An Interview with Garth Greenwell, author of What Belongs To You

what-belongs-to-you-by-garth-greenwellGarth Greenwell is the author of What Belongs to You, which was longlisted for the National Book Award and shortlisted for the Center for Fiction First Novel Prize. A New York Times Book Review Editors’ Choice, it was named a best book of 2016 by over twenty publications, including Publishers WeeklyGQEsquire, The Guardian, and Buzzfeed, and is being translated into ten languages. His short fiction has appeared in The Paris ReviewA Public SpaceVICE, and elsewhere, and he has contributed nonfiction to The New YorkerThe London Review of BooksThe New York Times, and The Atlantic. He holds graduate degrees from Harvard University and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where he was an Arts Fellow. He lives in Iowa City.


Dead Darlings: I first learned of your work when you gave a talk called “What Sex Can Do” at GrubStreet’s The Muse and the Marketplace. You’ve spoken about this a lot, but can you summarize your call for fiction writers to include sex in their work? And what’s the function of sex in your fiction?

Well, I don’t mean really to call on writers to include anything in their work, or to make any kind of demand. But I have wanted to articulate why writing sex feels like such a powerful tool, which has to do with how it puts so many things under pressure: observation, internal sensation, emotional vulnerability, ethical engagement with the other. I think it can do a lot more than many people give it credit for.

And I’ve also tried to articulate why writing sex feels important in this moment. For all writers, I think literature has a special role in a culture that is obsessed with images of bodies but too often shields itself from embodiedness, by which I mean the experience of a body, of being a body with consciousness. Movies do this when they present violence as committed upon bodies emptied of personhood, when violence becomes mere spectacle. Pornography does this when sex is shorn of emotional and ethical richness.

I’ve often said that I think literature is the best technology we have for communicating consciousness. This means that literature has a special role in pushing back against the disembodied presentation of bodies, the reduction of bodies to images that seems so prevalent in the media of our moment. Writers don’t have to write sex explicitly to do this. But sex is a tool they can use.

At the talk, you mentioned the criticism that you could be “reducing” gay characters to their sexuality when you write about gay sex. I understand the impulse behind the concern: many straight people see queer sexuality as announcing itself just by existing, in a way that equates it with hypersexuality. What’s your response to this?

I have several responses. One is that hypersexuality is an excellent subject for literature, and should be destigmatized as a model for life. Queer culture has often rejected models of sexuality that present moderation as an ideal, choosing instead to celebrate an uninhibited, unregulated sexuality, an abundant sexuality. I don’t think we should accept any pressure to apologize for that, or accept arguments that monogamy is a morally superior model for a life. Monogamy is a legitimate model. It’s not the only legitimate model.

One thing I want to do is push back against the neutering of queer people that has been part of the mainstreaming of queer culture in recent years. Queer people have sex. What reduces their humanity is not sex, but homophobia: a set of prejudices that strips the queer sexual body of its actual value, which is infinite, like all human value.

Technology is an omnipresent third party in both straight and queer sexual encounters in What Belongs To You. The internet offers us this public-private paradox, which is interesting given the insularity of your protagonist’s consciousness. Can you speak a little about this?

Public/private spaces interest me. The Internet is one such space; so are cruising zones. So is poetry, I think, which carves intimacy out of the public space of language. There isn’t a particular point or set of concerns behind the technology in the novel—I hope it’s observed like any other phenomenon in the world. I hope part of that observation attends to the forms of life and community it makes possible for queer people in places like Bulgaria, where queer kids in isolated villages can find peers via the internet.

According to a review on your website by Jeffrey Zuckerman of The New Republic, “What Belongs to You is the great gay novel for our times.” Some gay writers find the “gay” label to be a qualifier, a threat to perceived universality and therefore to readership. In an interview with The Guardian you refuted this eloquently, explaining that you try to “arrive at the universal through describing the particular.” Have readers responded to your work accordingly? If so, what particular elements of the story have seemed to resonate universally? Anything that’s surprised you?

I do think that literature allows for the communication of a common humanity across lines of difference, and that it does this not by deemphasizing the particular, but instead by rooting into it. I’m so grateful for and honored by the response to the book from the queer community. And it has found readers who don’t identify as queer.

I like William James’s idea that the “extreme case” can function for the social scientist in the way a microscope functions for a natural scientist, allowing for the examination of elements that are common but often unnoticed in our experience. In a similar way, the elements that might seem to make the relationship at the heart of What Belongs to You most odd to some readers—the transaction with which it begins; its pronounced and shifting power dynamics; the final unknowability of Mitko—are actually elements common to any relationship, I think. The narrator is tormented by the fact that he can’t finally know what Mitko is thinking or feeling, and so can’t ever be sure that he and Mitko are in the same story. I think that’s as true for a marriage of thirty years as it is for my characters.

Certainly readers who don’t identify as queer have found that the book speaks to their experience. But that doesn’t surprise me. I don’t think anyone would think it strange that novels about decades-long heterosexual marriages can move me to tears, even though that particular model of life is foreign to my own experience. But that’s why I read literature: to find out what lives unlike mine feel like from the inside.

In an article you wrote for The Atlantic about Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life, you discuss character complexity as an antidote to the compartmentalization of gay fiction. The protagonist of What Belongs To You possesses an interiority similar to that of Yanagihara’s main characters. (That sprawling and intensely intimate character psychology is something that draws me to both your work and hers.) Were you making a political choice to give your readers a more prismatic understanding of queer life? Or is nuanced characterization just good writing?

I wanted to write about reality, which is always more complicated than we’d like to make it. It’s very hard to live our everyday lives in the full knowledge of that complexity; it often seems that we need to simplify to live. Literature offers a frame in which we can strive to be adequate to complexity. I think literature is a way of looking, of becoming alive to nuance.

Can you talk a little about how rarely you use paragraph breaks? It certainly creates a sense of mental claustrophobia, and of the disorganized nature of unfiltered thought: what were your intentions here?

I do like spacious paragraphs in general, paragraphs that allow for digressions and juxtapositions. I don’t have a very orderly mind; I find it hard to think about anything in isolation. The paragraphs are a way for me to capture how consciousness feels, or my consciousness. I don’t think in topic sentences.

But the paragraph that has gotten the most attention is the forty-page paragraph that makes up the second section, and there intentionality didn’t enter into things until a very late stage. In that section, the narrator feels assaulted by his past, submerged in it. Different periods of his life feel simultaneous. I wrote that section in a white heat, and on scraps of paper; I wasn’t aware there weren’t paragraph breaks until I typed it up. I had to justify the choice to myself, but I never seriously questioned it—I knew it was the only way to show his helplessness before his past.

The novel’s narrator isn’t named. Is this an assertion about maligning and queer erasure? Or is it more an aesthetic choice to keep us situated closely in his consciousness, since people don’t spend much time thinking about their own names? Neither?

In the first scene, the narrator discovers that Mitko can’t pronounce his name, that his name is unpronounceable in Bulgarian. It felt right to me that in that scene—which is kind of initiatory, with its descent into a subterranean space—that the narrator would be stripped of his name. And I became sure fairly early on that I wanted Mitko to be the only character in the book with a name. I hope that makes him the most vivid character, I want him to leap off the page, as if spotlit. I also think it makes clear how exposed he is, his vulnerability in the world of the novel.

I read that you’re working on a collection of short stories also set in Bulgaria. Given the state of American politics at this moment, I’m wondering about the significance of a foreign setting. Does your writing engage less, or engage differently, with our queer politics than it would if you were writing fiction set predominantly in America?

I’m not sure if I know the answer to that question. I’m also working on a long project set in America, and I’m not sure that I think the engagement with politics is very different in the two. I’m interested in lives as they’re lived on the ground, in communities that are shaped by larger forces but maybe not exhausted by them. I think any writing that is finely and empathetically observant will have political resonance. The stronger the art, the more discomfiting it is likely to be.

I’d also say that I think more queer Americans should be urgently interested in queer lives in other places.

Speaking of politics, What Belongs To You came out after the marriage equality ruling, but you wrote it beforehand. Is this relevant? Did it have an effect on your relationship to the book, or your sense of how readers grappled with its themes?

I do think there is a desire, on the part of some queer people, especially some gay men, to declare that with marriage equality the heavy lifting of the LGBT movement is over. I hear sometimes, from some gay men, that we don’t need books about cruising anymore, or about difficult childhoods; that we need books about “well-adjusted” gay people living happy lives free of shame. Whatever “well-adjusted” means, I think we do need those stories; we need more queer stories, period, stories that explore the whole range of what a queer life can look like today.

But the idea that the work of the LGBTQ movement is over with marriage equality makes my blood boil. So does the idea that certain kinds of queer stories have been worn out with retelling. Coming out, cruising: these are durable narrative forms, as durable as the stories about straight life that are told again and again. To argue that they’re less interesting than straight stories (the marriage plot, childraising, divorce) is to argue from homophobia, I think: it’s to argue that queer lives are less interesting, which is to say less valuable, than straight lives.

After sex, what’s the second most interesting thing to write about?

Ha! I actually don’t think any subject is more inherently interesting than any other. As I say above, I think literature is a way of looking. A great writer makes us see things anew; she or he can make the most banal experience thrilling.

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