Poured Over: Andrew Sean Greer on Less is Lost

“I already had a kind of Don Quixote set up in mind. And so I was like, Wouldn’t it be funny if Arthur was the sort of Sancho Panza in this? I’ll just barely touch on it and see where it goes. And I thought he needs someone totally full of himself to shake him up…” Readers fell in love with Arthur Less—and Andrew Sean Greer took home a Pulitzer Prize for LESS, the novel that introduced us to Arthur. Andrew joins us on the show to talk about his new novel, the not-really-a-sequel, LESS IS LOST, turning tragedy into comedy, rewrites, what scares him as a writer, his literary influences and the writing advice that much more with Poured Over’s host, Miwa Messer. And we finish this episode with TBR Topoff book recommendations from Marc and Becky.

Featured Books (Episode)
Less is Lost by Andrew Sean Greer
Less by Andrew Sean Greer
The Confessions of Max Tivoli by Andrew Sean Greer
The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells by Andrew Sean Greer
The Story of a Marriage by Andrew Sean Greer
Chéri by Colette
A Boy’s Own Life by Edmund White
Travels with My Aunt by Graham Greene
Moby Dick by Herman Melville
Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes

Featured Books (TBR Topoff)
A Single Man by Christopher Isherwood
Bucky F*cking Dent by David Duchovny

Poured Over is produced and hosted by Miwa Messer and mixed by Harry Liang. New episodes land Tuesdays and Thursdays (with occasional Saturdays) here and on your favorite podcast app.

Full transcript for this episode:

BN I’m Miwa Messer, I’m the producer and host of Poured Over and Andrew Sean Greer won the Pulitzer Prize. (And yes, I did just mispronounce Pulitzer) in 2018, for his novel, Less, which is one of the great comedic novels in the last 10 years, let’s call it—and he’s back with a sequel, called Less is Lost. And I’m so happy to see you. Thank you for making the time.

Andrew Sean Greer Thank you for having me on here.

BN But I have a question for you. And I know this is sort of become a little bit of cannon, but Less originally was supposed to be a tragedy, and I’m…I can see the mechanics of it. But I just want to start with how in the world did you think this was going to be a tragedy?

ASG I mean, it’s true of every book, I write that I plan out the book, usually, while I’m waiting for the new book to come out, and I’m like, All right, I’m gonna do it. It’s gonna be great. This one’s gonna go so smoothly. And then I have a nervous breakdown. And I’m like, this book is turning into something else completely. I don’t know if I can handle it. I call it my agent. I say, I’m not going to do it. And she says, Andrew, it’s going to be fine. And then I change the book. It’s not that strange for my friends and loved ones that I did that here. But it definitely was going to be a book. It was supposed to be sort of a take on Colette’s novel, Chéri, where there’s an older courtesan with a young lover, and he gets married, and then they discover that they’re really in love. It’s pretty shocking. And I thought, well, that would be good, I love that book. I’ll do that with like, a gay man who’s in his 50s and young lover, they don’t care about each other. They just sort of passing the time. So I wrote that book, It was so boring. Yeah.

BN Okay, is this your pandemic novel?

ASG Yes, it is. I mean, I started before the pandemic. And I did all my research, obviously, before the pandemic. But then I sat and I was actually in Italy while I wrote the book, which is actually a good place to have like a sort of vantage point on your own country, because you see it more as an alien. And things are a little funnier, because you see how peculiar they are. Because you’re realizing you’re not getting it right where you are. Have you ever been to a foreign country, and you couldn’t figure out how to flush the toilet or something? That happens to me all the time in Italy. And, and it happens in the US if you’re in parts you’re not used to. So, I tried to treat it that way.

BN And it works. Okay, but let’s go back to Arthur for a second, because I think you missed this guy as much as we did, as much as readers did.

ASG Well, that was it. I mean, I was saying that I made it a tragedy, because there is there’s Less as a serious part of it, which is that he’s a gay man about to turn 50. And he has never seen a gay man over 50, because there was a whole generation, not everyone, but a lot of them are lost or in the closet. And so he doesn’t know how to get old. And that’s like, an incredibly tragic premise. But I touched on that briefly in Less, and it’s sort of the occasion for his self-pity, which we sort of make fun of, but then also engaged in and then his discovery of sort of how to go on. And I was for this book, again, the same thing happened, I was writing a different book, different characters on a road trip. And it was a disaster. It wasn’t working, the characters were not fully fleshed out. And I just thought, If only I had a lovable goofy character already made, and maybe like a famous author, I could put in the car with him. Then I could keep the pug and and start over. And I realized that I was I was reinventing the wheel for myself, that I really had a way of talking that I liked, especially if I was going to talk about my own country. I wanted that same sense of being able to have empathy and ridicule together—that it would it would it would maybe get me somewhere. So, I went back. And Freddie as part of it.

BN I was very happy to see that Freddie was back.

ASG Oh, yeah, no, he’s so cute. I thought it has to be his book.

BN Okay. So you know, it has to be Freddie’s book. And we also know that, Robert, you know, in Less Robert’s getting up there, Robert Brownburn. And sure enough, Robert dies, which Robert had a very nice life. Marion’s fully prepared to deal with Robert’s legacy. And it turns out Less owes Robert a little bit of back rent.

ASG Yeah, well, it was one of those, like, too shy to bring it up. I think over 15 years after he was living in the house Robert had bought, like to awkward, not quite adult enough to pull it together. And then the estate is asking for the money that Robert never asked for

BN At market rates…

ASG I said market rates in San Francisco because that’s it It’s funny to me to think someone buying something in the 1980s, it would have been nothing

BN …in a very nice location in San Francisco too.

ASG Oh, yeah, it’s a glamorous location. But it wasn’t then, yeah,

BN This time Less isn’t quite fleeing heartbreak. He takes a gig, which many writers have done. And he agrees to interview again a writer that we met in Less. HHH is back.

ASG I don’t know why I picked that character out of everybody.

BN I need to know what it was…

ASG Well, it was because I already had a kind of Don Quixote set up in mind. And so I was like, Wouldn’t it be funny if Arthur was the sort of Sancho Panza in this and I was like, I’ll just barely touch on it and see where it goes? And I thought he needs someone totally full of himself to shake him up, I think, I think unless he gets a lot of advice from people who are incredibly bossy, and I like that. And so I thought I’ll make a I’ll make a new character out of one we barely saw last time, I think it’s like a shadow. And I’ll flesh him out. And also, because I think when you’re writing something and you have a character that just is fun to be with, and you keep wanting to put them in scenes, then you should put them in scenes. And they’ll take over and you should let them take over and pare back anyone who wasn’t working. And so Mandern was just such good fun to be with, because he just won’t have it. But Arthur, he thinks he’s a nobody. And can hardly believe the choices he’s making. And when he changes his mind,

BN Lots of people meet Arthur and change their mind and that’s half the fun of this book. But okay, so we’ve got HHH, they’re on the road, the gents are on the road with the pug. Because everyone needs a dog when they’re traveling. They, you, I’m going to presume we’re not traveling with a dog when you were doing the research for this. Was it just you on the road?

ASG It was just me on the road. In 2016, there was a presidential election, you recall. And I was surprised it’s been a by the result. And I thought, I think I don’t understand the whole country. I think I’m in a bubble of some kind. So I usually, for most books, whatever I’m afraid of is what I’m what I head towards, usually it’s in myself. And so I rented a van and spent three weeks in the Southwest and three weeks in the South, the Deep South. My family’s from North Carolina, South Carolina….Mississippi, these were places I’ve ever been. And I thought I got to figure out I wasn’t gonna talk politics with people. But my rules were like, I had to go to small towns, I had to sit at the counter in the diner and at the bar in a bar, and I had to talk to people and just hear the story of their lives or something. And it was fascinating. No dog. No dog with me. But I got that would have that would have helped maybe, get over barriers.

BN But what was the biggest surprise from that trip, though? I mean, that’s a lot of strangers to talk to in a lot of small towns, I mean, six weeks on the road.

ASG The biggest surprise was that I, like Arthur, I tried to sort of butch myself up in a Walmart. And I got like those wraparound glasses that straight guys wear and baseball cap and I put American flags on my on my van. I did. And like I didn’t fool a soul. I wasn’t expecting that, that everyone, everyone knew I was gay. And that there actually I would meet gay people who would like run a coffee shop or something. And like they knew what was going on. But it was clear that there was, of course, a different way of living in San Francisco or New York City or LA or something.

BN You’re on the road, you’re in this van, you’re talking to your fellow Americans, my fellow Americans, our fellow Americans. And listening to what they’re saying. And I don’t want to say Less is Lost or Less is autofiction. Because it’s not but there are bits of your life that show up in these books. And obviously, you’re the writer, you can take whatever you want. But when did you know you had Less, when did you know Arthur Less was sort of fully formed? And you were in a place where this voice was gonna go out into the world and you’re like, Yeah, this is it. This is it, enough to come back to him?

ASG I know. What it was, was that I wrote a bunch of things that I cut. And then I wrote that Italian chapter, and I was in Italy, and I had just been to a prize ceremony. And I wrote down kind of exactly what happened. And I changed a lot you know, and I added Robert to it, and I made it part of a novel, but um, I thought, well, this is such good fun, that I can’t… This is it. And also Arthur Less had already become not me. You know, he had, I don’t see him as me even though so that makes it easy for me to give him my stories because I feel like they’ll transform in the writing into something else because he’s much more innocent in good and bad ways that I am, like he’s guileless and bumbling, Mr. Magoo-y but he’s also not paying attention to subtleties of the world around him. And I think that can cause pain.

BN Doesn’t that pain and doesn’t that discomfort just heighten the comedy? I mean, writing comedic novels seems very, very easy, I think to lots of people and writing comedy in general seems, it’s like you just tell a bunch of jokes and things happen. But this setup has to give you an emotional payoff. It’s not just enough to be like, Oh, right. Haha. You know, Arthur is complicated. And the people around him are a little complicated, and everyone’s sort of poking at each other.

ASG Well, you know, I have Less—that’s my first comic novel, so I’m not a great expert on it. But I certainly wouldn’t be the first person to say that, that comedy is when you decide you’re gonna laugh. You know, that it’s when you decide, you turn it inside out. And you make it into a funny story, because it’s actually so painful, that if you tell it, like it really happened, everyone would kind of be like, God this guy needs a therapist. You know, you have to sort of process it in a funny way to relieve yourself from it. And maybe hopefully, there’s a reader or listener who’s can relate to something in it that relieves them of that. I guess that’s the theory of comedy. I, again, I’m not an expert, but I definitely did that with the book. You know, I would sit and think, What’s the most humiliating thing that ever happened to me? How can I make it a funny story? Like my first kiss is in Less is Lost. I didn’t have the nerve to put it into Less because it’s so humiliating. And I thought, I gotta put it in. And I’m happy to tell people exactly why. But what’s interesting in the book is it means something different to him than it did to me, right? You know, like, even though the story is the same, it’s a different punch line. And also, when a book, you kind of think things are going to turn out okay, so it’s okay to laugh at it. Whereas when you’re 18, you don’t know what things are going to turn out okay, so they doesn’t seem funny the next day.

BN I want to go back to something you said a couple of minutes ago, where you said, you know, you look at the thing that scares you when you sit down to start a novel. And I’m trying to figure out having read Less is Lost, I’m trying to figure out what that thing was that scared you. And I don’t know if it was just switching gears from the book that was not working while you were driving around. Or if it was just something again with Arthur and Freddy.

ASG Well, it was definitely what happens after the happy ending. How do you get through, trapped in an apartment with a loved one for two and a half years? But when I originally started it, what scared me was definitely Alabama.

BN Right.

ASG Like, I’m like, I don’t know that area. And I’m scared of it for some reason. And that’s ridiculous. No, it’s it’s just, it’s clearly a prejudice of mine. I have to go there and be not scared. Once again, there’s a scene in a bar in Alabama that is just a transcription of my time in that bar. I added the dog, but everything else, when he puts on the jukebox is exactly what happened. It just because it was funny. If I thought back on it, it wasn’t funny when it was happening. You know, like they were living normal lives. I’m the weirdo who shows up. And what goes wrong is me.

BN Okay, so you leave before 8pm. But also, you are a writer, you’re the outsider, you’re always the outsider. I mean, I look at your novels, Greta Wells and Max Tivoli, and I’m shortening the titles because I have a terrible habit of doing that. But The Confessions of Max Tivoli was what, 2004? And The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells. I’m sorry. 2000.

ASG Well, ‘12

BN Okay, sorry.  But so I mean, eight years between these two novels that are wildly inventive, right, we’ve got time traveling Greta Wells. And we’ve got Max, aging backwards in a very different way from Benjamin Button, which some people might say, Oh, I remember. No, it’s totally different.

ASG It’s different.

BN But I do like I like this idea that you sort of bounce around and Story of a Marriage is certainly, you know, unlike any of the other books, and here, you are now writing comic novels and having people say, oh, right, why haven’t you been doing this all along? I mean, it’s very nice to have a Pulitzer. But I want to talk about you as a writer, and the evolution of ideas for you and sort of, you know, your first story collection, fantastic debut story collection exactly what you sort of expect from a guy coming out of an MFA program. And then we get The Light of Minor Planets. Yeah. Which, unfortunately pubbed, right around 911. It did. And so, but Max Tivoli in ‘04 had a lot of people talking for a really long time. And lots of good things happened for that book. And it was wild. And I just remember thinking, Oh, who is this guy? I remember picking it up because people I knew who don’t usually read sort of fantasy and whatnot were saying, Oh, no, this Max Tivoli guy, you need to read this book. And I remember finishing it and thinking, Oh, I just read an epic love story. I would. I want to talk about Max for a second, because it’s been a minute. I mean, we’re talking in 2022, but…

ASG I mean, yeah, it was a while ago, I, but I feel I have a great fondness for that book. And it feels like less to me. Because before both of those, both of those books, I had thought, My career’s over, I have nothing. No one’s reading my books. No one’s no one’s ever gonna read the next one I write. So it gave me total freedom to do what I wanted, oddly and with Max Tivoli I was like, no one is asking me to write like a sort of fantasy novel that a man really does backwards and 19th century, San Francisco in Victorian prose, like that was not cool in 2004. Definitely not cool. And I was like, Well, I guess I’m not cool. I’ll just do that. And I got rewarded for it. And then less was the same thing that I think it shows in the book because Less is a sort of failed novelist. And so again, I put in really personal details, because I thought no one’s ever going to read this. And once again, like it was, with people actually reading it. And I guess I guess the key for me is to, is to fail intermittently, or at least, to give myself total permission to do exactly what I want, which it seems like every novelist does, but we don’t, we’re aware of the market, and we’re told about it, and how our book isn’t going to fit it. And you’re certainly aware of all the books that come out that we’re not supposed to do well, and then do and the ones that are supposed to be megahits and nothing happens. And it’s no one can predict it. So I had both of those were really pleasant experiences and making them and then and they’re being received.

BN You’ve also had people though, say to you, you write wildly different books. And yet, you’re sitting around saying, Well, no, actually, I kind of write about love. And I kind of write about the passage of time, which I love. I love the idea that you’re just kind of like, no, no, really, I have these two obsessions, I just dress them up differently.

ASG That’s it for me, I think I write the same book over and over. I just, I don’t want you to notice. Or rather, I want it to still work on you, you know, like or on me. Like I want to try it from a different angle. But I keep definitely getting the same thing. Even Less, which is told in present tense. Right? So it can’t be about the passage of time, right? But it definitely is because it’s about aging, and it’s about his youth, and it’s about love.

BN So I think I define passage of time slightly differently then, because as far as I’m concerned, the novel is the best way to talk about any kind of passage of time. Whether like, there’s just no other art form that really does it, because you can bounce forward, you can bounce back. I like it when time travel has guardrails, though, and I mean, certainly with Greta Wells when you know she’s in ‘85, then the other Gretas are in their respective other years too—and that seems like a lot of math to do as a writer…

ASG Oh my god, it was so complicated! I had this huge chart, and all these lines going and like index cards that I just couldn’t get it straight.

BN But part of also why I bring up Greta beyond the fact that it’s just fun to talk about this book. And the idea of Andrew Sean Greer writing a time travel novel is Greta’s brother. And you mentioned this to a little bit in Less because there’s an entire generation of men who are missing because of the AIDS crisis and never got a chance to turn 50. And Greta’s brother obviously factors into her story, as well. And I think it’s really important to talk about this also, you know, in the context of a comic novel, you’re not making light of any of this. But you also can’t ignore the fact that it happened and certainly at Roberts funeral, there are some moments where I got, you know, my eyes got really big because I remember that moment, too. And so to see the memorialization of this, and yeah, it’s kind of funny that Less doesn’t know how to grow old but there’s a reason it’s not just vanity, there’s a real reason.

ASG I think every writer deals with this, that there is some big story from their community or their family or their world they come from that has been told before but needs to keep being told. And so you have to tell it in some new way, which is hard. And certainly the story of the AIDS pandemic has had amazing representations in Angels of America, And the Band Played On, and Normal Heart and things. And I have had a struggle trying to talk about that in a way that didn’t fall into some cliche, or something already heard, I needed the reader to experience it again. So especially younger readers who don’t, didn’t live through it, and aren’t really—they’re aware of it, but it’s so long ago. So like it like in, in Greta Wells, I really, I thought, well, this is a way I can show, you know, a man dying in 1985. I don’t want to set a novel all about that. But I can show that and then I can do it in a in a way of hope I’m showing a different possibility in a different time periods. So there’s a sense of what’s the best time to live this, this goes up that goes down. And unless it’s lost, I have a specific typically set Robert’s memorial in the Columbarium. Here in San Francisco, which is this peculiar place where it’s glass niches for urns, and you can decorate the inside any way you want. And because the cemeteries in San Francisco wouldn’t accept the bodies of AIDS deaths, the Columbarium would, so it’s filled in, like 1992 ‘93, ‘94, with all of these hilarious ones that are like all decorated Judy Garland with lots of beads and flowers, and it’s you understand the time period, you understand that, of course, the joy that’s coming—it’s from their friends who are making it for them. And the real tragedy of seeing so many, all at once. It’s just walls of it. And it’s there, unless it’s lost just as a kind of just like this is this is the history he’s coming from, and not pretending that everything’s things are much better now for for gay men, especially. But it comes up, you know, it’s still in my mind.

BN Yeah, and we shouldn’t pretend it didn’t happen. I mean, that’s their subjects are kind of like, well, you know, we have all of the drugs now and everything. Like, yeah, but we can’t forget that this happened. And that’s…I think it’s important for us to be able to give a modern context to something that feels very, very long ago, for some people.

I’ve got to ask you about something that first comes up and less, and it comes up again, and less is lost. But this idea of Arthur is a bad gay. Can we talk about it? I feel a little guilty laughing about it. But at the same time, I sort of see both sides where I’m like, well, I mean, he’s just Arthur. But he’s got this other writer saying to him, No, Arthur, you’re just a bad gay. I’m sorry, I shouldn’t find this funny, but it is.

ASG I just thought it was, it was funny, because it’s weird to be a writer, when you have a kind of responsibility to your people, whoever those are, and you can tell their story. And you can tell it the way everyone wants you to tell it, or you can tell it your way. And if you tell it your way, and it’s not going to be popular. And I thought it would be funny for someone to confront Arthur with something that had never…doesn’t even make sense. You know, it’s just to like, down the line, like you have to do it this way. And that would confuse them. But it’s also the guides, right? Like Arthur isn’t taking a lot of things into account. He is in his books. He’s, you know, killing off the character.

BN Yeah, I’m just thinking back to like, I mean, there was a moment where was basically David Leavitt and then Alan Hollinghurst came along, and Ed White was always… Edmund White was always sort of in the background of everyone and you studied with Ed at Brown as an undergrad. You also studied with Robert Coover, and that’s a pairing I find wildly fascinating.

ASG I don’t know, readers probably don’t know either of these writers so much. But Edmund White wrote the first big sort of coming out coming of age novel, A Boy’s Own Story, and maybe it was 1980. And that’s still sort of being imitated today.

BN Oh completely.

ASG The classic. And has continued to write books and has a new one coming out. And then Robert Cooper was a highly experimental writer who would like write…he had one short story that was a ddeck of cards and you would just shuffle the cards any way you want. And we our class was on…we use computers, they had just invented hypertext where you click on a word and it connects to another document, you might have done that in your life. This is the first time anyone ever did that. He’s like, let’s try to make stories that way. It’s a mess.

BN I remember actually,

ASG Really? A hypertext novel.

BN Everyone was talking about it was just this moment in, in books where people were like, oh, yeah, this is the future. And I’m like, like books on CD ROM? Just as a baby bookseller, people were trying to, oh, no, you’ll just have an encyclopedia on a CD. Like, okay, part of why I love the idea of you studying with these two very, very different writers, is ultimately you find your own voice. And you end up in Montana with studying under a dude that I just think the world of William Kitteridge, who’s done this memoir called a hole in the sky. And you know, it’s this great story of the West, but also his family and his, well, his family. But I want to ask what you learned from each of them? If you were, I mean, obviously, I’m asking you about something from a really long time ago, but these are three sort of formidable guys.

ASG Really different guys, first of all. And, yeah, Robert Coover was like, always wore a black leather vest and aviator sunglasses, and seemed very serious, but he was very playful and incredibly supportive. And I just think from him I learned, like, do whatever you want, like, right, there’s no, one way to write best. All of us are getting stuck in this particular writing mode. And we have to break out of it, which I still think about, you know, and I still telling my students, like, don’t write your dialogue, like a TV show, like, or, you know, like, think of other ways to go read more books. And Edmund White and he tells me a lot of stylistic stuff about writing that was really useful, because he’s just a genius. He’s read everything. He has strongest opinions about every writer.

BN Really?

ASG Yeah. I mean, he’s a hoot. I mean, that also was a joy of reading that I got from him. But he was very specific and stylistic choices. Like he specifically told me I was describing something difficult with like a metaphor about something really ugly. And he said, Oh, no, no, no, you do the opposite. So if a soldier’s leg has been covered in gangrene, you say it’s like a column with ivy on it. So you surprise the reader. And it makes it less sentimental by reversing the metaphor. It’s something I’ve done ever since, you know, something like that hadn’t occurred to me. And then William Kittredge, who died during the pandemic, but who was a rancher through and through, but was not really born to be a rancher. He was like a sort of tender-hearted soul—a gun toting, tender hearted soul. And he sure did not know what to make of me when I showed up. But then I finally wrote a short story that was a straightforward story about like a gay man, a lesbian who get married in the 60s as cover for each other, and their 30-year marriage. And he called me to his office, and he told me some long sports metaphor about a pitcher who always pitched with his left hand, I didn’t understand. But I understood what he was saying was, you’re good at this. And you should do this. It’s so tempting to try to be impressive and cool and copy what’s going on in the world. But you should do… You have to recognize what you’re good at and do it and it was really great advice. And he was consistently supportive, and it was great to see him through the years when I would go back to Montana. An unlikely you know, mentor. He also sent my first short story to be published, to his friend Richard Ford, who was publishing Ploughshares and that was my first story ever published. You know, he’s, he’s really supportive.

BN Okay, I did not know that Richard Ford published your first story at Ploughshares. But that makes me very happy.

ASG I came home to my little apartment in Missoula, Montana. I have an answering machine and it was blinking and I pushed it and you hear Hello, this is Richard Ford, I hope I’ve reached Andrew Greer, you know, and when you are 24, that is an amazing message to hear.

BN I want to get back to Arthur Less for a second because his backstory. We meet his a sister Rebecca, in the new novel, and I wasn’t sure we were ever going to meet. And we also get dad, and we get a little more of mom. I mean, this felt like a really great moment to meet all of these people. But so you’re going in, you’ve started this novel that morphs into less his loss and you don’t really like the characters and it’s not really working and all that. But suddenly, here’s Arthur, and now we get to meet the rest of the Less family and dad’s a scoundrel.

ASG Yeah, but I knew that from the first book, but my first draft didn’t have dad in it at all. And it had a sort of different ending. And I was like that is this book is about Dad, Mandirn made it clear to me, I was like, this is about father figures. This is about growing old and responsibility and forgiveness. And his sister showed up. I don’t know how it was one of those things where I just decided, oh, maybe he has a sister, she’s not mentioned in the first book. And she was so fun to write that I just put her in the whole book. You know, I, and you actually meet her in person eventually. I just thought she was another good foil, because she and a great friend to him. You know, I just thought she’d be funny.

BN You know, you’ve talked about how you read quite a lot of Philip Roth while you’re writing the original, Less. I’m wondering what some of the influences are here. Because I mean, there is a shift in tone a little bit. You go from found family to actual genetic family. And, you know, we’re, you’re, well, it’s not quite that frog in the boiling water thing, but Less is learning a lot about in this book.

ASG Yeah, it’s a different book. Yeah. I mean, that’s why sequel is a tricky word. Because it feels like a different book when I was writing it. And yeah, I think that the influences were different. That must sound weird to you. You know, it was Travels with My Aunt by Graham Greene. Not a deep book, but I think a masterpiece. I read a lot of American literature. I read Moby Dick and I reread Nathaniel Hawthorne and I tried to be James Fenimore Cooper, which is as unreasonable as it was when I was 13.

BN Can’t do it. Can’t do him. Can’t.

ASG Yes. I mean, all of us went through piles of books in this pandemic. And I was in Italy, so I was getting whatever my friend Danny was mailing me. So it was a lot of kooky stuff.

BN I know we’ve talked about your teachers. I know we’ve talked about the influences on less and less is lost. But do you sort of have a list of go to writers that you turn to not based on a project but just based on your own personal taste?

ASG Well, I really…I have very, because I sort of came up buying from used bookstores. I’m not often that aware of the contemporary fiction list, which I think you hear from writers a lot. They’re a little afraid of the influence of the right now. So, I’m very comfortable going into a dusty old bookstore and picking something I never heard of. Or something I’ve never heard of by a writer. I know Lillian Hellman has a novel called Maybe that I think of all the time and you’ve never heard of it. I have not, for sure. I’m always trying to tipsily write the New York Review of Books and saying, Hey, would you guys republished Maybe? And then they’re always like, Thank you for your note, dear sir, on Instagram, never do it. Pretentiously I pick up Proust a lot. Now it ran just to I love it. I don’t I no longer have to read 4,000 pages of it, I can just read what I like of it, you know. But I really like books in translation, because they teach me something about the English language, because they’re a little not standard. And I find that really fresh and exciting. You know, like in like, you read Maigret novel, and the dialogue is all like dash instead of quotation marks… I’m like, Oh, I guess you could do that. Yeah, you know, like, I just something else occurs to you. And I love that and I make notes on it.

BN I also read a lot of Cormac McCarthy when I was younger and I’m like, I’m okay with no punctuation. Oh, yeah. I actually don’t need that as markers. I just need to be able to sit you know, with the words and the intent of the thing

ASG Or Jose Saramago. He won’t separate the dialogue. It’s yeah. It’s interesting.

BN I’m like, you know, if…I’m game I mean, that’s really what it comes down to. And certainly your career makes me think of how game I am to sit with someone and let them tell me a story. Because again, like time travel is not necessarily the first thing I reach for, but I’m like, Oh, that Greer guy, I like the way he tells a story. Sure. I’ll read this. Max Tivoli, same thing, all of that where I’m just like, Okay, I trust you.

ASG It’s good to hear.

BN Story of a Marriage. I before we started taping, obviously I mentioned it and I’m trying to figure out how to shoehorn it in here but I might not be able to shoehorn it in. It’s such a different book from every thing else and you know, I missed Pearly, it had been a minute since I’ve read that I originally read it when it first came out. And it’s a very sort of quiet sad. I mean, there are reviewers who have compared it to Marilynne Robinson or like a story by William Trevor. And I’m just like, yeah, actually, those are really accurate comps. And it’s been a minute since you’ve done anything like that. But I also remember sort of thinking, Hmm, okay, here we are, we’re going to sit with the idea that nostalgia isn’t quite the thing you think it is. And it feels because of that a very timely kind of book or like nostalgia is not what you think it is. It really isn’t. It’s not all that. And I would really love to see people pick up The Story of a Marriage again, because it’s, it’s I mean, the way it came out between Greta and Tivoli right?

ASG Yeah. I would like to pick it up to I’m interested oddly, in Italy. That is the book that everyone has read. It’s like a classic in Italy, because I think it reveals something unnerving about America that they feel like my is true. Yep. And that I think a lot of American readers might find it unnerving.

BN Also, the paperback jacket is really spectacular. It’s really good. I just saw the new jacket. And I was like, Oh, wait a minute, when did they do this is great.

ASG They went through a couple different things before they did that. And then they just went back and printed them. Well, yeah, I’d love that people think that story and that you would not crack a smile in that book.

BN No, no, no, it’s absolutely not that. But you know, for all of the folks who like the big feels right? I think about all these people who like to cry on video, I’m just like, No, really. I have the real Yeah, cry on video. I mean, they’re not me. But I mean, there are folks who can really do it. But here’s a question, what’s next for you?

ASG I’ve done this enough times that I know, I must be starting on a new book before a book comes out. Because you can have your heart all in that place. You’ve got to be somewhere else. So I started a new book this this summer. And I haven’t reached the nervous breakdown point yet. And it’s gonna be it’ll happen. I prefer to frontload the nervous breakdown, like with Less, but you know, it’s going to happen when it happens. Italy is in part of it now. Because I am so aware of that that country.

BN That’s really excellent. I’ve heard one thing, and I’m just wondering if this is true, or if it’s sort of become apocryphal. But you’ve had moments where editors or your agent have come to you and said, Andrew, I don’t think this is working. You need to fix this. And your response has been to rewrite something to make sure that the thing fits, instead of taking it out, which many writers would just take the thing out. But is that true? And did you have to do that with Less is Lost? Or did that sort of once you figured out where you needed to go? You were fine. And that’s where he went?

ASG Nope, that happened with Less is Lost for sure. Less, Story of a Marriage. I think most books and… but you know, I tell this to my students too. I say like, if you bring in a story about a marriage that’s vaguely falling apart, and at the end, the husband finds a mermaid in the backyard, everyone in class will say cut out the mermaid and it’ll be great. But you’ll have a mediocre story about a marriage falling apart. The mermaid’s the interesting part, you need to rewrite the whole story so that the mermaid appearing feels fulfilling. So, scrap everything else. And it’s really hard advice to give to someone when you know the mermaid isn’t working. So. like Less, the ending the narrator I was advised by many people to cut that. Because they said we’ve had a good time throughout this whole book, why risk it? And I said, Oh, I have to redo the whole book. I get it. But it took me a long time to understand that, that that advice is telling me where it hurts, but they they can’t diagnose, or shouldn’t try to diagnose the problem, that it’s really unfortunately it’s up to the writer to figure it out. And that happened in Less is Lost also, with the ending,

BN Okay. Because I’m glad you’ve kept that ending. Both of those endings are terrific.

ASG I was like, I got it. I got it. I hear you. Yeah, it’s everything else has to change. And usually it what it usually has to do with is you have to make an emotional through line. Go deeper within yourself, make it emotionally fulfilling. It’s emotionally fulfilling, then the fact that it’s not probable it’s not important.

BN Yeah, I really just want to hear a great story, and I can always rely on you for a great story. I may not know where I’m going….

ASG Don’t read the jacket copy on the next book because then you’ll just be like were, who knows where it was go.

BN That’s okay. I just need to see your name on the jacket. We’ll be fine. We’ll be totally totally fine. Andrew Sean Greer, thank you so much for joining us on Poured Over. Less is Lost is out now, along with all of Andrew’s backlist, and you really should go check it out. Thank you.

ASG Thank you so much.