Staff writer Gracie Newman interviewed Andrew Sean Greer, who is the author of “Less” (the 2018 winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction) and numerous other novels and short stories. “Less” is a comedic romance that follows a middle-aged writer as he travels the world in an attempt to avoid attending the wedding of the young man with whom he is in love. With what The New York Times describes as “sentences of arresting lyricism and beauty,” the book explores the intricacies and intersections of love, vocation and exploration with admirable — and necessary — optimism. Greer resides in San Francisco with his husband and his pug.
Gracie Newman (GN): The thing that I most loved about “Less” was its sense of buoyancy — a joie de vivre even when things weren’t going well — that is rare today in capital-L literature. Why do you think that including the possibility of joy is important?
Andrew Sean Greer (ASG): I’ll give two answers that are contradictory. People write me and say thank you for writing a book that’s so full of joy and love of life, and I sure have no control over that. If I could put that in every book, I would, because those are my favorite books. They’re not even the most important books, but I read them, and I feel great about the world somehow. I like those books, and I’m glad that I’ve somehow written one, but I wouldn’t know how to do it again. I can only think that because I made it a comedy and because I was making fun of [“Less”]. A rule I had was to only make fun of him, and so that meant usually enjoying all the places he’s going to with intricate details and variety.
But that said, I will now contradict myself: I had a student who’s also an author, who was a great thinker and would challenge me in class, which I loved. We would sit and drink late at night in Iowa and argue about literature, and I said that there are no rules — you can write about anything. And he said no, you can’t write about joy, because joy has nowhere to go. You can’t start there, because then it goes nowhere, and you can’t end there, because you can’t have a book that’s miserable and then has joy at the end, because that’s phony. And I was like no, you can write about this — you just have to figure out how.
Every choice I made in this book was what seemed like the most fun way to go, for metaphors or characters or places. I did it for me, for fun, hoping that it would show in the book.
GN: Sort of in the same vein, “Less” has been lauded for its comedic nature. Humor is such a powerful social tool, but I think a lot of the humor we use today is really biting and satirical. The humor in your book was a more optimistic breed of comedy. It seems that it would be really easy to devolve into mockery and irony, but you don’t take that particular comedic route. Was this a conscious choice, or did it just organically come out of a more optimistic breed of comedy?
ASG: Well, I wonder if I would have written it like that right now. I wrote the book before 2016, even though it came out after. I did think, like, oh my god, I don’t know if this is the right book, except then I decided it was because I’d already decided it was about an American being wrong about everything and accepting that he’s wrong and just taking it, blow after blow. Not just humiliation but humility, so eventually you’re like, he’s suffered enough, which is why you can accept a happy ending for him.
I’m not good at satirical, I’m too tempted to make a straw man. In my next book I’m going to have to portray some right-wing American characters, and as much as I don’t want to, the only way to make it funny for me is if I actually think of them as humans — which they are — making decisions that seems emotionally valid to them and which they think make them good people. Which is not helpful to me now politically but will be funnier, oddly. I think these are really easy targets, who have been made fun of thoroughly — that’s been really well taken care of. I’m not good at that, so I have to do something else.
I’ve written plenty of very tragic, sad things. Over the years, I’ve gotten closer and closer to a happy ending or to an optimistic view in some way. I realized that it was too phony when I wrote what I felt was supposed to be a literary view, which was despairing. The only way it ever rang true was when I would write that way. But that’s the thing about being a writer — there’s a way you love to write, which is super cool, and a lot of people are able to do that. I just cannot. You just have to admit what you’re good at and go fully in that direction, even if it’s just devastatingly uncool, which is definitely what I am.
GN: On that note, I was reading an interview that you did with PBS, and you mentioned some advice about pitching with your left hand that William Kitredge gave you. Could you maybe talk a little bit about that, how your approach to writing has changed as you’ve aged?
ASG: I was writing clever, Vonneguty science fiction stuff that was emotional, and I really still admire that. Or I would try experimental ways of telling a story because I came out of semiotics and French literary criticism, and I wanted to undo the reader-writer expectation. I wrote a straightforward emotional story about a gay man and a lesbian who get married in the 60’s as cover for each other and have a long, long marriage. And people in my class cried at the end of it, and I was trying to fake them out, being like “I can write a real story, wanna see?” and [Kitredge] said, “I’m sorry to tell you that’s what you’re good at!” I wasn’t happy about it. I wanted to be Vonnegut, and I had to be this sappy writer instead. But I took his advice.
I really wanted to be clever. I still want to be clever! In [“Less”], I got to be clever in a way that I never allowed myself to be, with so many puns. Because it’s a comedy, I got to do it. When I found Nabokov, I found a way to be clever without being snide. I think once you continue to read, you happen upon writers for whom the joy of their cleverness comes out, but with empathy as well. Again, that’s why I love Vonnegut and Graham Greene. Of all his very serious books about politics and spies, there is one called “Travels with My Aunt.” It’s the silliest book in the world, and I think it’s his best one. It’s unpretentiously fun. He just let down his guard, and it feels more emotionally true than the others. Read it — it feels full of life. He’s next to me on the bookshelf — that’s also why I’ve read a lot of him.
GN: You mentioned that you’re writing about right-wing characters. I’ve found that how we as a society approach people in real life and in fiction often differs significantly. The New York Times published that really empathetic profile of a Nazi last year, which understandably sparked a lot of protest. One of my professors said that it is the sort of thing you can do in fiction but not nonfiction.
ASG: That’s a tough one. I was pretty outraged at that, I guess, because I feel like I have limited sympathy, and I can’t spend it on that right now. There’s a lot of suffering right now in the world. But on the other hand, right after the election I took a trip. Right after of the election, a lot of people said, “You lefties, you didn’t have enough empathy for the white working class. That’s why we lost.” And that turned out to be wrong, statistically wrong — but I also thought that I have a lot of flaws, but lacking empathy is not a flaw of mine. That does not sound right. I rented an RV and travelled for three weeks throughout the Southwest and just ate in diners at the counter, went to bars, small towns, talked to people — not about politics — just tried to get the stories of their lives. I was like, I’ve never been or met these people; let’s see what their stories are. And it wasn’t suffering — I felt sympathy. I didn’t know if they were Trump voters. I did find out that often they were not — how disappointing — and I would go in bars that said Trump outside, and people would be like, “I can’t believe that banner is out there. I couldn’t find the Trump voters. But I did understand that there was incredible suffering and that people felt they had no way out. I’m sorry to say that I think that people voted for [Trump] because they wanted to see other people suffer.
GN: I think there’s a lot of pressure to be successful in a certain way today. This is especially true in Silicon Valley, and certainly at Stanford — you get a computer science degree, start out at a six-figure salary, invent your own app and make millions. In interviews, the life you’ve described — meals with your husband and your pug, swimming in the bay, traveling to Italy — it sounds wonderful. Did you always know you wanted to be a writer? Did you ever doubt that it was a plausible career choice?
ASG: I always wanted to be a writer, since I was like 15. I think I was totally naïve — also born in an earlier time — where I thought it was just obviously what I would do. I had no doubt ever that I would do that. I took great pleasure from the written word, so I didn’t mind being poor. My friend Daniel Handler and I — we still go the same shitty burrito place, we get drinks at Twin Peaks down the street during happy hour. Most writers I know have very simple pleasures because they learn to like that. When I taught at Iowa, I would make dinner for students and then give them the recipe because they had to learn how to cook and enjoy it because you can’t afford to out and eat. You throw dinner parties, and you invite other writers and artists and have great conversations, and that’s more fun than going out to eat anyway!
I’m certainly not a bohemian person, but so many of my artist friends gave up early that I ended up having a bohemian lifestyle, not because I’m rich but because I’m free. This sounds so pretentious, but I fought really hard to have time to write. It’s become such a natural part of all my relationships, with my husband and my family, and I build flexibility into my schedule. Like today, we went swimming, and then we wrote in Ashley’s until one, and the rest of the day is mine. To make ends meet, I would do anything. Until recently, I was a travel and food writer, and it’s really anxiety-producing. But oddly, there’s something good about being desperate to finish your draft. I think that’s what I always wanted — to have a free kind of life. It’s like a never-growing-up kind of life. I’ve just tried to set it up so that I can go when I need to. It’s stupid when you have a home and room you can lock to write in and then decide that you also need a writing retreat, to go away for a week to Burnville or something, but I also need to do that sometimes! I just wanted to make enough money so that I could keep writing, and I’ve almost never had that. Now, I think I do, for a little while.
If you live in New York City, you’re in publishing, and you get all caught up in the cocktail parties to meet so and so… After I won the Pulitzer, one of the first things I thought was, “Oh my god, I don’t have to worry about any of that shit anymore! I don’t have to go to those parties and worry about that — I don’t have to do it, and I don’t have to live [in New York City]. It was just a relief because I was no good at the networking part. I was always like, what was I networking for? I just have to write my book; nobody’s going to network my book into being.
I do think there was a moment when I lived in New York, and I was watching everybody sort of scheming or being demanding of their publicist trying to get what they needed, and I was like, “I don’t have it in me. What if I was just super nice to everybody? It’s a long con, but what if the people I’m nice to now 20 years from now are on a jury,” and I think that’s literally what happened.
GN: Do you like San Francisco better?
ASG: I do love it here. All the writers I know don’t talk about how much so-and-so made on their advance or any of that stuff. Everyone I know talks about books.
GN: I remember you mentioning at your reading in Iowa City that you often go swimming in the morning with your friend Daniel, otherwise known as Lemony Snicket. What’s it like to have a community of writers? I think you had said it was supportive, rather than cutthroat like people expect.
ASG: It comes, I think, out of the 70’s. The writers who were most supportive when I first got here were much older writers, like Amy Tan and Armistead Maupin, who were coming out of hippie culture in a way. They influenced the generation after them. It is perfectly natural here to have a dinner party and invite everyone you know, without a sense of status, and that was so incredible to me. I was nobody, and I would be at some library event, and everyone is super kind to each other.
When I arrived here, the other writers were Michael Chabon and his wife Ayelet Waldman. Amy Tan would invite me over for Chinese food. And it would be like Joyce Carol Oates and a bunch of other nobodies. Dave Eggers, Daniel Handler and his wife Lisa Brown — that’s my generation, and I never felt like I was as their level at all because they were super famous when I met them. But they’ve all treated me like an equal for 20 years now. And I said to each of them, winning the Pulitzer Prize makes me feel like I can finally hold my head up. And they were all like, “What are you talking about? I’m so sorry that was in your head all that time!” And of course it is. They need friends too. They turn out just to be people.
Even your writing friends now, they are going to be around forever. Even the ones in my graduate school class, we’re still in the world together. We’re still friends, but we’re also on panels together. It’s fun because you dreamed it. When I was 23, I was like “one day we’re gonna be on a panel together,” and then there we are. It’s great.
Gracie Newman’s interview with Greer will be continued in tomorrow’s paper. This transcript has been edited and condensed for clarity.