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Out novelist Andrew Sean Greer completely rewrote his new book. He made it better by making it Less

Out novelist Andrew Sean Greer completely rewrote his new book. He made it better by making it Less
Andrew Sean GreerPhoto: Kaliel Roberts

Andrew Sean Greer didn’t set out to write a sequel to his Pulitzer Prize winning novel Less. He set out to check in on America after Donald Trump won the presidency in 2016. The out novelist hit the road, visiting red states like Arizona and Alabama to try to get a sense of how such a political cataclysm could have happened.

But when it came time to write about what he’d learned from his travels, he found himself drawn back to the characters he’d created in Less. “I was like, I already have some pre-made characters who would be hilarious in this,” says Greer.

Less is Lost finds its beloved hero, “minor American novelist” Arthur Less, once again at a crossroads. And once again, he takes flight. Or, rather, takes to the road. Like Greer, he embarks on a trip across the good (?) old (yup) U.S. of A., bumbling into misadventures and revelations along the way. It is, I can personally attest, as much a pleasure to be in the company of this lovably hapless character again, as it to speak with Greer about sequels, Pulitzers, and “bad gays.”

This is the first sequel you’ve written. Did you have thoughts about or maybe even a philosophy of sequels prior to writing Less is Lost?

None at all. And my agent told me, “Don’t write a sequel!” So, at first, I didn’t. I wrote a different book with different characters that was about a road trip across America. I’d done the research in 2016. After Trump won, I rented a van for six weeks. So, I was like, That’s my book! And the book was a disaster. I was like, I already have some pre-made characters who would be hilarious in this. Why am I following this rule when I should be allowed to write whatever I want? And I thought, You know, this is the voice I want to write this story in.

Little, Brown

That sounds similar to the way you wrote Less. You started a more melancholy book, scrapped it, and turned it into a comedy.

Yeah. Same thing. A disaster. All of my books spring from total disaster, nervous breakdown, and then I give up. I have to submit to the book in some way, even if I’m afraid of what that means.

How did winning the Pulitzer for Less influence your approach to writing a sequel?

Well, it certainly freaked me out because it throws you off. I am not used to people reading my books, to be completely honest. So many people read Less that—I think that is my main anxiety. It isn’t the reviews or anything, but that I’m gonna let down those readers. That’s a new experience for me. And if I’d written a totally different book, they would have said, “Oh, it’s super different from Less. I like it on its own terms.” But this one they’re gonna judge on the same terms, which is unfair because it’s a different book, but totally fair because the name Less is in the title. I totally got it. So that freaks me out, not the prize itself. Although I did take a dig at literary prizes in the book itself.

At this point, I don’t think it’s a spoiler to acknowledge that Less’s partner, Freddy Pelu, is the narrator of Less, and it’s acknowledged throughout Less is Lost that Freddy is telling the story. Did that present any challenges in writing the sequel?

It made it much easier, because I didn’t have to play that very careful game that was very difficult [in the first book] about how to get readers to have that experience at the end without being like, I didn’t see that coming! This time I didn’t have to do that at all, and it, therefore, gave me a lot of room to talk about Freddy more. I wanted to even things out a little bit and give Freddy his own dignity after crossing the world for Less, to give him a story of his own and know these are his opinions. And in fact, if you like the book, it’s because he’s a good writer. We don’t know if Less is a good writer, but I think Freddy is.

I don’t think I’ve ever read a writer who writes about a character with as much affection as you seem to have for Less. Or is that all Freddy?

Oh, gosh, I just don’t know how to answer. That’s a very sweet thing to say! People write me that on Instagram, that it feels like a warm book, when in fact, if Less has a lot of my qualities—probably my worst and best ones, and not the ones you’d see every day—I am going into the darkest parts of me for the most humiliating things that ever happened to me, or the most arrogant moments when I’ve shown my ego and privilege, and tearing them down, or turning them upside down. So, for me, the process is really a little melancholy. But that’s all on the workshop floor. What the reader then sees is someone from the outside, which I think is me as an older man looking back on my younger self, which you do with kindness usually, and tenderness.

And yet, Less is Lost finds Freddy questioning his relationship with Less. What’s going on between them and what does it say about relationships?

This is the happy ending story, and I think with many writers [like Less], no matter how fond we are of them, there’s an incredible egotism at work. And it’s an uneven relationship. It’s Freddy taking care of Less, the great artist—when in fact, I think Freddy’s the great artist. I think about their changing quality, and that sometimes it’s your turn, and sometimes you have to step back and it’s the other person’s turn to be dramatic or sad or have their dream come true. It’s not transactional. It’s open-hearted, and I think they hadn’t settled into that pattern. And Less was strangely non-committal.

Little, Brown

In Less, the character travels the world. In the new book, he takes a road trip across America. It’s a fraught time for a gay character to do that. Why did you want to give us a Less-eye-view of the U.S. at this particular moment?

Well, let us cast our minds back to 2016 when, although it was heartbreakingly disastrous when Trump won, we didn’t feel the way we do now, that democracy’s at stake. So, maybe if I started writing it now, it would sound like a different book. But when I wrote it then, I thought, I always start a book with what I’m most afraid of. With Less I was afraid of turning 50, with other books I had other terrible fears. And in this one, right after that election, I thought, What am I afraid of? Alabama! I’d never been there. I don’t understand what happened there. I don’t understand the people. I thought, I don’t want to know the politics, but I just wanna see the people. And Arizona! How could Arizona vote so differently from New Mexico? Aren’t they the same? No! I thought, There’s nothing I can do right now to change the world, the country. But I can go and look at it, and take notes and just sit in dive bars and cafés and talk to everybody next to me, and just get people’s stories. And, as always, get my story as I’m traveling. What’s funny about how I’m reacting to things that are normal to them? And that’s where the novel came from.

In the same way that there’s a real affection for Less, with all his flaws, there seems to be a real affection for America. There are a couple of places in the book where you write that “America looks ok from here.”

Yeah. That’s the first line I wrote in the other novel I was gonna write but threw away. But I kept that line. And I—I don’t know if I’m as optimistic now. During the pandemic, I was in Italy almost the whole time. I was in Milan with my boyfriend watching from a distance. So, I’d done the research really up close, and I watched from a distance, and it’s a different view. It’s not as panicked. When you’re in the United States, you’re like, Fucking Marjorie Taylor Greene! But when you’re overseas, you’re like, She’s nobody! Italy has its own Marjorie Taylor Greene. It’s just a news thing. It’s not a real thing. So, it gave me some distance and some peace. But you can see in the book I’m worried.

In the new book, Less seems slightly preoccupied with the idea of “bad gays.” Where did that concept come from for you? What is a “bad gay”?

I don’t know why I’m obsessed with it! But all of us, anyone who comes from any community—but definitely in the LGBTQ+ community—if we’re artists, we want to tell the story so that people hear. But we also want to tell it in a new way. And that new way is not going to be canon, you know? So, it’s a struggle, and I always tell my students, “If you’re gonna tell your family’s story, you’re gonna want to tell it your way and they’re not gonna like every part of it.” You have to think about where you want to balance that. Where do you want to critique? I think I’m pretty gentle with the queer community, which I have been part of for a long time. But I think I poke fun at [my character] Finley Dwyer and his arrogance—an old school arrogance. Like, it’s my generation that I’m most critical of, because I think we’re out of touch and a little smug. [Laughs]

There’s a point when Finley tells Less of someone else’s novel, “That’s not how you write about queers.” What were you trying to convey with that idea? And how does one write about queers? 

I must admit, it’s taken from something I heard someone say, so I can’t explain what they meant by it. But what I took that they meant by it was: there’s a standard story. There’s the coming out story, there’s the young man from the provinces story, there’s the sad AIDS story, there’s the bears partying in the woods story, and there’s the sassy drag queen with great advice story. Those are the stories; stick to it! Because those are safe. And those are all great stories—when they were first written. But we can’t copy them. We have to keep finding new ways to tell them to ourselves, to investigate them. Is “sassy drag queen” a helpful trope? Or is it a little offensive? Is that not a human being in there? I just find a lot of it to be old-fashioned and it needs to be thought about. But that’s just writing. If you’re trying to be a good writer you have to question every word you put down and whether you’ve heard it before, and whether it’s fresh, and I just think Finley Dwyer doesn’t want to do that.

I’ve been covering the efforts to ban LGBTQ books in schools and public libraries recently, and I’m curious if you, as a gay novelist, have any thoughts on the fact that literature has been the focus of so much anti-LGBTQ political energy recently.

Well, I’ve seen it before. And I have to say—I sound like a Cassandra—I was waiting for it to come back around. The smugness I think we all felt five years ago—gay marriage, now we have everything! I was like, They’re coming for us again. I’m not at all surprised. It loops around.

But the fact that it’s literature, that it’s books—does that seem significant to you?

I find that—what’s the right word? Empowering. Everyone says, “No one reads. Books don’t matter.” And then suddenly books are the things they want to burn. I guess they do matter. Maybe I am doing something important. Sometimes I throw up my hands and I’m like, How can this country be this way if every single book they read in school says we should be kinder to each other? It didn’t work! And then I see something like this, and I think something is working. You see these high schools that print articles in their student paper about Pride month, and then the paper’s taken away. I’m like, [the students] did the right thing. I’m sure the ignorant people who are trying to ban these books, they’ve never read these books and they don’t read books. But [the books] symbolize something: the private knowledge you get in a book, the special experience that is not shared, that feels dangerous to them and feels powerful to us. Because it’s agency for those kids who can choose their books and have an experience that no one can ever see or get at. That’s scary for people who want to control other people.

Do people tell you who they picture as Arthur Less when they read the book?

People send me illustrations on Instagram. Who do you picture?

Honestly? You.

[Laughs] I’m not surprised. The weird thing is, I don’t picture me. It’s…an alternate universe me. And I’m saying this as someone with an identical twin. It’s not my twin either. It’s something else. But I can see why they’re picturing me, now that I am Arthur’s age. And when they sent me the cover illustration of Arthur this time, and he’s a little older and he seemed to have, like, a saggy jaw and some wrinkles and thin hair, I wrote back to the illustrator and I said, “Could you make him a little more fuckable?” Because I think I took it personally! You know, he’s not elderly! The illustrator said he’d never gotten a comment like that. He thought it was hilarious.

Do you think Less is a character you’ll return to? Kind of your Rabbit Angstrom? And how do you feel about the fact that this may be the character that is the first thing that will always come to mind when people think of your work?

What could be better? All of that sounds great to me. My next book is not about Arthur Less.

Well, it’s not now, but judging from your track record…

That’s true! Don’t do that to me! I’m trying to send it to myself in the future—and that’s how Updike wrote those Rabbit books, not one after the other, but once in a while over 20 or 30 years. It would be fun to push it forward for myself. But I bet I will [revisit Less], just because it’s easy to write in that voice about that character. And when you find that as a writer it’s hard to let go.

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