Author Andrew Sean Greer on Pulitzer win for 'Less', writing satire at a low point in his life
Andrew Sean Greer says that his responsibilities as a writer have changed after winning the Pulitzer Prize. He can no longer stay silent about the injustices in the world — especially those in the literary world
Andrew Sean Greer says that he does not think of his book Less as being the travails of being a writer, or of a gay man, but rather as the foolishness of being American.
He says that his responsibilities as a writer have changed after winning the Pulitzer Prize. He can no longer stay silent about the injustices in the world — especially those in the literary world.
I’m a writer who always writes a completely different book, and yet always writes the same one, he explained.
Many times, when faced with a difficult decision or situation, we tend to try and run away from it, even if for a while. But life has a way of making you go the full circle and then having you face exactly what you are running away from. This is what happens with Arthur Less, the gay protagonist of the novel Less, winner of the 2018 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.
Author Andrew Sean Greer weaves a satirical story around a failed novelist on the wrong side of 50, accepting invitations to forgettable literary events around the world to avoid facing the fact that his ex-boyfriend is marrying someone else, and that he has received an invitation to the wedding. The book travels across the globe, lampoons the literary world and presents conundrums of the heart — about one's career, work, social and love life, and more.
Andrew Sean Greer will be at the Zee Jaipur Literature Festival this year, as a part of three panels. In this email interview, he spoke about winning the Pulitzer, writing satire and the need for authors to create real characters.
As someone who has scientist parents, how did you find a calling in writing and literature?
My parents grew up in rural parts of the Southern United States and, for them, books were windows onto a world of other possibilities. And so books were almost holy in our house, and the idea of being a writer was somehow the ultimate dream. They never voiced this — they had never met a writer, and I think, assumed it was an impossibility — but they were certainly supportive of my reading and early writing. Needless to say, when they heard I had won the Pulitzer, they were both in tears with joy. I think it is something they never dreamed possible. Me either!
How would you describe yourself as a writer?
Hard to say.
I would guess that I’m a writer who always writes a completely different book, and yet always writes the same one.
So you can find books of mine that are time travel novels, fantasies, historical dramas, comedies, but I think I am merely circling the same questions of love and the passage of time. I hope it doesn’t confuse readers too much!
Your work has been winning accolades consistently, with the Pulitzer being the crowning glory. What was your reaction to winning the award?
In fact, a character wins the Pulitzer Prize in my novel! I put it in there because, for me, it was the ultimate (impossible) glory for a writer, one awarded to older, established writers who have won everything else. I absolutely had no glimmer of hope it would be me — if I did, that part of the novel would not be funny! Now it seems awfully strange! My reaction (you can check my Twitter history!) was of shock and disbelief. And, of course, humour. I was taking care of a baronessa’s dog’s mess when a friend told me the news. Hardly a moment of dignity.
As with most prestigious awards, something like the Pulitzer catapults one to the centre stage and under the spotlight. As a writer, do you now feel you have different standards to live up to?
No. But it does change my responsibilities. I can no longer stay silent if I see injustices, especially in the writing world, where so often wonderful writers get overlooked. I feel I have a greater job than ever to support other writers who, as I well know, struggle daily to create.
Let’s talk about Less. Satire is not really everyone’s cup of tea, did you have an audience in mind for Less when you were writing it?
Perhaps this is hard to believe, but I wrote Less as a comedy because I thought nobody was going to read it. I was at a low point in my life, and it hardly seemed to matter to me what anybody would think; I thought I would try to enjoy myself for once. It’s a little shocking to realise that characters and scenes you wrote just for your own pleasure are being read and considered by so many!
What was the journey of writing Less like? How did the book evolve?
The book began, in its unrecognisable infancy, as a straightforward, wistful literary book. It was meant to be a gender-swapped version of Colette’s Cheri. But that novel failed; I simply couldn’t feel sorry for a character that was so like myself. So, instead, I threw it all away and wrote it with Less as the comic foil. Of course, he shares so many of my characteristics, and I used to sit and think ‘what is the most humiliating thing that ever happened to me?’ and I would give it to him, exaggerated of course. Along the way, however, Arthur Less became his own character. I don’t think of him as me at all. I tell people he has only my best and worst characteristics. But none of the central ones. I identify with the narrator, which only seems natural of course.
Would you say Less is about something in particular – travels, sexual orientation, love, the travails of being a writer?
I never think of it as the travails of being a writer, or of a gay man.
I think of it as the foolishness of being American. Of being arrogant and wrong all the time. And I think of it as an Innocent Abroad.
Laws and legislation aside, most things gay still tend to raise many eyebrows. What do you think gay literature needs today, and do you think Less contributes to that?
I don’t know what gay literature needs, because nobody knows what that is, but I do think literature needs gay characters who are real live people, with foibles and nobility and loves and shames and victories like everybody else. Then again, I think that’s true about every type of character. I think all authors owe it to their readers to make their characters real. Reading about a gay man like Arthur Less, for instance, and loving him is not so different from reading about Madame Bovary and loving her. It brings about empathy and understanding, along with criticism. And, perhaps, if we meet people like those characters in the real world, we will see them as true equals. As people. And be a little kinder to them.
What is next for you?
A lot of wonderful travel. As well as a lot of time locked in a room, working on a new novel.
What advice would you give to aspiring writers?
The part of your writing that everybody tells you to cut is the part that is uniquely yours. Listen to them, but don’t take their advice; instead, nurture and cultivate it, and you will find your own way of writing.
Is there that one dog-eared book in your collection that is an eternal favourite?
Cheri by Colette. Perhaps it’s old-fashioned and perfumed, but it’s sad and romantic and fascinating and so perfectly done.
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