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Writer Andrew Sean Greer on life after the Pulitzer Prize

Andrew Sean Greer. Photo/Getty Images

Festival guest Andrew Sean Greer was more surprised than anyone when his novel full of literary-world perils and pratfalls won the Pulitzer Prize.

“Holy f---, Arthur, I won.” Robert Brownburn, poet of the Russian River School, might well swear. He’s won the Pulitzer Prize. Robert is the much older former lover of Arthur Less, minor novelist and peripatetic hero of Less, Andrew Sean Greer’s comical, excruciating, slyly wise novel about a writer on the run from an indifferent publisher, love mislaid and the inexorable march of middle age.

As Arthur learns, the prestigious American prize is pronounced “Pull-it-sir”. That’s the kind of playful enterprise Less is, a novel full of literary-world perils and pratfalls. When Arthur’s ex, Freddy, invites him to his wedding, Arthur fears remorse and humiliation. He dusts off a collection of unappealing professional invitations and embarks on an odyssey that sees him remorseful and humiliated from Mexico to Italy, India to Japan … In Germany, he prides himself on his command of the language. When too many takers turn up to his course entitled “Read Like a Vampire, Write Like Frankenstein”, he tells the startled students, “I’m sorry, I will have to kill many of you.” His is a life lost in translation.

No one was more surprised than Greer when, in the sort of cosmic joke that stalks his creation – or at least an impressive life/art collision – Less won the 2018 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.

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“I didn’t even know when it was. It’s not some Booker ceremony where everyone has had a couple of glasses of wine and is in a tuxedo and there’s an announcement and you’re humiliated, elated or confused publicly,” he says, on the phone from his San Francisco home. “It’s just a luncheon in the library. It’s not even an enormous amount of money. It feels honest. It’s the one I won, so of course I like this prize,” he says. “I’ll take any of the others, too,” he hastens to add, just in case.

The Pulitzer: suddenly Less was much, much more and some people might have been feeling as remorseful over missed opportunities as Arthur. “My [UK] publisher for my previous four books turned it down. We went to 12 other publishers. ‘Offer me $100, anything.’ No one would pick up this book. But, honestly, the day after I won the Pulitzer Prize, I found a publisher in the UK.”

In the book, Arthur is also struggling with a rejected new novel, Swift. He explains the plot to a woman he meets in Morocco. “A white, middle-aged American man walking around with his white, middle-aged American sorrows?” she summarises witheringly. Oh dear.

As in the Seinfeld episode in which George Costanza decides the answer to his loser life is to do the opposite of everything he’d normally do, Arthur decides to turn his character’s privileged angst into comedy: “All it takes is a pail thrown out a window, an open manhole, a banana peel.”

Greer had that very epiphany while writing Less. “In real life, I worked for about a year and a half on a serious novel, and I couldn’t really feel sorry for the main character because he was a lot like me. Also, I was in a really depressed moment and I couldn’t get anything going on the page. It didn’t feel alive. It just occurred to me one day as I was out swimming in San Francisco Bay that I might as well try humour.” He’s funny in his other writing, but not, before Less, in fiction. “So, I just thought, let’s try another way.”

That worked out well. It’s something he might not have risked when he was younger. “But time goes on, you write books and you realise how little attention is mostly paid to them. You realise no one’s really watching. And then they do, and it’s a surprise.”

Less is his sixth book. Previous novels – The Confessions of Max Tivoli, about a man who ages backwards; The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells, in which a woman whose twin brother has died of Aids finds herself transported to past lives – have been complex and serious.

He might have worried, as a younger writer, about being taken seriously. Then he writes a comic novel and gets taken very seriously, indeed. “That’s the thing. I don’t know what kind of upside-down world we live in, but that is part of growing up. When I first started teaching at university level, I was sometimes younger than the students, so I would wear glasses and a button-up shirt and a jacket. Now that I’m so clearly older than they are, I don’t do anything like that.” What does he wear? “I wear cropped pants or funny shoes to give them something to look at.” He’s kind of ageing backwards like Max Tivoli. “I try to amuse them. It’s too perfect an analogy, isn’t it?”

Greer is 48. Getting older does require a sense of humour. But all good writers tend to be doubt-plagued creatures. He doesn’t, he says, read his reviews. Yet when I mention a rare critic who failed to see Less’s funny side, he says, “Chicago Tribune?” Actually, it was the Sunday Times. As it happens, Arthur is forever haunted by an otherwise-positive New York Times reviewer who calls him a “magniloquent spoony”. A what? “‘Arthur,’ Robert said, holding his hand, ‘He’s just calling you a faggot.’”

In Greer’s case, no less a literary giant than John Updike called The Confessions of Max Tivoli “enchanting, in the perfumed, dandified style of disenchantment brought to grandeur by Proust and Nabokov”. As Less’s enigmatic narrator notes, “Every author can taste the poison another has slipped into the punch.”

Was Less a way of working through his own writerly anxieties? “Yeah, for sure. I have anxieties to spare about any number of things. How do I talk about that? We get to do this most wonderful thing in the world and it’s awful,” he says. “It’s impossible to complain about it and it’s certainly impossible to complain when you’re invited to something. And yet there’s this strange feeling of not being up to the task, of disappointing – myself mostly. What my younger self thought was going to happen.”

For his often-punishing public engagements, anxious Arthur Less armours himself in a favourite, ultimately ill-fated, vibrant blue suit. When Greer collected his Pulitzer, his was a triumphant fire-engine red. You suspect he plays up his own Lessian haplessness for effect. “Arriving now by Eurostar and I have already ripped my trousers in the rear! What worse humiliations await me, London?” he tweeted on a book tour. He can’t have had moments as bad as the excruciating occasion known as An Evening with Arthur Less. Greer laughs and laughs.

“That is one of very few things that is taken directly from my life and put into the book without changes or exaggerations. That is my experience at my 20th high-school reunion.” Arthur, by then reasonably successful, turns up to speak at his high-school reunion. No one comes. No one. Surely that didn’t happen to Greer. Now, he’s making me feel bad for him. “Every bit of it,” he says, with the grim satisfaction of a writer who has spun personal torment into Pulitzer-winning gold. “Now I feel bad that people from high school will read this and feel bad about themselves,” he muses. “But they should.”

Accepting the Pulitzer from Columbia University president Lee Bollinger. Photo/Supplied

He has had the last laugh. But, along with the satire, Less interrogates memory, mortality, the interior life of the sort of guy who will always arrive in Japan too early for the cherry blossoms, but who comes to realise it’s never entirely too late. There’s also the shadow of the Aids epidemic. “In my world, people who got HIV mostly lived long enough to get the treatment, so are still with us. I had to watch a generation above me die,” Greer says. “For me, it meant that everything that had to do with sex or romance had death attached to it, the possibility of death. What’s already something full of anxiety – first kiss, first time naked with someone … It wasn’t a magical time, my first experiences, at all. It was just sort of terrifying. It haunts my work in the background.”

In The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells, it’s 1986. Greta’s brother has died of Aids. “She describes West Village in New York City as being abandoned, with notes in the shop windows that said, ‘Gone home’. When I went there in 92, that’s the way it was. It was just an empty part of town because everyone died.” He also witnessed incredible solidarity. “This was the moment when the lesbian community, which had fought for freedom and a world without men and was striking out on its own, watched gay men dying and left that idea and went back to help us. Everyone was marching for more funding for Aids research. It wasn’t seen as a male problem, it was everyone together. When I came along, the community had cohered into LGBTQ+. That was really inspiring.”

These days, communities can seem more fractured over the complex, competing demands of identity politics. “This has been going on a long time. Certainly, the left is always fracturing. That’s just part of the problem of having a lot of causes. We’ve had our Pride marches separate, we’ve had the women’s march separate into two marches over Israel and anti-Semitism or perceived anti-Semitism, depending on which side you’re on. Often, it takes something like a truly terrible president such as [Donald] Trump for us to realise that if we don’t get it together, things are going to get much darker than we can imagine.”

Of course, he has an anecdote, endearingly against himself. He was in a radical LGBT group that had fought to use a student bar one night a week. “One night, there was this straight couple making out on the dance floor. And, whatever came over me, I was, like, ‘You have to get out of here. This is a queer safe space.’ A friend came up, a radical lesbian, and said, ‘Those were my friends. Those are our allies. What are you doing?’ Suddenly, I was, like, what is wrong with me? I was getting a little excited about finally being in a position of power and kicking someone else out when I’d been kicked out so many times. Look, I learnt instantly.”

Any ideology can harden into something overly proscriptive. “These kinds of purity tests have always been trouble, and the problem is that they are usually used by individuals to gain power over other people because no one can pass the purity test.”

Greer’s life sometimes seems ready-made for a great story. The night he came out to his mother, she came out to him. “Yes, it’s true. My mom, an experimental chemist, even came out at work. It hurt her career significantly, because that academic world of old men was not interested in giving promotions or funding to a lesbian, or to a woman at all. And now they had double reasons and they didn’t have to explain that in those days.” His mother, Sandra Greer, has just written a book, too. “It’s about ethics in physical sciences.”

He’s been married for as long as he’s been allowed to marry – 10 years – to his partner of 23 years. He has an identical twin. “My brother and I are very similar in every way. Not every way. He has a wife and two kids and I don’t, but he’s, like, still a big sissy.”

Now, Greer is a Pulitzer Prize-winning author. How has that been? “I’m not an utter optimist. I often find trouble. But the first person I called was Michael Chabon, who won [the prize] in 2001, and he said, ‘Oh, there’s no down side.’ It’s been a year and I still feel like it’s fresh and new. You know, you’re still congratulating me on it. I quit my day job. I get to spend my time being a writer.”

It could put on some professional pressure. “That’s true, but I put so much pressure on myself that it’s hard to imagine. I’ve never had the pressure of people dying to read my next book; that’s new. But it doesn’t feel worse than people not wanting to read your next book.” Speaking of which – no pressure – what next? “I will say that it’s a comedy, whatever that means, again.”

Greer seems so confident, so upbeat. Arthur is frightened of everything, buying chewing gum as much as flying or public speaking. Yet at one point Freddy, his ex, calls Arthur the bravest man he knows. If you are that existentially terrified, it takes a sort of courage just to keep turning up. And hoping next time will be at least a mitigated disaster. “Ha, yeah. I think it’s brave to be an artist of any kind. Maybe it’s impossible to put that down. Everyone will think that’s so self-serving.”

He has a story about a writers’ retreat he attended. “There was a 90-year-old painter who, after breakfast, would stand up and say, ‘Coraggio [courage], everybody’, and walk away.” That sounds like someone he would make up. “I didn’t make her up! Her name is Henrietta Mantooth. What a name. She was at my first reading in New York for this book. She’s still with us and she’s still making art.”

Greer has lived through times that no doubt required some coraggio. Maybe that helped him to write a book that, after a cavalcade of the sort of pain, humiliation and sheer soul-destroying ennui to which flesh is heir, is cautiously, defiantly, joyful. “Yes, I think that’s what darkness does, right?” It was also a challenge. “I’ve written books where I’ve made the reader cry from sadness or poignancy. I wanted to see if I could do it from joy.” His editor wanted some of that joyous stuff cut. He didn’t. “It took being old enough to hear that advice and realise what she was really saying was not that I had to cut  it. I just had to make it better.” He did.

Andrew Sean Greer will be appearing at the Auckland Writers Festival, May 17 and 19 (writersfestival.co.nz).

Less, by Andrew Sean Greer (Hachette, $24.99).

This article was first published in the May 11, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.