Q&A

Garth Greenwell on writing sex in his novel 'What Belongs to You' and the queer literary tradition

Garth Greenwell spoke with me from Iowa City, where he’s bracing for the release of his already widely praised first novel, "What Belongs To You" (Farrar, Straus and Giroux: 208 pp., $23). Set in Bulgaria, it follows an English teacher who, while cruising bathrooms for anonymous sexual encounters, discovers and becomes emotionally entangled with a hustler named Mitko.

A poet for many years, Greenwell’s path is as varied as it is impressive, having, yes, taught English in Bulgaria, and also having abandoned his studies as an opera singer as well as a doctoral program at Harvard. Greenwell completed his second master of fine arts degree at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, and said that since his acceptance there, he has experienced “a kind of luck that nothing in my life prepared me for.”

Whatever role luck may have played along the way, his book is outstanding in just about every way a novel could be.

The subject of cruising is easily dismissed as tasteless subject matter, but you manage to elevate it in your novel.

I write a lot about cruising culture, and this was true when I was writing poetry too. I came of age as a gay man in bathrooms and parks in Kentucky. That was my community, and cruising remained central to my life for a long time. It upsets me when people dismiss those spaces, because they're places where people encounter one another, and that means they're places of richness and inexhaustible interest, spaces that allow for a rich spectrum of emotions and encounters and ethical action.

Were you aware of avoiding certain clichés when writing about sex?

I wasn't really thinking about that, maybe because as a poet I wrote about sex a lot too. The most important living American writer for me is a poet named Frank Bidart, and the great lesson of his work -- or the great challenge of his work -- is a kind of fearlessness when it comes to subject matter. I've always admired his insistence that to be an artist means making what you need to make without fearing that it might put people off. And I think sex is an incredible tool for writers because it functions like a kind of crucible or pressure chamber -- it puts everything in a scene under pressure, and everything in a character under pressure. It’s uniquely positioned to explore interior and the exterior experience at once.

Something about the way you use language in your novel suggests the eloquence of a very cultured nonnative English speaker. Early on you describe someone as having a particular "cut of hair." I've never heard anyone use that term casually.

That's funny, and I’m often not aware of moments like that until someone points them out. I am interested in language that hovers a little above the everyday spoken American demotic. I think part of that is having had a life in lyric poetry. My favorite poets use language in a weird way, which can mean a lot of different things: Frank Bidart's language is weird in a way that is very different from the way that Paul Celan's language is weird or Jorie Graham's is weird. But I was always drawn to poets who were interested in expressive resources of English that are not always at play in everyday American speech.

Though the book itself isn’t especially long, you tend toward long, sort of formally constructed sentences and paragraphs. One on the first page struck me in particular: “Even as I descended the stairs, I heard his voice, which like the rest of him was too large for those subterranean rooms, spilling out of them as if to climb back into the bright afternoon that, though it was mid-October, had nothing autumnal about it; the grapes that hung ripe from the vines throughout the city burst warm still in one’s mouth.”

Long sentences have always appealed to me, as well as a kind of ornateness of style. I do feel that the novel is working in a tradition of the novel of consciousness, and those kinds of sentences are part and parcel with that tradition. I’m thinking of writers like Proust and Henry James and Virginia Woolf, moving forward to, say, Thomas Bernhard. I also think that tradition -- and this is an aspect of literary history that I don't think is discussed enough -- is a very queer tradition. Proust, Thomas Mann, Virginia Woolf, Thomas Bernhard: These are queer writers.

Are you influenced by contemporary gay literature as well, or do you even think of yourself as writing of tradition of gay literature as it exists now?

The short answer is yes, I do. I do think of myself as a gay writer, and a tradition of gay literature made my life as a writer possible, and also quite simply made my life possible. I hope very much that I’m working in that tradition. There's sometimes kind of a reflexive response against that, especially on the part of writers who say, "No, I'm not a gay writer. I'm a writer who happens to be gay." Whereas I would say, I absolutely am a queer writer and I'm writing for queer people. I'm also writing for people who don't identify as queer. I feel strongly that the fact that I identify as a gay writer does not in any way limit the importance or reach of what I make, such as it is.

Are you plotting your literary career or your place in the literary world? Are you ambitious in that way?

That's a hard question, and I want to answer it honestly. When I look at my life from certain vantage points, it looks really bizarre, because I seem to be addicted to giving up careers or jumping off paths. The moment I feel like I'm on a path that I can see to the end of, it’s like I have to jump ship and find something else. The great thing about fiction is that it does accommodate all of these different lives I've lived. When you’re a writer, no experience is wasted. That's the joy of being a writer for me, that it's a kind of anti-career. I want my book to be successful, but it's really hard to say what success would mean. It's not important to me to make a lot of money -- I just want to make a life that allows me to write my next book. I hope that the book will find its readers. I want to be part of a literary conversation, whatever that means.

That's a nice way of thinking about literary ambition.

And I’d like to be part of a conversation that's bigger than English. The novel will come out in Bulgarian, and I hope it will be published in other languages. I’d like to feel that I’m part of this conversation that I've been listening in on for so long, among the living and among the dead.

Smith is the author of the forthcoming novel "Arcade."

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