At the start of the February California Book Club event to discuss Less, CBC host John Freeman noted that almost nobody writes about the experience of love as well as Andrew Sean Greer does. He asked Greer what his state of mind was when writing Less, which is a tonal departure from previous books.
Greer responded that the “greatest impetus of creativity is utter failure or the perception of utter failure.… Nobody’s watching and it doesn’t matter anymore.” He’d had great success with The Confessions of Max Tivoli, one of several earlier novels, but it felt as if things were falling apart and he was scrambling to pay the bills. Working on Less, he thought, “I guess I’m just going to have a good time.” He threw away the first version of the book, a serious novel about a sad, lonely man in his 50s in San Francisco. He wanted to write about joy. “The only way to get to joy is to hit the bottom somehow,” Greer said. “That was my goal as author was to just torture my main character as much as I could.” He thought about joy at the sentence level.
Freeman noted that from the beginning of Greer’s writing life, he’s had a lot of time-travel moments, writing himself into middle-life characters in his 20s and writing about time both as a subject and as a space. Greer explained that 15 years ago, he would have said his subject matter was love and the passage of time and how love changed over time. Now, he is more interested in “people changing or not changing over time.” In Less, Greer said, he had performed a thought experiment: “What if you were always the young one in relationship with someone older, and then you got to middle age and because with gay men there isn’t the power dynamic of male-female, suddenly you’re in this other mode.… What would that feel like? Off-putting.”
Freeman brought Michael Chabon on to talk to Greer. They’ve been friends for 20 years. Chabon noted that he’d known Greer when he was writing the book and that you could feel the moment when he was onto something. Greer had found his way to a voice and a perspective. Of Greer’s Pulitzer for Less, Chabon said that “if one were trying to set out to write a book that you thought might win a Pulitzer Prize potentially, the worst possible way to do that is to write a book that’s funny.” When he and his wife heard the news that Greer had won the Pulitzer for Less, they made a list of genuinely funny books that had won; it was a short list.
When Greer found out about the prize, he was in Italy, and his boyfriend, Enrico, had shown him the San Francisco Chronicle, which announced that a local author, Andrew Sean Greer, had won. At the time, his phone had a million messages from Chabon and Chabon’s family. Greer said, “I had just persuaded an incontinent pug to put on some diapers that I’d ordered from China that had suspenders.… Margaret Atwood was coming, and I didn’t want the dog pooping at the dinner table.”
Chabon’s advice to Greer at the time of the win: “to enjoy the hell out of it.”
When he returned, Freeman asked Greer what he would tell himself if he were just starting out with his debut, a short story collection. Greer said, “I would just tell him to be weird. Not to try to write to get into the New Yorker to fit into some category but to go for it. That’s what took me a long time to learn.” While not everyone will love a good book, Greer said, “What’s hard is that you have to then be mature enough to know what you want to do, to know yourself, to be yourself.”
Freeman asked what made Greer capable of feeling at home in his own skin, the feeling that starts to settle on his character Arthur Less. Greer explained that his emotional life is in the writing. He got to be comfortable around the time he met writers like Chabon, like Freeman, who didn’t seem to think he was particularly weird.
Referring to a character that Arthur meets who remarks that it’s weird to be 50, Freeman asked about whether Greer had become aware that the territory of middle age is bigger than he’d expected it to be.
Greer responded, “When you’re young, it seems like not the middle but absolutely the end. There’s no way that anything could happen from 50 to 80 that isn’t identical.” He said that the great peace of middle age was not having to perform in the same way. “Mostly because you’re not trying to be in the club and be sexy or try to show off for this thing because…either they don’t care, or it’s too late, or it already happened.… It doesn’t feel like it’s too late for anything. I thought it would. But it actually feels like I have time.”•
Join us on Zoom on Thursday, March 16, at 5 p.m. Pacific time, when Isabel Allende will join Freeman to discuss The House of the Spirits. Please drop by the Alta Clubhouse to let us and your fellow book club members know your thoughts about the novel. Register here for the event