Wednesday 16 October 2019

'Self-flagellation feels great... I guess it's my kink' – Andrew Sean Greer is taking his Pulitzer with a pinch of humility

Andrew Sean Greer is taking his new-found success, in the form of a Pulitzer, with a healthy pinch of humility, he tells Caroline O'Donoghue

Forgiveness: Greer says he regrets the sacrifices made while writing his previous novel
Forgiveness: Greer says he regrets the sacrifices made while writing his previous novel

From where I sit, the life of Andrew Sean Greer doesn't look so bad. The Pulitzer Prize-winning author is currently on a worldwide victory lap for Less, his fifth novel, and first mainstream commercial success. We meet for breakfast at a hotel in London's upmarket Mayfair. Greer has just come from India, where he was treated with reverence in Jaipur and Calcutta.

"For them, it was like meeting a celebrity," he says, amazed.

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But you are a celebrity, I say. You've written a bestselling novel. You've won the most prestigious literary prize in the world, and you're only 48. And, on top of that, you're a gay man, therefore in a class of author who usually have to be dead or closeted to be appreciated.

"Meanwhile," he replies. "My hotel room…"

Not good?

"First I started off with a blank wall with a curtain in front of it. And I thought: Am I the kind of writer who is going to call down and complain because I don't have a window? Or am I the kind of writer who finds it funny that they don't have a window, and it forces them to go outside and experience more? Or am I the kind of writer who moves the lamp behind the curtains and turns it on the morning so it seems like there's sunlight?"

Which one were you?

"All three."

Greer is enjoying his success the way you enjoy the sudden inheritance of a distant relative. He has been publishing books long enough to know that the success and failure of a book is utterly random.

"It's wonderful. It's ridiculous. It's absurd," he says, clearly tickled by the whole thing. "But what's nice is having had enough failures, I can watch this with some humility. I've been on the other end. Where you're not up for a prize, and you'll never write again, you wrote a piece of crap, you can't believe it's out there, you're super embarrassed.... I've been on that end, and there's something very arbitrary about it all. Because now, I'm this great writer? It's so arbitrary. It's kind of like being invited to the cool kid's party in high school because you have a great car now. And you're like… y'know what, I should remember my friends who took me to their not-so-cool parties. But I'm still glad to be at this party, and also, I know I might not be back.

"If you had told me at 29 that I was going to win the Pulitzer Prize, I would have said: 'Well, of course'," he says. "And if you had told me last year, I would have laughed, and laughed, and laughed."

The novel documents the struggles of a mid-list, middle-aged author named Arthur Less. His career lives in the shadow of his ex-partner, the esteemed (and ironically, Pulitzer-winning) poet Robert. We meet Less as he spends his 50th year bouncing from minor literary event to minor teaching role, going from Mexico, to Italy, to Germany, to Morocco, and finally Japan. While that short plot outline might suggest a kind of moping "woe is me" tale we're accustomed to seeing from men of a certain age, the book is wonderfully funny. Much like Muriel Spark, Greer manages to deliver a quietly absurd story in a book that - while technically short and quippy - still packs an emotional punch. We examine the life of the failing novelist, but we're never encouraged to feel sorry for him.

"After the publication of my last book, The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells, which just…" Greer trails off, clearly wanting to say "bombed" but not crass enough to say so. "I took too long to write it. I went into debt for it. I let down a lot of people in my life to go away to writers' residencies. I missed birthdays, cancelled interviews at the last minute, I trashed everything in order to get the book done. And then it failed. And I was so… ashamed that I thought it was worth it. To sacrifice everything, other people's expectations, in order to write the book. I thought 'when it comes out, they'll understand'. It was mostly that I let people down. It was pretty awful."

Greer laughs at Arthur Less because it's a way for him to laugh at his own life. And to laugh at his own behaviour is, in a way, a way of forgiving himself for it. "Self-flagellation feels great. I guess its my kink!"

While Less is a comic book, there's a deep emotional core to it. Arthur Less is a man who does not know how to grow up because gay men of his generation were not given the tools to know how. The generation above both Less and Greer were decimated by the AIDs crisis, and Less's fear of his 50th birthday is compounded by the sense that society doesn't know what to do with an ageing twink.

"They told us we could get it from 'deep kissing'," Greer says sardonically. "Whatever that is?"

"We watched people dying. By 1989, I was in college and 'deep kissing' boys, and we just didn't know what to do. There was no treatment at all. My generation survived, but the graduate students didn't make it. The professors. They didn't make it. I'm not old enough to have lost all my friends, but I do know people that did. I don't ask them about it. But whenever I meet a gay man in his 60s, I think…."

You're a unicorn?

"Yes. I think 'my god, what you went through'. I have great respect for them, and for women. For the lesbian women who took care of them, at a time when they were fighting for their own feminism. They stepped away from their own fight and took care of the men. I wish gay men could feel the same about women in the present fight for women's rights, and reproductive fights. I wish gay men would remember that."

Greer is frustrated by the way many gay men of his own age tend to socialise. "Their Instagrams are just all gay men on the beach with the same beard!" he says.

"Maybe it's because I was raised by a lesbian," he says brightly. "I came out to my parents, and later that night, my mother came out to me.

"She had been so unhappy for years. You could tell that she was just angry. And then, she came out, it all made sense, and she was so much happier. I would chaperone her on dates. We would get a drink at a gay bar together. I got to see this part of my mother. She stopped being this adult person who gave me commands. She was vulnerable. She was looking for love, for physical affection in a new way. And she was 41, which seemed old at the time, but now I realise is a time where you can still feel young enough to experiment with these things."

As our over-priced Mayfair breakfasts are taken away and Greer's publicist arrives to whisk him to a book signing, we wish each other well.

"It's glamour or it's cold tuna sandwiches at home," he says, gesturing at our opulent surroundings. "But I think it's good. It keeps us on our toes. It makes us aware that this isn't normal."

'Less', published by Abacus, is out now

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