[N.B. 2: Early yesterday morning a man born in the USA, where homophobia and transphobia are proudly incorporated into legislation, whose parents are from Afghanistan, which the USA has occupied since 2001, which has fueled the rise of the Islamic State, to whom the man pledged allegiance in a 911 call made after obtaining a permit for and legally purchasing an AR-15, while he was using that assault rifle to kill at least 50 men and women and wound 53 others at an LGBTQ bar in Orlando, Florida—a city in a country in which queer men (and people who’ve slept with queer men) are only allowed to donate blood of if they abstain from having sex with other men for a minimum of 12 months.
This was the largest mass shooting to date in a country that has seen over 1,000 mass shootings since a white man used, in addition to other firearms, a .223-caliber Bushmaster XM15-E2S rifle to kill 6 adults and 20 kindergarten students in Sandy Hook, Connecticut in 2012. To the Orlando victims and their families, several senators, congressmen, and state governors who have either accepted campaign donations from the NRA, or who support North Carolina’s anti-trans House Bill 2, or both, offered their thoughts and prayers.
The Other Stories’ Editor-in-Chief, Ilana Masad and I offer this interview. In it, Garth Greenwell speaks to the importance of calling himself a queer writer, saying, “I believe that it is the extraordinary power of the literary imagination to communicate experience across difference…in human, authentic ways that can be reparative, healing; that can heal some of the wounds of difference and of privilege.” In the wake of the Orlando shooting I wonder how that could possibly be true, and hope, desperately, that it is. — Gemma de Choisy, June 13, 2016
N.B. 1: I interviewed Garth Greenwell in Iowa City’s Prairie Lights Café on January 25, 2016—just after What Belongs To You had been released and one day before Greenwell left town to start his inaugural book tour. A week or so later, Greenwell’s praises were being sung from the pages of The New Yorker, The New York Times Book Review, and pretty much everywhere else. I, meanwhile, was becoming very ill. I didn’t get much work done over the month and a half that followed. But as I transcribed bits of this interview, I had the pleasure of reliving the singularly delightful experience of talking with Greenwell. The man speaks exactly as he writes, with semicolons and parentheses in his voice. And though I hesitate to comment on anyone’s body, he did the impossible with his. Sitting across from me on a wobbly chair, Greenwell—long of femur, broad-shouldered, prone to gesticulation—bent and leaned and otherwise folded himself up until he and I were at eye level. This interview’s editor, Ilana Masad, has also seen him do this. It’s the damndest thing. It’s like watching someone bend under the weight of their own generosity. That’s what his book is like, and that’s what Greenwell is: Generous. — Gemma de Choisy, May 27, 2016]
In the world of literature there is a country called desire, where the winds change direction on the hour. The primary export is fantasy; the primary import, shame. In lieu of an official language there is only gesture. Border patrol is virtually non-existent (all may immigrate), but few ever leave. Many would like to, but the terrain is confusing and largely unexplored—people wander off and start to think of themselves in a brand new country, only to find that they’ve wandered back to the house they lived in when they moved first here, so long ago. Besides that, the exit visa process (if there even is one) is terribly ill-defined, and desire makes identities notoriously difficult to confirm. The air pressure here is much too strong. It is always too hot. And if denizens manage to recall where last they saw their sense of self, they often find it, upon retrieval, destabilized and diffuse—and yet, would you believe it? The country’s highest-selling postcard reads, “Wish You Were Here.”
Garth Greenwell wrote his debut novel What Belongs To You in the dark, very early in the morning, in Bulgaria. Greenwell moved there to teach English at the American College of Sofia, and says that before he wrote his instantly and universally acclaimed first book, he hadn’t written fiction. Pre-Bulgaria Greenwell was a writer of poetry, which is no surprise. His sentences are shaped by commas the way rocks shape rivers. They swing open semicolon hinges, inviting you inside What Belongs To You‘s glittering prose, and then promptly slam shut, locking you inside with the book’s nameless narrator, his paramour, and their many wants.
The story begins in a bathroom under the National Palace in Sofia, where the narrator pays a skinny hustler named Mitko for sex. Mitko fakes an orgasm, badly, and abandons the narrator on his knees in a stall.
As I knelt there, still tasting the metallic trace of sinkwater from his skin, I felt my anger lifting as I realized that my pleasure wasn’t lessened by his absence, that what was surely a betrayal…had only refined our encounter, allowing him to become more vividly present to me…and allowing me, with all the freedom of fantasy, to make of him what I would.
The first of the novel’s three sections won the 2010 Miami University Press Novella Prize and was published as a novella, Mitko, prior to What Belongs To You’s release. That portion of the book and the subsequent two sections follow the two men into and through a relationship that is by turns sexual, fraternal, paternal, tender, antagonistic, and ferociously ambivalent. As it navigates sex, love, childhood betrayals, and various of other emotionally violent terrains, What Belongs to You does not ask, but declares: “How helpless desire is outside its little theater of heat.”
Greenwell lives in Iowa City, IA, with his boyfriend, the poet Luis Muñoz. In addition to writing essays for various outlets, he is working on a book that reprises characters from What Belongs to You, this time in short stories.
Gemma de Choisy: I want to talk to you about desire.
Garth Greenwell: Oh, good!
This books seems, in many ways, like an answer to Roland Barthes’ A Lover’s Discourse. Your narrator and Mitko could be “the lover” and “the beloved”—Barthes’ stand-ins for desirous and desired figures.
It’s so interesting you say that, because I’ve been obsessed with Barthes over the last couple of weeks. I was obsessed with him as an undergraduate, and I read most of the books—A Lover’s Discourse, front and center among them. I’m also reading a really brilliant book of essays by a poet, Brian Blanchfield, called Proxies. It’s amazing, really stunning. And Barthes is one of the guardian angels of that book, I think. I’m also reading Barthes’ book The Neutral, a collection of notes he made for a lecture course he taught.
I haven’t read A Lover’s Discourse in ages and ages, but when I read it, I read it so hard. I think it’s one of those books that loaded in my brain when it was forming itself. So I’m sure it’s all over What Belongs to You. I’m sure.
One part of A Lover’s Discourse that’s stuck with me (and that I see in What Belongs to You) is the section, “On Waiting.” He writes, “Am I in love?—yes, since I am waiting. The other one never waits… The lover’s fatal identity is precisely this: I am the one who waits.”
I remember this! Yes, Yes.
That dynamic seems especially strong between your narrator and Mitko.
True. Mitko is always the one who bursts in. In a lot of ways, this is the person who occupies a position in society of extremely little privilege or power. One of his sources of power is that, that he is the one who gets to appear or disappear.
At one point, you mention another of his small but extreme powers: the power to be pleased.
Right. In fact I’d say that is the source of his power over the narrator. He can be pleased, or he can withhold his pleasure.
Which is as true universally of desire as it is of the marginalized world of Bulgarian male prostitutes.
And I hope that’s true of a lot of things in this book. This is a book about a particular relationship in a particular place that’s framed in a particular way, and the frame absolutely structures and affects the relationship between these two people. But I also think—and the narrator explicitly meditates on this at times—there are ways in which the strangeness or the particularity of the encounter accentuates aspects that the narrator believes (and I share his belief) are common to any relationship between two human beings.
One idea that has been really central to my life as a writer and as a poet (which I was before I was a fiction writer), is from William James in Varieties of Religious Experience. He gives a preemptive defense of his “extreme” method of using extreme cases as a way to claim that something is true universally. And he uses this wonderful metaphor where he says that the extreme case functions like a microscope in science. It accentuates one aspect in a way that makes it visible, that allows us to note characteristics that are common across experience.
That to me is kind of an intrinsic assumption of literature.
Mitko and the narrator are gay, and they’re in a place where that isn’t talked about openly—a fact that, towards the end of the book, is leveled as a threat. Which means that a kind of shame becomes part of the courtship dance. But I wonder, isn’t that part of desire in general?
I guess that’s one of those psychoanalytic insights that to me seems true. We don’t even have to think about psychoanalysis—we could say that the poets are right. Desire is importunate. One of my favorite poems is a little Greek fragment translated by Anne Carson. It says, “Love struck me with his hammer and doused me in a wintry ditch.” I think it’s Anacreon. And I think it’s just exactly right. And what I love about that little poem—and I always taught it to my high school students, because I think it captures the power of metaphor so well—is what it’s an image of. It’s an argument about love, and it’s an argument that love changes and shapes us, because it’s an argument about forging. It’s the image of a blacksmith pounding steel and putting it into water to fix its shape, and that to me captures something about the experience of Eros. It is shameful because, whether or not your object of choice aligns in the way the world tells you it should, it overcomes us. We don’t get to choose it. If you’re lucky, and it does align with what the world expects from you, maybe that can feel frictionless. But I think, for many people—queer or straight or however one identifies—we often desire things and people we shouldn’t desire. And there is shame associated with that, I would say, and a sense of violence against our sense of self, which so often depends upon a sense of mastery or control. Desire doesn’t let us have that.
That sounds like St. Augustine’s kind of love. The idea that love will conquer nothing. It only promises to change you. Love alters.
Absolutely. I love that you talk about St. Augustine, because The Confessions is one of those Ur-texts of my life as a writer, and just of my life as a human being. I think whenever people talk about the kind of writing that interests me most, the narrative/essayistic/discursive/digressive narration of consciousness, I think that all goes back to him.
Speaking of influences, you mentioned on Facebook that you’ve been reading Michel de Montaigne.
He captured a remarkable sense of intimacy with his writing, but there’s something else. There are some (myself included) who think that Montaigne’s writing feels as close as it does because he was writing each essay as if it were a letter to his dearly departed friend, Étienne de La Boétie. What you think of that?
It’s so interesting. Montaigne writes about sex a lot, but the only convincing writing about intimacy in his essays is when he writes about friendship. Thirty years ago people seized on those passages and used them to queer the canon, to claim Montaigne as a writer of queer experience and gay experience. And then there’s a big backlash against that and people say, “No, this is the rhetoric of romantic friendship, and homosexuality as a category didn’t exist then, so this doesn’t have to do with that.” And all of that is true and I think it’s facile to claim Montaigne, who occupied in his society the position of a patriarch, a pater familias, as a queer writer.
Whenever someone uses that argument, that this kind of intimacy was a common thing and that homosexuality as a category didn’t exist as an identity… Well, neither did heterosexuality. And yet, whenever people make that objection, there’s always a way in which they pull that writer back into the fold of these straight male writers. It’s just as false to say he’s a straight writer as to say that he’s a gay writer. In his great essay on friendship, he says that a great friendship requires argument, requires quarrel, like great sex requires scratching. I mean, I think he gives us a way to think about that relationship. I think you’re absolutely right, though, there’s no question to me. He starts the essays after de la Boétie dies, and I think the astonishing thing about that book is that it feels like it’s speaking directly to you with this incredible intimacy. The book filled the space opened up by Boétie.
And if he hadn’t died, then likely no essay. They’d have just talked.
Yes, yes. It’s been wonderful to live with Montaigne over the last few weeks (which I’ve been doing because of this Blanchfield book) and to realize how he is like Augustine. He’s the father of everything people are excited about in Knausgaard or Ben Lerner or in Rachel Cusk. This is all Montaigne! And Roland Barthes. This whole space of the neutral is precisely that space that Montaigne tries to occupy in his essays. That’s something that really interests me, because what I think they’re both trying to do is create a space in which thinking can happen dissociated from power. It’s a space that says, “I want to think but I don’t want to have to be right. I want to think, but I don’t want to quarrel.”
The burden of being correct, in other words. Or the trouble that comes with being so fixed on an idea that you cannot later change your mind, which is a very modern concern. This idea that integrity means having a long history of a static opinion—that’s not something that’s always been a credit to one’s character.
Not at all! And it’s deeply un-American, let us say. If we’re going to claim the great pragmatist insight—
—then we should, as is tradition, be reinventing ourselves—
—all the time! And we should be accommodating of change. I mean, for God’s sake, “Do I contradict myself? Very well then, I contradict myself! I am large! I contain multitudes!”
Absolutely. Given this tradition of Emerson and Whitman, it’s horrifying that our public discourse now has become—well, the image that Barthes uses and the idea that he rejects is that of jousting. People are not trying to advance ideas or discourse; they’re trying to knock the other guy off his horse. So reading Montaigne in the [presidential] campaign season has been a really wonderful antidote, because he does open up this space for thinking to happen without that allegiance to being right. That’s the space of Barthes’ The Neutral, I think.
You’re very matter of fact about identifying as a queer writer. Why is it important to claim that for yourself?
It’s important to me for several reasons. I do believe—in a kind of hedged way, with airquotes—in the universal. I believe that it is the extraordinary power of the literary imagination to communicate experience across difference. In that way, I think the literary imagination is aligned with what Audre Lorde said about eros and about the erotic—and I do think the literary imagination and the aesthetic imagination are erotic—that eros can connect us across difference in human, authentic ways that can be reparative, healing; that can heal some of the wounds of difference and of privilege. I believe that about the literary imagination. I believe that because I feel it when I read literature from cultures and experiences entirely alien to mine. Literature teaches me something about myself. I believe in that. I also believe that the only way that happens is through this weird alchemy of the literary imagination; it only happens through the most minute attention to the particular. There’s no other way to get there.
If we disavow the particular, then we are allowing people to use words like “universal” to actually hide the particular experience behind straight white guys, or whatever position of prestige gets coded as the universal. And I think that’s deadly.
That I found Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room and Edmund White’s A Boy’s Own Story when I was fourteen years old in Kentucky saved my life, because it gave me an image of queerness that had dignity when I was living in a place where the only story I was told about myself was that my life had nothing of the sort. So in that sense, it is important to me that there exists an idea of a queer literary tradition, and it’s important to me that I acknowledge my debt to it as both a writer and a human being. And then just historically, I do think it’s true that there are affinities among books, and that queer writers and queer books are speaking to each other.
Now. The danger of claiming a queer literary tradition is that one might essentialize queerness or a style of queerness, and I don’t want to do that. I think one can claim that and say that these are historically constructed styles, but any identity, any community is historically constructed. And that doesn’t mean that those are not life sustaining.
Back to William James, then. The extreme being indicative of the ordinary.
Absolutely. I mean, there’s that wonderful old stoic idea of Terence’s: “Nothing human is alien to me.” And then Thomas Hardy in Jude the Obscure, God bless him, when he says, “I have the germ of all human iniquity me.” I do think that’s true. I think any human story—not by smoothing away or by looking away from the particular, but by attuning yourself as closely as possible to the texture of one experience—allows us to hear the human voice, to hear what’s common, what we share. We’ve been trained as a culture to hear that universal human voice in texts that come from a place of prestige and privilege. So no one says, “Isn’t it amazing that this story about these two unbelievably rich white kids in Italy can communicate to me in America right now?” No. We just say Romeo and Juliet is a universal story of love. Well, yeah. I agree. And so is Giovanni’s Room.
Bulgaria, in which you novel takes place is so finely and specifically rendered that it is a third character, and a participant in your narrator and Mitko’s romance. It makes their relationship, such as it is, seem more like a menage a trois.
The book, to me, begins and ends in Bulgaria. To me, Bulgaria is the main character. When I went to Bulgaria I’d only ever written poetry. I have an MFA in poetry that I got in 2003. And then I went to Harvard to get a PhD, also studying poetry as a scholar, before I realized I didn’t want that life. I left and started teaching high school and started writing poems. And until I went to Bulgaria I’d never written prose in anything other than a scholarly or critical way, and so something about Bulgaria—well, something about being a high school teacher and then something about Bulgaria—turned me into a prose writer and a fiction writer.
I think the spark of the novel came from the fact that I went to Bulgaria, this very foreign place, and I found these queer communities and queer spaces that reminded me very forcefully of the queer communities and spaces that I found when I was a kid in Kentucky at fourteen. And when I talked to my Bulgarian high school students who spoke to me about being gay, the stories they told me and their sense of the possibilities for their life just absolutely reminded me of being a kid in the American south in the early 1990s.
So that was a way in which there’s sort of foreignness and familiarity holding hands in this place.
When your narrator goes into the bathroom underneath the National Place in Sofia, his language skills aren’t fantastic but he’s able to communicate there in a way he isn’t above ground.
Yes, he understands the code there.
The third language of cruising.
And that I think is true of cruising places. I don’t want to romanticize them; they’re spaces where people treat each other in all sorts of bad ways. But they’re also spaces where people treat each other in astonishingly humane ways. So in that way they’re spaces like any other human space.
But they are particular in that they’re places where difference gets scrambled by desire. And this is another way in which I think desire is importunate and breaks all our rules. When you go to a place like the bathrooms at the National Palace of Culture or to an adult bookstore on Eighth Avenue in New York and you go to those back rooms, there are people of all races, all ages, all economic backgrounds. Not to paint those places as free of various kinds of cultural oppressions—they’re not—but anytime you have human interactions you have sparks of various kinds. You have connections of various kinds across difference, across privilege, and that to me makes them potentially radical spaces. A writer I admire very much, a queer writer named Bruce Benderson, has long made arguments about how crucial these spaces are and how crucial it is that queerness not be scrubbed of places like this, which are often spoken of with disdain. And he argues that these are spaces that are full of the potential for radicality, and I think that’s because of these ethical sparks that can happen across difference. That was just as true in Sofia as it was in Louisville when I was fourteen, and I think that makes them more to be cherished. There is this danger, I think, in the new kind of respectability of—we can say queerness, but I think it’s still predominantly “gayness.” But of queerness, too. We have Caitlyn Jenner now who’s teaching the world what a “well behaved” transgender person looks like. I’m glad that marriage equality exists. I think there’s a way in which the respectability of queerness has opened up new possibilities for queer life, and I think anyone who has an allegiance to liberation needs to see that as a win. But. There is also a danger that it is shutting down other modes and possibilities for queer life, and that it is shutting down precisely that radical potential inherent in these spaces that scramble our usual categories of identity.
One of the ways that What Belongs to You keeps the narrator and Mitko away from that, as you put it, “well-behaved” space is that their relationship deals with sex work, something that is still heavily stigmatized.
But as anyone who’s ever been involved with sex work knows, it is still a person responding to other people. Feeling isn’t absent simply because money is present.
That’s right, absolutely.
But there’s something else here, between your narrator and Mitko, that is often true of love that has anything to do with transaction, or in instances where love is not expected—for instance with the historically marginalized or the chronically ill—and that is that love is intensified, as is the fear of losing it, but it also can make love almost indistinguishable from gratitude.
I think you’re right. I mean, I think sex work is a really complicated phenomenon. And I think that it is a really ethically fraught and complicated interaction between human beings. One of the things that interests me about sex work, or about the relationship in What Belongs to You, is that it gives the lie to the idea that money makes things clean, that in some way money scrubs the human trace from labor and from the products of labor. I think shopping at Walmart is [also] a human exchange that we should be aware of as incredibly fraught and damaging, that there is human suffering there that we allow ourselves to imagine money has washed away.
What’s interesting to me about sex work in the novel is that it is a face to face exchange. In that sense, I think the narrator imagines in the beginning of the novel that money scrubs messiness from human interaction. He keeps repeating this word, like a refrain, “transaction.” As if that makes feeling easier! But it’s messy, like all human relationships.
In this particular case, the narrator pays for action, but feeling is inevitable.
Right. When you’re face to face, as opposed to exploiting someone from a distance, like we do just when we breathe in this country, you can’t ignore their humanness. You can’t insulate yourself from feeling.
The premise of sex work is that bodies can be made commodities. Actually, I think that’s the premise of capitalism. It’s very hard for that to happen in face-to-face exchanges. There’s a way in which personhood keeps asserting itself. Certainly for this narrator, but I think it happens on both sides. There’s no question that this relationship is formed and deformed and structured and framed by the transaction with which it begins, and that’s something which the narrator, especially in the third part of the book, has to confront. There’s no unpoisoned ground he can stand on in his relationship with Mitko. But! There are moments between the narrator and Mitko that, to me, seem full of the potential for authentic feeling. And when Mitko says to the narrator in the final section of the book, “You are an istinski priyatel”—“you are a true friend”—the narrator immediately qualifies that in his head and steps away from it and hedges it, but I think the book opens up a space of possibility where that is a true statement.
After their first interaction (transaction) Mitko leaves the narrator literally on his knees, and the narrator realizes he’s grateful for the rude abandonment because he’s been left alone with his sense of fantasy—the essential ingredient of limerence, wherein another person becomes a canvas onto which you project a whole new world. And that, more than money, seems to be the means by which the narrator makes a commodity of Mitko. But then, in the book’s third section, the narrator tries to care for Mitko when he takes ill, and he receives care from Mitko as well. There is a degree of trust that unhinges him, perhaps because he didn’t pay for it and so doesn’t know what to do with it.
I love that you point to that moment at the end of the first scene, their first encounter. I think that is where Mitko is least a person for the narrator. And he’s not available to the narrator’s fantasy in the same way at the end of the book. There’s a sort of real image that has supplanted the fantasy or imposed itself on the fantasy.
And that starts in the first section, when they go on holiday to the seaside and Mitko has the audacity to masturbate twice one morning while the narrator is out for a walk. That was an amazing assertion of self; Mitko refused to deny his own body’s desires for the narrator’s convenience.
Absolutely! He’s saying, “I’m a person, I’m a person.”
Tell me about writing Mitko. That novella, even though it became the first section of your novel, is so different from What Belongs to You.
Good! [Laughs.] I had no idea what I was doing when I wrote any part of this novel, and I had no conception of it as a novel until all three parts were written. It took a long time. Mitko was the first fiction I’d ever written. The whole book was written in Bulgaria, while I was there. It was written really sentence by sentence, clause by clause. I was feeling my way forward in the dark. And it helped that I wrote the book mostly physically in the dark, in the mornings before going to school to teach. I had run away from any sort of public career as a writer. Part of what made me leave Harvard was feeling like poetry was being turned into a profession. That to me is toxic. And in Bulgaria I found this place in which writing could be what it has to be, which is the most intense privacy. Being in this place, speaking another language, English itself became a kind of privacy, especially when I was working on this. I taught in English, but on breaks I would sometimes go days without speaking it.
I went years without showing a page to anyone. And so the novel emerged sentence by sentence, step by step. What I kept saying to myself, the only rule of writing fiction that I had, since I’d never been in a fiction workshop before I came to Iowa, was “be patient.” Don’t try to think ahead, don’t try to think about where the scene is going; instead just be true to this moment and observe it as closely as you can and allow the sentence to take you forward step by step.
In poetry I couldn’t do that, in part because I’d done so many workshops in poetry. In prose, I could trust the music of the sentence.
I think that’s where the feeling comes from: punctuation. Punctuation is musical. You can think about it in the same way one might while reading sheet music. When you look at sheet music you know when it will be staccato, you can see the adagio, you can point to the precise moment on the page when the music will make you feel like you’re in love now, now sad, now terrified. The second section of your novel, the middle section, is a solid paragraph, and for that reason it made me feel panicked to read it. It mimicked shock, which was perfect because the narrator was walking through Sofia in a fugue state after having received tragic news. There is no breath.
To me, what you say is exactly right. My first training in art was in music, was in singing. Syntax to me is exactly as you say, it’s a notation of emotion. There’s a way in which I think of syntax, of the texture of a sentence, as being like the musical texture in opera, say, where it gives you the emotion. I love that you say that, that’s all that I hoped.
A great deal has been made of your semicolons.
I love semicolons because they allow for a kind of expansiveness without imposing the kind of logical relationships that subordinated syntax imposes. Subordination is all about ranking, about making one experience primary and other experiences secondary. Semicolons allow you to suspend that hierarchy.
It’s a beautiful coincidence that they look so much like hinges. It’s difficult for me to separate punctuation from the very shape that it implies. They are the closest thing our [not Cyrillic] alphabet has to pictograms. I think about what em-dashes and colons look like, about what they tell people about the text that follows.
I couldn’t agree more.
You dwell in the world of poetry still, at least a little, right? Your boyfriend, Luis, is a poet.
He is, he is a wonderful poet.
A big time poet in Spain!
He’s a fancy poet, it’s true! I was just down in Chile for the first time and I had dinner with a group of gay writers. When I got there they were pouring drinks, and on the kitchen counter of this very fancy apartment they had laid out first editions of Luis’s poems.
I haven’t written a poem in probably six years . I really felt when I wrote Mitko, well—I just felt that it was better than my poems. It kind of demolished them in a way. I was able to access surprise in prose in a way that I hadn’t been able to in poetry, for whatever reason. So I haven’t written a poem since then. I still taught poetry and I read poetry, but I had gotten to a place where I wasn’t spending two hours analyzing a Shakespeare sonnet anymore. And then I met Luis! And Luis is astonishing. He’s astonishing for his own poems, and also for his knowledge of the canon of Spanish-language poetry, both peninsular and Latin American. He’s introduced me to some poets that just struck like revelations to me, especially the Spanish poet Luis Cernuda, whom I had never read before and who is a great gay poet.
The thing that really made me feel close to poetry again was translating Luis’s poems. Because this was very early in our relationship. Like, weeks into our relationship. I didn’t speak any Spanish. His English was not good at all. And so when we worked on translating his poems, we had to talk about every word in this very exhaustive way. I remember, we would have both of our computers open and we would have dozens of tabs open where we would see different examples of the use of a word, or images to express something, or videos to talk about a particular movement. And we would spend hours on a single line and he would talk exhaustively about what he was thinking or the particular, not meaning, but feeling of a word.
Wow. No wonder you fell in love.
That was falling in love with him. It was wonderful. When I worked on the English versions of those poems I was using all these muscles I hadn’t used as a writer for a long time, because I was thinking about form in a way you don’t think about form in prose. I don’t count syllables when I write sentences [in prose]. But I do in poetry. And I think about metrical feet. I don’t think about feet when I write a prose sentence. I write aloud, and I think about music, and I care a lot about rhythm, but I don’t think about feet. But working on Luis’s poems, I did. It felt wonderful. It made me feel closer to poetry than I’d felt in years and years. Luisiño.
At the end of What Belongs to You, your narrator has a boyfriend, R. I hear those two characters aren’t done yet.
That’s right. The container of this novel was not big enough for everything I wanted to think about in relationship to Bulgaria and in relationship to the experiences I had there—and in relationship to this narrator, too. The novel doesn’t really talk about teaching, for instance. There’s this relationship in the third section that’s very important, though we don’t learn much about it, with this guy named “R.” So the book I’m working on now is a collection of stories that very much fall into the interstices of What Belongs to You. It’s the same narrator, and about half of the stories are about R. and this relationship, and about that world that R. makes possible for the narrator, which is so very different from the world he occupies in the first section of What Belongs to You. It feels like a companion volume to the novel. It’s the same world.
Could you see it perhaps collected with What Belongs to You as a longer version of the novel, in the same way that the novel was a continuation of Mitko?
That’d be interesting. I don’t want to make any claims about the book I write after this; maybe I’ll write a fantasy novel, I don’t know. But I do love writers whose work feels like one enormous project. Proust feels that way to me, Sebald feels that way to me, Javier Marias feels that way to me. And I like that, that way in which there’s something artificial about putting covers around a particular group of pages. Well, that’s true and not true: in What Belongs to You I certainly tried to think about the novel as a form, and there are echoes and symmetries that I hope make it complete in and of itself. So I don’t want to say that it’s an arbitrary collection of pages. I don’t think it is. But! It does seem to me that there’s something kind of arbitrary about saying that this territory of thinking or of experience is complete, and now I’m moving into a wholly other territory. That’s not how life has worked for me, and it’s not how my mind works.
How do you write now? Do you still write in the dark?
That’s a really good question. The scary thing about having this book be published is that I feel farther away from a kind of sustaining writing practice than I have felt in years. I feel like I’m working a lot, but I feel very far from the privacy that for me is necessary for real writing. There’s a way in which publishing a book, to me, is diametrically opposed to writing. Publishing a book, I mean, it’s public. I have a publicist. I have to work on this public face, I’m going to go do these readings—and I want to be as good an ambassador for my book as I possibly can, I want to do everything I can to give this book a life in the world, but I know that between now and May I’m not going to be writing fiction. I know that I’ll have my notebook. I’ll be taking notes. Hopefully I’ll be stocking up the way that one does. I hope it will be a meaningful fallow period where ideas get mixed up and worked around. But I am beginning to think about when this very frenzied public phase is over, I’m going to have to do something to get back to that private space. I think that probably will involve going somewhere far away.
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