Born in Washington, D.C., Andrew Sean Greer studied creative writing at Brown University (where he delivered the Commencement speech at his own graduation ceremony!) and received his M.F.A. in 1996 from the University of Montana. After grad school, he moved to the West Coast, living for a while in Seattle before finally settling in San Francisco. His work began to appear in literary magazines, and in 2000 he released How It Was for Me, an anthology of short stories The New York Times Book Review called an "impressive first collection." One year later, his debut novel The Path of Minor Planets was published to much acclaim.
However, it was his second novel, 2004's The Confessions of Max Tivoli, that proved to be Greer's big breakthrough. The title character of this bittersweet love story is a freak of nature: Born a baby with the appearance of a 70-year-old man, Max proceeds to live his entire life in reverse, ending up a wise old man trapped in the body of a helpless child. In a glowing New Yorker review, literary legend John Updike proclaimed the novel "...enchanting, in the perfumed, dandified style of disenchantment brought to grandeur by Proust and Nabokov." It was named a year-end best book by The San Francisco Chronicle, The Chicago Tribune, and the Miami Herald.
In addition to his novels, Greer continues to publish short fiction, reviews, and criticism. His work has appeared in Esquire, Paris Review, The New Yorker, and The New York Times.
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In our interview, Greer shared some fun and fascinating facts about himself with us:
"I'm an identical twin. His name is Michael Greer and he's also a fiction writer, and though our styles are very different, we love reading each other's work. We used to live a block apart in San Francisco, but he went to grad school in New York and now lives in Brooklyn, so if you think you've seen me on the streets of New York, it's probably not me, but say hi anyway. We're both very used to being greeted by strangers who think we're someone else."
"Some early jobs I had while trying to survive as a writer: reservationist at a fancy restaurant, chauffeur for a woman who couldn't drive because of a double mastectomy, sound and lighting Technician for experimental theater in New York, acting extra on Saturday Night Live, game tester for Nintendo, attendant to a woman recovering from plastic surgery, and so on. Although every writer must have a day job, I vowed at least to make mine interesting so I'd have something to write about. One of my weirdest jobs -- touring New England private schools with a Vietnamese boy and pretending to be his English tutor -- made it into the first story of my
collection, How It Was for Me."
"I like dogs and burritos. I dislike direct sunlight and cantaloupes."
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In the summer of 2004, we asked authors to list their all-time favorite summer reads and tell us what makes them just right for the season. Here's what Andrew Sean Greer had to say:
Two things to keep in mind: 1. Summer in San Francisco is the coldest time of year, so these are vacation reads, and 2. My idea of a vacation read is to alternate between challenge and indulgence -- that is, between long literary works and small pieces of imaginative fiction, and I think both have their great rewards. Also, I try to stay away from bestsellers (except #1 here, which is unavoidable). I mean, isn't it wonderful to have something new to talk about when you get home?
One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez -- I read this for the second time on a twelve hour train ride from the east coast of Java to Yogyakarta; we had no place to sleep or even lie down, so I read the whole book in one go. One of the most wonderful reading experiences of my life. You could also read Love in the Time of Cholera if the smell of bitter almonds always reminds you of hopeless love.
I, Robot by Isaac Asimov -- I reread this small collection every time I stay in my mother's guest room; this is the work that invented our modern notion of an artificial mind. The story "Liar" is still my favorite. I am baffled by the notion that it will be a movie with Will Smith.
Remembrance of Things Past/In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust -- An endless novel that only works if you give it loads and loads of time on a daybed with the sun shining through. Maybe a plate of figs beside you. Fall asleep mid-sentence and you'll dream of a bar of beach sunlight glowing at the bottom of a velvet curtain. Just find the new translation of Swann's Way and you'll get a taste of the greatest novel of the twentieth century.
The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, by Michael Chabon -- A genius literary novel in the guise of a rip-roaring adventure; what more could you want? The author's obvious love for his subjects -- language, history and comic books -- is an inspiration every day for me to write.
The Feast of Love, by Charles Baxter—Great title, huh? A walk through the suburbs and into the minds of a wild variety of people in love, written in the clearest, most compassionate prose imaginable.
The Bridge of Birds by Barry Hughart -- One of the fantasy novels I read as a teenager that I still think is a masterpiece. Set in an imagined imperial China and peopled by cruel emperors, dancing girls, giant spiders and gods; if this is your kind of thing then you're going to LOVE it.
Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov -- I first read this the summer I was sixteen, only a few years older than young Lolita herself, and I did not get it at all. I found it as difficult as Moby-Dick. I picked it up again a decade later and could not believe it was the same book. To tell the truth, it's a different book every time I read it: a comedy, a tragedy, a tale of cruelty and love, a panorama of mid-century America, a poem. A never-ending box of wonders.
Cheri and The Last of Cheri by Colette -- Plush novellas about an aged courtesan and her beautiful, young lover by the great French writer; like old French furniture, this two-part romance has a false panel that opens to reveal a story about the coldness of growing old.
Mara & Dan by Doris Lessing -- A wonderful recent novel by the prolific Ms. Lessing, who gives us -- in prose as dry as a desert -- a quest set in a future Africa of droughts and strange insects and, as always, ordinary heartless human beings.
So Long, See You Tomorrow by William Maxwell -- A miniature of murder and regret set in early-twentieth century America by one of the most under-read novelists of the century.
Something you loved as a child -- Always good to bring out the favorites: C. S. Lewis, Susan Cooper, Lewis Carroll, Lloyd Alexander, Madeleine L'Engle, Ursula K. LeGuin, and confront them again. You may be surprised at how wonderfully they're written, and how quickly you zoom through them on a summer day. Bring a pile to the beach, and you'll be finished by sundown.
In the winter of 2004, Andrew Sean Greer took some time to talk with us about some of his favorite books, authors, and interests:
What was the book that most influenced your life or your career as a writer -- and why?
My initial response is Nabokov's Lolita, because it is a constant revelation to me. But the most influential book has to be one that I haven't read since I was 16: Wuthering Heights. Strange, I know. Let me explain:
Before I begin any novel, I find I'm highly sensitive, and there's always one book I read that opens up some way into the novel. For my first novel, The Path of Minor Planets, that book was The Hours. I realized that Nabokov was right; there is no such thing as plot. There is only style and structure, and Michael Cunningham's amazing prose and perfect structure make for a fantastic book. For The Confessions of Max Tivoli, that book was The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon. One of the pleasures of that book is the obvious delight the author takes in his subject; that was a great lesson for me, and allowed me to throw myself into the prose and details of 19th-century San Francisco.
But I wrote my first novel back when I was 16, after reading Wuthering Heights. For some reason, I was amazed by the looping storytelling, and the passion and beauty of the language. I wrote a horrible, horrible novel in imitation of it, but I have chosen Emily Brontë's novel because it was in the thrall of that book that I began my career as a writer.
What are your favorite books, and what makes them special to you?
You should know that I read the way a chef glances at a great cookbook: to get inspiration for what I've got burning on the stove. There are many great books, but these help me to write:
Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov -- I have read it 50 times or so, and there is always some new puzzle to discover, a new word or description. Ignore everything you've heard. It's brilliant.
Remembrance of Things Past by Marcel Proust -- Okay, so I'm not all the way through it yet, but this novel is an endless source of intricate descriptions of human nature -- often comparing something you had not noticed before to something else you had not noticed before -- that I encounter at least one gasp per page. It is a life-changing experience. And I can't call it In Search of Lost Time because that's not the title on the cover of my particular book.
The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford -- "This is the saddest story I have ever heard." Have you ever read a better beginning? The resulting tale is simple, but told so elliptically and beautifully that you wonder why literature didn't change forever afterward.
The Collected Works of Wallace Stevens -- Always good to baffle and amaze and send me back to the keyboard.
So Long, See You Tomorrow by William F. Maxwell -- Is everyone still reading William Maxwell? They should. I have never read a writer of such unsentimental compassion.
One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez -- Okay, well it doesn't actually inspire my writing because there's no earthly way I'll ever write like Márquez, but I find myself drawn in every time I open up this book. Fantastically translated, intricately painted, plotless but enthralling, tied up by a single perfect sentence at the end. Perhaps the greatest book ever written?
Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf -- I keep it on my desk as a reminder of how to write. I can never forget that final sentence all on its own, and the odd leap of joy I feel every time I read it.
The Dark Is Rising books by Susan Cooper -- Great books from my childhood. I reread them recently and they're still wonderful -- much more morally ambiguous than nice-nice Harry Potter; more like Philip Pullman.
What are some of your favorite films, and what makes them unforgettable to you?
I'm not going to pretend I have wonderful taste in movies. Sometimes I go to be moved in the complex and lasting ways that I find in novels; sometimes I go just to see giant heads in a dark room. But I do have some favorites:
Nashville has the novelistic pleasure of many unrelated scenes and characters all coming together to produce a singular, complex portrait of an American moment. I once watched it at the Castro Theater with Robert Altman onstage. He had a mike on. Midway through something happened that I've only seen in movies: the film melted away. And in the darkness you could hear a booming voice: "@#%* I love it!"
Magnolia has the similar sense, among its oddities, of being a novel. I also loved Punch Drunk Love, which was stranger still and the truest love story in recent memory.
Talk to Her is just an amazing film, absolutely beautiful and unexpected. We're forced to feel tenderness and forgiveness for terrible acts. If you want to see Geraldine Chaplin age gracefully, watch Nashville and then Talk to Her. She is still hilarious, even in Spanish.
I have to admit a passion for The Lord of the Rings. We'll all be talking about where we were when we first saw these films.
I know I'm forgetting them all. It's like standing at the video store and wondering what that movie was you've always wanted to see again.
What types of music do you like? Is there any particular kind you like to listen to when you're writing?
I made a decision as a poor young writer that I would spend my money on books and not music; consequently, I've been out of the loop for years. I love music and everything my friends play for me, but I have the distinct feeling that I am not very cool. Laurie Anderson seems to be my only constant and true love, but let me mention the Magnetic Fields and the Trachtenburg Family Slideshow Players. I can't imagine listening to music as I write; for me, it would be like having someone sitting next to me, humming insistently.
If you had a book club, what would it be reading -- and why?
I'm a slow reader, so any crucial book that I'm terrified to take on myself: Ulysses, The Man Without Qualities, Middlemarch, Moby-Dick, Little Dorritt or the rest of Remembrance of Things Past so I can finally finish it before they come out with an entirely new translation and prove I've wasted years of my life.
What are your favorite kinds of books to give -- and get -- as gifts?
I think the best gift is always something people long for but will not buy for themselves. Among my friends, that always means a new hardcover book. Al Franken is a favorite of the moment, but mostly I give friends the great luxury of literary fiction: Peter Carey's new novel, for instance. If you're short on cash, an old Modern Library edition of a classic is a beautiful present. I remember when I was broke and looking for a wedding present, I found a 1930s Japanese bootleg edition of Lady Chatterley's Lover. Recently, I discovered a Braille edition of Playboy in a junk shop. It is just white pages of Braille lettering. Those sorts of unusual presents are the best.
Do you have any special writing rituals? For example, what do you have on your desk when you're writing?
Let's see, on my desk right now I've got: a thermos of coffee, Lolita, Wallace Stevens' poems, Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides (which I'm reading), Roget's Thesaurus, my iPod (to back up my writing), a pen, two empty notebooks (for doodling images) and my cell phone (no phone in my office). And that's it. All I really need in a workspace is natural lighting and a place to nap.
I'm not especially ritualistic because I don't believe in magic thinking. I think the key to working on a piece of fiction is not the arrangement of pens or a particularly nice view. It is a matter of sitting in a chair long enough to get the words down. I love writing, but I do think of it as a job, and I go to work at nine every morning and stay until I've written my requisite number of pages: three. That may not sound like much, but novels are not sprints but marathons, and that seems to be the right pace for me.
I remember reading an article on writing once in The Washington Post when I was very young -- I mean 16 or so, when I wrote my awful first novel -- and it had two pieces of advice. One was not to wait until you were "in the mood" to write, because one is never really in the mood for that kind of torture. The other was to "stop while the iron is hot," meaning: Don't end the day at the end of a chapter, but stop while you're in the flow. Then you can start the next day and know exactly how to begin. I have always taken both pieces of advice and they work for me. Especially the second.
That said, I don't think other writers' habits are particularly useful for new writers. If they work for you, great; if not, forget them. The trick is to find your own habits. I remember being on a panel once and an audience member asked me:
"Do you find that work from your journaling influences your other writing?"
I was baffled. "What's ‘journaling'?" I asked her.
She explained that it was a pre-writing exercise.
"That sounds like a great idea, but I don't do that," I told her. "I just sit down and read poetry and write."
She refused to believe it. Apparently she read somewhere that you have to "journal" before you write and she assumed that meant every writer did it. As if there were any kind of formula to this other than sitting down and doing it.
Many writers are hardly "overnight success" stories. How long did it take for you to get where you are today? Any rejection-slip horror stories or inspirational anecdotes?
How long did it take me? Hard to say. I wrote my first novel when I was 16 and four more before I published my first book. That was a collection of short stories that came out in 2000 (How It Was for Me), followed by a novel in 2001 (The Path of Minor Planets).
Those unpublished books don't really count. They were a young writer's warm-up period, and a time in which I developed the habit of writing and the backbone to bear rejection. I recently did a reading of the first page from each of my unpublished novels. I think the audience and I agreed that while they are not as bad as you'd fear, they are certainly far worse than you would want.
More figures: When I was in grad school, I heard that you had to get 200 rejections before you could publish a story. You know, that kind of ridiculous and meaningless figure that you cling to when you're beginning. So I figured I'd try to get all 200 out of the way as soon as possible. I was a writing and postage machine. By the end of two years, I had collected exactly 200 rejection letters from every magazine and literary journal in the country when I got a phone call from Richard Ford. He was publishing my story in Ploughshares. There is no moral to this story.
What tips or advice do you have for writers still looking to be discovered?
Enter the writing world where you live. Attend readings of local authors at small bookstores, buy their books and chat with them. Read their books. In San Francisco, Adobe Books is a wonderfully small world of emerging writers; I'm sure there's one everywhere. Soon you'll have a writing community and, as each of you finds some small success, you will pull each other up. I think the most important thing to remember is that, as writers, we are not in competition. Publishers don't think, I'll either publish this guy or his friend. They will publish you both, in time. We are on the same side, here. So be proud of your friends and their successes, knowing that your turn will come in time.
My only other advice is: Read and write. If you don't love to read literary fiction, you probably shouldn't be writing it, and no writers' magazine in the world can help you learn as much as an old ratty paperback classic can. Also, no amount of wishing for success can make up for writing every, every, every day.
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