David L. Ulin: Good evening, everyone. Let me make sure that you can all hear me. I believe you can. That's what the technology is telling me. So how are you? Welcome to tonight's edition of the California Book Club. I'd like to welcome you on behalf of myself, David Ulin. I'm the books editor of Alta Journal on behalf of the journal and also on behalf of the California Book Club. Tonight, we are excited to welcome Andrew Sean Greer. We'll be in conversation about his Pulitzer Prize winning novel, Less, with California Book Club host John Freeman and our special guest, Michael Chabon. John and Andy will chat first. Michael will pop in about halfway through. It's quite the lineup for California Book Club tonight, and I want to thank everybody for being here. It's a real honor to have these writers talking about this marvelous novel.
Speaking of exciting lineups, I have been given the green light to reveal our next four California Book Clubs, which include the three for the next quarter. Next month on March 16th, we will be discussing Isabel Allende's novel, The House of the Spirits, and then in April, on April 20th, Claudia Rankine will be here to discuss Citizen. On May 18th, Percival Everett will be at the California Book Club to discuss his novel Telephone, and on June 15th, Charles Yu will discuss his national book award-winning novel Interior Chinatown. So don't miss any of that. It's a pretty killer lineup if you ask me, and I have no dog in this fight.
Anyway, I want to briefly talk to you a little bit about the California Book Club and our partners. The California Book Club is a monthly book discussion with John Freeman as the moderator, discussing books of the new California cannon. We couldn't do this without the help of a number of partner institutions, bookstores, libraries, publications, et cetera. So let me take a moment to thank Book Passage, Book Soup, Books Inc, Bookshop, Bookshop West Ports Hall, Diesel, A Bookstore, Green Apple Books, the Huntington USC Institute on California and the West, the Los Angeles Public Library, the San Francisco Public Library, Narrative Magazine, Vromans Bookstore, and Zyzzyva Magazine.
Every month, our events and continuous content leading up to each club meeting are free. If you haven't had a chance to read through all the materials that we've posted about Less, you'll want to, and the other books that have been participants in the California Book Club. Don't miss essays from many contributors with reflections on tonight's work. There's an excerpt of Less, there's more. All of this is also included in our weekly California Book Club newsletter, which is also free. So please sign up.
How can you support the work we do, bringing in-depth articles, essays, and interviews with authors like Andy Greer to you? While there's a sale for California Book Club members for just $50, you can get a year of Alta Journal, a California Book Club hat, and one of our upcoming California Book Club books. You can find that offer at altaonline.com/join or also watch tomorrow's email, thank you email for a link to this deal. You can also simply join Alta as a digital member for just $3 a month.
All of that being said, it's a real thrill to introduce tonight's event. I'm going to turn it over to John Freeman now and get the show underway. John?
John Freeman: Thank you, David. Hello, everybody. It's wonderful to be back here for tonight's event with Andrew Sean Greer, who, as many of you know who've been following his career the last almost 25 years, is one of the most dependable delivery systems for readerly pleasure. John Ashbury used to talk about the experience of experience as one of the quarries of poetry, and I think almost no one alive in America writes the experience of experience especially of love quite so well is Andrew Sean Greer.
One of the things Greer so beautiful at doing is describing life in and around San Francisco where he sometimes lives. Many of you will remember this lovely novel, The Confessions of Max Tivoli, at which has a portrait of San Francisco in it in the early 20th century, a brief story of a marriage, takes you to 1953 San Francisco, but for this installment of the California Book Club, we thought we would have the most San Francisco story of all, which is the story of someone who has to leave San Francisco because he's sick of it and he's surrounded by people and ghosts who have been in his past.
As far as literary lore goes, I think this book, Less, which is a comedy about a fool whose lover is marrying someone else, who decides he has to leave town and get away from this marriage and accepts every single lying around invitation he has been receiving as a novelist and starts on a journey around the world, which he takes Odysseus-like and winds his way home passing his 50th birthday along the way.
It is also fantastically one of the most exceptional Babe Ruth moments in literature, which is it is a novel about an eclipsed novelist who was married to someone who won the Pulitzer Prize, which in the course of telling its own story so well won the Pulitzer Prize in 2018. Andrew Sean Greer joins us from New York City where he's visiting a friend, but he will be back soon in California. Andy Sean Greer, please join us.
Andrew Sean Greer: Oh, what a great introduction. That was so charming.
Freeman: It is pretty amazing the fact that this is a novel set in the literary world in which the Pulitzer is so clearly going to be denied, Arthur Less, your hero, who when we meet him on page one is 49 and three quarters, who is about to interview a well-known novelist, which is one of the most thankless tasks except for something like this where you really adore the person you're talking to, and who goes on to win the Pulitzer. So I guess as a place to begin, I don't want to ask you what it was like to go to Disneyland, but can you take us back to your state of mind when you were writing this book because it is a departure from your previous books? It's light as a paper airplane tone. It is your first real comedy in a way. What was leading up to it that pushed you into this new mode?
Greer: I think the greatest impetus for creativity for me is utter failure or the perception of utter failure. I think it's probably good for a lot of people because then you just think nobody's watching and it doesn't matter anymore. I had a great success with Max Tivoli, and then I don't know what happened, but it felt like things were falling apart and I had to scramble to pay the bills and things.
So I was working on a new novel and I was just like, "I guess I'm just going to have a good time. If no one's reading, then I don't have to please anybody." It was a terrible mistake because I would sit and think, "Should I tell this story? This is something that happened to me. It's a little personal." I was like, "No one's going to read. It doesn't matter." So I would just put it in. Now, I look back at the novel and I'm like, "Oh, my God, there's some stuff in there I shouldn't have published," but that was the fun of it.
Freeman: Yeah. I wonder at some point I'm going to have to ask you who is who in this book, and you don't have to say who, but that's my suspicions. We follow Less. If you haven't read the book yet, down to Mexico over to Turin, over to Germany, down to Morocco, and on to India, and into Japan, and through a series of literary gigs. It is a comedy. It is a picaresque, but there are increasing darts of poignancy. He's feeling his mortality. He's grown up as a gay man in San Francisco in the late '80s and early '90s. So he did come to the city when it was reeling from its worst possible moment during the AIDS crisis. I feel like one thing that you've decided in advance is to try to write a novel that was fun and that allowed him pleasure in spite of himself. I wonder if you can talk about creating a character to whom embarrassing things happen, and yet you also allow him to continue to move towards happiness. It seems counterintuitive.
Greer: Well, I think I did. I specifically set out. I will say my first version of this novel, which did not get very far, was a very serious novel about a sad lonely gay man in his 50s in San Francisco and that was just a disaster because who cares about that? That's when I threw it all away and started over and decided I had to make fun of him, but I wanted it to be a book about joy. I thought, "Well, God, that's terrible construct for a novel. How do you get there?" and I thought, "Well, you have to take everything away." The only way to get to joy is to hit the bottom somehow.
So that was my goal as author was to just torture my main character as much as I could, but I thought a lot about joy in terms of, and this will sound so weird to readers, at the sentence level. I thought if I could make it metaphors and overelaborate language and if it could just be fun, a joy to read, it wouldn't feel depressing. It would still feel uplifting because the language would be carrying you along in a musical way and then you would go for it. It was also more fun to write that way.
Freeman: Yeah. At one point, you described the washing machine sound of the ocean, and throughout the book, there are these little detonations that spark happiness in your head and it almost feels like a different way of making images and metaphors. It begins on the first page because you have this narrator who's off stage for most of the book. You don't really learn until the very end of the book who the narrator is. So you bring the reader in from the very beginning into this pack of collusion like, "Let's look at this person. Let's enjoy studying him." I guess I would love if you could just take us to that early page so that we can feel the delicious pleasure of watching someone almost miss his meeting.
Greer: Gladly, and I should say for a book like this, I probably wrote this pretty late in the book when I decided how I wanted to introduce it. Also, I liken a book where I give away the ending at the beginning but you as a reader never know, but people who've read the book, you can see hints at things.
From where I sit, the story of Arthur Less is not so bad. Look at him, seated primly on the hotel lobby's plush round sofa, blue suit and white shirt, legs knee cross so that one polished loafer hangs free of its heel, the pose of a young man.
His slim shadow is in fact still that at his younger self, but at nearly 50, he's like those bronze statues in public parks that despite one lucky knee rubbed raw by school children, discolor beautifully until they match the trees. So has Arthur Less. Once pink and gold with youth faded like the sofa he sits on, tapping one finger on his knee and staring at the grandfather clock, the long Patrician nose perennially burned by the sun even in cloudy New York October. The washed out blonde hair too long on the top, too short on the sides, portrait of his grandfather, those same watery blue eyes.
Listen, you might hear anxiety ticking, ticking, ticking away as he stares at that clock, which unfortunately is not ticking itself. It stopped 15 years ago. Arthur Less is not aware of this. He still believes at his right age that escorts for literary events arrive on time and bellboys reliably wind the lobby clocks. He wears no watch. His fate is fast. It is mere coincidence that the clock stopped at half past six, almost exactly the hour when he has to be taken to tonight's event. The poor man does not know it, but the time is already quarter to 7:00.
As he waits, around and around the room circles a young woman in a brown wool dress, a species of tweed hummingbird pollinating first this group of tourists and then that one. She dips her face into a cluster of chairs asking a particular question. Then dissatisfied with the answer, darts away to find another. Less does not notice her as she makes her rounds. He's too focused on the broken clock.
The young woman that goes up to the lobby clerk, then to the elevator, startling a group of ladies overdressed for the theater, up and down Less' loose shoe goes. If he paid attention, perhaps he would've heard the woman's eager of question, which explains why though she asked everyone else in the lobby. She never asked it of him, "Excuse me, but are you Ms. Arthur?" The problem which will not be solved in this lobby is that the escort believes Arthur Less to be a woman.
Freeman: It's such a great opening, and it leads to a question that one of the audience members already has which is about who your influences are for comedy writing.
Greer: Oh, that's a good question because there's a lot of funny books, but there's not funny books that were helpful to me. Obviously, I think Pnin was a big book for this one. It has the technique of the hidden narrator is one that Nabokov uses in that book. He has lots of funny books, but his humor's often cruel. In Pnin, I think there's something really lighter about it that I loved.
Graham Greene I think is really funny or Cold Comfort Farm, I forget who wrote that, but these British books or Woodhouse's books, all of those. I think they're more charming than funny, but those are related to me. They put you at ease.
Freeman: Someone asked about Ethan Mordden. Do you know?
Greer: I haven't read Ethan Mordden in so, so long that I shouldn't report on it probably since the 1990.
Freeman: Woodhouse is an interesting one because so much of the comedy in Woodhouse lives in the verbs, and that was certainly true with Pnin, and you watched Pnin walk around that campus in upstate New York and everything had more agency than him. I feel like one of the things that is so fun about watching Arthur fall through the world is everyone seems to know what's happening except him. Everyone seems to know what time it is, what he's supposed to be doing, where he's supposed to be. It just feels like you've created a really lovely Bill Murray vehicle, if only Bill Murray was a little younger.
Greer: Yeah. I know what you mean. There's a Mr. Magooishness about it that he's ... I mean, I probably don't like Arthur as much as a lot of readers do. That's why I'm able to torture him because he is obviously similar to me in some ways and not in others, but I do like that he is totally innocent, meaning he's also unaware of a lot of things that normal adult should know and things go badly, but he comes out of them thinking, "I'm sure it's going to be better next time," and I find that really charming.
Freeman: I wonder if you could talk a little bit about just the portrait that the book is painting of literary worlds, this international circuit of festivals. You've been on it for a number of years having been translated for some time, and you also worked for the baronessa in Italy, and I wonder if you could tell any stories from the crypt about what it's like to work behind the scenes in that world and what you had to maybe perhaps even leave out of this book because it was just either too scandalous, too ridiculous or somehow not to the point of the comedy that you were trying to tell.
Greer: Well, I don't have that many poorly behaving writers. I think there's one in Italy. Otherwise, he mostly finds himself in the country without meeting that many writers, but when I was working at a literary residency and helping with a prize that they did there as well, I met a lot of people from around the world. Writers are mostly incredibly well-behaved and charming and just can't believe they've been taken to this new world because I think some readers, they read this book and they think, "Wow, what a glamorous life. He gets invited to all these things," but the strange thing is a lot of writers get invited and you only say yes if you're really desperate because what it really involves is doing a lot of work for the people who get funding from their government to run a literary festival and they don't care very much about you. So it's a work trip.
What he's doing is accepting a lot of work trips that a wiser writer would turn down in order to get their writing done. Behind the scenes, you see a lot of people who don't care about writing in the literary world because they care about getting the grants. You see a lot of writers who have traveled too much and said yes to too many of these things and who speak perfect English but insist on a translator anyway because they just deserve one and that kind of thing. It's easy to make fun of them or angers a lot of ones with chips on their shoulder about the prize that they haven't gotten a Nobel Prize yet or something like that.
Freeman: Coming into it, Arthur's quite scrubbed of many of those barnacles of career grief. I mean, he feels them on the inside, but because he's grown up the younger lover of an older well-known writer, he's seen all the bad behavior in advance. So he's both prematurely old but also not yet young. He has not yet given up on his youth. It's a very interesting age to write into because it allows him to feel like he's already missed out on his youth, but he doesn't want to be as comfortable as he could be as if he's middle-aged.
From the beginning of your writing life, you've always had these time travel moments with age. You've had one character aging in reverse. You've written yourself into middle life characters in your 20s. I'm just curious if you could talk before we bring on our special guest about writing time, about writing about time as a subject and time as a space in which your character moves and what that draws out of you as a novelist and what your experiences, I guess, have been as a man. As you were writing this, you were not quite yet 50 and you must have had time on your mind.
Greer: Yeah. It's hard for me to know exactly why, but I would've said even 15 years ago that my subject was love in the passage of time. I think I would've said then that what interested me was how love changed over time. Now that more time has passed for me, I am interested in people changing are not changing over time. That's what I often realize, well, because now you and I are old enough to run into someone we haven't seen in 20 years and to be shocked first that they're so old and then we're like, "Oh, I must be old," and then a few seconds passed and then nobody's old anymore. Your mind does a whole thing.
I think for a long time I'm really interested sitting on the subway, looking at people, and I see an old woman reading a book and a young woman reading a book and I think those are the same person at different phases. I think those are really similar women if they could just meet, but they're out of phase somehow. Maybe that's the slight sci-fi part of my brain that is interested in that. Then in Less, which is not sci-fi at all, I got to do a thought experiment of what if you were always the young one in a relationship with someone older and then you get to middle age and because gay men, there isn't the power dynamic of male/female, suddenly you are in this other mode, you're not used to it all. What would that feel like off-putting?
Freeman: Well, one of the lovely things that travels with you as a comment trail is to be quite frank, you're one of the most liked people in publishing. You have lots of friends around the world, both who've you've hosted at various places, but also friendships, long friendships that have evolved over time, people who have supported you. We're really lucky tonight to have one of those supporters with us, the Pulitzer Prize winning novelist, Michael Chabon, who's the author of many books, including the latest is Moonglow, as well as a memoir, Pops. Rather than introduce you at length, everyone here knows who you are. Could you please come on, Michael Chabon, and ask your old but not that old friend Andy Sean here some questions?
Greer: Sort of old friend. I think we've known each other-
Michael Chabon: It's been a while now, isn't it? It must be close to 20 years almost at this point.
Greer: Getting close to 20 years.
Chabon: Yeah. Wow.
Greer: Looking at it.
Chabon: Hi. Hello.
Greer: Hi. Thank you for coming on and doing this for the California Book Club.
Chabon: Oh, it's my pleasure. It's so nice to see your face. I can't wait till you get back out here so we can see you in person.
Greer: Me too.
Chabon: It's so great to hear this conversation and it's bringing back all these memories and feeling. I remember that first thrill of when you, I don't know quite where you were in writing the first one, but there was a moment where we could just tell, one could just tell that you felt like you were onto to something or you had found your way to a voice and a perspective. You do have that really just delightful, tricky point of view modeled on the Pnin point of view, but I have this memory of you like, "I'm having fun. I don't know quite what I'm doing, but I know I'm having fun doing it." That was such a thrill because, as you said, there were some times when it wasn't so fun.
It's so amazing too to think that not, I mean, if one we're setting out to try to write a book that you thought might win a Pulitzer Prize eventually, the worst possible way to do that is probably to write a book that's funny. I remember when you won the Pulitzer, we sat and tried to think of a yell, and I tried to think of what are some other funny books, genuinely funny books that have one Pulitzer's anytime recently. It was a very short list if there was anything on it in fact. They tend to be more, I don't know, important as though important can't also be funny.
Greer: Well, but yours also I think surprised people because it was just so fun. It was like, "Are you supposed to have a good time?"
Chabon: It was about comic books too. That was a bad strategy too if you were trying to be strategic. Oh, you weren't.
Greer: No, I can't.
Chabon: So when you won the Pulitzer and I got to be the one who, essentially, I mean, you had an inkling things were happening, but you were confused, weren't you?
Greer: I was super confused because where I was is I was in Italy and my boyfriend, Enrico, had shown me, it was 10:00 at night for me, his phone, which someone had sent him the San Francisco Chronicle, an article that said, "Local author Greer wins Pulitzer Prize," and I was like, "But that's not true. You could show me anything."
Chabon: "It's that other Greer."
Greer: Yeah, I mean, I do have a twin. I don't think he won the Pulitzer Prize, but then my phone did have all the ... I hadn't looked at it, had a million messages, all of them with the last name Chabon. They were yours [inaudible] texting me with, "Handsome lady," "Firework," not very helpful images.
Chabon: Yeah. The word circulated very rapidly among the Chabons and the Wellmans, and what had happened, we were at dinner and I just got a thing on my phone, just a news notification. My phone didn't know I knew you. Well, maybe it did, actually, I don't know, but anyway, and I said, "Oh, my God, you guys! Andy won the Pulitzer," and the ones who weren't present were texted. So yeah, you got this rash of texts from us and other people. Then did I call you or did you call me, I can't remember, to verify?
Greer: You called me. I saw you had called me. It's the sort of thing you want to believe it's true, but we've been let down so many times.
Chabon: Do you want to say what you were doing at the time when you were ... Weren't you, if I'm not mistaken, you and a dog were having an intimate moment?
Greer: Yeah, I had just persuaded a pug, an incontinent pug to put on some diapers that I had ordered from China that had suspenders because I was straining the dog. Margaret Atwood was coming and I didn't want the dog pooping at the dinner table. So that's what I was doing. That's the high level literary world I was living in, and that's what I got. I just gotten the dog in bed with the baronessa when-
Chabon: Let's just say that wasn't an extraordinary circumstance in your life at the time. Your life involved a lot of care for various creatures that needed a lot of care.
Greer: Yeah, very intimate care, yeah.
Chabon: Including writers. So to be-
Greer: Yeah. I called you and I said, "Michael, what's going on?"
Chabon: I hope you remember, I think you do remember because I have seen it and I'm delighted to see that it is the case that you followed my advice that I remember giving you at that moment, which was to enjoy the hell out of it. It's a transformative thing. It transforms your life, it transforms your work, it transforms your finances, but it's also, you earned it, you worked really hard, you wrote a lot of books before Less, and just to try to not worry about what it all means or is it a contest and should we be giving prizes, et cetera, et cetera, but just it's a good thing, it's an unalloyed good thing and just enjoy it. It seems like you had, you did, and you have been.
Greer: I always take advice, yes. That was great advice. I remembered you said there's no downside.
Chabon: There really is no downside. It's a good thing. I always remember, and I probably told you this that I went to see a screening of a movie a friend was working on at a little screening room right on Times Square in New York. As I was coming out, it was getting dark and I stood on the sidewalk and I looked up at the zipper, that news headline thing that goes around the building in Times Square. I happened to look up and right as I looked up, it said, "Pulitzer Prize winning author Eudora Welty dead at 89," or however old she was. Just to realize those three words, once they get attached to your name, they're there forever. That's who she was, there forever after, and it's remarkable.
Greer: It was just so fun to have you called. You'd be the one who I talked to for that really bizarre, remarkable evening. I then broke into the baronessa's wine cellar and I-
Chabon: Oh, good, good. I'm glad to hear it.
Greer: ... got some red wine.
Chabon: So trilogy, what do you think?
Greer: No way.
Chabon: No? Wait, I don't remember if we asked you after the first one if we'd said, "Is there going to be a sequel?" would you have also said, "No way," or would you-
Greer: I definitely would've said no. You wouldn't have asked because why would there be a sequel? I don't think you asked that of ... It's not normal, but I think for a moment when I don't know what I'm doing yet next, then I could think about a third one, but I don't have a thought about a third one. I'm doing something else. I'm writing about-
Chabon: Okay. Oh, good, good. Are you at work?
Greer: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
Chabon: Awesome. Awesome. We'll hear all about it.
Greer: Yeah. I'll see you very soon.
Chabon: Yeah, we'll see you very soon. So I think we've been talking for about 10 minutes, which was what I was told.
Freeman: Oh, this is wonderful. I've heard many stories about that pug and I had a friend who had the job before you, whose job was to gently massage the farts out of the pug after lunch. I'm glad that your job was slightly elevated.
Greer: I had to do that too. I had to get some injections that were very intimate as well. It never ended.
Chabon: You're an experienced pug handler.
Greer: Yeah, no, I like pugs.
Chabon: You had your own.
Greer: I had my own one for 15 years.
Chabon: Well, I can't wait to see Andy, and I enjoyed dropping in for this conversation and I'll listen to the rest of it on my way to dinner, but I have a dinner reservation I have to get to.
Freeman: Thank you, Michael Chabon. It was really lovely for you to drop in.
Chabon: Bye. I'll see you, John.
Freeman: Andy, I wanted to come back to some questions from the audience that have been coming in while you talk. There have been some big hellos from your friends, Andrew and Michael from San Jose State, but I want to come back to writing about experience and writing about experience comedically. One audience member in particular named Ed wants to know if you had experiences like the ones described that Less has in Japan or if your experiences in Kyoto were different.
Greer: They were. Well, I was really careful to ... I only went to Japan that one time for a few days. I wasn't a restaurant reporter. I was writing for United Airline's inflight Magazine about Indigo Dye Craftsman, but I did not see very much of Kyoto and so I couldn't write much more than what I wrote down because my rule for the book was that I could only use details I wrote down in my notebook because I didn't want it to be a fantasy but American abroad. I wanted it to be full of the things that you were not expecting to see, but I was trapped in a paper room for a little while.
Freeman: Did you have to break down the door to get out?
Greer: No, they did get it open, but I was like, "Well, this is very interesting," because when you're a travel writer and you're usually alone, you have a lot of time to think about everything in that room. So I wrote down the brand of the heater in the corner and that is in the novel, but the things that happened did not happen to me. All the objects are real, but those things didn't. I didn't make everyone sick in Berlin, and Arthur Less is a lot like me, but he's more like my brother, my twin brother than he is like me. I'm more like the narrator.
Freeman: Gotcha. I think we have time for another brief reading maybe from that section or from a later section of the book, which will give us a sense of where Less winds up after his first encounter with the errant police escort, literary escort, same thing.
Greer: Well, I've got a part that I often read that's really near the end, but it doesn't give anything away. It's just a part where his old lover Robert, he's talking to him on a video call from Japan, and this is Robert talking. He says,
"I was watching a television show about science the other day. That's the kind of nice old man thing I do now. I'm very harmless these days. It was about time travel and they had a scientist on saying that if it were possible you'd have to build one time machine now and build another one years later, and then you could go back and forth a sort of time tunnel, but here's the thing, Arthur, you could never go any further back than the invention of that first machine, which I think is really a blow to the imagination. I took it pretty hard."
Arthur says, "We can never kill Hitler."
"But you know it's like that already. When you meet people, you meet them, say, when they're 30 and you can never really imagine them any younger than that. You've seen pictures of me, Arthur. You've seen me at 20."
"You were a handsome guy."
"But really, really, you can't imagine me any younger than my 40s, can you?"
"Sure, I can."
"Well, you can picture it but you can't quite imagine it. You can't go any back any further. It's against the laws of physics. I think you're getting too excited. Arthur, I look at you and I still see that boy on the beach with the red toenails, not at first, but my eyes adjust. I see the 21-year-old boy in Mexico. I see that young man in a hotel room in Rome. I see the young writer holding his first book. I look at you and you're young. You'll always be that way to me, but not for anyone else. Arthur, people who meet you now will never be able to imagine you young. They can never go any further back than 50. It isn't all bad. It means now people will think you're always a grown up. They'll take you seriously. They don't know that you once spent an entire dinner party babbling about Nepal when you meant Tibet."
"I can't believe you brought that up again."
"That you once referred to Toronto as the capital of Canada. I'm going to get [inaudible] to the Prime Minister of Canada. I love you, Arthur. My point is," and after this harangue, he's apparently worn himself out and takes a few deep breaths. "My point is, welcome to fucking life. 50 is nothing. I look back at 50 and think, 'What was I so worried about?' Look at me now. I'm in the afterlife. Go enjoy yourself."
Freeman: Oh, I'm so glad you read that section. It's one of my favorite sections of the book because I'm still at the stage in my life where someone older is always saying, "You know you should go out and enjoy yourself," and yet I'm now at the stage nearly 50 where everything is beginning to hurt and I start to look at people and I think I have T-shirts that are older than you. I guess I want to ask you, if you can see around yourself, if you could look back to this man-
Greer: Oh, my God. Don't touch your hair.
Freeman: Besides haircuts, what else might you tell him starting out that Michael Chabon or someone else didn't tell you or what would you tell him to listen to that people were telling you?
Greer: It's so hard because I think I would just tell him to be weird, I mean, not to try to write to get into the New Yorker or to fit into some category, but just to go for it. I mean, because that's what took me a long time to learn because you can't calculate that kind of thing like, "I'm going to write a book that everyone's going to love." What would that be? That would be an awful book. Everyone's never going to love a good book. I'd have to tell him that, but 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, you have to somehow have access to who you are. I think that guy in that photo clearly didn't or he wouldn't have allowed that photo to be taken.
Freeman: Was there a moment where as a person or as a writer, both, I know they're not separable, that you started to feel at home in your own skin and outside of the context of writing, this is life stuff, but so much of the best books are about that? What was it that made you capable of feeling that way because that's what starts to settle on Less in certain moments, Arthur Less in this book, and you showed this gradual accretion of acceptance for himself that is both coming from people from the outside but is also coming from within.
Greer: I mean, that's a deep question. I mean, that's what the book is about for me, and that I somehow knew that and was able to give it to Arthur. I think it's smart also to say that it's hard to separate the person and the author because my emotional life exists in the writing as you know, which is super weird. It should exist in other people or in me, but instead it's this strange external apparatus.
Mostly, it was around the time that I got to meet other writers like Michael, like you to start to be in a world where it wasn't strange to care about those things and fail at them or succeed or have it all happen as randomly as it does, but to be in the world together, it felt no one seemed to think that I was particularly weirder than anyone else, and that was pleasant.
Freeman: Reassuring that when you realized that the things that you think of as weird are the things that people love about you or-
Greer: Yeah, I would never have guessed that in a million years, and I don't know how to tell young people that because they would never believe me, but yeah.
Freeman: At some point during the book, I forget if it's when he's in France, it is when he's in France, Arthur Less meets a man at a party. He has this wonderful layover where he's in France for about exactly the right amount of time in Paris for 10 hours, and he meets this man who is in a long relationship. The man says to him, "Isn't it weird to be 50? I feel like I've just figured out how to be young and now I have to start this new thing."
Michael mentioned, which we haven't talked about yet, but that there is a sequel, Less is Lost, and it takes Less from the moment at the end of this book, something that feels almost set up at the end of this book and it propels him. The only thing I'll say if you haven't read it yet is it takes place in the United States. I wonder if you are as a person and as a writer suddenly aware of this new territory opening up in front of you, this territory of not middle life as conceived of from youth but of middleness being bigger than maybe you expected it to be.
Greer: Yeah, for sure. Of course, when you're young it seems like not the middle but absolutely the end. There's no way. Anything can happen from 50 to 80 that isn't identical. There is a great piece to it of not having to perform in the same way not because of career success, but mostly because you're like, "Well, no one thinks I'm sexy." 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.
Freeman: There's a question from the audience. I think it's a writer named Andrew Rowe, whose name sounds-
Greer: Oh, yeah. Hi.
Freeman: Who's asking, and I'm glad he's asked this question if you still write short stories because I encountered you first with this book as a short story writer and have since seen parts, I think, of books in the New Yorker. Do you still write in short form?
Greer: Hardly at all. I don't think so. I think I wrote a short story. Usually between books, I'll write a short story or so, but I don't know that's my best form or rather, it just feels like a weird serial monogamy that's exhausting to me to get to know each other and learn about their family and then it's over in two weeks sort of thing. That must be like a dating app experience. For me, it's too much to rev up the whole machine.
Freeman: Also, I think it's a very uniquely American experience. I wonder if you could talk a bit about writing this book presumably while you were living outside the United States or working on it and what that told you about some of your presumptions of what a novel was, what a funny novel was, and what you should or shouldn't or ought to be doing was because one of the things that's very notable once you leave the United States is how few writers write short stories. It's a very peculiar genre to many people around the world when they look, obviously, Italian writers, French writers, Japanese writers all do it, but in America, everyone learns that way. So there's this feeling of strange bewilderment when you arrive at adulthood as a writer or as a reader of serious writers and you think, "Where do the short stories all go?"
Greer: I mean, I almost wish we could train on just the little longer, the novella, I think, because that exists around the world. There's actually a lot more of that than we think there are. I don't know. Those are some of my favorites because you could always just give it a whirl. In Italy, they certainly have a lot of great what we would call novella. It's just whatever, it's the book that's the right length it is, but the short story is unique.
I think traveling a lot and living abroad and certainly living at a writer's residency where it wasn't American writers talking about work was incredibly humbling as it often is for travel to realize that our literature is not the center or the some great end point of literary evolution, but is slightly outside the norm of what other people are working on.
Often, either very academic or super imaginative in ways that we would try to classify under science fiction or fantasy, but in other countries, they don't work that way, that there's different intellectual traditions that you have to throw up your hands and start reading work at translation, which is mostly what I end up reading because my friend Daniel Handler is my personal librarian. He just will throw books at me. They're all in translation and they're all eye-opening to what a book can be.
Freeman: This book is dedicated to him. I wonder if you could say why other than friendship or why this particular book.
Greer: He has walked me through so many drafts of so many books and it didn't end with this book, let me tell you, but with Less in particular, he really was excited that he said it sounded like me at last because he's a funny guy. He was able to give me a lot of really good advice on, for instance, making the ending happen really, really fast that in a funny book he wanted to wrap up. He was just essential to supporting me through it and advising me on it. I treasured his friendship for this all time, but for this book in particular, he was great.
Freeman: It is one of the great solaces of working as a writer is that you may not get the looker of the world, but you sometimes end up with wonderful friends who you actually end up learning from. I love how in this book you write into the book a lesson about endings before the ending actually happens. You have Less remembering reading Proust over five summers and then coming to the end and feeling slightly ripped off because the last 200 pages was actually notes of the book. So I often felt in this book that you're heckling yourself from within the book saying, "All right. Do this." I wonder if that is actually true, if that was just me reading too much into the book.
Greer: Yeah. I mean, you what I think? It's hard to think how much I really planned everything out. Mostly, I would just think, "Oh, that would be funny," for me. I would just make lots of jokes for myself that are certainly nerdy or literary jokes that are in there, but I can't promise they're complete. It's not like it tracks the Odyssey. It's just whenever something seemed like the Odyssey I'm like, "Well, I should do more of that," or, "I should mention other works of literature from around the world because maybe that's something a narrator would know about just because it's something I know about." So it was for the joy of it. It sounds so immature to say it, but every decision I made was, and I don't think I always did this before, was, "What would be fun if I got to read this book without having written it?" Then I would say, "Well, if I dangle them out of a window, I think slapstick is not something you see in literary fiction a lot," and I let myself do it because I just thought it would be fun to read that.
Freeman: Did you dangle out a window in Berlin once?
Greer: Not as dramatically as that, but I did lock myself out and I did get in through the window, but when I thought back about it, I was like, "That was a stupid thing to do. That was a stupid thing."
Freeman: One of the most slapstick things in the world is sex itself. I was so impressed with how you handled writing sex in this book because you often provide just enough detail for it to be comedic and don't tip over into pornographic description or anything where you think, "Oh, okay. Now it really is too much information." I guess I want to ask you about writing sex comedically because all of us have had awkward encounters. All of us have thought, "Oh, my God, I can't believe that happened." Yet you show this happened. You show Less tumbling through the world, falling in and out of a better two. You never think, "Oh, that's a Lothario. He's on the make." You think, "Oh, my God, the poor guy, he's just trying to get by."
Greer: I'm so glad you asked me that because no one asked me about this. I always think, "People are aware he's having a lot of sex in the book." He is more than normal, I think, and I just try to be really coy about it and not make him seem like he's some ... I specifically say that he is average in absolutely every way and is sometimes is too enthusiastic, sometimes not enough, which is the coy way of talking about sex for a man. So I try to make it seem a little ... My editor thought I was making him seem like he was bad in bed. I talk about that in a paragraph. I spent a long time trying to figure out, "How do I write this?" about saying it's not bad in bed, he's just odd, he's too vulnerable in bed, which is magnetic to some of the men he meets, but which is not sexy, necessarily. That's what I wanted to get at.
Freeman: Yeah. I think you describe him as kissing like he always meant it. He had never been kissed before. It was just a passionate kiss, and to wind us down, you were talking about him as not bad in bed, it's like he's the essential definition of a fool who should know that you can regulate how you project yourself and how much you feel, and yet he doesn't seem to be able to do that. He's always vulnerable. He's always, as someone says, skinless. He's always going for the full Hollywood kiss.
So in a way, it's the trait that you give him as a fool is endearing. It's like he cares too much, he loves too much, he wants to believe in love too much. I think that's a weirdly brave thing to do now as a novelist because most books, when they have sex and when they have relationships, they're always slightly tinted so that we aren't exposed to how vulnerable we actually are in relationships.
Greer: I mean, I don't know what to say about to it except it's, once again, it's what seemed to interest me. I'm actually incredibly prudish about writing about sex on the page or even talking about it mostly. I'm probably blushing now, but it seemed like it was what could be more vulnerable than that moment between even strangers, which I think often, especially in the gay community, can be portrayed as nameless and dirty. I'm like, "It's still very intimate no matter what costume you're wearing, and it can be super vulnerable," and it is, whether you admit it or not, and I enjoyed that about him.
Freeman: I want to ask you one last question because we're almost at 9:00 Eastern time, 6:00 PM San Francisco time, and Michael alluded to the fact that you are working on a new novel, and in Less, he describes how he never likes to talk about ... He made the mistake once of talking about what he was working on and vanished like a mirage. Is there anything you can say about where you go from here because it does seem like this massive breakthrough happened where you got to finally sound like yourself, and that's certainly true of the second book about Arthur Less? How do you avoid always sounding like yourself, I guess, because it seems like one of the things about being an actor or a writer is that you have to change how you sound?
Greer: Well, I mean, I think the next book I'm working on is also maybe not comic, lighthearted in a way, in a different way because I thought, like an actor, what you want to see, you want to see them just slightly different. I don't think Liam Neeson were looking for that many changes in the performances. So I thought, "Well, I'm enjoying writing in this way so much that if what my purpose in writing a book like Less was just to get to enjoy myself and not worry too much about what happened on the other end of things, then I'm just going to keep that mode as much as I can," because the real joy of the whole process happens alone at the keyboard, having finished something that you're just finally proud of.
Freeman: There's one last question here from another person in the audience who's asking about pandemic and writing. In the last couple years, I think there was a real shift. There's just so many different crises happening about life in America, life itself, whether it'll be sustainable. There's fires in California. Then at some point, everyone fell in love with Ted Lasso. I don't want to make you burp up economy memes about comedy in its point and about our soul, but did you have any moment beyond what had happened in the writing of this book during the pandemic as an individual wherever you were where thought, "Wow, this really also even further recalibrates what it is I think I'm here for, what I'm supposed to be doing or what I want to be doing or who I want to spend my time"?
Greer: Yeah. Well, it happened to all of us, but definitely for me, in writing the next book I wrote, it's part of why it was a sequel, a followup to Less was because I was like, "I know the only place where I can handle being, which is in a comic mode," well, in a comic mode where I write about the scariest things there are for me because to me, I don't think it's obvious in these books and to anyone else, but I'm writing about super scary stuff. Someone who came of age in the era of AIDS and there's the generation above him of gay men all died and he doesn't know how to get old. I mean, I think that could be a really depressing novel, but it's not. It's actually the basis for the comedy of it. He doesn't know how to grow up. I think I just kept that way because that is the only place I wanted to live in my head.
Freeman: It's been such a pleasure to have you here and-
Greer: For me.
Freeman: I'm really blessed and I'm so grateful you could give up a night. Thank you everyone for coming. It's been lovely to have such a huge crowd tonight. I hope you all go off and enjoy each other and enjoy your night and enjoy reading comedies. They are the most hard, they're the hardest books to write, I think. That's why there's so few of them.
Greer: There's very few.
Freeman: I think David is going to come back on and give us some clues about what's coming up next and where to go, but, Andy, it was so lovely to talk to you.
Greer: It was a great time.
Ulin: Thank you. Thanks, John. Thanks, Andy. Thanks to both of you. Thanks to Michael as well. This was a remarkable conversation. I found myself taking notes and nodding along at various things, particularly the idea of making it weird, embrace your weirdness. That's my takeaway.
I want to let you all know that the interview was recorded and will be available at californiabookclub.com for anyone who wants to revisit it. I want to remind you all that next month on March 16th, we will be discussing The House of the Spirits with Isabel Allende. I want to remind you as well of the sale on Alta membership for California Book Club members at altaonline.com/join or, again, the $3 digital membership. Please participate in a two-minute survey that will pop up as soon as we end the event, and stay safe. See you next month. Have a good night, everybody.•