garth greenwell and idra novey!


2016.03.01 at community bookstore!

garth greenwell (what belongs to you, FSG books, 2016) and idra novey (ways to disappear, little, brown, 2016) are hilarious.  they're also both very thoughtful and well-spoken, and they bounce off each other well.  i have to say that idra novey talks really fast, and greenwell went into really deep territory, so there'll be more paraphrasing than usual.

idra novey:  i came up with questions i can throw on out.

garth greenwell:  ok.  this is scary.  (laughs)

IN:  (she describes a scene about mothers that takes place on a train.*)  you're so good at pinpointing the complexities of experience that way.  [...]  i wondered if you could talk about the editing process.

* i haven't read either book yet.  sorry.

GG:  i'd never written fiction before i wrote this book.  i didn't know anything when i started writing the book -- i didn't know what i was doing, and i really felt like at every point i was trying to ride the energy of the sentence and carry my way forward.

GG:  (two phrases that kept coming up as he was writing the book)

  • be patient and don't try to rush to the end of a sentence, don't try to rush to the end of a scene, don't try to rush to the end of a moment.
    • there's all sorts of information we take in whenever we're with other people, and it's not always verbal.
  • be indulgent.  any idea, anywhere the sentence took me, i would go.  that meant, [when] editing, everything was already there; i just had to take away all the crap.
    • my thing is sort of to write 20% more than i know i need.

GG:  i have a question for you.  this book -- idra's book -- is a wonderful assemblage of disparate parts.  (not only are there many parts, there are also many stories and ideas for stories.)  where do your ideas come from, idra?!  were those ideas you took from your notebook over the years?  and are you tempted to realize any of them?

IN:  i was really tired when i worked on this book, and i had one job and another, and i would work on it at night, and i think i was a little delirious -- i think i just kind of wrote it.  i wanted to write, and i just missed writing, and there was no time to do it except after eight at night.

IN:  i think that, for me, was my freedom.  this book was a joy to write because i couldn't travel the way i used to, and, so, i would just travel in my mind and make up these crazy stories and that would keep me joyful.

IN:  i don't know if i'd give that advice -- get really tired (because then you'll be less inhibited).

IN:  i think you self-censor less when it's a weird hour.

audience Q:  is beatrice (the translator in ways to disappear) a combination of people you've known?

  • IN:  i kept coming back to her as a different person.
  • IN:  the first time, i kind of thought about clarice lispector [whom novey has translated].  it was more about thinking about that relationship between writer and translator.
  • IN:  i don't think you can write a character with any emotional truth if you haven't had that emotion.  (you don't have to have experienced it in the same way as the character; it's just that the fundamental core has to have been experienced.)
  • IN:  i was curious about how you can be known to readers as one human being, and you can be known to friends, and you can be known in another language.  when i speak portuguese, i think i become another person because i don't speak it very well, so i have to think of really simple jokes.

audience Q:  how does the nitty gritty practice of translation influence your own writing?

  • IN:  i think translating is a great way to travel.
  • IN:  it kept my emotional imagination going.
  • IN:  there's a lot of american literature out that talks about how people come here and get their english wrong, but, as it happens, it happens a lot the other way around, too.

audience Q:  is it the writer aspect of you that makes you want to travel or the other way around?

  • GG:  in my case, the answer in the moment certainly felt quite dramatic -- i moved to bulgaria, and i started to write fiction.
  • GG:  i'm not actually well-traveled.  i didn't go to europe until i was twenty-eight.
  • GG:  bulgaria is kind of an incredible place to have as a home base to get around europe.  (istanbul is close by, and greece is just to the south.)  i never left bulgaria.  i just traveled around bulgaria, partly because i don't like traveling (or doing the tourist thing).  i hate being somewhere i don't speak the language.  but, definitely, bulgaria made me a prose writer somehow.
  • IN:  oh, i think i kind of played around with everything always.  i think translating fiction was kind of a free apprenticeship.
  • IN:  (she didn't tell anyone she was writing a novel until she'd sold it.  then she'd tell people she had a novel coming out, and they would ask, "oh, whose?" because she's a translator, and she'd be like, "mine!")

GG:  was there anything in particular that seemed hard or that you felt you had to learn as you were writing this novel?

IN:  i think it was the house of cards problem.  if you pull a poem out [of a poetry collection], the house doesn't fall.  i think it was this weird thing that i didn't want to contaminate the process, where you wouldn't want to pull something because of the work it would create.

IN:  you just have to be true to the book.

GG:  it was hard for me to move people across a space.

IN:  i found that impossible ... which is why i didn't really do it.

GG:  exactly!  that's why i decided to write it all inside his head, then i wouldn't have to move anyone!

GG:  it's interesting because we are in this moment where we have all these poets writing novels and it's interesting to see ways in which they're novels but they're not novels. [...]  like, poets will find ways to write novels without writing any scenes.

GG:  i do think there's a danger that there's a sort of monolingual canon of MFA texts, that you can assume that someone with an MFA has read all these american authors but they're totally unaware of literature in other languages.

IN:  i don't read a lot of american writing.

GG:  pedro lemebel -- he died january last year, and no one wrote about it in the english-language world, and it made me so angry.

(greenwell wrote a piece about lemebel in the new yorker -- he didn't ask his editor if he could, simply said he was going to -- you can find it here.)

GG:  it's estimated there are eight million bulgarian speakers in the world, and almost none of them reads bulgarian literature.

GG:  the thing that i became aware of as i was thinking about trying to put the book into the world is that this is the first literary representation of gay lives in bulgaria.  [...]  the spark for my novel really came from my experience in bulgaria and being a high school teacher and being the only openly gay person my students knew.

(i couldn't type fast enough, but what he said was important, so here's a paraphrase:  it reminded him of being a gay kid in kentucky and discovering james baldwin's giovanni's room when he was at a point when he was being told that his life was of no value, and it made him think of how books can actually save lives.  he was also very aware of the privilege of being american and that, had this been written in bulgarian, no one would have read it, and how sad that might have been.  the novel is being translated and published in bulgarian.)

GG:  if [the book] gets any attention, it will be that of scandal.  that's fine.  i speak bulgarian (and have some experience as an activist).

GG:  the greatest hope for my book and its fate in bulgaria -- i hope it says this is one foreigner's very partial experience in this community.  and my greatest hope is that one bulgarian writer will find the courage to say that this american writer got everything wrong.