An Interview with Garth Greenwell on What Belongs to You
Words By Garth Greenwell, Interviewed by Dani Helund
One of the most striking things about your book is its style. Long sentences broken by short ones, a 40-page section that’s all one paragraph. Talk to me about the import of the form to What Belongs to You.
The first section of the book, “Mitko,” was the first piece of fiction I had ever written. Up to that point, I had done all of my creative work as a writer in poetry. My first education in the arts was in music, specifically opera. I thought a lot about the structure of the aria, which is related to lyric poetry. I think those were probably the biggest influences on my sense of form going into writing “Mitko” because I really had no idea what I was doing. At every step of writing the book, I didn’t have a sense of a whole I was working toward. Instead, I was really thinking about it sentence by sentence and moment by moment.
Even though I’d never written or studied prose, I’ve always loved novels. They’ve been really important to my life as a reader. In terms of prose stylists, I often say that I have a holy trinity of authors: Thomas Bernhard, who often writes in block paragraphs and certainly was an influence on the second section of the book; W.G. Sebald, whom I first read in graduate school and who first helped me imagine the possibility of writing creative prose; and Javier Marías, a Spanish novelist. In a certain sense, I think that those writers all have very patient ways of writing. They’re willing to stay in a moment until they’ve mined everything possible from it. That’s a lesson that I tried to take. I also thought about writers like Henry James, Virginia Woolf, and Proust, who are all masters of that kind of writing. That’s the tradition I feel I’m working within.
It was very interesting to read the book as a publisher. You break the rules that we’ve been following for years—don’t use long sentences, don’t use prolix language, certainly don’t have a 40-page section with only one paragraph. It was a weird and unsettling thing to read your book, and to see how well it worked.
The truth is that I didn’t know any better. I’d never been in a class where I saw what those things look like in student work, so the only references I had were the people who do it really brilliantly like James and those other writers that I mentioned.
As a reader, I love lots of different kinds of books. I love books that are richly and vividly imaginative. But as a writer, this invention that speeds a plot along a horizontal axis doesn’t interest me so much as the vertical axis of a moment suspended in time. I’m more interested in wondering: What is the experience of this consciousness at this moment? What are the possibilities? This is something that lyric poems do: they freeze time and try to articulate all the information that we’re taking in at every moment—or not all of it, but a larger part of it than we’re usually aware of. I wanted to pause and think: How am I experiencing this moment, this relationship, this human interaction? That’s something that I think that literature can do better than the other arts: give us that experience of deep consciousness.
As you mentioned, you do really interesting things with time in this novel. Can you tell me about how you conceptualized the structure of the book in that sense?
The book is structured in this weird way: three parts, the first and third of which basically tell a linear narrative. Really, I hope that the whole narrative is told in the first sentence of the book. There’s this relationship that’s going to involve betrayal—everything is telegraphed in that first sentence. That first section takes place over a period of a few months, from fall to spring. There’s a gap of a couple of years, and then the next section takes place over a few months. There’s not a lot of time covered—three years, but two of them aren’t really narrated.
The second section took me by surprise, by storm. I wasn’t expecting to write it. When I finished “Mitko,” the first section, I thought that was the whole story. But I was walking around this very hot day in the particular geography of this place, and I was seized by this voice. I don’t know another way to put it. It hasn’t happened to me before or since. I went to a café and just started trying to notate that voice on the back of a receipt, scraps of paper—it was like I had to write it on trash.
What that long, forty-page block paragraph allows the narrator to do, I think, is explore these different levels of time. It’s like a solution that has different densities; you can float up and down through the different densities of his past and come back up for air in this neighborhood that he’s walking through, the things he’s actually seeing. That form really happened organically. The first draft of it was very long, much longer than what’s in the book, but it basically had the shape of what’s in the book.
When I finished it, I couldn’t touch it for over a year. It made me almost physically sick. But when I finally came back to it, the revisions were mostly about cutting and editing and trying to reshape sentences. The basic time structure of the different periods in his life and the order was really there in the first draft. It always felt right, even with multiple timelines happening simultaneously. It felt like that was what that section had to do.
There’s a very common critique of queer literature that it alienates readers, but this is a story that feels very universal. I’m curious: do you think this book could have worked if the character were straight?
No, I don’t think it could have worked that way. The book is really invested in communities that are particular to queer experience, these cruising communities that don’t exist in the same ways in straight life. There’s a tradition of writing about gay prostitution in literature, but there’s also a long tradition of writing about prostitution between men and women. It seems to me that the power dynamics are so different, and the context in which sex work happens between men and women is so different. It would have been a radically different kind of book.
But it’s sort of the magic of literature that it arrives at the universal through the particular. Very often, people ask me if I think of myself as a gay writer. The answer is yes, absolutely. There’s a tradition of queer writing that not only my life as a writer but just my life would be impossible to imagine without. I feel like and I hope that I’m writing for queer people and people who emerge from the kinds of communities that I write about in the book. It is not despite, but because of the fact that it’s rooted in those communities that the book has that universal resonance. I think that this story would be completely different if it were not set in the context of gay relationships and the queer communities that form around particular kinds of sexual practices. It’s also important that the book is set in this very particular place: the post-socialist margin of Europe in Bulgaria. Queer people are among the most marginalized segments of the population there because it’s a deeply homophobic place. This is a book about a person who is intensely vulnerable. He’s a quasi-homeless man who gets by to the extent he gets by through sex work. So all of those things I think are really rooted in a particular place and in particular communities and in a particular historical moment.
Shame is difficult to write about well, yet you made it feel so close to all of the characters. What was it like, as a writer, to write about the things that we like to look away from?
For me, the scariest part was the second section. I was exploring the geography of my own childhood, and trying to think about the ramifications of growing up in a place where, as a queer person, the only story you’re told about your life is that it has no value. Right now, there’s this very triumphant narrative happening about LGBT rights and lives, a very meaningful narrative of progress. At the same time, it is still the case that in most of the world, queer people have to fight for their lives. That’s still true in the United States. We still live in a world where queer people are taught that their lives are meaningless.
For instance, take the narrator of the book. Even though he comes from the West, even though he’s been exposed to a different kind of world, even though he’s out, even though he’s comfortable with his identity as a gay person, the base of that identity is still rooted in shame. And while that’s not reducible to his sexuality, it’s not just about being gay or because he’s gay, it is particular to the circumstances of his life. The fact of gay shame is something that we cannot lose sight of. I think it’s dangerous to forget about that in the shadow of this triumphant, homonormative narrative in which we’re all pairing up and having kids. It’s wonderful that those rights and responsibilities are available to queer people, but that’s not the only narrative of queer life, and it doesn’t erase decades of stigma. That’s still very much with us.
I’m curious. When you think of What Belongs to You, who do you think the real hero is?
I don’t think the book has a hero under the typical connotations of that term. That’s an interesting question, and I guess I hope that it’s one that can’t be answered. In one sense, the narrator is the book’s center of gravity, the camera. The interior progress of the narrator and his evolving understanding of himself and his relationship with Mitko is the dominating narrative of the book. At the same time, though, I think that the book succeeds or fails to the extent that Mitko is available to the reader’s empathy and compassion and emotional investment as a human being independent of the narrator.
But really, I hope that question is finally unanswerable between the two of them. I hope that both characters are independent centers of value in the book.
If you think about the hero as the person who shows the most courage, does your answer change?
That’s such an interesting way to think about that question. To me, there is something extraordinarily courageous in Mitko. To a remarkable extent, I think Mitko does live life on his own terms. To me, one of the most remarkable things about Mitko is the extent to which he seems free from shame, free from the kind of ambivalence that paralyzes the narrator. There’s this phrase that I stole from a favorite poet of mine, Fernando Pessoa: “squeamishness about existence.” In the book, the narrator says that Mitko has no squeamishness about existence. To me, that’s a remarkably brave attitude to take toward the world, especially when the circumstances of your life seem to encourage squeamishness.
On the other hand, I do think that the narrator faces up to things, finally. He faces up to things he’s been avoiding through most of the book, about how he relates to the world and how he at once has this great longing for connection and also keeps everyone and everything at arm’s length. I do think that there is some courage in facing up to that. I also think there’s real courage in that fourteen-year-old who refuses to deny his own existence to his father. If there’s a moment of real courage in the book, I think that’s it.
Although the book deals with a great deal of tragedy, there are several moments of pure contentment…which somehow manage to make the low points in the narrative even sadder. Do you think this is a good reflection of life in general?
Well, at least a life with a particular kind of sensibility. There’s a relationship in the book that the narrator has with R that we don’t learn a lot about. What I’m writing now is a collection of short stories that kind of fit into the interstices of the novel, and a lot of them tell the story between the narrator and R. It’s not like those are happy stories, but there is a different vision of what fullness might look like that is maybe not as obviously or inevitably self-destructive as the relationship with Mitko.
In some ways, this kind of troubles me. As a writer, I don’t think I’ve found a way to write fully into more sustainable moments. Not moments of ecstasy, necessarily, but that middle realm of happiness where one really wants to live. You don’t really want to live in ecstasy—you want to live in something like contentment, where you’re aware of the non-tragic value of your experience. My life does have those moments; my sense of the world has those moments. To be the kind of writer I want to be, I have to learn how to write into those moments. That’s a challenge.
So you’ve been both a poet and prose writer. Which do you think works for you? How do you think your voice is coming out best?
I guess the answer to that is prose. Poetry is still a big part of my life, but not as a writer. I haven’t written poetry in five or six years. Prose opens doors, writerly interior doors in a way that poetry doesn’t for me. My experience of writing prose is much more an experience of discovery and surprise than writing poetry was, though I’m not sure why. I remember when I was first writing “Mitko,” I would just follow the sentence and have this experience of a trap door opening beneath my feet, leaving me in a place where I hadn’t expected to go, a moment I hadn’t expected to explore. It was really exhilarating. It still is.