Pulitzer winner Andrew Sean Greer on Less and more
Andrew Sean Greer, the American novelist and short story writer who got the 2018 Pulitzer for Less, one of the funniest novels in recent history will be in town for the Apeejay Kolkata Literary Festival in January next year. Before that he talks with Indulge about what inspires him as a writer, his take on how the literary world is changing and how life has changed after Pulitzer. Excerpts:
You will be coming to AKLF 2019. What are the images Kolkata conjures for you?
Books. That’s the image that immediately comes to mind—miles of book vendors and stalls and piles of books on the street. I don’t know if that’s even true! Or, where I got the idea! Is it true? I guess I will find out!
Have you come across Kolkata in cinema and books? What were your initial thoughts when you decided to come here?
Well, of course, in America films like City of Joy are where we get our impressions of Kolkata, but in my travels I have learned to suppress any film version of a place before I go. I have learned this much: I am wrong, every time, about what I think a place will be like. It’s humbling, but also my greatest pleasure. Americans, we are so parochial and think we are the centre of the world. But we’re just the centre of America. I was with writer Avtar Singh this summer, when I was invited to Kolkata and when I admitted to him I had never been, he said, oh Andy it’s wonderful you must go! I don’t need any more encouragement than that to see a new place.
Congratulations on winning the Pulitzer. What’s your writing process like?
Thank you, I am still thrilled beyond measure. Writing does keep me awake, when I am deep in it. It usually takes a year before I submerge fully in a novel, and then every moment is taken up by the book: I think about it before I sleep, and when I swim or run, and I often disappear alone to a cabin or someplace so I can focus on the problems of the storytelling or the plot. I find ten days is a maximum, and even then I go a little crazy. Three days is more typical (I’m thinking of disappearing very soon to be honest). It is all-consuming. When I’m not working on a novel, I become very social and creative: I cook big meals, wallpaper my kitchen, and rearrange my closet. But when I’m working everything goes into the book. I became very drab, I confess.
Has life changed post Pulitzer?
The largest change, I think, is in me. Now, I feel natural talking to anybody, or speaking about writing to a crowd, or encouraging young writers. And it comes with a new responsibility: now that people are listening, to speak for writers who have not been noticed, for people whose voices are not being heard, to encourage a new generation. Just as I was encouraged.
And, well, I’m being invited to Kolkata! That never happened before!
How did the idea for Less first come to you?
I was working for a year on a novel about a middle aged writer. It was a very serious, wistful novel. And it was dreadful. So self-pitying. I couldn’t stand it. So I thought, what if I turn it on its head and make fun of the writer instead? Make fun of his serious wistful problems? Suddenly I could get even closer to the emotional heart of the book by making it a comedy. I was swimming in the San Francisco Bay with my great friend Daniel Handler and I had been complaining about my dreadful book. I swam off alone, looked back on the city and the thought came to me.
Author Chimamanda Adichie’s famous Ted Talk ‘The Danger of A Single Story’ talks about the perils of singular kind of narrative. Do you consciously steer clear of the ‘straight white male’ kind of narrative?
I do. This is part of why this book could only be a comedy—I was making the mistake of writing about the middle-age white male problems that, honestly, are not major problems when put in perspective. Even those of a gay middle-age white male. I had to change the narrative to line it up with what I really believe. It is a thrill to live in a moment where a long-overdue correction is taking place and the straight white male narrative is being subsumed by the myriad other stories of our world.
Do you believe that writers need to be more inclusive when they are constructing their characters?
I think this is a natural part of being a good writer! Why would we spend hours trying to describe a tree but just quickly throw in stock characters to fill in a scene? You set a scene in a restaurant, for instance, and as a white writer it’s awfully easy for me to put a stock waitress: white, older, with a pot of coffee in her hand. Is it so impossible to spend a few more minutes and think: what if I make it a man, what if I make it a Korean immigrant, what if I give him tattoos, what if I give him a recent heartbreak? Not just diversity, but real consideration of these characters as people.
Lastly, what are you working on next?
Now that, alas, I could not possibly talk about! I am far too superstitious!