The world according to Garth Greenwell
The author of debut novel What Belongs to You, hailed as a masterpiece by Edmund White, tells Paul McVeigh how his past as a poet and opera singer influenced his work
Garth Greenwell: There’s a lot of novelistic stuff that I think I’m just not interested in, or that maybe I just don’t know how to do. Then there’s stuff that I do know how to do from a background in lyric poetry that I used to fill those gaps and that made it, what some people feel is a strange novel. I guess I think it’s a strange novel too. Photograph: Max Freeman
Garth Greenwell and I had connected online before he and his debut novel, What Belongs to You, crossed the Atlantic. He had read my novel and I was excited about his as it was being hailed as a masterpiece by Edmund White and every major outlet in the US seemed to have fallen under its spell. It has received the same ecstatic reception in Britain, with the Daily Telegraph calling it “an essential work of our time”. I got to meet Garth on his brief trip to the UK and on London’s South Bank we talked about writing. This is a lightly edited version of that conversation.
What Belongs to You started off as a novella, which won the Miami University Press Novella Prize.
Yes, it was a publication prize. There are very few places that publish novellas as standalone books. When I wrote Mitko, it was the first piece of fiction I’d ever written; before that I’d only ever written poems. When I finished it, I thought that the story was done, as it tells a complete arc. I thought it was finished but it’s what’s now the first section of What Belongs to You.
Happily, between submitting to the Miami Prize, winning and signing the contract for publication, I realised that Mitko was part of something larger, that there would be more to come, and so I was able to make sure that would be possible with Miami University Press.
Can you pinpoint the moment you realised it was meant to be a longer piece? Was it a wake-up-in-the-middle-of-the-night experience?
I think at every point in writing the book I was completely in the dark about what it was going to be. I feel like it’s a book I wrote not just sentence by sentence but really clause by clause.
After finishing Mitko I didn’t think I was going to write more prose for a while, I thought I had some poems to write. And then one day I just started hearing this very importunate and angry voice. It just took me over. I wrote the second section of the book very fast, in a white heat. And it wasn’t until I was deep into that section that I realised it was connected somehow to Mitko. Even though the character Mitko doesn’t appear anywhere in that second section, I understood that it was the same narrator and that somehow the story that voice was telling was in resonance with the story of Mitko.
You said you wrote What Belongs to You clause by clause, which is how I imagine a poet writes/thinks. Do you think being a poet has helped bring something different to your novel?
I think it does feel to me like a poet’s novel. In part, I think that some of the things that aren’t in it are due to my background in poetry. There’s a lot of information about the narrator that we don’t get. Some readers have been troubled by that, they’ve said “Why is he in Bulgaria?”; “Why doesn’t the book explain this to us?”; “Why doesn’t he have a name?”
It was obviously a choice not to give him a name, but when it comes to some of that background stuff it’s not like it was in and I decided to take it out, or even that I had some big decision-making process where I decided, I’m going to be canny about this and leave this information out. I think it’s just that when you’re dealing with lyrical speakers, you often don’t trouble yourself with a lot of that information. So there was a lot of basic setting-up that’s not there, I think, because poems don’t have that.
There’s a way in which I do think the scenes are often constructed in a lyric way. There’s a lot of novelistic stuff that I think I’m just not interested in, or that maybe I just don’t know how to do. Then there’s stuff that I do know how to do from a background in lyric poetry that I used to fill those gaps and that made it, what some people feel is a strange novel. I guess I think it’s a strange novel too.
The other thing that struck me was, it felt, at times, as though you were “in character” – that you had “gone somewhere” in sections and this was transposed onto the text. Did you ever feel while you were writing as though you were in a connection with your character?
Certainly I felt that very strongly in the second section, which – without going into the question of autobiography – does explore the terrain of my childhood and goes back to the landscape of my childhood in a way in which I felt very implicated. And that’s why that section was intensely painful and, at times, very frightening to write. I confronted things in that section that I’ve spent my entire adult life running away from, so I did feel very implicated in that. And, you know, it’s interesting that you talk about other arts backgrounds, as before I was a poet I was a singer, an opera singer. And I do think that there’s a way in which singing requires you to inhabit and embody a fictional voice in a way that is literally very physical and engages your whole body. It also puts you in a relationship with language that engages your whole body, and there is a way in which language and syntax for me – I feel them. When I write, I’m often moving my body in response to how I feel the energy of a sentence. That’s true also when I read.
You respond to sections of the text physically?
If I’m reading a sentence out loud, I’ll often find myself making gestures – I’ll sort of feel the sentence turn and I’ll make a gesture. That’s true when I read anyone’s sentences. And then when I’m reading from What Belongs to You, I’ve noticed in some readings that I’ll start bouncing on my feet, sort of with the rhythm of the sentence. There’s a way in which I do think that comes from being a musician, and also from being a poet and from having a relationship to language that foregrounds the musical qualities of language.
I’m interested in what can be created that’s not in the words – things under the words and above them, at times, embracing a sentence and your body can hear or react to this, things that aren’t necessarily just the word-after-word meaning of that sentence.
Yes! Feelings can be evoked not just from plot – a sort of magic from the words. Sections of your novel have that.
I love that you say that. I do think that there’s a reason that language and especially the musical properties of language are central to the idea of magic. I mean, the minute you have repetition you have something…
Exactly, the minute you have repetition you have language that’s doing more than just signifying, you have language that’s meaning in ways that are not just denotative. I hope that that’s true. I mean, I love writing in which there’s a kind of balance between an analytical rigor, that is maybe exclusive to language, and this access to the ecstatic that is the province of music.
I agree. I think repetition is a kind of summoning. To me, it’s like me coming off the page and tapping the little hidden door in you. “I’m going to tap and it’s going to open and it’s going to reveal all these things hidden things inside you”.
Also, I was thinking when you were telling me about music and singing. About exposure. Is there anything more exposing than singing? There’s nowhere to hide and it’s a painful thing to fail at. There are sections in your novel when you’re exposing things about yourself that an observer or a reader has one of two choices in how to respond, either to take care with it, to honour it: “I must do that same thing and open up”, so all of the reader’s vulnerability is coming up to meet that exposure and it’s a hugely powerful, private thing. The risk is – the other response – you’re going to come up against somebody who closes when they see this exposure, this vulnerability, and judge it. I think the great thing about readers is that they’re thinking people and they want to go on their own journey, a potentially transformative one. They want fiction that asks that. You ask that. I wonder, has it impacted on you, this exposure?
First of all, I think that account you give of reading is beautiful, and it does strike me as true to my experience of the books that are most meaningful to me. When I think of the poems of Frank Bidart, who’s probably the living writer who means the most to me, I mean, they speak with such vulnerability and commitment that they just demand the same of you. Either you have to step up and take that challenge or you have to close the book. I think that that is a risk that writers like Frank take. There are people for whom reading a Frank Bidart poem is like staring into the sun, and there are people for whom it’s too painful, they can’t do it. But there’s something really magical that happens when a writer writes with that level of risk and then meets a reader who’s willing to read with a similar level of risk. I mean, that’s really what literature’s about: that level of openness to transformation, openness to the other. That to me is what literature can maybe uniquely give us, I don’t know.
And in terms of exposure, it is interesting because there’s a way – you know, Montaigne has this wonderful line in one of his essays where he’s talking about how he writes things in the essays that he would never say to anyone face to face, and he says something like, “my best friends have to go to the bookstore to learn about me”. There is a way in which…art makes a kind of magic frame around things, and within that frame you can be vulnerable in ways that maybe you can’t be outside of it.
My book is clearly sort of playing in this kind of blurry realm between fiction and fact. All the information, the sort of fact-checkable information we have about the narrator, aligns him with my life, and the fact that he doesn’t have a name invites autobiographical reading. Part of the pleasure of reading the book – part of the pleasure I take in books that do that – is not knowing precisely what’s autobiographical and what’s invented. My response to questions about autobiography is to always draw this line, I always say “the narrator”, I never say me. It’s precisely because everything is refracted through fiction or within a fictional frame that makes it possible to address certain things with vulnerability I don’t have access to in real life.
So the question of exposure. I felt it most intensely a couple of weeks ago, because I went to my hometown and did a reading of the book. I really do think of it as fleeing, what I did when I was 16 years old, and as running away from something, and I hardly ever go back. I hadn’t been back in more than a decade until last May, when I went back for my youngest sister’s wedding. This trip I did several readings around the area, so I was there for about 10 days, which is by far the longest time I’ve spent there probably in 20 years. I felt so exposed there. When I did a reading in Louisville with, in the front row, my mother and two of my sisters and my stepmother and the high-school choir teacher who gave me art…I mean that was really overwhelming, it was too much, it was too much.
It was mixed; there were things that were deeply uncomfortable about it and things that were really wonderful about it, but it was just too much. All of the feelings were too intense and so there I did feel just extraordinarily exposed. And of course the whole process of publication, as you know, is a kind of exposure that’s really inimical to anyone, I think, who chooses to be a writer, because choosing to be a writer is choosing to spend nearly all of your time alone. And certainly that was true of writing this book, which I did in Sofia in the early morning hours before I went in to teach high school. And I was in a place where I could go days, or in the summer even weeks without speaking English, and so the relationship with the page was sometimes almost the only relationship I had with my language. It just became the most intensely private act of my life, and so to have that then go public has been absolutely bewildering. The book has been out for a month and a half now, and I feel like I haven’t been able to process anything of what’s happened. I am so grateful for the reception of the book, which I don’t think anyone expected – I certainty didn’t expect it. But I can’t even tell what I feel, because it has been so overwhelming.
I identify with the space created by being alone and then, when the book’s out, there’s so many different experiences going on and it’s not that same, ritualised, everyday turning up at the computer in a protected environment. Suddenly you’re in these cities, you’re talking to people and having all this input and reaction, you’re performing and talking to people trying to remember names and your protected space has gone, so it’s like everything is up for grabs. Who am I? What am I doing? I think perhaps it’s a protection, I mean, maybe that’s the way the mind and body come in to help you filter so that it drips through at a rate you can take and you’ll only understand or embody the experience fully later. I guess you are still riding that wave, a journey that you’re still on. Are you able to connect with a sense of joy, are you able to receive all the praise and the incredible response or are those just words being whispered somewhere in the distance?
Yeah, they do feel very distant. There are a few things to say, I guess. One is that I’ve been writing for 20 years, and until two months ago felt almost completely invisible. And another is that for much of my life, and certainly during the period when I was writing this book, I felt like a failure. Which I actually think is a wonderful thing for a writer – failure is the best possible position to occupy as a writer. So that’s kind of profoundly destabilising, to think that this book might be something other than a failure. And then also to feel like I’m sort of visible in a way that I’ve never felt before within a particular community – within the literary community – is also profoundly destabilising. I want to not be invisible, and I want to have a book, and I’m so moved when I meet people who have read it and responded to it. And on the other hand, to me making art is always failure. You have this kind of vision or intimation of a thing that you’re always going to fail, because that’s just the nature of making manifest something that exists in our imaginations.
And in order to accept that failure, I feel like I need this intensely private space, and I do wonder what writing is going to feel like after this experience of having something I wrote going public. I don’t know, I do feel quite anxious about that, and about how I’m going to find my way back to the place where I feel free to completely fail and feel safe in a kind of privacy.
I don’t know, I mean there is joy in this process, absolutely. I mean, to have Damon Galgut, who is a writer whose books just absolutely changed my life – to have him write what he wrote in The Nation* is just kind of an overpoweringly joyful thing. Part of me does feel like this is the culmination of so much work and so much time and I do feel “why aren’t you feeling more? Why aren’t you feeling it enough?” I think it’s just impossible because it’s a time of constant motion. Constant motion and constant emotion. But I do feel kind of dissociated from that feeling, like the joy is there but it’s somewhere over there, in the distance, you know? I hope that I’ll find my way to it or catch up with it at some point, or that it will slow down and let me gather it up.
What Belongs to You by Garth Greenwell is published by Picador, at £12.99. Paul McVeigh is the author of The Good Son and co-founder of the London Short Short Story Festival
* “Exquisite . . . Stylistically, Greenwell owes more to Sebald than to Nabokov . . . One of the great pleasures of his prose is how profoundly thoughtful it is, even when considering physical needs and passions. This is emotion recollected in tranquillity, or rather in melancholy. There is an almost visceral disjuncture between places and actions that are grubby, even squalid, and the delicacy of the lens through which they’re seen. Yet the effect, paradoxically, is one of almost pure emotion” (Damon Galgut, The Nation)