Sentence by Sentence 

A Conversation with Garth Greenwell on Language as Matter and Creating a Space for Failure

Garth Greenwell is the author of What Belongs to You, which won the British Book Award for Debut of the Year, was longlisted for the National Book Award, and was a finalist for six other awards, including the PEN/Faulkner Award, the James Tait Black Memorial Prize, and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. A New York Times Book Review Editors' Choice, it was named a Best Book of 2016 by over fifty publications in nine countries, and is being translated into eleven languages. His short fiction has appeared in The Paris ReviewA Public Space, and VICE, and he has written criticism for the New Yorker, the London Review of Books, and the New York Times Book Review, among others. He lives in Iowa City. 

On February 23, 2017 author and Interlochen alumnus, Garth Greenwell sat down at Interlochen Public Radio with Interlochen Review editors Annalise Lozier, Shaun Phuah, Emily Folan, and Ryan Haack to discuss his new book What Belongs to You, the complexities of writing about sex work, and how being a voice major at Interlochen has affected him as a writer.

Genevieve Harding: How has the critical acclaim of this book affected you as a young writer, also taking into consideration that this is your first novel?

Garth Greenwell: Huh, the biggest thing is that it was a surprise. I really thought I was going to publish this little book and it was going to disappear without a trace, which is the fate of nearly all books. And so yeah. *laughing* It really is, I mean if you think about all the books that are published and you know, almost all them sink and that’s what I thought was going to happen with this book. So it was a real surprised that it got some attention. The positive part of that attention is that it has made things possible that weren’t possible before. It has allowed me to imagine a future in which writing has a much bigger sort of place in the center of my life than it did before. And I’m grateful for that. It still feels like a miracle to me when I meet someone who has read my book and there is nothing more moving than hearing from people that they have read and been affected by your work. Before the book, this is my first novel, I had been writing for twenty years and I was writing in conditions of absolute invisibility until this book came out last January and you know I wouldn’t want to go back to that invisibility. But it is also true that there is something disconcerting about not being invisible anymore, and about knowing that. You know, it is very different writing thinking “No one will ever see this” and to write thinking “Oh no there actually is a chance that this will have a place in the world.” And to me as an artist, my experience as an artist is failing everyday and of creating a space for that failure which for me means creating a space of absolute privacy. I’m only now, because basically all of 2016 I was traveling the whole year, I’m really only now trying to make a space for writing again in a serious and sustained way again. I am wondering what that is going to feel like, or if I will be able to find my way back to that necessary privacy. You know that is an anxiety I didn’t expect before publishing the book.

Shaun Phuah: So Mitko, which is a novella you published in 2010, and it is a work of yours that also gained a rather high amount of critical acclaim and although the two aren’t the same, there are large threads [from the novella] that influence the novel, such as the idea of paid sex and the name of a character. I was wondering how the novella affected your debut novel and how your expectations for the novel changed from going from a novella to a much longer piece of work, and how you had to think differently moving into a longer piece.

GG: Yeah, so Mitko, the novella it is actually the first section of the novel, the first few chapters of the novel are actually a revised version of that novella. So it is, interesting. Publishing the novella, which came out with a university press, and you know, they made a beautiful object and I am very happy that novella exists, the novella did get a little bit of attention but it did not feel like my life changed in any way when that novella came out. I think it sold 300 copies or something, so it was not a life changing event. And the rest of the novel really emerged in an organic and intuitive way. I was not planning on writing a novel, at any point when writing this novel until I was writing the second to last scene in the third section that I realized I was writing a novel and not just three things, which was how I was thinking about it to myself -- I was writing three things. So the book really emerged sentence by sentence, not with a sense of some large scale architecture or plan and again I was able to write it all even though Mitko came out; it won a prize in 2010 and came out in 2011 at that point I think I had finished the second section of the novel, but I was still working in that absolute privacy. I was a full time high school teacher working in Sofia, Bulgaria, writing in the early hours of the morning before going into school and so the novel was the result of a writing practice, it was never a kind of goal in and of itself. So I never confronted questions like “How do I turn this novella into a novel” because it was never a part of my concept of what I was doing.

GH: I have read in reviews of your book, people saying that this book can’t possibly be fictional since the emotions in it are so developed and real; how has your work as a nonfiction writer influenced your ability to create emotion in your fiction, and specifically in What Belongs to You?

GG: That’s a really interesting question. Before writing this novel I had never written in full-length narrative nonfiction prose. I had never written narrative prose of any kind. All the nonfiction work I have written was critical, which is still the primary mode for me to write nonfiction is critical prose. So I don’t think it was nonfiction that influenced the novel but poetry, I thought of myself as a poet and only wrote poetry for fifteen years. It is interesting to me that response to the book, because there are readers who have said this can’t be invented, this must be real. That’s interesting to me as a writer and as a reader, because of course I feel that about some books too. And it is interesting to me what makes us think that because it is an effect, it is a reality effect. One of the interesting things about the whole Elena Ferrante scandal where this guy, this forensic economist, whatever he is, claims to have discovered who the real Elena Ferrante is and those books give that sense of intimacy. This is someone writing from her lived experience and yet if that guy is right and Elena Ferrante really is the person he says she is, which seems likely if not inevitable, it’s not. Those novels are invented. The effect they give of being lived experiences is a constructed effect. Then the interesting question is how does a book make you feel that? Because I love that people have that response to my book. I don’t love when critics proceed with the assumption that it is autobiography. That I think is lazy; like when someone in the London review of books does that I think “You are not doing your job”. But if a reader just says that to me I think, “Oh that’s wonderful.” I love that sense of intimacy in a book. I’ve talked about the sort of -- in my novel it is amplified by the fact that the novel is playing with autobiography, that there are all of these sort of games going on about whether this is invented or autobiographical. The book is full of invention. It is not autobiography in any strict sense. But I love that readers receive it in that way. I mean, I think one thing I want to do as a writer is to give the sense of a lived experience, an experience that is drenched with reality. So I like that.

Emily Folan: You attended Interlochen Arts Academy as a voice major, not a writer, right?

GG: Yes, that’s right.

EF: So after focusing so intensely on music in high school and then college, how did you end up finding writing.

GG: I found writing just because -- I always -- not always, that’s not true. At Interlochen I was introduced to serious study of literature. Largely by Jean Gaede, who is still teaching here, and so I continued to study literature not as a primary pursuit but I took classes in college and in my junior year took a poetry class. I was studying voice at the Eastman School of Music and I was able to take a poetry class at the University of Rochester with a poet named James Longenbach, who was a poet and critic and a brilliant teacher, and it was one of those classes that just sort of, where you feel like your head is opening up and it felt like a whole world opened up to me and I realized I had become frustrated as a singer for various reasons. I realized I didn’t want the life of a musician, which is a life of constant travel and precariousness, and those things and I also came to music very late; I didn’t start studying music until I was fourteen or fifteen and music for me was always going to be a second language and there were parts of myself that couldn’t fully engage with music, intellectually. My best friend is a really great conductor who at I met at the Eastman School and you know, he could play the piano before he could talk, he wrote music before he could write words, he opens up a score and he can read it in a native way, in a way I never could and that was frustrating to me. In my class with James Longenbach, I realized it was engaging parts of my brain I missed being engaged and that I could engage with these sort of codes and patterns of aesthetic language, of literary language in a way that felt more native. So I just made the leap into poetry.

SP: So, this might be a strange question but how has your experience as a voice major, and then moving on into college still doing music, how has that affected your writing, not just the little things but perhaps the craft aspects of your writing.

GG: Oh absolutely, I think training as a musician was training as a writer I just didn’t know it. I mean I think to become a writer you have to -- or to become the kind of writer that interests me -- you have to find a way to shock yourself out of thinking language as purely a medium - you have to think of language as matter, as substance in and of itself in order to do the kinds of interesting things that I want to do with language. I think there are two powerful ways to do that. One of them is to learn foreign languages. I’m addicted to learning foreign languages and I love that experience where you do see that words are like bricks, and you have to put them together in a certain way to make sense of them. And the other way I think is singing, and especially classical singing. I don’t think there’s any experience that makes you feel more the physicality of words and the fact that words have bodies. And classical singing is a very, sort of full body thing. I mean you feel language with your whole body. I also think it is also because of my training as a classical singer, I think that why I am so interested in the expansive potential of english syntax. I think it is why I love long sentences. I think the kind of Bel Canto singing that I was taught at Interlochen and Eastman, was a sort of training in the emotional potential of suspending language in time and how that allows you to control kind of the emotional temperature of what you are saying, it was a way for me to unlock not just the what of language but the how of language; the way in which you say things, the way in which you structure a sentence should convey as much information as the meaning of the words in it. That all came from singing and I also think my sense of narrative I think learned my ideal sense of narrative shape from the chamber opera’s of Benjamin Britten, like I think that’s where my idea of how you make a scene comes from. So everywhere, I don’t think I would be at all the writer I am if I had not studied voice.

Ryan Haack: What are the origins of your writing process, especially with What Belongs to You and how did you decide on the idea for What Belongs to You?

GG: So I think the idea of What Belongs to You, the spark of the novel, really came--well it came from the place; the book begins and ends with the place. I moved to Sofia, Bulgaria in 2009 and started teaching high school there and I think what caused this novel to come about, although all of this is back formation, I was not aware of this at the time, it is thinking back. I think what caused the book was the weird experiences I kept having in Sofia, which was a place unlike anywhere I had ever been, I had never travelled in Eastern Europe, I knew very little about the region, I could barely speak the language when I arrived, I had sort of survival Bulgarian. But I kept having--and everything was strange to me, everything seemed weird--and yet I kept having these experiences of things feeling incredibly familiar. Part of that has to do with geography I think, the mountains are similar in size to the mountains of Kentucky where I’m from, the forests have the same kind of trees, it’s a country that has had a radical shift from an agricultural economy to a kind of non-agricultural economy, just in terms of the kinds of jobs people have, which is also true of Kentucky. I think more profoundly it was about sort of the lives queer people lead in Bulgaria and how those lives reminded me of the lives queer people led in the early nineties in Kentucky and I kept having an experience, both in terms of the men I would meet, and also in terms of my students who would come to talk to me because I was the only openly queer person in my school community, so that meant students who thought or knew they were queer came to talk to me. That, for all the differences between our situations, and our backgrounds, that they were telling me my own story. That point of contact, that Kentucky in the early nineties and Bulgaria today, are both places where queer people are taught a certain lesson about their lives which is their lives lack value and their lives lack dignity and that affects sort of what one takes to be the horizon of possibility for their life and that seemed to be the same in those two places. So it was that point of contact that actually caused the book to come about.

SP: So considering you book deals with sex work, I was wondering how you moved about the different stigmas associated with that. Especially the stigmas more specifically surrounding homosexual sex work, and what in particular drove you to writing about that subject matter?

GG: I’m drawn to writing about lives and spaces that I think our culture continues to disparage and despise. And I want to write about them in ways that makes clear their value and complexity. I wanted to try and write about sex work in a way that is alive to the complexity of sex work and to the specific complexity of sex work between men. I think sex work between men is kind of structurally different from sex work in a heterosexual context for several reasons, one of the most important being that many gay men experience being on both sides of that transaction over the course of their lives. Which I think affects the kind of stigma associated or not associate with sex work. There’s a long tradition of queer artists and of gay male artists and writers who have had lives and supported themselves with sex work.

I also think it’s structurally different in terms of the relationship to violence. I think one of the reasons I think sex work should be destigmatized and legalized and that there should be regulations and protections for sex work is that female sex workers put themselves at extraordinary risk whenever they meet with a male client. In gay male sex work, that equation is reversed and the client is often at much greater risk of violence. This is a book that is interested in power and one of the elements of relationship between the narrator and Mitko is that Mitko has much greater access to violence than the narrator does.

I wanted to also write about sex work in a way that makes clear that sex work as it is described in this book is a face to face transaction between two human beings. I think any face to face encounter between two human beings is going to be a sort of sight of extraordinary richness and of possibility. I wanted to follow this relationship in which, you know, the relationship is absolutely structured and formed and deformed by the transaction with which it starts, but it is not exhausted by that transaction. That transaction does not shut down all possibility of feeling. I was most interested in tracking this relationship in those moments where what they feel for each other or what they might feel for each other overflows the bounds of that transactional structure. I wanted to write a book in which it is clear that both the sex worker and the client are at every moment of their interaction fully human beings. That’s what I wanted to do.

AL: ‘What Belongs To You’ has been credited with giving a voice to the LGBTQ+ experience in Bulgaria. When you wrote this book, did you think about what kind of implications it might have so far as awareness and social justice in Bulgaria and around the world?

GG: You know, while I was writing the book I was deeply invested in activist work in Bulgaria. Both in my school community and more broadly. So I was certainly very aware of the situation of LGBT people in Bulgaria, very aware of the situation of my LGBT students and I was deeply invested in a desire to improve that situation. I was not thinking of this book as an act of representation and I want to be really careful about putting clear limits on the extent to which it is an act of representation. Every point the narrator is aware of himself as a foreigner. It’s very much a foreigner’s book. It’s a book about a particular kind of experience of being queer in Bulgaria. I hope it never sort of claims to be an adequate account of what being queer in Bulgaria is like.

That said, it is a kind of novel that does not exist in Bulgarian. There is not a tradition of queer writing in Bulgarian. One of the things that was interesting to me working in activism in Bulgaria was the extent to which I became aware of how intricate activism and language are and of the challenges of trying to do the work of activism in a language that does not have the resources to support that work because it doesn’t have the history that created the resources and the language like we have in English with the long history of this very long process of articulating rationale for human rights. That just doesn’t exist in Bulgarian. The struggle of racial minorities, the struggle of women, the struggle of sexual minorities of all kinds. This is a long history in English and the language grew over decades to be able to articulate these things and that just doesn’t exist in Bulgarian.

So this novel came out in Bulgarian in October and I was in Bulgaria for the launch. It was a kind of overwhelming experience. It got a lot of attention, I mean, it’s the first book about gay people in Bulgaria to have sex in it. It’s really the first novel in Bulgaria to try to represent any kind of queer community at all. Novels have been translated in Bulgarian that do some of that. I think part of the great privilege of being an American, which I wasn’t aware of until I lived in Bulgaria, was that I could write such a book. I think the first book that does those things in any tradition is almost certainly not going to be received as literature, it’s going to be received as scandal. And I think if I were a Bulgarian writer working in a language with which to start with has eight million speakers, and if I knew that a novel I had worked on for years was going to be seen not as art, not as literature but as a provocation, as scandal, I think that would be devastating to me. As someone who works in English where those battles have all been fought not by me. I just got to receive a language, a tradition in which those battles had been fought. I get to stand on those shoulders.

No English review of this book suggested there was anything scandalous about it. There’s not in our tradition. And it was seen as art, and people evaluated it as art. And so it was not devastating to me to have the book come out in Bulgarian and be asked questions like “Why does a book like this need to exist?”, “Why should people have to see this?”, “Why would you want to talk about this?”, “Why should a book be a provocation?”, “Why should such a thing as gay literature exist?”. Those kinds of questions, questions that writers in English were asked fifty years ago, was not devastating to me. We had the book launch at the National Palace of Culture, just a few meters from where the book begins, in this wonderful literary center that they opened up there. There were over a hundred people who came, many of them queer, many of them young, although many of them old. There were these old gay guys there who came up to talk to me and it was just overpowering. It was a kind of space that i had never experienced before. Like a queer cultural space where people were there to talk about queer stories and queer books. It felt like the most important thing that could possibly ever happen to the book. To sort of occasion that conversation and hopefully have occasioned the production of books that will give much more complex and full and authentic representations of what it means to be queer in Bulgaria written by Bulgarians. We’ll see.

EF: Did you find that setting the novel in Bulgaria further complicated  your writing process at all? Did you struggle to understand Mitko like the main character does because of differences in culture and language?

GG: I don’t think that was a struggle, I think that was the material. That was what interested me. I think Bulgaria somehow made me a fiction writer. I don’t understand what it is, but there was a kind of chemistry with the place. Like I was just so fascinated by it. I so wanted to think about it in that kind of deep and complicated way that fiction allows you to think about something. And I wanted to write a character that while I hope is sort of fully individual and kind of a unique human being also could help me think about certain things like the style of masculinity in the Balkans and that sort of performance of manhood, that also reminded me of the performance of manhood in Kentucky when I was growing up, that allowed me to think about things like just the dumb luck of history. Of how different one's’ life is based on all sorts of things that you don’t earn like where you’re born. I think very much about the fact that my life would be so different if I couldn’t sing and if a high school choir teacher in Kentucky had not hear that I could sing and told me about a school in Interlochen.

In this country there’s a conversation about privilege that’s important and also seems limited to me and has really important blind spots. I had no idea what it meant to be an American until I moved to Bulgaria. I had no idea. I had thought about privilege in all sorts of ways. I had thought about class in lots of ways. I’m a first-generation off the farm kid from Kentucky. When I went to Harvard for my PhD and my first seminar when I was making my first sort of comment on poetry I worked so hard to analyze this poem to have something smart to say to impress this woman who’s work meant the world to me. In the middle of my comment she stopped me because I pronounced the word homogeneous wrong. I said “hom-ogeneous” which is what we say in Kentucky. She gave this lecture about my pronunciation of the word and that was like my first week at Harvard and I was like ‘right, I don’t belong here’. So that issue of class and of how class is scrambled by education, by so much more than just money. I thought about all of that. But I had never thought about what it means to come from a place whose importance in the world is taken for granted. What it means to come from a place where the only thing the whole world can talk about is our President. In Bulgaria, in my last year, people were setting themselves on fire in the streets because they couldn’t put food on their families tables. No one in the West was talking about it. To work with my students who came from a place whose history has been a history of domination and erasure and enslavement. Nobody cares about Bulgaria. When I tell Americans that I lived in Bulgaria, they are as often to laugh as to do anything else. Like “What a strange thing, why would you ever go to that place?”, you know?

Before I learned about the job I applied for in Bulgaria I don’t think I could’ve found Bulgaria on the map. To love my students there and to feel implicated in the place that I think working with young people makes you feel implicated in a place and just to understand what it means. I had no idea because I’m not a deeply patriotic person, quite the contrary. I’m not a sort of jingoistic person, I’m not an American First person. Yet so much of my sense of self is bound up with America. I had no idea. And so I wanted to write about a relationship that would let me think about that too.

GH: I have a follow-up question. You bring up a lot of parallels between your home in Kentucky and in Bulgaria and I was wondering if you could expand a little further on how those parallels affected the writing process and eventually the novel itself?

GG: In terms of the writing process, I don’t quite know how to answer that question except that I kept being surprised. I kept being surprised by what I was writing about. You know, my experience of writing the book was often the experience that the ground opened up beneath me and I found myself in the place I didn’t know what I was gonna be which was often the Kentucky of my childhood. I thought I was writing about Bulgaria and all of a sudden I was writing about my grandmother. What was that about? I think writing the book was trying to figure out what that was about.

I was not aware of any of this when I was writing. This is all thinking back. The second section of the book which is the book about the narrator’s child in Kentucky--I was not planning to write that at all. I had no idea that was coming. That voice and that anger in the voice just seized me by the throat one day when I was walking outside and I went into a cafe and I started scribbling on napkins and scraps of paper. What allowed that to happen was writing the first section of the book and I think what allowed that to happened was tracking this relationship where you have a narrator whose primary understanding of his life has been through the prism of shame. As a response to that I think he is invested in a certain kind of language and a certain elegance of language, a certain shape of sentences, a certain mastery of language and rhetoric. And then he’s in a relationship with someone who takes all of that away from him because he has to speak to Mitko in a language he speaks like a child. That strips away his defenses. That’s a large part. In my own experience of having relationships and friendships in Bulgaria and just living day to day in Bulgaria and having to speak this language that I could barely speak. I think that kind of broke defenses in a way that allowed me to access material that I had really spent most of my life running away from. So in that sense those points of connection between the two places really did crack something. It sort of cracked open something and allowed me to access. That middle section is by far the most autobiographical section even though it’s full of invention. Someone actually just told me, “I know your father has died”, and I’m like, “No, my father’s alive and well” because the middle section is full of invention. The narrator is not me. The geography is mine and some of the most difficult moments are just transcribed between the narrator and his father. Some of those moments are just transcribed from my own life. I don’t think I could have thought of them. I don’t think I could have accessed them without the experience of both being in Bulgaria and writing in Bulgaria.

AL: You’ve mentioned earlier that your poetry had an impact on your fiction. What do you think that impact was and how do you think they interacted and how do you think that poetry helped you in writing your novel?

GG: Well, you know, I don’t know if I could say it helped. I would just say it’s just how I wrote the novel. There’s a lot of the kind of equipment of a fiction writer that I don’t have, I don’t know how to do. I filled in those gaps with what I do know how to do which is lyric poetry. One way I think the approach to the first person narrator is really deeply lyrical. In some ways that annoys the readers who are like “Who is this guy?  What’s his name? Why is he in Bulgaria?” And like, I didn’t deliberately leave that out. I remember there was one inciteful piece about the book was where the critic mentioned “It’s rare to find a young novelist who knows so well what to leave out”. I was like, I didn’t know what to leave out. I just didn’t know you should that stuff in, you know? I was just approaching it as a lyric poet where you just don’t worry about that stuff. That David Copperfield stuff like “I was born…”. I just didn’t worry about it.

Also, I think more profoundly the way that, sort of, narrative logic works in the book is much less about a kind of cause and effect consequence than it is about seeking emotional heat. Seeking these centers of emotional heat. I think that’s the logic of poetry. The novel hangs together to the extent it hangs together not so much through narrative coherence, I mean the middle section doesn’t intersect with the Mitko section at all. It’s just in the middle on its own. There are images, there’s a kind of imagistic logic and echo of images across all three sections that I hope draws together and that’s how a poem builds coherence. Yeah, I think it is a poet’s novel. I don’t know that it helped because things about it that are due to its being a poet’s novel really annoys some readers. But it’s just the kind of novel it is. It’s just its genetic make-up.