In this March 2020 interview, The Pulitzer Prize–winning novelist weighs in on altering the course of a novel to unfold plot elements more harmoniously and facing rejection from his publisher.
Andrew Sean Greer, winner of the 2018 Pulitzer Prize for his novel Less, gave a keynote address at the 2019 Writer’s Digest Novel Writing Conference wearing a bright red suit and angel wings, happily joining in on our Halloween costume party for the evening. What Greer may or may not have realized was that as he spoke about revising that novel and discovering in it symbols like flight and birds, the wings of his own costume silently underscored his point.
A graduate of the MFA program at the University of Montana and author of five novels and a collection of short stories, Greer is deeply interested in the craft of writing and explained his willingness to speak at the conference, “Usually I don’t talk to a crowd of writers, and it’s boring for readers to hear about our problems. They don’t want to know about that and they’re not interested in any technical kind of question. And all writers want to talk about or hear about or [ask is], ‘how did you do it?’”
It’s a question echoed in the opening pages of Less as the title character prepares to interview an author: “What does one ever ask an author except: ‘How?’ And the answer, as Arthur Less well knows, is obvious: ‘Beats me!’”
Just as his enthusiasm for speaking to other writers was evident in his keynote, Greer was generous with his time and went beyond “Beats me!” in speaking to the magazine as he considered the challenges of his unique revision process, facing rejection, and the benefit of writing retreats. But we began with the big question: choosing what to write about.
Some novelists stick with a common theme among their books, but you tackle varying topics. How do you approach choosing a topic or theme out of all of the possibilities there are?
I think my editors would disagree with you, or my agent would say I write the same book over and over, but in completely different circumstances. And I would agree with that somehow. If I think I’m going to write a time travel novel, which I did two books ago, it’s not going to be about killing Hitler or something. I’m not as interested in history or politics as it turns out; it’s going to be about love over the passage of time. Every one of them seems to be about that. Even if I think I’m striking out somewhere else, it always comes down to that.
So, picking a subject, I have no idea. Sometimes I get it. Usually, what I know is, I know the setting that interests me. Never does a whole novel occur to me all at once. And usually the novel I start off writing, I end up with something completely different, almost all the time.
Do you like to be surprised in that way when you’re writing?
No! [Laughs] I do not like it! I have friends who, they’re like, “I have a great idea for a novel,” and they do their research and just write it from beginning to end. Then they rewrite it and it’s frustrating. It doesn’t come out perfectly, but it sure comes out the way they thought it was going to. And mine is, I sit down and write 200 pages and then have a nervous breakdown and realize the novel’s about something else and I start over. I find that a very frustrating experience, but I’ve done it so many times that I think it’s a process.
I read that sometimes when you get feedback from an agent or an editor about a work-in-progress, you take what they identify as the piece that’s not working and you refit the novel so that piece does fit. Is that how you approach revising in general, and would you recommend that to others?
It’s very hard. I have learned how to be good at this. It’s mostly what I talk about in workshop and it’s what a beginning writer has a hard time doing—seeing their own book—which is why you go to workshop and get feedback. At a certain point, you are the one who has to make the big decisions.
My friend, Daniel Handler, has the best advice and my advice comes out of his. He says the editor is the patient and you are the doctor. The editor says, “My arm is hurting.” Then they say, “I think it’s arm cancer.” And then you’re the doctor, you say, “There’s no such thing as arm cancer, but it is useful to know your arm is hurting. I think I know what the problem is.” Because they’re not in the book. It’s not in their head. You have to ignore their advice about literally what to do if it’s something big. You have to understand what they’re saying isn’t working.
Usually, we’ll be in a workshop and someone will say, “I love this story about a marriage falling apart, but you have to get rid of the mermaid at the end.” And I think it through, but usually I end up saying, “The mermaid is the special thing.” You have to change the rest of the story so that when the mermaid appears, it feels magical and important and the purpose of the story. So the rest of the story has to change because no one wants just the story of the marriage falling apart. What’s the point of that? But a mermaid in it is something! And that is hard to perceive and follow through on.
Do your editors or agents trust you enough at this point when this happens that they know you can pull it off, or do they get nervous when you turn something new in?
I’m sure they get nervous, but in my last book, Less, my editor, bless her, wanted me to change the ending because she said, “We don’t want some kind of trick that will throw people off. We’ve enjoyed the whole book. So it should just end.” I said, “I hear what you’re saying. I’m going to make it work. You’re going to see.” And she said, “I can’t wait,” knowing that if it really didn’t work, I could easily switch it back. But I thought, I know the ending is what I want. So I changed the rest of the book. It took a lot and [they’re] subtle things. It’s changing the way the story is told so that it lands naturally and I have written enough books and finished them that the editors trust me.
But I think even one of my very first editors, her sign as a good editor was that she refused to give me a line to replace another line or an idea. She would not do it. And I was begging. I was like, “So what should I say instead?” She’s like, “You have to do that.” She would not do it for me. Although she was longing to, she understood that it could not be her job. If she wanted to write a book, she should write her own but she had to get me to figure it out. Because I would come up with a better solution because I’m in the book. So that showed her talent, really. I was wanting her to write it for me.
While we’re talking about Less, in the first chapter poor Arthur faces some pretty harsh rejection from his agent about a novel he’s working on. Have you faced your own version of harsh rejection?
Over and over. I’ve had novel projects outright rejected. I’ve changed publishers because my own publisher wasn’t interested in the new book. I lost my British publisher with the book Less because they didn’t want it. No one wanted that book! [Laughs] I was struck by lightning, but my German publisher loved it. But other than that, there was no one else. Obviously my U.S. publisher was behind it. Little, Brown was keen, but it was devastating when my British publisher dropped me after four books. We sent it around to a dozen other British publishers. No one would take it. Which felt like I was going crazy.
How did you overcome that kind of rejection?
I don’t have a thick skin, but I have been in the publishing industry to know that it is very personal in a good and bad way. People, they’re judging it on their reading a few manuscripts that day and they’re in a bad mood, or they just lost their assistant or everything’s being reshuffled. In these businesses things are chaos. To get to a place where they actually sit and get something, understand it, and understand it in an early draft—that’s what’s hard. We think it’s in its best form but it’s not yet. They have to look and see the possibility of it. That takes a certain state of mind. Most of the time they’re not in that state of mind. They go for easy things. But once in a while, everyone turns something down and [then] someone loves it and understands it, and you just need that one person.
With The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells and The Confessions of Max Tivoli, your characters break the laws of time and physics by time traveling and aging backward. How did you create your rules for how that would work for them, what they could and could not do?
That does not come naturally to me. There are people who work in the fantasy and sci-fi genre who are more skilled at this. I love reading those genres and see how it looks so easy for people.
Maybe Max Tivoli was simpler because it seemed clear to me how it would go. The only decision I had to make was whether his mind aged backward or not with his body. It seems obvious now that it’s no fun if it does, but Benjamin Button, his mind sort of ages backward.
With The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells, it drove me crazy! She drove me so crazy that I had a giant corkboard and pins and string and index cards to chart every timeline and where she was and what characters were there and what happened. I bit off more than I could chew and it took about a year longer than normal because that part was so hard.
You mentioned that you like to read sci-fi and fantasy, and I read that when you were writing Less, there were certain books you read to stimulate your mind as you were writing. What are you reading now?
I read the same book over and over and over because I’m trying to figure out how they did it.
I’m not sure I hit on the perfect books for this [next] book, but I’ve also been on a camping trip for three weeks, a research trip. So I limited the books I brought with me, but I’ve been reading Gerald Durrell’s memoirs. He’s the brother of Lawrence Durrell, who wrote The Alexandria Quartet. He writes kind of jokey naturalist novels about the beginning of the 20 century and mostly because there’s something charming and there’s something about it that I like—like the voice and his level of detail. I know that’s a kooky one, but that’s me. I love to read odd books.
I love getting unexpected answers to that question.
What I used to do when I was teaching is, I would take my students to a used bookstore and I’d give them each $5. I would say, “Pick a book you’ve never heard of, by an author you’ve never heard of, just based on how it feels and how it looks when you open it. I want you to learn how to discover a book and give it a chance.” Because otherwise everyone’s just reading the latest bestsellers or prize winners. Though you should read all the prize winners. [Laughs.]
You’re just going to sound like everyone else and you need to pick the books that really—I think a voice means a cumulation of all the books that you love.
This is just the habit of being a broke young writer—reading from used bookstores—and that’s still what I do. I love a new bookstore, but a used bookstore? It’s more exciting ’cause there’s all these hidden treasures. It’s fun to have something that nobody else knows about.
It is. I like what you said about the voice of the writer being a cumulation of all of the books that they’ve loved.
Otherwise there’s too much pressure on people to somehow emit some psychic force and that’s not fair. Like any other field, we should feel free to be influenced by everything and imitate the things we love. ’Cause you’re going to do it anyway.
I became a writer, and a lot of people do, because I was such a reader that I wanted to be part of it. Writing is like fan fiction. It’s the same thing that, I want it to go on more, but they didn’t make more! So I’m going to make the next one.
You mentioned being a poor young writer and I read that you were a food and travel writer to make ends meet. Could you talk about that kind of work? Did you like doing it? Do you miss doing it? Do you still do it on occasion?
I loved doing it. I’m a very shy person and it was not natural for me to pitch myself, throw myself head long at magazine editors. But I did it because I needed the money.
I remember in New York I had my friend introduce me to the editor of the magazine where she worked, a travel magazine, and I wore a really bright outfit ’cause I knew I wouldn’t get to talk to him. He would just shake my hand and go away. But then at the next meeting when they said, “Who should we get to do this new project?” And my friend would say, “How about my friend Andy?” And he’s like, “Who?” And they would say, “You know, the guy in the yellow sweater.” “OK. Right.” Maybe it was that stupid.
But I loved doing it because I love to travel. I didn’t mind the solitude. And it turns out I was good at it, and the food writing, which I don’t get to do much of at all anymore. But I am still doing a trip—it looks like I’m doing a trip to Japan in a month.
You spent a lot of time at the Santa Maddalena Retreat for Writers. Talk about the role writing retreats have played in your writing and what other writers ought to consider when they’re thinking about doing something like that.
They should do it, first of all. I have friends and it doesn’t work for them. They work perfectly fine at home or in a café. But for me, these places are always where I get the amount of work done that I have had a breakthrough in the book. So I depend on them.
And there’s so many. If you look at ResArtis.org, there [are] writer’s retreats around the world and some you have to pay. I’ve certainly paid for them. Then some are kooky and irritating and have a lot of character.
My advice: There’s a lot in the U.S. There [are] often ones that are unexpected, even in your own town [where] there’s a few apartments somewhere.
If you can’t afford [a retreat], I used to, when my friends would go out of town, I would stay in their apartment for four days and that would be my writer’s retreat.
You’ve mentioned working on your next book and I read that it will have humor elements like Less did, but that it might also include some right-wing American political characters. How do you approach that topic in that style in today’s political climate?
I don’t know yet. I haven’t gotten to that part. I’m terrified about that because it’s not funny. I’m struggling with it. I have only written one humorous book. My go-to with that one was to make the joke on Arthur, always, and his misunderstandings. I may try to go that route in some way again.
Where I’ve been the last couple weeks—I rented a camper to go through the Deep South for three days and go to small towns because I want to talk to people and not about politics, but get a sense of a part of the country that I have a lot of judgments about and don’t know anything about—and back to where my family’s from. It’s made me do a lot of thinking about myself, and it makes me think the novel will go that way because it’s more interesting to me. I feel like a ridiculous right-wing character is something that I already have seen a million times. I’m trained not to write any clichés, anything I’ve seen before. So we’ll see. I don’t have a good answer.
How did you find your agent and what did that process look like for you?
I’ve had two agents and my first agent, when I was a young little thing, he was a young agent and had taken on as one of his clients my best friend, so my best friend recommended me. He read my work and took me on too, and I was just, I don’t know, his third client or something. So that was sort of luck and it’s why I’ve always recommended to people that it’s the young new agents who are looking—they have to amass material, right? They have to get a stable of writers. And they’re great because they’re full of energy and they’re dying to make a mark just as we are.
And how do you find those? I just think you talk to everyone you know. You talk to your writer friends who have agents. I think the one thing you don’t do, you don’t go up to your favorite writer and say, “Could you send my book to your agent?” It’s tempting to do but it doesn’t make sense. And if you don’t know anybody in the world, [agents] do read the cold piles, you know?
Especially with the new ones.
Their assistant reads it and their assistant will become an agent one day, too. So again, it’s so personal and you just need one person that loves it.
And you don’t have to send them your first page. If you send them your best pages, you don’t overwhelm them. You don’t send them a 10-page description of the book. You just try to make it really easy to read and enjoy, and they’ll contact you.
But like most things, there is an element of luck and networking in it. But, how did I do that? Back then, there were more places where you could publish—and agents read literary magazines because they’re looking for someone. So you could just have been published in these places and now there’s not as much of that, but there also wasn’t Google.
Do you have any other words of wisdom for our readers?
I think about writing a novel: The thing I’m always reminding myself is that the important thing is the novel and not your favorite scenes or characters, and it’s such a different way of looking at something than a short story. You are looking for a whole experience that comes together and feels like it has a pattern. You have to sacrifice a lot of things in order for the book to be great. I know that sounds abstract. It does when I tell it to myself, but, that’s the big lesson I learned. WD