Garth Greenwell is the author of What Belongs to You, long listed for the National Book Award, and Mitko, which won the 2010 Miami University Press Novella Prize and was a finalist for the Edmund White Award for Debut Fiction Award and a Lambda Award. A native of Louisville, Kentucky, he holds graduate degrees from Harvard University and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where he was an Arts Fellow. His short fiction has appeared in The Paris Review and A Public Space.
To read an exercise on describing a character’s sense of consciousness, inspired by What Belongs to You, click here.
In this interview, Greenwell discusses feeling his way into the novel sentence by sentence, the traffic between the physical world and the abstract realm of consciousness, and why he doesn’t care for the annual award for bad sex writing.
The book is written in a distinctive style: long paragraphs with nuanced descriptions of glances and other physical details of interactions between characters—and little dialogue. It reminds me, in a way, of Henry James’ novel The Beast in the Jungle, that is if James had been willing or able to use the word cock. It also reminds me a bit of Ben Lerner’s novels, which contain much more dialogue but are similarly interested in the experience of human interactions. I guess this is a long-winded way of asking this: As you wrote the novel, did you feel that you were writing in a style that you were seeing in books that you were reading, or did you feel that you were doing something different—in either a small or significant way?
I think the truest answer is that I didn’t have any idea what I was doing. The first section of the novel was the first fiction I had ever written–before that I had only ever written poetry. That said, James has been a hero of mine since I read The Turn of the Screw in high school. And he has a pretty central place in a tradition of novel writing I’ve always loved, a line that includes Proust and Mann and Woolf and, more recently, Bernhard and Sebald and Marías. I admire Ben Lerner’s work a lot, and I think he’s following some of those same currents in his fiction.
So: none of those writers served as a model, really, but they were all in my head, knocking around with other things. As I wrote I was really feeling my way forward sentence by sentence, working without much idea of the shape it might take. The book begins and ends with place, I think, and I wanted to be true both to my experience of Bulgaria (where I wrote the novel) and to the relationship between the characters. I don’t think I was concerned at all about how what I was doing stylistically or formally might fit into any kind of tradition or field of practice
One of my favorite sentences in the novel is this one:
“For all his friendliness, as we spoke he had seemed in some mysterious way to withdraw from me; the longer we avoided any erotic proposal the more finally he seemed unattainable, not so much because he was beautiful, although I found him beautiful, as for some still more forbidding quality, a kind of bodily sureness or ease that suggested freedom from doubts and self-gnawing, from any squeamishness about existence.”
It follows a line stating that the conversation between these characters lasted only a few minutes, and yet this sentence makes clear why the conversation occupies so much space in the novel. What I find interesting about the sentence is how much it operates without specific detail. Mitko is well-described, of course, but phrases like “some still more forbidding quality, a kind of bodily sureness or ease” are more about impressions than specific traits. What makes a sentence like this work? Does it depend on details that have come before? Or does the reader simply understand and fill in the spaces around words like beautiful, forbidding, and sureness?
I like literature—in poetry and prose—in which there’s a constant traffic between the physical world and the more abstract realm of consciousness and feeling. I worked hard to make the physical world of the novel as concrete and fully realized as I could, but I also wanted the experience of the book to be the experience of consciousness, of having that reality filtered through the perceptions and ratiocination of the narrator. He tries throughout the book to understand and track his own feeling as carefully as he can, which leads him into rabbit holes of ambivalence and doubt and second-guessing–precisely the sort of thing Mitko’s physical demeanor seems to deny. This sentence does come after a good bit of physical description of the setting and of Mitko, which I hope grounds this more abstract bit of thinking.
The opening of the novel contains several sex scenes, and it seems at first that you tend toward the literal and specific in describing them. But then the novel offers this image: “clasping his hips with both my hands like the brim of a cup from which I drank.” That’s a bold image—effective and terrific, of course—but also noteworthy because it’s figurative. Every year, an award is given for bad sex writing, and some of the worst tends to involve metaphor and simile: a body part like ____. Were you nervous at all about writing the sex scenes, about creating images that readers might be inclined to read more closely and critically than a description of, say, eating a hamburger?
For the narrator, sex is endlessly alluring and endlessly frustrating because it’s constantly gesturing toward metaphysics. I’ve always been interested in sex as a writer, in both poetry and prose. I think sex is almost uniquely useful for a novelist because of the opportunity it gives a character to be intensely focused on the experience of another while also thrown back onto his or her own sensations. I’m also interested in the social implications of sex, the ways communities form around it and are disrupted by it—communities like those in the cruising bathroom the novel begins in.
I’m not a huge fan of the bad sex writing award. I think it’s a myth that sex is harder to write well than most other things, and I think it’s a shame to give so much attention to less successful writing when there’s so much extraordinary writing of the sexual body being done right now. Just in the last couple of years, books by Alissa Nutting, Merritt Tierce, Lidia Yuknavitch, and Colm Toibin (in The Empty Family)—just to name a few—have used sex in ways that are revelatory to me for their dramatic and psychological force. I want to talk about and learn from those writers. It seems ungenerous to ridicule a few bad sentences or clumsy metaphors, often in books that are otherwise very fine.
I believe that this book started out as a novella, and so I’m curious about your process in developing it into a much longer story. Was it a matter of adding complications to the set of characters you had already established? Or did you add characters and broaden the world that you were writing about?
The novel did start out as a novella. When I finished the first section, I didn’t have any idea that it was part of a larger project: I thought the story was done. It wasn’t until I was about half-way through the second section, “A Grave,” that I realized how it was exploring the narrator’s childhood as a way of trying to understand some peculiarities of his character, especially the way he seems both to long for intimacy and hold it at arm’s length. It wasn’t until I was finished with that section that I realized that the narrative of the first section—the relationship between the narrator and Mitko—would continue. And it wasn’t until I finished the whole manuscript and could see certain thematic and structural echoes across sections that I began to trust my feeling that there was a kind of gravity holding the book together. I moved through the whole book sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph, section by section, without looking very far ahead. I tricked myself into writing a novel, I guess, without ever really realizing what I was doing.
Originally published in February 2016