Q&A with Rising Literary Star Garth Greenwell
Following a long list of laudatory reviews in The New York Times, The New Yorker, and elsewhere, author Garth Greenwell stops at IUPUI for a February 18 reading from his debut novel, What Belongs to You. A graduate of the famed Iowa Writers’ Workshop, Greenwell grew up in Louisville. Halfway through a PhD program at Harvard, Greenwell left to teach high-school English and American literature, first in Ann Arbor, and then in Bulgaria, where What Belongs to You takes place. He recently took a break from a packed tour schedule to chat by phone.
Your book came out in January, and Publishers Weekly deemed it “the first great novel of 2016.” What’s your reaction to the publicity?
It’s been bewildering, so far beyond anything I imagined. I’m grateful to Farrar, Straus and Giroux for making a place in the world for my book. I never thought this little story about gay guys in Bulgaria would be seen the way it has been seen.
How did you think it would be seen?
I thought it wouldn’t. I wrote the book in conditions of total privacy. I had not imagined the speed with which it would be public, or the seriousness with which it’s been taken. The writing of this was so private, and publishing is so public.
You’ve written poetry almost exclusively in the past. What made you start writing fiction?
Because I went to Bulgaria. Something about it provoked that change. I started writing the first section of the book, and I had a crisis moment when I realized it was better than the poems. It kind of destroyed the poems in some way. Prose allowed me to reach things I wasn’t able to reach in poetry.
An interviewer asked if you considered yourself a “gay” writer, and you said, “Yes. But without quotation marks.”
It’s a really fraught issue, although it’s not particularly fraught for me. I would never make demands on how anyone identifies, but it’s important to me personally to identify as a gay writer, because when I was 16 growing up in Kentucky, gay books saved my life. So many gay characters in books are stripped of dignity. Then I discovered James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room, Edmund White’s A Boy’s Own Story. These were gay characters with dignity. I want to tell stories about queer people and I want to tell stories for queer communities. I’m not aiming to make them acceptable to people who don’t find them acceptable. I want to write about these people’s lives, and about my life. I’m not translating it into other people’s values.
If you go: Novelist Garth Greenwell, February 18, 7:30 p.m., IUPUI, Basile Auditorium of Eskenazi Hall, 735 W. New York St.. For more information or for free tickets, visit iahi.iupui.edu or call 317-274-8929.