Hesitations and Corrections: An Interview with Garth Greenwell

by James Pulford

When it was published last year, Garth Greenwell’s debut novel What Belongs To You was heralded as a masterpiece and an instant classic on both sides of the Atlantic. Deftly depicting the stickiness of shame, desire and guilt, the novel tells the story of a young American teacher who falls for a Bulgarian hustler while living in Sofia and, subsequently, his struggle to reconcile the mixture of longing and anguish he feels as a result of their relationship. In addition to recently winning Debut Book of the Year at the British Book Awards, What Belongs To You has also been shortlisted for both the James Tait Black Prize for Fiction and the Green Carnation Prize. In this interview we talked about the role of fiction today; alt-facts and the Trump administration; the policing of LGBT lives; and the notion of literature as a conversation across time.

In the past you’ve said writers tend to form an allegiance with either truth or beauty and that this determines whether they write nonfiction or fiction, respectively. Do you feel more impelled toward one or the other now as a result of the Trump administration’s assault on truth and the rise of ‘alt-facts’?

This idea of allegiance is a way of thinking about genre, and about the way that nonfictional elements (like autobiography, say) can be used by novelists as a kind of readymade material submitted to various kinds of aesthetic reworking. It does seem to me useful to think of genre in this way. It's not that fiction doesn't include ‘true’ material; it's that the primary use to which that material is put is aesthetic or dramatic, not documentary.

Similarly, any narrative involves fictional work, by which I mean the work of making. Even if a writer is restricting herself to verifiable facts, she is still selecting which facts to include, deciding on a shape for a story, choosing where to begin and where to end. All of this is work that complicates the idea of an immediate or transparent ‘truth’, work that makes any narrative, regardless of its relationship to invention, essentially an act of creation. But it does seem meaningful to me that a nonfiction writer has a primary allegiance to verifiable truth, a truth that can be demonstrated, to which she can be held to account.

Recognizing the contingency and made-ness of nonfiction has led some readers and writers to call into question the very idea of truth, to suspect that all narrative is equally estranged from any commonly held reality. Trump's first 100 days have been a reminder that in fact there is a difference between the difficult work of truth-telling responsible journalists attempt and the irresponsible, immoral invention of the current administration.

Of course it goes without saying that there is a difference between fiction – invention that declares itself as such and allows for the exploration of various kinds of truths – and lies told for political advantage and material advantage. It's important to insist upon that difference.

So much of What Belongs To You seems to be about crossing borders – linguistic, cultural, sexual, political – to connect. How much of writing is about empathy for you? Do you think the role of fiction writers is changing in response to the growing isolationism and protectionism in the US, and the West at large?

I think the literary imagination is the best technology we have for communicating the experience of another person's consciousness. I read books to discover what the lives of others feel like from the inside. In that sense, yes: empathy, imagining oneself into the skin of another, is important to what I value in the literary enterprise.

I think it's too early to have any real sense of how writers will respond to the Trump administration. Ideologies and parties flatten out the lives of others; they encourage us to see each other in simplistic, dismissive ways. (This is as true on the left as it is on the right.) My hope is that literary writers will resist this flattening out, and will instead continue to consider the lives of others as rich, complex, contradictory, infinitely valuable.

One of the chief concerns of the book seems to be how queer lives might exist outside of the mainstream, an idea shared by Maggie Nelson’s memoir The Argonauts, which was also first published during the dying days of the Obama administration. To what extent do you think the increased policing of LGBT lives under Trump will create a culture that is less radical and more heteronormative?

I actually think we're seeing the opposite happen. It has been heartening to see the extraordinary mobilization of popular resistance to Trump in the United States. For queer people, the election of Trump and Pence (who has supported conversion therapy) and the appointment of a cabinet with almost uniformly anti-LGBT records are a reminder that the gains queer people have made in the last decades are fragile and must be defended. Trump is also reminding the American left of how necessary it is that our ideas of ‘intersectionality’ have political teeth: that feminists, queer people, labor organizers, immigrant-rights activists, all have to find common ground and common goals.

It's still very early in this administration. But I see queer people, like Americans on the left more generally, becoming more radical, not less.

Previously you’ve spoken of writing as a conversation that spans generations and locales, particularly in terms of where your own work sits in the canon of queer literature. Could you say a bit more about this and why it’s a helpful way for you to see your work?

Writers are readers first, and I think many writers would say that they began writing to enter into the conversations – huge, millennia-sprawling – that books have with one another. One conversation that is important to my own book is with the writers – Proust, Baldwin, Genet, Woolf, Winterson, Lemebel, among many others – who have written queerness in a way that makes my work possible. I like conversation as a metaphor because it allows for individual voices agreeing, disagreeing, correcting; it's not exactly the same thing as ‘influence’, and it avoids the idea of conflict central to some other ideas of tradition (like Harold Bloom's agon). I don't feel conflict when I think of the accomplishment of earlier writers, I don't feel a need to find fault with them, to clear a space for my own work. I feel gratitude.

I also like the metaphor because it's easy to understand the multiplicity of conversations; any book is participating in many at once, and this also complicates any too-easy idea of influence – or the idea that participating in a particular conversation (among queer writers, say) restricts one from participating in others (that of literary modernism, or the realist novel, or the family saga, or any number of others). It's a rejection of a different, irresponsible and offensive metaphor that continues to be used against queer writers: that of the ghetto.

Much of the praise What Belongs To You has received has centred on how assured and confident the writing is. This interests me, not least because it seems such an intensely personal work that appears to have been born out of feelings of vulnerability and insecurity. Can you articulate the creative process by which you transformed what might be perceived as weakness into strength?

Many of the writers I love – from Donne to Hopkins to Henry James to Elizabeth Bishop to Frank Bidart – forge a style that tries to track the shape of thinking, with all of its hesitations and corrections and circlings back. And I guess I do think that vulnerability is at the heart of all great art, that one has the sense in a great book that a writer is putting herself on the line, is writing and thinking with her whole life. That feeling is at the heart of the art I care about.

I recently heard George Saunders cite Einstein’s remark that ‘no worthy problem is solved in the plane of its own conception.’ I know you’re a trained opera singer and it led me to wonder if, when you run into trouble writing, you find it at all useful to try and think about what you’re trying to express in a different medium – i.e. as music? Does music inform your work at all more broadly?

I think about music all the time when I write, and musical solutions to problems often present themselves to me before literary solutions do. Certainly my sense of language at the sentence-level is influenced by my training as a classical singer, which – in the long, bel canto lines I was taught to sing – is a training in the emotional force of suspending syntax in time. When struggling with a sentence, I often found myself thinking of a particular musical line.

But also at larger, structural levels, I often think in musical forms. The original title for What Belongs To You was Three Movements, and there is a kind of ABA shape to the book as a whole, two themes that are apparently contrasting (I'm thinking of the narrative material of the book's second section, which is distinct from that of the first and third) and yet are brought into a meaningful relationship. A musical approach to developing a germ of an idea is maybe more congenial to me than more traditional ideas of novelistic structure. And my sense of drama is shaped, first and foremost – and for better or worse – by opera, not grand opera so much as the chamber operas of Benjamin Britten, which seem to me ideals of a kind of paradoxically expansive compression, a maximal use of minimal material. I would love to achieve a comparable effect in my books.

Garth Greenwell’s What Belongs to You is published by Picador. Read our review here.