A poet’s novel: in conversation with Garth Greenwell

On a recent visit to Cape Town, Garth Greenwell chatted with ALEXANDER MATTHEWS about writing prose, poetry and his acclaimed debut novel, What Belongs to You.Garth Greenwell What Belongs to You is one of the best novels I’ve read in a long time – so brilliant, so haunting, piercing open some private, tender part of myself with a painful precision that, at times, made it difficult to read.

When I heard its author, Garth Greenwell, was coming to Cape Town for Open Book Festival, I knew I had to meet the man who wrote it. I meet him in the lobby of his hotel; we head out into the breezy sunshine in search of a lunch spot. In the end, we settle for an Italian restaurant overlooking Cape Town’s Bree Street. I dive into the questions almost immediately, by asking when he knew he wanted to be a writer.

“It was the first thing I wanted to be when I was a kid,” he replies. “I had two older siblings and I remember being so jealous that they could read and I was so eager to learn to read… I loved stories.”

The urge to write faded as he grew older. “For a long time I didn’t write anything; I didn’t have any real connection to the arts.” Then he studied opera singing in high school and university and this, he says, “took me back to art, and took me back to writing. Opera I think is really important to how I think about narrative. I encounter in music much more than anywhere else what seems to me like the ideal of art.”

For a long time, art “has been central to my sense of the source of value and meaning in my life,” he says, admitting to “very romantic notions about art as a calling and as a source of a system of value that stands in contradistinction to the system of value that is capitalist commodity culture”.

For Greenwell believes in “the whole Matthew Arnold art-as-replacement-for-religion shtick” but doesn’t think it’s limited merely to writing. “What seems important to me is access to that system of value and a way of trying to understand one’s experiences as deeply as possible” – it doesn’t matter whether that’s through poetry or music or sculpture

Over 15 years, Greenwell published “a lot” of poems and poetry criticism but never a collection. After dropping out of a PhD course at Harvard, he finished a manuscript when he first arrived in Bulgaria to teach English at the American College of Sofia. He put these poems away, thinking he would take a break before returning to revise them. “And instead I started writing [What Belongs to You] – and it really was that I just started hearing sentences that I could feel were not broken into lines. It was very disconcerting to me because I was so attached to the identity of poet.”

When he finished what would become first the section of the novel, called Mitko, “I just felt very strongly that it kind of destroyed the poems. And I haven’t wanted to go back and write poems – all of the projects that I imagine are projects in prose.”

“One of the things that made prose able to accommodate things that poetry couldn’t accommodate for me is the question of training,” he says. With a poetry MFA from Washington University in St Louis, as well as a MA in English and American Literature from Harvard, he was “really well educated as a poet – to the point that basically any choice I made as a poet I felt like had a kind of lineage – I could think of another poet who had done it.” He adds: “I had all of this language for craft, and all of this knowledge of the moves that a poem could make, and in prose I didn’t have any of that because I had never studied prose, I had never written prose for anything other than scholarship.”

Being in a space where you don’t know what you’re doing, “where you don’t even have a measure for failure or success because you don’t understand enough to know what those things would be”, he says, “was really valuable to me as a writer of fiction.”

Poetry fed into his prose “in a lot of ways,” he says. “Because I lacked all sorts of equipment that fiction writers have, I think I made do with the equipment I did have”. What Belongs to You is, to him, “a poet’s novel in a lot of ways”.

While he’s drawn to the syntax of Henry James and Proust (who both “attempt to try to dramatise and act out and embody the shape of thinking as an action, not of thoughts as discrete things”), he thinks the novel “owes even more to poets” – especially the Latin poetry he studied, and American poets such as Carl Phillips and Jorie Graham. “The way I think of scene is quite indebted to a kind of lyric shape,” he says. “I think the way the book makes use of time is quite lyric.” This happened subconsciously, he says: “It wasn’t anything I was thinking about.”What Belongs to You

The protagonist, too, is “quite mysterious” – he “doesn’t deliver certain information about himself that you would expect in a novel [and] I think that’s because for lyric speakers you don’t have those expectations.”  When you’re reading a poem, you’re not busy wondering why someone’s ended up in Bulgaria, he says. “Poems are interested in seeking out emotional intensities and intellectual intensities and are not really too worried with the nuts and bolts of cause-and-effect-based plot.”

Greenwell, who wrote the entire novel while he was living in Sofia, describes Mitko as “a self-contained narrative – it has a full narrative arc in the relationship between these two men” (one an American teacher of English, the other a rent boy he finds while cruising a public lavatory).

“When I had that, I didn’t know what it was or what to do with it,” he remembers. He showed it to his only fiction writer friend, who said that because it was too long for a magazine but too short to be a standalone title, he should send it to Miami University Press, which has a novella prize. When it ended up winning this in 2010, Greenwell thought the piece “would be a standalone thing” and that he’d go back to writing poetry.

Instinct had other ideas, however: he was seized by a voice. He allowed “it to take me to places I had no intention of going – I had no intention of writing about childhood or Kentucky in the 90s or being a queer person there… It seems so kind of coy and mysterious but it’s really true that I wrote the book sentence-by-sentence without a sense of a grand idea. Sometimes, with a sense of a particular scene, that something would happen – kind of like beats; I might have the three key moments of a scene on a Post-It note beside my notebook, but that would be all. And then there was just sentence by sentence, trying to stay true to the moment-by-moment of what was happening between these two men.”

I ask if the events described in the novel were happening in real time; was it a bit like working on a diary?

“It wasn’t,” he replies. “In large part that was because I really had so little time to work on it. It took me a long time to write the book and part of the reason is that I was teaching high school full-time, so I was waking up at 4.30 to write for two hours before class and so the book inched forward.”

What gave him the discipline to get up at that ungodly hour, I ask.

In the past, “the idea of a writing routine was really kind of repellent to me,” he says, “because it is so painful to sit and not write. It was fine for me to go weeks without writing a poem and then I would spend a weekend where I would do nothing else, I would like sweat it out, I wouldn’t leave my apartment or shower…”

In his first year of teaching high school, he didn’t write a word, he says, “and that really freaked me out”. He realised that if he was going to be serious about it, he needed to write every day. He tried initially in the evenings, but felt “fried” and so started writing in the mornings instead. Initially he had no idea at all that the scribblings would be a novel. Placing words on the page was important “not because of a product but because the day-to-day practise of it really became crucial to my sense of okayness”, he says. Writing “is when I’m most in communion with myself.”

“One of the reasons I’ve been so bewildered” in the months following the book’s publication is “because I’ve haven’t been able to write on the road,” he says. “I’m a super-super-anxious person all the time.”

When working on a project, the “beginning is always anxious and ending is always anxious but the middle section when you’re just sort of turning the page, filling a few lines every day, inching forward, that’s the only part of writing I enjoy and I enjoy it because it’s that practise more than anything else that helps me manage anxiety.”

“All of the external questions that sometimes plague me – like questions of success and questions of publishing – those things just totally fall away. It just feels like I’m doing the real work, I’m doing what I should be doing, and I almost never feel that.” When he’s not writing, he’s “always questioning – I never feel like I’m in the right place, I’m always anxious that there’s some other place I should be in, some other thing I should be doing, some other book I should be reading. But when I’m writing, I don’t feel any of that.”

I ask about the autobiographical nature of the book – does writing about things close to home offer catharsis?

“The book is full of invention and it’s not in any way a sort of transcription of reality… but it does draw on experience; my experience of [Sofia], my experience of my childhood, especially, in the second section,” he replies. “I do think anytime you can take a painful experience and make art of it, there’s a way in which you become grateful to the experience, you become grateful for having been able to make a thing.”

Despite this, though, he says, “It’s not the kind of the work I would imagine one doing in therapy where one really tries to look a truth hard, or look at an experience hard and face-on, and work through it. That’s not what it feels like. You’re creating something separate from you, and then, as you shape it, the questions that lie behind the shaping are not therapeutic questions, they’re aesthetic ones.”

Arriving at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, he already had a full manuscript; it was only the third section he workshopped in the novel workshop facilitated by Lan Samantha Chang, the programme director. He did make some revisions based on feedback received there, but nothing major. His agent sold the book in his second semester.

While he’s writing, “I try not to prune or withhold anything – I just try to be as self-indulgent as possible – the slightest little squiggle of thought I want to follow I’m going to follow it and then that does mean that pruning and cutting is the main revision activity.”

In the summer between the two years of his MFA, he edited the book with his editor, the “brilliant” Mitzi Angel. Between the two of them they culled about 18,000 words.

“She, in this sort of hyper-sensitive way, put pressure on every moment and every clause and sort of said, ‘this doesn’t hold up’ or ‘cut it and make it better’ – that was such luck, that the book found an editor that was willing to lavish time and that also had the right sensibility and was tuned to the right frequency and was just the right editor for the book. It was a collaborative thing, I’m very grateful to her – it would be a much, much, much poorer book without her.

“It was very intense and very emotionally hard,” he recalls. “She’s quite a firm, assertive editor… she just made me work really hard and I was scared about this question of what is the meaningful eccentricity and then what is a deforming self-indulgence? What are the things that make a book distinctive and what are the things that make a book flawed? And that’s hard and I don’t think there are absolute right answers. So I think it is just about finding an editor who understands your sensibility and the vision you have of a book better than you do and can see that better than you can.”

A gay couple lunching next to us recognise Greenwell, and interrupt us to lavish praise on his work. Greenwell responds with heartfelt thanks. I ask if the praise he’s been getting for the novel (it’s been listed as a best book of the year by more than 50 publications in nine countries and hailed as a “masterpiece” by Edmund White) has put pressure on him.

“I think probably most artists have a void of doubt and despair and I don’t feel like any of the commentary about the book has even touched that – that feels very secure and solid and not going anywhere,” he replies. “When you face a page, you’re facing a page. Something that the New York Times said about your book isn’t going to help.”

Narrating the audio book recently involved him reading through the book for the first time since sending in the last edits. “I was scared to read it from beginning to end again,” he says, but doing so made him realise the book was solid, like it was the book he wanted to write. “I’m glad – I’m really relieved that I feel that. I believe in the book, but I don’t believe in the things the people say about the book. I’m so grateful that the book got attention because almost no book does.”

“There were responses to the book that did feel very moving to me,” he says. Among these was Damon Galgut’s review for The Nation. “I’ve revered him for years.” His novel, In a Strange Room, “really did unlock some of the problems of my own book for me,” he says. “I feel like I owe him a great deal.”

How did Galgut’s novel helped with unlocking? I ask.

With its structure, he replies. He had been struggling with a sense that the three sections forming his own work were separate pieces, with the childhood middle section interrupting a continuous narrative of the first and third. And yet, he still felt “there was a kind of gravity that held the pieces together”. Reading In a Strange Room he could see that it was “so clearly a novel and yet is made up of these three chunks that are not narratively continuous and yet there’s a kind of gravity in the book, there’s a deep coherence, and structural and imagistic echoes in the book that to me very clearly make it one thing that is greater than the sum of its parts”. Seeing this “was really freeing”.

He also appreciated “the confidence of some of the formal risks [Galgut’s] book takes, the confidence of its reticence – the confidence of its withholding things from the reader and just its implicit faith that the reader would be able to handle that. All of that was just so heartening and enabling for me in my own project.”

Other writers working today that he admires include Colm Tóibín and Alan Hollinghurst, and Lydia Yuknavitch. There are three traditions of writing that he hopes his book is in conversation with. The first is poetry, the second is “the novel of consciousness – especially the three writers who to me are my holy trinity of modern prose styles which are Thomas Bernhard, WG Sebald, and Javier Marias”. He defines this tradition as “the attempt to write in a very deeply immersive way – to immerse the reader in the experience of another person’s consciousness”.

Then there is “the tradition of queer writing that overlaps to a very great extent with the tradition of the novel of consciousness” – that includes Proust, Henry James, Virginia Woolf and James Baldwin.

“I’m drawn to careers, to writers who feel like they make carefully structured books with a kind of architectural integrity about them that are like well-made objects but are also like chapters in an ongoing book,” he says, again citing Proust, Sebald and Marías.

“I have no idea whether that will feel like an appealing model 10 years from now, but right now it does, and the two books I’m working on, I think they are of a piece with What Belongs to You. They’re still interested in queer communities, they’re interested in the queer sexual body, and writing sex – actually much more intensely than in the [first] novel.”

What draws him to explore these themes, I ask.

They’re “the urgent things I want to explore and think through,” he says. “I want to write about the queer community that I think has become hard to write about”; he wants to write about “cruising places”, and “sex as a kind of thinking – that’s the thing I think is often missing. In one way we live in a world that’s just utterly drenched in sex and obviously the internet has given us access to representations of sex unlike at any other time – but it seems to me that we’re surrounded by images of bodies but there’s a real dearth of embodiedness – of the experience of being in a body, the experience of being a consciousness in a body, the experience of being a person in relation with other human persons. Sex as an occasion of ethical regard.”

He believes that even ephemeral encounters, or sex of a fetishistic or non-normative nature involves “acts of intimacy between human persons that engage with the whole gamut of ethical and emotional response. That’s just what interests me.”

My phone’s battery is about to die, our plates are empty, and an afternoon of panel discussions awaits. And so, reluctantly, I stop the recording, and ask for the bill. We discuss his plans. He has found the last few days in Cape Town “especially wonderful” – and would love to return, perhaps for a stint of teaching. After a few weeks back home in Iowa, he’s on the road again, headed to Bulgaria, rounding off a book tour that began almost 10 months ago. He’s looking forward to returning to a far more sedentary life after this – back at his desk, quietly working.

“It has really freaked me out how far publishing a book takes you away from writing – I feel farther away from writing than I’ve ever felt,” he says.

What Belongs to You is published by Picador.

WORK/LIFE: Paige Nick

Paige Nick

Paige Nick’s novels include Dutch Courage, This Way Up and A Million Miles from Normal (which is also the name of her popular Sunday Times column). A copywriter who has worked on brands such as Santam, BMW and Nashua, over more than two decades, she’s also is one third of the Helena S. Paige trio, whose first choose your own adventure erotic novel, A Girl Walks into a Bar, launched in 2013.

What does “writing” mean?

Sitting down and beating off every other distraction to get your words down for the day, every day. Whether they’re for a book, column, or an ad for coffee beans.

Which book changed your life?

When I was 11, I took The Never Ending Story, by Michael Ende, out of my library. It was the first “proper” book I ever read, because it had so many pages. I was completely absorbed by it. That was when I first discovered that I had magical powers, and I could make the whole world disappear, and a new one form in front of my eyes. All I had to do was open a book.

Your favourite fictional character?

Ooh tough one, so many to choose from. It’s somewhere between Winnie-the-Pooh and Alice in Wonderland.

What are you working on at the moment?

I just finished my ninth novel, Unpresidented. It’s a political satire, set in the future. The president of South Africa, Jeremiah Gejeyishwebisa Muza, has just been released from prison early on medical parole for an ingrown toenail. Entirely fictional of course.

Describe your workspace.

Whereever I am at any given moment.

Paige Nick's Workspace

The most important instrument you use?

Easily my laptop, closely followed by my brain.

What’s your most productive time of day?

I think the best author preparation, has been spending the last twenty-three years with a full-time job as a copywriter in ad agencies. I’ve learnt mental toughness, a resilience to feedback and criticism, and most importantly, I’ve learnt how to be productive at any given moment, and how to squeeze in an hour of writing anywhere I get a gap in the day; whether it’s morning, noon, night, or later that same night.

What do you do when you’re stuck, or not feeling creative?

A run almost ALWAYS helps me untangle a plot knot. I also rely heavily on a handful of really amazing (and patient) writing friends. We discuss mental traffic jams, which often unloops me too.

How do you relax?

I don’t think I’ve been properly relaxed since my first novel came out in 2010. But to partially unwind, I run, travel, hang out with friends, have sex, and watch the most disgustingly brain-dead TV series, which I’d be too embarrassed to name in public.

Who and what has influenced your work?

Sarah Lotz, international author, and powerhouse of inspiration constantly influences my work, because I’m constantly picking her brain. There are others to add to the list too; my amazing editor Helen Moffet, and other writer friends, Edyth Bulbring, Rahla Xenopoulos and Yewande Omotoso. But I know that’s not what you’re asking.

I read widely, or rather, as widely as possible, given the time-drought we find ourselves in. But I don’t know who influences my work. Of course Sex & the City influenced my early colums, but my novels seem to be coming from so many different places right now that it’s hard to pinpoint any specific influence.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given?

“Nobody cares that you only had the weekend.”

It’s the headline from a print ad from the 70s or 80s for an advertising awards show, and I need to dig it out of my archives again. The copy went to talk about how excuses don’t matter. At the end of the day, the only thing that matters is the work and how good it is.

This was reitterated by writing coach Sarah Bullen who once told me that you can watch a TV series/go out/sleep/read OR you can have a novel. It’s your choice.

These thoughts play over and over in my mind while I’m mired in a draft of a new novel.

Your favourite ritual?

Probably making tea, sharpening pencils and checking social media and my email obsessively. I do that several times, then get down to work.

What’s the hardest thing about writing?

Other than the self-hatred and angst when you’re in the middle of it? It’s got to be the market. It’s so freaking flat, I can’t stand it. You work yourself to death to sell a couple thousand books. For what? I can’t stop doing it, but I know I probably should.

What do you dislike most about yourself?

God, how long do you have? We may need a longer page.

What are you afraid of?

Again, I think I need more ink on this one. I have a lot of fear and anxiety. Mostly to do with failure and death, in that order.

What advice would you give to people starting out in a writing career?

It’s the most boring advice in the world. Write.

What’s the thing you’re proudest of doing?

Dutch Courage (Penguin SA, 2016) was the hardest book I’ve ever written, because it was so far out of my comfort zone and realm of reference. It took me four years and two overseas trips to research and write, while all my other books have come out of me in six months to a year. But more than that, I’m proud of where I am. I’ve worked really really hard for this life, and it’s one thousand per cent the one I want to live, and I think there is much merit and some luck in that.

WORK/LIFE: Craig Higginson

Craig Higginson

Craig Higginson is an internationally acclaimed writer and theatre director. His novels include Last Summer (2010) and The Landscape Painter (2014) which, like 2015’s The Dream House, won the UJ Prize for South African Literature in English. His published plays include Dream of the Dog, The Girl in the Yellow Dress, The Jungle Book and Little Foot.

What does “writing” mean?

There are many kinds of writing – and you are a different kind of writer for each of these activities – like playing a range of musical instruments. But when I call myself a writer I am talking about the real activity – the one that ignites me in a place that no other activity does. When I’m writing for TV, I am writing my way into something outside of me – helping it along the way with a word or two of support or encouragement. But when I sit down to try and follow my own internal wood grain – which is as specific and un-chosen and unique as an internal thumbprint – then I am writing in the true sense. This kind of writing is about trying to fit untested language into an untested situation. You are going in the opposite direction of the already-written (which is the direction so much TV writing in South Africa tends to go in). Of course, most writing as a writer is an act of rewriting – of working through another draft, of going down a pathway you have already travelled before. But each draft is a new journey and the landscape around you has always shifted, so there are always new and surprising things to be found along the way.

What book changed your life?

It sounds pretentious, but Ulysses made me think I could be a novelist instead of a poet. Or, more specifically, that a novel can be a great poem. That some of our greatest poems are not, in fact, going as poems, but are novels – and are symphonic, narrative-driven prose poems.

What are you working on at the moment?

An adaptation of John le Carre’s novel The Mission Song for two UK-based production companies.

Describe your workspace.

It’s a little room that extends off our bedroom. It’s elevated above the ground and has light coming in from three sides and wooden shutters separating me from the bedroom. I have started painting again so there are two desks – one for writing and one for painting.

Craig Higginson

The most important instrument you use?

My computer, I suppose. I also have a lamp next to my computer and the first thing I do when I sit down to write is switch it on. I switch it off when I’m done. It’s only ever on when I’m writing. These small rituals help to give one a sense of structure – without which the act of writing might appear too frightening – like a boat in a dark sea with no paddle.

What’s your most productive time of day?

The morning – when I’m still fresh. I have about 45 minutes of gold dust in me each new day – and if I write straight after dropping my daughter off at school I can use it – and transmute it. But if something gets in the way first, if I sit down a bit later, I find the gold dust is often gone. If I try to carry on with my novel or poem in these circumstances, I am in danger of sounding or feeling like just anyone else.

What do you do when you’re stuck, or not feeling creative?

We usually get stuck when we don’t know what story we are telling. I don’t force things. If I’m tired or disconnected I do something else. I aim to write for an hour or so each morning but I often fail at it. But I try again and – to quote Beckett – I try to fail better.

How do you relax?

I watch TV series, I drink wine or whisky, I walk, I go to the gym, I try to sleep for at least seven hours – but I never quite relax.

Who and what has influenced your work?

The worst things that happen to me – and the least happy things I have experienced in my life – often get made into a novel or a play – even if indirectly. I write in order to survive, to make sense of things that have felt senseless – that have, at their worst, made me want to be dead. I use these places to start something afresh – like the first leaves after a veld fire. They are brighter and softer and have more space to grow thanks to the devastation that has passed through there not long before. But as Bernice Rubens once said to me: You must write with yesterday’s blood. So I am influenced by my own life and the lives around me – and I have wanted to push light back into those places that have grown – or are growing – dark.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given?

Peter Shaffer said he wrote first and researched later. In other words: give yourself the opportunity to imagine before concerning yourself too much with what other people have imagined.

Your favourite ritual?

Switching on that lamp.

What’s the hardest thing about writing?

How long do you have? I suppose the hardest thing about it is protecting it – making sure that nothing else comes in the way of it. There are a thousand forces inside you and all around you constantly encouraging you not to do it, to do something else – something easier, something more urgent.

What do you dislike most about yourself?

I am all about middle spaces so it’s always hard for me to isolate one thing above anything else. I also think there are many versions of me – and some I dislike more than others. I find it impossible to watch myself on video or hear myself talk in public. I think: Who is that awkward man with the large staring eyes and indeterminate accent? Who does he think he’s speaking to and why does he imagine they’re listening? I prefer my private selves to my public ones – as I have the illusion that I have more say over who those selves might be.

What are you afraid of?

Dying before I have written a good book. Dying before my daughter is grown up and able to look after herself. Dying before I’m dead. The third is especially difficult to achieve: to keep yourself open to the world, experiencing things as if for the first time. It’s perhaps difficult because you have to keep doing it, refreshing it, re-inventing yourself each time in order to encounter yourself. We run out of selves, we use them up too quickly when we’re young – and then we have to do what we can with the selves that are left to us, which grow heavy, and weigh us down with their aches and pains and their difficult questions.

What advice would you give to people starting out in a writing career?

Not to listen to the advice of those who have come before. Each person must bash through their own bundu and discover their own landscapes.

What’s the thing you’re proudest of doing?

Not giving up.

The Dream House is published by Picador Africa. Read our review here

 

POEM: Writing you small

BY MANTHIPE MOILA

My legs go numb at the news that you’re going to be a father
After ten months of learning how to breathe without you,
one and a half conversations are all it takes to clog my throat,
to send my whole system spiralling
My hands need somewhere to be

And so here I am – writing you small
writing you manageable
editing you tolerable
You are a poem now
I can manipulate out of you the sharp edges that scratch at me
I have the license to make you whatever shape I want
I can turn your cruelty against you, dip you in irony so complete
that you won’t be able to recognise yourself
I can tell myself that we were sentences long,
That, at best, a few pages ought to do us justice
I can turn us, all we were into a metaphor
that ends with this:

You have locked me into myself
I don’t open the mail anymore
I’ve sealed the windows shut with glue and paint
Locked all the doors
Made sure the keys are hard to reach
The curtains are drawn
Outside is only for near-starvation
Until then, I’ll make music to keep me company
I can make my own heat
I can make my own love