“At Every Point, the Book Was Really a Surprise To Me”: An Interview With Garth Greenwell

Greenwell Garth (C) Max Freeman

Reading What Belongs to You, the first novel by Garth Greenwell, is a hypnotic experience. In it, Greenwell tells the story of an American living in Bulgaria, who embarks on a deeply fraught relationship and, later, must confront painful memories of his own upbringing. It’s a mesmerizingly-told work, with some of the most beautifully-constructed sentences I’ve encountered in a long while. I talked with Greenwell about the process of writing the novel (and its expansion from an earlier novella), the way that music informs his work, and the interplay of languages that manifests in his writing.

You mentioned in the acknowledgements that your new novel is an expansion of an earlier novella. When you wrote the earlier work, did you have a larger story in mind, or was it something that you came back to after the fact and realized that there was more to be told?

I had no idea that the novella was going to be a part of a larger book. At no point did I have any idea what I was doing. “Mitko,” the first section of the book, which was published as a novella–the version in the novel is quite revised. It was a novella in 2011; that was the first piece of fiction I had ever written. All of my training in writing and in literature had been in poetry until I started writing Mitko. It was a total surprise to me to suddenly start hearing sentences that I felt were not broken into lines. When I wrote the first section of the novel, I really felt like I was feeling my way forward, sentence by sentence. And when I finished it, I thought it was done. I thought the story was over. I had plans to write other kinds of things–maybe some poems, or other kinds of stories.

One day when I was walking around Sofia, around the neighborhood where I lived which was a part of Sofia called Vlado, which can be this very bleak landscape of Soviet-style architecture. I remember that it was a very hot day. I had this experience that I’ve never had before or since of being seized by this voice, this very angry and unfortunate voice. I remember that I went to a cafe and I sat down and I started trying to notate that voice, trying to follow that voice, and writing on the back of receipts and writing on napkins and things. I had to write it on trash to be able to write it at all. It really wasn’t until I was about halfway through what would become the middle section that I realized that what it was doing was exploring the childhood of the narrator from Mitko.

That was when I realized, well, maybe this is part of some kind of larger project. But I didn’t know until I finished that section; I didn’t realize that the character of Mitko, who’s central to the first part, and who’s absent from the second part–I didn’t know that he was going to insist on continuing this story. So at every point, the book was really a surprise to me.

Has there been an effect on how you’ve written poetry since finishing the novel?

There has been an effect, which is that I haven’t written a poem in five or six years. I wonder if it’s because–I had this extraordinary education in poetry. Both as a writer–I did an MFA at Washington University in St. Louis, where I got to work with Carl Phillips; I got to work with people like Carolyn Forché and Frank Bidart. I had this extraordinary education,and then I went to Harvard for a PhD program, also studying poetry, and studying with Jorie Graham and Peter Sacks and Helen Vendler. I wonder if, in some way, my head got too full of voices when I was writing poetry. Writing prose was this incredibly intense act of privacy. There were no workshop voices in my head. I had never done a workshop in prose. There were no living models that had voices, in the way that Frank Bidart, who to me is an incredibly important writer, was a living presence in my head when I was writing poetry. Carl Phillips was present in my head when I was writing poetry.

When I was writing prose, there was this exhilarating feeling of being constantly surprised. I remember when I was first writing Mitko, the first section of the novel, I kept having this feeling that the floor dropped out from under me and I suddenly found myself in some memory or construction or scene or experience that I was really surprised to find myself in. So in a way, prose felt much freer to me than poetry. Poetry is still a big part of my life. I read poetry, and I write about poetry. The difference in genre feels a little arbitrary. I feel like what I’m working on in prose is the same sort of project that I was working on in poetry. But right now, everything I’ve been working on is prose.

The sentence that ends the chapter early on, with the image of the narrator and Mitko in bed and the phrase “or held, I suppose it must be said, like his captive or his prey” was especially memorable to me. Many of the chapters end on particularly resonant beats, and I was curious about the process behind that. Were the endings intuitive to you, or were they something that you were constantly reshaping?

It’s really gratifying to me that you singled out that sentence. To me, it’s one of the most important sentences in the book, and it was a sentence that I worked on really hard, both on my own and–I had the chance to work with a really brilliant editor at FSG, Mitzi Angel, who worked really hard on the book herself and then made me work really hard on the book. I’m still grateful to her for it. That was a sentence that we worked on together quite a bit.

I do think that it’s intuitive, the way that these chapters or sections took shape. As I was writing the book, my constant mantra to myself was: be patient and stay with this sentence, and stay with this experience and this moment of consciousness and this narrator. Don’t be in a hurry to get to the next moment or the next sentence. So it was feeling my way, bit by bit. That said, I do think that this is really a poet’s novel. I think the scenes are really constructed as lyric moments. There’s this kind of lyric approach to time, in which the present is really dilated, and the narrator has access to both future and past time, in a way. I think that comes from a particular kind of lyric poetry that I studied and wrote.

My first education in the arts was in classical singing. I spent many years singing opera, singing classical art song. My favorite composer was Benjamin Britten. My sense of narrative structure, maybe more than anything else, comes from Benjamin Britten’s chamber operas. Very often, there’s a kind of arc to the way that he constructs themes that I think is at play in my novel.

Was your first encounter with Britten’s work through singing it, or was it beforehand?

His music is so important to me, and feels like such a part of me, it’s hard to even remember a time when I didn’t know it. I’m sure that I first encountered it singing it. Not as a soloist, but in choirs. I started singing when I was fourteen. I sang in things like the Mobile Youth Choir; I sang in a choir at a church. I’m sure that I encountered some Britten that way. Certainly, at the Interlochen Arts Academy, when I was sixteen, that was when I remember having this overwhelming response and needing to listen to everything he had written and needing to read his biography, and learning about his relationship with his partner and muse Peter Pears. That relationship is, I think, one of the great artistic relationships of the 20th century. Also, as a young queer kid, it was incredibly moving to me. When I listen to recordings of Britten and Peears performing Britten’s music, that music feels to me like the embodiment of love.

I never sang any of his major roles. I sang a lot of his songs; I sang a lot of his folk song settings. At several points, I got the chance to sing in the choir for his War Requiem, which is one of the masterpieces of the 20th century. My dream as a singer was always to sing Peter Grimes; my favorite opera is Benjamin Britten’s Death in Venice. My first experience of Death in Venice, which has become one of the central novels for me, and I think was a really important novel for this book, was through Benjamin Britten’s opera. Also, my first encounter with Henry James, who’s another really important writer for me–I think that’s clear in the kinds of sentences I write–was in Britten’s Turn of the Screw, which is a great opera, and an opera that has this kind of ratcheting of tension through a scene that I tried to emulate through the book.

Do you generally write with or without music on? Does that play any part in the writing process for you?

I write in silence, for the most part. Usually, I write fiction at home and in silence. If, for some reason, I’m writing in a public place, I’ll listen to music. But usually, it’s as white noise. That said, I often think about music when I write, and in different ways. It’s in music more than anything else–more than when I’m looking at a painting, or even when I’m reading a novel or reading a poem–that I will encounter a work of art that makes me feel like I want to do something like this. I often feel that. Sometimes it’s in response to a piece of music, and the kind of thinking that you can sense in a piece of music, or the emotional response I have to a piece of music. Sometimes it’s in singing. Sometimes it’s in the way that a particular artist sings. When I think about the kinds of shape that I want a sentence to have, it’s very possible that I’m thinking about Jessye Norman sings Ariadne auf Maxos, or the way Peter Pears sings Benjamin Britten’s First Canticle. I do think that the shape of a phrase comes very much from listening to these artists that I adore, and also from singing that piece of music. I often remember a song that has a phrase with a particular shape, and I might write the sentence into that shape. Not because I’m listening to it, but because something in the emotions of a scene resonates for whatever reason with that particular moment for me.

Are there any composers or compositions who you would, at some point, like to evoke, but haven’t found the right story or scene for yet?

I feel like I’m probably encountering those sorts of things all the time. My best friend is a guy named Alan Pierson, who’s a conductor. He was the conductor for the Brooklyn Philharmonic, and he conducts an ensemble called Alarm Will Sound, which is, I think, the best new music ensemble in the United States. He’s someone who’s constantly performing brand-new music, and constantly introducing me to brand-new music. I often have that feeling, of encountering some new work of art and feeling that this is something I’m going to make, or that I want to make something that feels like this. That’s probably what I feel most often: I want to make something that feels like this, or I want to make something that’s as fierce as this. It was my first time seeing this opera live–I went to the Met’s new production of Berg’s Lulu, and it was an overwhelming experience. I felt strongly, in response to that music, which is astonishing and was astonishingly played and performed that evening. Also in response to the production. I want my writing to be as cerebral and as passionate as this. When I listen to a composer like Berg, this is music that is absolute abstraction and cogitation and philosophy–also absolute emotion, absolute passion, absolute finger-on-the-pulse, life-on-the-line drama. That’s my ideal. I want to write something that fierce. That’s what I want.

A lot of your novel is set in Bulgaria; did you find that that influenced your prose at all? Were there nods to the literature of that region?

Everything in this book depends on being in Bulgaria, and on the experience that I had there. The fact that I started writing prose in a way that I don’t fully understand was a response to the overwhelming experience of being in this place. Also, think the novel depends a lot on this interesting-to-me place of consciousness stuck between two languages. Everywhere in the novel, the narrator is thinking alongside or through or in Bulgarian, and I hope that the qualities of that language, which to me is the most beautiful language in the world, inflects his language.

There are a lot of American writers who are really important to me. It’s also true that, for a lot of my life, I’ve read a lot of literature that is not American, and especially literature that’s European and Latin American. When I think of the prose tradition that I hope the book is working in, and that feels like it’s been most important to me as a writer, I sometimes say that my holy trinity of style is Thomas Bernhard, W.G. Sebald, and Javier Marías. So in some ways, that’s a European tradition. Well, yes it is–but it’s also a tradition that’s very much connected to English. All of those writers were influenced by Henry James. Sebald writes gorgeously about the way in which his writing was influenced by 16th and 17th-century English prose writers. Javier Marías has translated many of those writers. He’s translated Henry James. And Henry James is an American writer, but he’s a very European American writer. There’s a way in which, for me, this has always been very important that literature is a conversation that’s bigger than any single language. It’s always been important to me to read very promiscuously across languages and across periods. To me, the experience of speaking other languages is really important. I’m addicted to learning languages. I love being abroad, and the four years that I lived in Bulgaria–the most that I miss about that time is the experience of speaking another language every day, of being surrounded by another language every day. All of those things inflect the kind of prose style I’m attracted to.

With Marías, reading him in an English translation is always interesting, because so much of it is about the process of translating between Spanish and English.

That’s something that I love in Marías. It’s true in Sebald, too. It’s this kind of built-in multiplicity to a voice. If you’re inside a consciousness that’s constantly navigating and negotiating between multiple languages, to me that’s a really fascinating place to be. That very negotiation becomes an occasion for thought. One example: in What Belongs to You, one of the key words is this word priyatel, which is the Bulgarian word that means “friend.” But it also means “boyfriend.” Mitko uses it for his clients–the men who pay him for sex, he calls them the priyateli. And when the narrator says to him at one point, “I don’t want to be your client,” Mitko says, “You’re not a client–you’re my priyatel.” There’s a way that that word itself, in a way that I don’t think “friend” does in English, that word itself demarcates the territory of their relationship. The kind of expansiveness of the territory, and also the kind of constant ambiguity and ambivalence of the relationship that they find themselves in.

As you began to work on and revise the second section, was one of the things that drew you the parallels between the repression of the Soviet era in Bulgaria and the social and sexual repression that the narrator felt in his childhood?

The spark of what allowed Mitko to become a novel absolutely was this weird experience that I kept having in Bulgaria of having experiences, having conversations, having encounters that threw me back to my childhood and adolescence in Kentucky. There were a few reasons for that. One is that there are similarities between Bulgaria and Kentucky. There are geographic similarities: the mountains are a similar size, the forests look very similar. And, most profoundly, when I started meeting gay men in Bulgaria and having conversations with them, those conversations felt like almost the same conversations I’d had when I was a fourteen-year-old kid cruising bathrooms and parks in the United States, in Kentucky, and meeting these men in their thirties and forties. It felt like, in Bulgaria, these men were describing to me the same horizon of possibility as those men in Kentucky.

The other thing was that, when I found that cruising bathroom underneath the National Palace of Culture, where my novel begins, which is a very famous cruising place in Bulgaria, although I didn’t know that when I found it. I found it by accident. I had this weird experience. I was still very new to Bulgaria. It was still in the first few weeks, I think, that I was in the country when I stumbled onto this bathroom. After barely being able to communicate in this city where I barely had survivable Bulgarian and everything was strange, and the social expectations and morays were very strange to me–I descended into this place where, all of a sudden, I was absolutely fluent. The codes of cruising in this bathroom were exactly the codes of cruising in the bathrooms I haunted when I was fourteen, fifteen, sixteen. I found that I could communicate with these men in a way that felt very rich and fluent. That, too, was the experience–having this weird feeling of…homecoming is the wrong word, but something like that. This familiarity in this very foreign place.

So much of the book deals with nonverbal communication and ambiguity. How do you go about channeling all of that into prose?

To the extent that I have succeeded in channeling them, the only thing that I can say is that mantra of patience. When describing the relationship between these two men–it’s a relationship that’s very fraught, and it’s a relationship that’s very contained in this frame that might seem to determine it, which is the frame of sex work. This relationship starts with a transaction that seems very clear-cut: “I will give you money, you will give me sex, and we’re both happy.” But of course, that’s not actually how human beings interact with one another. Given the kind of overdetermination of that frame, I wanted the portrayal of the relationship to be as nuanced as I could possibly make it, and to reflect what seems to me to be the necessary messiness and ambiguity and ambivalence–and also exuberance–that can mark any relationship between two human beings. The only way I felt like I could do that was by trying to focus in on these kinds of moments of microcommunication between them. Focus in on acts of interpretation that I think we do all the time, without necessarily being aware of them.

We read the tiniest gestures and interpret them and build a story out of them. I wanted to slow down time and focus in and expand those small gestures and small moments, and make that act of interpretation, that act of building a story, the narrative of the novel. What does it mean to know another human being? To what extent can we ever know another human being, even in moments that seem so extraordinarily intimate? What are the kinds of points of contact that allow for a genuine, authentic experience of intimacy? And what is fiction, what is projection, what are your own hopes and anxieties? And how does that work across all of the things that separate these two characters, which are language and nationality and class and privilege–the extraordinary privilege that the narrator has in this place because he’s American, because he can leave? How can this relationship happen and be genuine, and how can these two people connect across all of those two things? That, to me, is really the subject of the book.

After finishing this book and seeing it out into the world, are there things that you’re hoping to address with your next project?

I am deep into a second book, which is very much a companion project to the novel. It’s a collection of stories that are set in Bulgaria. They even explore some of the same characters. In the third part of the novel, there’s a very important character who doesn’t appear very much, who the narrator calls R., who is his boyfriend. The story of their relationship isn’t really told in the novel, but in these stories, it is. The stories explore that relationship. In the new book, there were aspects of Bulgaria, or the experience of Bulgaria, or this narrator and his life and his relationships, that I feel that, for whatever reason, didn’t fit into the container that was the novel. These stories are trying to develop that.

I have no idea what I’ll do after that. I have no idea what kinds of novels or kinds of books I’ll want to write in the future, or whether I’ll want to write poems again. But I am drawn to writers who seem to be working on a single project in their careers. Someone like Sebald is an example of that. Bernard is an example of that; I think Marías is an example of that. Proust is, of course, the great example of that. At this point, as a writer, I am not super-excited about invention. But I am super-excited about exploration, and trying to mine the world as deeply as I can.


Photo: Max Freeman

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