the gay experience and to advocate for his fellow writers in interviews and literary criticism. While, in many ways, his work has transcended the invisible boundaries often placed around “LGBTQ literature,” Greenwell hasn’t shied away from proclaiming himself a queer writer writing in the queer literary tradition for queer people. It’s a testament to his rich, finely crafted sentences ––which hone in on universally human truths about sexuality and longing –– that his work has found readers across all demographics.

Greenwell will be in Chicago this October as the keynote speaker at the StoryStudio Chicago Writers Festival (Oct. 5-6, 2019). You can also catch him with Rebecca Makkai for A Conversation with Garth Greenwell at Harold Washington Library (Oct. 2) and teaching the StoryStudio Master Class called “What Sex Can Do” on Oct. 3. I spoke to him over the phone about this and his forthcoming second novel, Cleanness (FSG), due Jan. 14, 2020.

Todd Summar: You received a terrific response to What Belongs to You. How did you follow that up? Did it take you a while to dive back into writing?

Garth Greenwell: I was already about halfway through the new book when What Belongs to You came out. Having a book come out is part of being a writer, but it is also a distraction from what I think is the more important part of being a writer, which is being alone in your room and trying to put sentences on the page. It was really difficult to reclaim a sort of balance, in part because after 20 years of writing in complete obscurity, I suddenly felt like I had a kind of public life as a writer. I was not in any way prepared for the response to What Belongs to You. It was a surprise to everybody. So that was disorienting. And the bigger disorientation was just all of the travel that I ended up doing. On one hand, I was grateful to get to do that, and it was a lot of fun to meet readers in other places. But it also just meant I spent a lot of time away from my desk. I’m a writer who depends on routine to be productive and just finding weeks where I could establish that routine and get back to work was pretty hard. I think that’s one reason why it’s taken four years since What Belongs to You for the new book to come out.

TS: The middle section of What Belongs to You is so immediate and raw in many ways. I’ve read that you wrote this part on scraps of paper so it wouldn’t feel too permanent. Putting those feelings out into the world is a profound risk. Do you find yourself taking similar risks in the work that you’ve done since writing that book?

GG: Yeah, I do. I’m drawn to writing that goes to difficult places. I’m drawn to writing where it feels as though the writer is leaning into wherever the emotional heat is, which is often where risk is, and so that willingness to put things on the line is something necessary to me. I am inspired to write when I feel like I am staring into the abyss. It is very often the abyss of confronting something that is ethically fraught in a way that I can’t make sense of without the tools of fiction. I think that kind of writing is always risky. I feel like I’m writing well if I feel disturbed or worried or if I feel like the writing is leading me somewhere I might prefer not to go. That, to me, is a sign that a piece of writing is taking on its own life and that something other than my own will or predilection is at work in the composition of the piece.

TS: Do you feel like when that moment happens, it takes over and becomes alive in its own way?

GG: Some writers talk about it like they’re receiving some sort of dictation. Some writers talk about entering a kind of flow state where they’re not even aware of hours passing. That’s never my experience with writing. I’m always excruciatingly aware of the hours passing when I’m writing. But I do feel that way as a piece of writing takes shape, and as the form of it starts to exert a kind of pressure. With every choice that you make, there are fewer choices available to you. With every new word you write, you limit the possibilities of what word can follow. So, I feel like the deeper I get into a piece, the more my will is interacting with some other force, like the necessity of form, the exigency of form, let’s say.

Often when I’m writing, I try to tune myself into the energy of the particular sentence I’m writing and I try to allow that energy, which might be a particular rhythm or the desire for a certain kind of cadence, I try to let that energy influence or guide where I think the sentence is going. And again, one thing that to me is a sign of good writing is when the sentence takes me somewhere I didn’t know I was going. I was writing these sentences and I kept being surprised by them because they would begin in Sofia and end in Louisville, Kentucky, and that would not have been where I thought was going. I needed to write a book in order to understand why that was happening. 

TS: Since your first book was published, the world has changed, particularly with the Trump administration and its transgressions against queer and trans people, and other vulnerable groups. Has this shift informed your writing, the way you write, or the urgency of your writing? Do you think it’s changed the landscape of queer literature, in particular?

GG: I definitely think it has changed the landscape of American literature. And I think it has changed the landscape of America. I think all of us are struggling to accommodate this new sense of our country that we have and the new sense of urgency and fear that many of us have. It has affected me a lot as a reader and as a consumer of culture, actually. It’s affected me in some ways that I don’t like. I find that my tolerances for certain things in art have diminished. For instance, I used to be someone who could tolerate a lot of brutality in art. If I was watching a film that was very brutal in its representation of violence or of interaction between human beings — I used to have high tolerance for that, and I find that now I have much less. It’s not an aesthetic judgment, it’s just a kind of instinctive flinching away. I feel like the world has become so brutal that I simply don’t have the ability to withstand a kind of brutality in art that feels to me gratuitous.

It has affected my non-fiction writing. My fiction writing, I don’t feel like my commitments have fundamentally changed. I’ve always been interested in making books that center on queer people. I’ve always been interested in books that see the world as complexly as possible and that want to puncture comforting stories that we tell ourselves. I’m not a kind of artist that writes exactly into a present moment. To me, the ideal book is written with the totality of a writer’s life and consciousness, and so obviously the present is implicated in that.

The next book I’ll be working on is actually set in the early Nineties, and writing about that will be conditioned by my awareness of and engagement with the present. I’m not consciously altering how I write in response to a present moment. One thing I would like very much to do is to try to push back against an idea of what it means for art to be relevant that I think is dominant right now. I think art helps us live our lives, not because in some overt or expository way it addresses the condition of our lives. I think art is relevant to our lives because of the way that it conditions our tools of perception. 

TS: Growing up in the Eighties and Nineties, at least in my experience, many of the queer narratives culminated in tragic endings. Do you feel that we have moved away from that place as queer narratives have become a bit more mainstream? How important is it for us to continue to tell the tough stories alongside maybe more traditional happy stories?

GG: I have complicated feelings about that. I do hear sometimes readers say things like, “Queer writers need to write a certain kind of story.” That is something that I just absolutely reject. I think artists need to make the art that they need to make, and they need to be responsive to those sorts of urges and predilections that I think we don’t fully understand. Nobody gets to tell me the kind of story I should write or the kind of ending my story should have.

Now, that is separate from a larger argument about a culture and that is certainly true that until recently, if one surveyed the landscape of the kinds of stories that were told about queer people, they had one ending. And there were various reasons for that. But clearly that is not a desirable cultural state. In our current moment, we do have a variety of queer stories that are told and I think if I had to point to a mainstream, dominant queer narrative, I would probably point to something like “It gets better,” as opposed to “If you’re gay, you’re going to commit suicide,” which I think seventy years ago was the dominant narrative. There are dangers in any narrative becoming dominant and I think my predilection as a writer is to push against whatever narrative is dominant.

I think back to my own childhood, growing up in Kentucky before the Internet, very much at danger because of the cultural narratives I had about myself, which were basically that gay men could do two things: they could molest children and they could die of AIDS. Those were the cultural scripts that were available to me. So, that was a dangerous situation.

The thing that saved me from that was coming upon James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room, which gave me a sense of my life as accommodating a kind of dignity. Even if it was the dignity of tragedy, it was a kind of dignity, and that felt very affirming to me. Obviously, Giovanni’s Room is a book in which at the end of it everyone is dead or miserable. And they’re dead and miserable because of homosexuality. When I read Giovanni’s Room now, I think it is absolutely a homophobic book. There is no question, that is a book that forecloses the possibility of life for queer people, of love for queer people. That isn’t true of all of Baldwin’s later novels. Baldwin was on his own journey and when he wrote Giovanni’s Room, I think he could not imagine life for two gay men. How did I read this tragic gay novel and feel like even though homosexuality in Giovanni’s Room is only ever a closed door, it felt like the doors of my life sprang open? 

TS: You’ve rejected the notion that gay writers should worry about their books ending up in a gay ghetto, where their books might be relegated to a corner of the bookstore. The success of your book, for instance, speaks to the fact that we can bridge those categories. Why is it important for you to defiantly declare yourself a gay writer for gay readers?

GG: Because in some sense that’s just true. I want to write stories that are centered on queer lives and that are written into the community from which they come. Which does not mean I want to exclude other kinds of readers.

I believe that I am writing books for everybody. But what I don’t want to do is package the minority lives in a kind of value that will be immediately legible to the majority, because I think when we do that, we distort the value of minority lives. There are a lot of battles that I did not have to fight as a queer writer because earlier generations fought them, and I feel immensely grateful for that, and I see how different that is in other cultures, having spent four years in Bulgaria, having this book come out in Bulgaria. I see how different a landscape it is if those battles had not been fought. It seems to me it would be a betrayal of those battles if one did not just as adamantly as possible point out the absurdity of these arguments about a supposed gay ghetto, which one has to assume is where Henry James and Virginia Woolf and Proust and James Baldwin are all hanging out. If this is a ghetto, it’s a ghetto right at the heart of the literary cultural tradition, and obviously the only place anyone would ever want to be.

This is still a cultural script that queer writers are being given, and it’s the kind of thing where, if people say it and we don’t resist it, then it becomes true. It becomes reality because it’s asserted. So it does feel to me really important that we point out how absurd it is and point out the obvious fact that if a book like A Little Life can sell as many copies as it can, if Alexander Chee can sell as many copies as he can, if Carmen Machado can sell as many copies as she can, that this is just a ridiculous statement to say there’s not a mainstream audience for these books.

TS: Your master class at StoryStudio Chicago in October is called “What Sex Can Do.” What do you hope students will take away from that session? What are they learning about what sex can do in writing?

GG: In that seminar, I hope to do a few things. One of them is to disprove the notion that sex can’t be written well. That’s a notion that’s still very consummate, very prevalent in literary culture. That’s just the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard. It’s easily disproven by the passages we’re going to look at in that master class. I hope that students will come away with a sense of why, as someone for whom the sexual body is at the center of what I do, writing sex feels important to me as a kind of cultural intervention and why it feels important to me as a piece of literary craft. We’re going to look really intensely at several passages of sex writing and we’re going to talk about all of the narrative work that those passages are doing. All of the ways that writing sex can further characterization and further conflict and plot and further the engagement with a particular historical moment or cultural legacy. 

TS: What can you tell us about Cleanness, your new novel? 

GG: It’s in the same world as What Belongs to You, it’s the same narrator, set mostly in Bulgaria. And it relates to What Belongs to You not as a sequel or a prequel, but the books kind of intermingle. So chronologically, they occupy the same space. It was very clear to me early on that What Belongs to You was a very streamlined container, that it would only take in certain kinds of material. One of the reasons I was okay with that was that I knew there was this other book that other material could go into. I think the new book is more expansive than What Belongs to You. It goes more places. There are more people in it. There’s an element of What Belongs to You that I think is pretty claustrophobic. It’s really focused on the relationship between these two men. Most of it takes place indoors in small spaces, in bathrooms or the narrator’s apartment. And in this new book, there’s much more of the city, and a lot of the book deals with teaching and with engaging with young people. 

TS: I’m interested in the concept behind the title Cleanness. How does this one word encapsulate the themes of the book for you?

GG: I’m interested in, on one hand, a sort of metaphysical desire we have for purity that sometimes seems to call to the best in us. In some sense, the relationship that the narrator has with R. feels like it participates in that world. There’s a way in which that relationship, which is a very new kind of relationship for him, a kind of relationship he had never imagined for himself and maybe even thought he was incapable of, that that relationship seems to offer access to a sort of ideal realm that he hasn’t had before in his sexual life. I’m also interested in how that concept can be devastating and how, when we start to think of certain places, certain people, certain bodies and certain acts as unclean, then we are engaging in very toxic cultural narratives. What does it mean to say that a particular way that two bodies can interact with one another is unclean? I’ve talked about that part of us that longs for cleanness, that longs for a kind of purity. I think there’s also a part of us that longs for filth. I think that dichotomy, that contrary urge, is an animating force in my work. 

TS: You’ve talked about teaching poetry to high school students and emphasizing the need for them to slow down and read the poems more deliberately in order to “catch their frequency.” How would you say that would extend to your own work? Is catching the frequency of other forms of art a similar process?

GG: Yeah, it absolutely is. And I worry a lot that we are losing our tolerance as a culture for art that doesn’t immediately accommodate us or art that is not immediately functioning on our frequency. The idea that, to engage with a work of art one has to be changed, that the way one thinks has to be changed, the way one perceives has to be changed, that there’s a kind of giving over of oneself involved in engagement with a work of art, that’s really central to my life as an artist and as someone who cares about art. I want to encourage my students and challenge myself to cultivate a kind of suspension of judgment, to cultivate a kind of receptivity, to cultivate a kind of malleability of the self when encountering art that can allow us to recognize a work of art as something alien to ourselves and something potentially transformative of ourselves. I think that’s the ideal relation in which to stand to art. I also think it’s the ideal relation in which to stand to any other human being. 

I can never trust my first response to a work of art. I have to be with it long enough to feel like it has taught me how to perceive it. And I do worry that as a culture we are losing that sense of things. I don’t think you can have that experience if, while you’re staring at a Jackson Pollock in some museum, you’re also texting somebody about it or taking a picture to put it on Twitter or scrolling through your social media feeds. I worry that the sort of atomization of our attention and consciousness makes it more difficult to engage with others, with other works of art, with other people. 

TS: As you’re crafting your sentences, do you strive to make work that requires people to slow down to catch its frequency?

GG: I can only write with the presumption that the reader will be willing to do that. I know perfectly well that some people aren’t going to want to do that, and that’s fine. But I have to write with the hope that some people will. I do want my sentences to encourage a kind of difficult engagement with the world and I want my sentences to dramatize the struggle to perceive things ever more finely and more accurately and more truly. I think that a certain kind of patience and willingness to slow down is necessary. It’s the great gift of novels and of poems—to have the opportunity to slow down. There’s such pleasure and such sustenance in that kind of consciousness. I know from my own experience, when I have overindulged in social media and the kind of state of consciousness that produces, to turn off my phone and spend three hours reading a novel feels like being given some very necessary nutrient.

Don’t miss Garth Greenwell at The StoryStudio Writers Festival! Use the code GREENWELL for 10% off your Festival ticket. 

FICTION
What Belongs to You
By Garth Greenwell
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Published Jan. 19, 2016

Todd Summar writes fiction and essays, and serves as an editor for publishers and individuals. His work has appeared in Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet, Literary Hub, and PANK, among others. He is the founding editor of Goreyesque and has an MFA in Creative Writing from Columbia College Chicago. You can learn more about him on toddsummar.com.

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