Garth Greenwell’s first novel, What Belongs to You (FSG, 2016), received the British Book Award for Debut of the Year and was longlisted for the National Book Award. He is currently working on a short story collection that follows the unnamed narrator of What Belongs to You beyond the events of the novel. Greenwell recently visited Ohio State University to teach a weekend workshop on voice in fiction; there, he met with MFA student Scott Broker for the following interview, which focused on place, transgression, and the “real life of literature,” among other topics.
Greenwell began with a consideration of MFA programs themselves: their advantages, limitations, and potential spaces of improvement.
Garth Greenwell: The single reform I would make of MFA programs would be a serious and rigorous language requirement. Every major advance in English literature has happened because of a collision or a creative encounter with another language [and] it does worry me a little bit that when I talk to American writers, I don’t feel that there’s the same kind of openness to the kind of breadth of reading and linguistic competence that allows you to see that the game being played in mainstream American fiction is one game among many.
Scott Broker: This idea of collision ties in well with your own creative practice, as What Belongs to You and the new story collection both emerged from your time living in Bulgaria. I’m curious about this relationship and how much of the import, for you, is in Bulgaria being Bulgaria, and how much of it is in Bulgaria simply being somewhere other than the United States.
GG: The surprise to me, just on a human level, is that I had no inclination toward Bulgaria. Before I interviewed for the job, I probably could not have found Bulgaria on a map—to my shame. I wanted to be abroad, I wanted to get out of the United States for a while, and I went to Bulgaria because there was a job there. So I do think the draw, at first, was just “somewhere that is not here,” but then I very quickly became invested in Bulgaria as a particular place, and also as a place that had unsettling resemblances with the place where I’m from.
There’s an interesting conversation to be had here around the idea of the exotic. We’re at a moment in that conversation when we have a sense that to see or treat something as exotic is fundamentally problematic. And it is problematic, in the way that I think any human activity is problematic. But I actually think that the experience of strangeness, to which we give the label “exotic,” is a really important and fundamental human experience that should not simply be dismissed as colonialist. That said, I hope very much that Bulgaria in the book is not treated exotically. I wanted to see this place through this particular character’s eyes, in a way that was true, that was not just the projection of a sort of exoticized version of the Orient, nor of a kind of demonized version of Eastern Europe. I wanted instead to look at the daily life of this character, in this place, in a way that was attentive enough to particularity to challenge any kind of preconception or myth one might have about the place. But also, clearly, there is a dichotomy of “here” and “away,” which is one reason why the novel and stories are very consciously narratives of a foreigner and narratives of foreignness. But I hope they are not tourist narratives, because I think that to be a tourist is to pass through a place without being transformed by it and without being in some way intricate with it, or implicated in it.
SB: Something that strikes me in your work is the presence of boundaries—what boundaries are enforced upon people, what boundaries people enforce upon themselves. So many scenes happen at the threshold between spaces, and though we do have an instinctual pullback from the possibility of exoticization, these moments are always the most complicated, and never feel like they’re being reduced on either side of the equation. Both the narrator and Mitko, who encounter one another first in a bathroom—Mitko as a sex worker, and the narrator as someone seeking out sex—are never stripped of agency. And this makes them responsible for their actions, while also never limiting them to a specific arc.
GG: I wanted to be true to these individuals as individuals, and to be aware of the ways they are situated in forces and structures that are bigger than they are, but also to understand that humanness, and the complexity of human interaction, is never merely exhausted by those structures. I wanted to write about sex work and transactional sex in a way that tried to be adequate to the complexity of sex work and transactional sex, and especially to that work between men, which I do think is structurally different from other sex work between women and men (although that sex work is also more complicated than the stories we tell about it). But between men [in a gay context], I think that sex work does not have the same stigma, in part because the roles in sex work between men are more fluid—it’s not uncommon for a man to be both provider and client over the course of his life. And also in part because transactional sex (and this may be true more broadly, not just in a queer context) is so often ambiguous.
When I was cruising the park when I was 14 in Kentucky, and I would have sex with someone in exchange for a ride somewhere before I could drive—that is transactional sex. And in fact, one of the things that I hope is happening in the book, which is focused on a very particular kind of relationship that is formed and deformed by the transaction from which it begins, is to recognize that issues of transaction are at the heart of all human interaction. All human relationships involve power imbalances, and power imbalances and power dynamics are always much more complicated than the kind of facile structural analysis that we are so frequently engaged in. Sex work is work like any other work, and bodily work like any other bodily work, and it is work that allows for a whole range of human connection, and of human relations, and that allows for agency and dignity.
SB: Right, and I do think something that stands out in your work is how it counteracts certain ideas of what is transgressive. You give transgression its dues in a way that never feels like it’s simplifying certain actions: there is a danger to cruising, of course, but there’s simultaneously a whole other side of it, which is popularly unexplored. And, particularly within a heteronormative framework, it’s so easy to hear about gay men cruising in a park and to reduce that to its least representative parts. You put so much potential within the so-called transgressive act, though. In your Paris Review interview, you talk about the narrator going to the bathroom and the mutual shame and dignity to that gesture, and this concurrence seems sustained throughout the novel.
GG: Thank you, that’s very gratifying to hear. I think any human interactions seem inexhaustibly complex and interesting. And I think we’re kind of terrified of that complexity, so we’re desperate for narratives that allow us to escape that complexity and that iron out ethical wrinkles or ethical realms of uncertainty. I guess this comes back to the question of facile structural analysis. I think there is a fundamental mistake right now in our larger cultural question about the usefulness and the kind of information that structural analysis can give us. [While] it is important to engage in structural analysis and to attempt to see how large structures of, say, inequality—power inequality, economic inequality, representational inequality—constrain individual lives, I fear that we are forgetting that structural analysis is not predictive at an individual level, and that certainly structural analysis does not exhaust what is meaningful in the human. Literature and the literary imagination are precisely devoted to the scale of the individual and the scale of the particular. Human interaction is so packed with information, and the work of literature is to provide a sort of stage for, if not the unpacking of, the contemplation of that information.
In that sense, literature is necessarily opposed to the kind of categorical thinking that is currently animating so much of our public conversation. I say this as someone who is very invested in activism, but it does seem that there is something very important at stake in protecting art from activism, which does not mean pretending that art exists in some apolitical realm. What it does mean is recognizing that activism takes place in the realm of intention, in the realm of conscious act, in the realm of responsibility, and that the language of activism, at least in our current political moment, depends upon a kind of certainty of speech that, to me, is intensely troubling. Whereas art, or the art that I care about, is engaged with impulse, and with the unconscious, and with a realm that—because it is unavailable to conscious intention—is also unanswerable to a certain kind of responsibility. One of the things that has been most troubling to me about speaking about this book over the last two years is the extent to which I have been asked or expected to speak as an activist, and my own reckoning with the fact that the realm of activism and the realm or art making—both of which are essential to my life—do feel that they are in important ways not just separate but even antagonistic. And that’s something I don’t understand fully, and would never want to make a programmatic statement about, but that does trouble me, and is something I’m trying to think through and figure out.
SB: On this idea of categorical thinking, I wonder how you manage the strange dichotomy between wanting to be an openly queer writer and to acknowledge that as an important part of your work, while also dealing with a market that can easily commodify and market that identity. How do you navigate being a writer while having the constant possibility of someone trying to sell you based off of one of these structural categorizations?
GG: My survival strategy is to try to be entirely unaware of the market, and to genuinely try not to think about it. I do think it was very lucky for me that I wrote this novel in conditions of absolute marginalization and solitude: in an apartment in Sofia, without anyone knowing or caring what I was doing, and without any prospect of selling it.
There is something very unnerving in seeing the thing that you worked over in private, and for which your goals were all aesthetic and artistic, turned into a commodity. There is a danger in publishing, which is that the public life of the book can have such a strong center of gravity when you’re in it, and that center of gravity can warp your real values, and can make you worry about things you don’t really care about. I think that’s a real risk and it’s a risk that I do feel, and that I feel desperate to protect myself from, because I know that the public life of a book, and what happens when a book comes out, has nothing to do with the real life of literature, which is unengineerable, unpredictable, unforeseeable. [It] is what happens when a 14-year-old kid pulls Giovanni’s Room off of a shelf and feels like it saves his life. That is the real life of literature. It has nothing to do with the fact that Giovanni’s Room got crushingly bad reviews. It has nothing to do with the fact that it was dismissed. It has nothing to do with what happens in the six months after a book comes out, which is the six months that your publisher cares about. It does require a kind of willful double consciousness to insist on this absurd claim that necessary writing is believing that all that matters is that real life of literature, and not the false life that allows you to feed yourself or make a living. It is a little like Plato’s cave: the shadows are the numbers and the money, and the fire is the art. And you have to stick your hand in it and take the consequences. I guess I really do just believe that. I know that I never want to write a book that feels false to me because I think it will sell. I’d rather be a high school teacher again and write the books that it feels urgently necessary for me to write.
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. His short fiction has appeared in The New Yorker, The Paris Review, A 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.