Andrew Sean Greer: “I am not very good at being angry”
The author of Less and Less is Lost talks about people being nice to him on Instagram, the fictional representations of older gay men, and about winning the Pulitzer Prize
When readers ask you about parallels between your life and that of Arthur Less – the protagonist of your novels Less (2017) and Less is Lost (2022) – do you feel validated by the curiosity or annoyed that they think you as a novelist have a limited imagination?
When people ask me how much of the fiction is drawn from my own life, and how much is not, I often think, “Why do you care? You don’t know me. How does it matter whether I made it up or didn’t?” But I understand if the question comes from an interest in figuring out how books are written. The sweetest thing is when people write in and say how much they love Arthur Less. Well, a little bit of me is in him, so there must be something decent about me. He has my worst qualities – fear of everything, judgement of other people and of himself, insecurities – but he also has my best features of curiosity and optimism, perhaps naïveté.
Are there things that you wanted to do but couldn’t so you made Arthur do them?
Yes! I have. Most certainly! (laughs) Arthur has elements of me but he also has a long-term love affair with a famous poet who is years older than himself. I had nothing like that in my life. That part is fiction but the places that Arthur travels to are places that I have been to.
One of these places happens to be an artist residency in Kerala. Tell us more.
It was called Art Castle International, and it was located in Poovar. The nearest city was Trivandrum, the capital of Kerala. Unfortunately, it closed down during the Covid pandemic. That’s what the people there told me the last time I spoke with them. They were incredibly kind to me when I stayed with them, so the news about the closure really broke my heart.
How did you find them in the first place?
Well, because of a mistake I made! I had applied to an artist residency in Italy so that I could write my first draft of the novel Less there. I was accepted but I got the year wrong. Since that acceptance was for the following year, I found myself with a longing to go somewhere. I was checking out every artist residency in the world that was still accepting applications. I got into one in Iceland, and another in Kerala. I had been wanting to go to India for a while but the trip is quite expensive so I had been postponing the journey. Eventually, I picked Kerala over Iceland, and I used up all the frequent flyer miles that I had accumulated.
It was your first experience of India. You did not know Malayalam, which is the most widely spoken language in Kerala. What about your stay made it memorable for you?
As an American, I had an unusual first experience of India. I did not fly into any major city. I went directly to Trivandrum. The artist residency was in a small village called Poovar. My experience of living there involved seeing the same people every day as I walked around, and they would invite me to their homes and practise English with me. It was all very cosy, and I was there for six weeks. The only other artist at the residency was a painter from England. The only downside was that, as people who grew up in American and British cultures, we liked having a little drink at the end of the day. Sometimes, it was a struggle to find that.
Did you feel like you were in a gay version of Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love (2006)?
(laughs) No! I haven’t read that book but I do know that the protagonist there is having a spiritual experience. I wasn’t. I was in a Christian enclave. That is a very familiar religion to me. But I remember that we were asked to sing at the local church. Apparently, they had seen movies where American and British people are shown singing in church. We normally don’t but we thought it was a wonderful invitation, so we sang the hymn Amazing Grace.
Coming back to Arthur, do you often hear from gay readers who see themselves in him?
Absolutely! I get Instagram messages from my readers at least twice or thrice a day. I notice that many of the messages that I receive through the week are from India and not only from 50-year-old white American gay men who have been gifted my books on their birthday. It is wonderful to interact with readers. What is really intriguing though is that I hear from straight young women who read Arthur’s story as a story about life transitions and liberation. This is why I love Instagram. It is touching. People always say sweet things, and their encouragement really kept me going through the pandemic. I don’t get any mean messages. Before Instagram, I wondered if anyone was reading my books. I wrote so many but I thought they had disappeared into the void. Now people are finding my earlier books, and reading them. It makes me happy to know that those books are around; that they have afterlives.
You are lucky. People get a lot of hate on Instagram. Perhaps you don’t offend anyone.
That is possible. Maybe I am not offending anyone yet. I post about American politics but I am not going to get involved in another country’s affairs because I am not smart enough to understand them in the first place. Also, I am not very good at being angry. I just prefer being an out gay man who is really friendly and would buy someone a beer. From my perspective, that is more politically persuasive than making an argument about how to treat gay people.
My Catholic school experience makes me wonder if your approach eventually boils down to what Jesus says in the Bible. “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Since you come from a Christian background, is this something you believe in?
Yes, I think it does boil down to that. In fact, I do this on purpose especially in places that might seem a bit threatening to me. I am all smiles and maybe I am a little too friendly. I also try to be kind to people who do not wish me well. Even when I went to the deep American south, which is often called Trump country, to research Less is Lost, I found that people were really nice to me because I was nice to them. It would have been embarrassing to be nasty.
Did you begin writing Less and Less is Lost with the intention to explore ageing in a gay context or to throw shade at the publishing industry and literature festivals?
When I was on the first draft, I was working towards a serious book. After about a hundred pages, I threw it all away. Over time, the protagonist took on elements from my personality. And I did that because I can only make fun of myself. It is not as funny to make fun of others. Since I am part of the publishing industry, that had to come in. But I did not start with that.
Older gay men are rarely found in books, films and plays. There are few fictional representations of the loneliness that they experience due to a breakdown in long-term relationships, deaths of friends and partners, or because they are found undesirable…
You are right. A lot of older gay men have thanked me for talking about ageing. Sometimes, fictional representations turn old gay men into a joke. As a young gay man, I remember being told that there is nothing sadder than an old gay queen. When I heard that, I said to myself, “Oh God! My whole plan is to be an old gay queen. There is nothing sadder? Like really? Come on, now, that’s a lie!” We have to be living proof of what’s possible. There are a lot of older queer people around but not many are gay men because a lot died of AIDS. My mother is a queer person. She came out to me the same day I came out to her. When I told her, “I am gay”, she said, “I think I am too.” She is 78 years old now. She has lived as an openly queer person for as long as I have. It’s amazing! She and her friends have been my role models.
When you are travelling, do you ever experience something and immediately think that the moment needs to be captured and put into your next book? Do you take notes?
I keep a notebook with me all the time especially when I am working on a novel. I start paying attention to details. As a novelist, I can invent events but not specific details like the sad dying palm tree in the room that we are sitting in right now or the marigolds in this bowl of water that are held together by some pebbles at the bottom. These details come from notes. I know what’s funny when I come across it, so I quickly write down what stands out for me.
What was it like to write Less is Lost as a sequel to Less? Did you think it would be easy since you already had your characters? Was it hard to live up to the success of the first?
I did not plan to write a sequel because Less definitely has an ending. Even my agent told me not to write one. But the sequel just happened. I tried writing another book, and even took a road trip across the United States for six weeks to research that book, but it was a disaster. I went to Arizona, New Mexico, Mississippi, New Orleans, Georgia, Alabama. I wanted to see and meet the people who lived in those parts of the country that voted for Donald Trump.
These places also had to endure the Jim Crow laws that enforced racial segregation…
Yes, that’s true. When you go there, you feel that something awful has happened there. It was hard to take notes and use it as material for my writing. My travels in the deep south made me realize in desperation that it would be better for me to go back to the pre-made universe that I had with a protagonist like Arthur Less who was lovable and hapless and already travelled a lot. I thought that I would be far more comfortable talking about the deep south by making fun of Arthur and commenting on his whiteness in the context of the history of racial segregation there. As a tall, white, middle-aged man there I was protected by my privilege.
Like Arthur, you too travel a lot. Have you ever felt compelled to regulate or restrain your queerness because of local laws and cultural traditions in certain countries?
I am so obviously gay that I can do nothing to tone it down – and don’t want to either – but my behaviour is sometimes different based on whether I am travelling to take notes for a book or just for a vacation. When I am taking notes, I try to charm people so that they will tell me stories. I talk to them in a manner that puts them at ease. Look at how I dressed up for the Kolkata Literary Meet this year or how I dress up for my classes with undergraduate students. I deliberately dress a little gay because I want people to see someone who is gay and really comfortable in their skin and in being a bit flamboyant. They too can do the same if they want to. It’s not only about self-expression. I do it to show certain possibilities to others.
How do you look back at your own trajectory as someone who worked as a chauffeur and a television extra, and is now the proud winner of a Pulitzer Prize for Fiction? Who stood by you when you imagined possibilities for yourself, as a writer and a gay man?
My parents! They never told me that I needed to get a “real job”. They believed that if being a writer is what I wanted to do, that really was the right choice for me and that I would figure it out. No one is happier for me than my mother. You know, as a queer person, that it is incredibly hard sometimes to make choices that deeply honour your spirit and your dreams. I had to take up projects to keep making money because writing books is tough and takes time. If it was so challenging for me as a white American writer, imagine how challenging it must be for other people. There was this time when I took up a job in rural Italy and everyone thought it was really glamorous but it wasn’t. I was only changing bed covers at a writers’ residency. When I got the Pulitzer Prize for Less, I told myself, “Now I can just write.”
Chintan Girish Modi is a freelance writer, journalist and book reviewer.