An Interview with Garth Greenwell

“How can you write in a way that honors both the feeling and your skepticism about that feeling?”


An Interview with Garth Greenwell

“How can you write in a way that honors both the feeling and your skepticism about that feeling?”

An Interview with Garth Greenwell

Nellie Hermann
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I had heard of Garth Greenwell’s work, but somehow I had never read any of it until September 2019. I received a galley of his second book, Cleanness, just weeks after I returned to New York from a year of living in Paris, where, as research for my own novel in progress, I had spent months seeking out books that took love and sex as their subject (for example, in philosophy,  Plato’s Symposium; in psychology, Erich Fromm’s The Art of Loving; and in literature, books by writers such as D. H. Lawrence and Annie Ernaux). To read Cleanness after such a search—and particularly after having spent a year as an American abroad (something Greenwell’s narrator also does)—felt like a wish fulfilled: I hadn’t known quite what I was looking for, but I knew I found it when I read Cleanness.

Garth Greenwell’s first novel, What Belongs to You, was published in 2016 to a wave of praise. Reviewed glowingly in countless publications, the novel was named one of the best books of the year by more than fifty publications in nine different countries. The praise for Cleanness has been, so far, even more rhapsodic. The book is a masterwork of form and function: it’s written in three sections, each containing three stories, or chapters, that stand alone but also speak to, over, and through one another. At its center is a profound love relationship (between the narrator, an American high school teacher in Sofia, Bulgaria, and a man named R.), the loss of which reverberates through the book. Full of explicit and extended sex scenes that, in their patience and attendance to detail, exceed the boundaries of any American literary sex writing that I have yet to read, Cleanness has the same landscape and narrator as What Belongs to You but a much greater emotional range. Even on the sentence level, the book seems to map for its reader the landscape of desire, moving us quickly toward moments of great intensity and then slowing our attention to take them in.

Greenwell, forty-two, was trained as an opera singer and then as a poet before beginning to write fiction; he also worked for seven years as a high school teacher and spent three years in a PhD program at Harvard. He has described himself as “a very unreligious person” but described his life as “like the life of someone with a devotional temperament looking for an object of devotion.” This word, devotion, seems to fit the artistry of his sentences, which are long and Jamesian, always probing and correcting, aiming for an exact evocation of truth. His work is devoted to—well, devotion; he interrogates desire, love, aesthetics, and the roots and tendrils of emotional pain in such an exacting way that reading him becomes—for me, anyway—a kind of spiritual experience, and elicits a reverence for the complexity of being human. His aesthetic training in artistic fields other than fiction writing seems an important factor in his work’s singularity, its evasion of traditional forms, and its focus on emotion brought forward through the “technology,” as he calls it, of language.

I was eager to speak to him about so many things. This conversation took place in person in early December 2019, before the January publication of Cleanness. (A few additional exchanges were made over email a month or so later.) We talked in my living room, interrupted by frequent commentary from my small dog, whom Greenwell calmed at one point by getting down next to him on the floor. In person, Greenwell is warm and generous, and speaks much as he writes, recursively interrogating his thoughts out loud so as to get at ever more precise answers. 

—Nellie Hermann


THE BELIEVER: Cleanness is neither a novel nor a short-story collection. With the exception of “The Frog King,” each story is written as one long narrative scene. They each stand alone, and yet they speak to one another. Can you talk about how the form of the book came to be? Was there an ethos behind it? 

GARTH GREENWELL: In an ideal world, I would call this book a song cycle, which feels like an unbearably precious thing to say but also is really true. And when I say song cycle, I mean like a Lieder cycle—a work that I had in my head was Schubert’s Winterreise. A novel is made up of material of various intensities. And there’s a way in which thinking of the book as a song cycle avoids that variation—each of the nine sections is its own center of intensity. In an opera you have arias and you have recitatives, and it often feels like novels have moments of intensity and then recitatives that sort of link these moments of intensity. But in a song cycle, you can take out the recitatives and leave just the arias. 

BLVR: I felt so much, reading this book, and I wondered how much that creation of feeling had to do with the form. It made me think about poetry and music—maybe more often the project of both is to make the reader or listener feel something, where that’s not as often the project of a novel or story collection. 

GG: Right. I mean, I do think there are a lot of narrative logistics that, one, I don’t know how to create, and, two, that I don’t really care about. I am very happy to dispense with some necessary background information in lines of exposition and just get it out of the way and not really worry too much about it. I love writers who are able to very economically set out a situation of emotional intensity that the writing then inhabits.

BLVR: Do you have an example?

GG: I’ve recently been obsessed with Jean Stafford, and she will very often set up a story in this incredibly economical way. Thomas Bernhard does the same thing. If you look at a book like [Thomas Bernhard’s] The Loser, there’s this framing situation where a guy is entering a tavern and there is a sentence like “He arrived at the tavern; he stepped inside.” And then you have five pages of this rush of interiority and memory, this sort of glutinous mass of consciousness, and then a sentence like “He took a step toward the table” that returns you to the scene. So that is something I really admire, when writers can be very economical in their stagecraft and create these framing devices that really just serve as containers for consciousness. I don’t want to disdain in any way what I’m calling narrative logistics, but I do like to dispense with them and then think that what is structuring the fiction, or guiding the fiction, is not the mechanics of plot or the logic of cause and consequence. Instead, I think that the sentences, if I’m writing well, are like some heat-seeking mechanism that is just turning toward the place of greatest heat. And so I guess I do think of writing as structuring an emotional experience, as opposed to something like “There’s a secret,” and the story is about delaying the revelation of the secret, that kind of narrative mechanism. I love books that do that well, but that’s just not something I’m interested in writing right now. I actually rather like taking care of the revelation right up front, and then the rest of the book is: How do you deal with the consequences? How do you live in the wake of this revelation?

BLVR: There’s a line in the book where the narrator thinks about the connection between the words ardor and arduous. I’d like to hear you talk about the link between love and work. Can you talk about how you came to be writing the kind of work you are writing now, and how—if it has—writing has been a force of meaning for you?

GG: Absolutely, it has. I mean, it is the force of meaning for me. I am someone for whom art is a source of—if there is such a thing as transcendent value, then a source of transcendent value. I feel like I’m torn between very humanist impulses and very nihilistic impulses. And it seems to me that the work of art in and of itself, and then also the work of making art, is a source of value that often seems to me infinite. In the same way, I think what it means to stand in an ethical relationship to someone else is to recognize their life as having a value that is infinite and to think that all human value is infinite. I also know that I can step very slightly to one side and look at something from a very different perspective, and that then what seemed to me an infinite value can become an utter lack of value. Both of those things seem true. It seems to me true to say, “The work of art is infinitely valuable,” and it also seems true to say, “This is something someone has done to pass the time that has no value in and of itself.” I mean, almost all works of art pass away, leaving no trace. If you take a further step back, our species is very likely to pass away without leaving a trace. And yet just the other day when I was teaching, I played my students a video of Jessye Norman singing the “Liebestod” from Tristan und Isolde, and if there is any value in anything in the universe, that is it. Both of those things are true.

I’m interested in epiphany, in the experience we have—which seems to me a profound experience—of the world suddenly making sense to us. I’m interested in an apperception that might be an emotional experience, an experience of another human being that seems incontrovertible: the experience of falling in love, an experience of intimacy with another human being, an experience of revelation about something in the world. I wanted in this book to write about such experiences in a way that is respectful of them and does not dismiss them but that is also skeptical of the portability of epiphanic revelation. So there are lots of moments in the book where the narrator has a kind of epiphanic realization, like in the last line of the title chapter, “Cleanness,” which to me is the most important line in the book, where he declares inwardly to R., “Anything I am you have use for is yours.” That’s a kind of profound pledge that he was not capable of until that moment. And I want to be respectful of that; I don’t want to be ironic about that. I don’t want to be ironic about what the student feels in the first story, “Mentor,” where he is inside this experience of heartbreak. It’s very easy for the teacher, who’s not in that experience, who has survived his first heartbreak, who knows there’s another side to it, to be dismissive of it. But I don’t think we should be dismissive of those feelings. I think we are formed by them. But it’s also true that we grow up and see them differently. And so how can you write in a way that honors both the feeling and your skepticism about that feeling? And that actually does not create a hierarchy of value between them? It’s not that the teacher is right and the student is wrong. Nor is the opposite true. And so in “Cleanness,” right before that ending line, the narrator is having an orgasm, and I write, “in that rush that makes so much seem possible.” Well, that is undercutting, but it’s not negating. Again and again, I think, that happens in the book, where the narrator has a realization that is true in its context—within the frame of the work of art, within the frame of the scene, within the frame of a particular emotional constellation—it is true, it has value. But it’s not clear that that value can be carried outside of that frame. That seems to me true about an awful lot in human life.


BLVR: Of course, what you’re talking about in some ways summarizes religion, or faith in general, right? That sense that if you take one step to the side, it can all become meaningless. Which connects to another point: one of the threads running through Cleanness is a sense of the sacred in the human body, the holiness that exists not only in loving but also in the human capacity for pain. In one of the S&M stories, “The Little Saint,” the boy is described as saintly because of his desire for and tolerance of pain. So even acts of seeming cruelty are turned into elevated acts, and are almost ancient and holy. 

GG: Well, this may be something that’s determined by temperament more than anything else. It is obvious to me that, viewed from one perspective, there is nothing more ridiculous than desire, and there’s nothing more ridiculous than a person desiring. I understand the temperament that sees the world in that way. It is not my temperament. My temperament is to be reverent toward desire. It is my inclination to admire or to find something admirable in people who, within certain obvious, very important limits about consent and respecting personhood, do not defend themselves against their desire, or who try to create situations that can serve as a kind of aesthetic frame within which they can explore their desire. This is something I think S&M does. I admire this all the more when the act of submitting to that desire, of pursuing that desire, involves something like humiliation or involves confronting experiences of darkness, confronting elements of ourselves that frighten us or disturb us or that we have been told should be frightening or disturbing.

I also think we never feel merely one thing; the moral valence of something is never unitary. I often feel that a kind of ironic or comic treatment of sex can be flattening. And one of the things that fascinates me is a more reverent attempt to enter into the epiphanic experience of sex or of desire. From outside that experience, certain things can seem ridiculous. But within that experience, those same things can feel charged and resonant and revelatory. It seems to me that when you enter into them, there is a way in which you always find things turning into their opposite. So in a very brutal S&M scene, like especially in “The Little Saint” but even in “Gospodar,” there is tenderness as well as brutality. And then it’s also the case in the chapter “Cleanness,” which ends on that epiphanic declaration of love that I think very much surprises the narrator—that’s arrived at only through cruelty, through the narrator’s experience of being cruel to R., of confronting the potential for cruelty in himself toward R.

I just don’t believe that our emotions are ever simple things. I don’t believe we are capable of a tenderness that does not also contain cruelty. Or at least I’m not interested in writing about a cruelty that does not contain tenderness or about a tenderness that does not contain cruelty. The whole reason to write fiction is to think about situations that are so complex that we need a special technology to think about them, which is the technology of art. I just can’t imagine writing something if I felt capable of articulating my feelings about it or my judgment of it. I want to write only about things that confound me. 

BLVR: So on a technical level, when you speak about any one of these stories, it sounds as if you knew what you were doing. But was that true when you were actually writing these pieces?

GG: I think when you’re writing, it’s all instinct. It’s why I don’t really believe in craft as a metaphor. I think you’re just instinctively feeling something out. You’re trying to make something, the shape of which becomes clear only in its making. And that’s a process of real excitement, sometimes a kind of ecstatic excitement, and also of real anxiety and doubt. I write very slowly, and I write by hand. I try, when I’m drafting, not to look back or start correcting. I really do feel like I am just inching my way forward in the dark, and that the sentences themselves are the tool for feeling out what the story is going to become. I feel like I have some sense of when I’m writing close to heat, when I’m writing close to dilemma. And that’s often not ecstatic at all—for example, I felt deeply uncomfortable writing “An Evening Out,” and writing “Gospodar”; I was intensely scared as I wrote that. And I thought: The fact that I’m scared means that maybe I’m writing something that I need to write. I guess a sense of urgency is what I want as I’m writing, and if I don’t feel it, I’m just not going to write.

There’s a way that—and I also feel this when I consume art—the minute I know where I’m supposed to stand, I lose interest. I think art’s role is to make us uncomfortable in certain ways, to make us dwell in the discomfort of knowing that our moral vocabulary or our tools for moral thinking are inadequate in certain situations. I think that’s one way art helps us live. We falsify the world in order to try to make it accommodate the simplicity of our moral tools.  


BLVR: Let’s talk about writing sex. I wonder why it’s not done more often in American fiction. Do you think there’s any truth to my hypothesis that gay writers are writing sex more and maybe with more intensity than straight writers? 

GG: It is a surprise to me that there’s so little sex writing in English. And it’s really hard to explain why, because, obviously, I mean, we love pornography. But there is a way in which writers have been lied to or have been telling themselves this lie for a long time: that you can’t write sex well. To have famous, important, influential writers and teachers of writing just flat out say, Sex cannot be written well. You should not write sex is really inhibiting! To think that there is this central, fundamental human experience and literature can’t touch it? That’s just crazy talk. But it’s amazing how often I hear things along those lines.

The question about gay writing is interesting. I mean, I do think there are queer writers who have written sex pretty fearlessly. And, you know, I don’t know if that’s in part because in gay male sexual culture, there is much greater openness and visibility and, you know, a kind of adventurousness and a lack of squeamishness. I do think that’s true of gay male culture. I also wonder if, when John Updike wrote his ridiculous review of Alan Hollinghurst’s The Spell and talked about how gay sex could never be really deeply, humanly interesting because it was not connected to the sacred structures of marriage and child— 

BLVR: He did what now? 

GG: This was in 1999, in his New Yorker review of The Spell, in which he said basically that straight sex—even if it is sort of trivial or promiscuous or whatever—is still always sanctified by the possibility of marriage and child-raising, and that that isn’t true of gay male sex.[1] So maybe those very institutions that convey that kind of sanctity, maybe part and parcel of that sanctity is a kind of inhibition about looking at them very closely. I wonder.

BLVR: That makes some sense to me.

GG: I don’t know if that’s true, but it seems plausible. I do think this book pushes sex as far as I was able to push it. I wrote “Gospodar,” which is one of the most explicit pieces, before What Belongs to You was published, so I was obviously interested in that before any of the conversation around WBTY, but I was surprised and a little frustrated by just how much people talked about the sex in WBTY. There’s just not very much sex in it! It really said something about mainstream American publishing in 2016 that people were like, Oh my god. People would say to me, “You’re so brave to write these things.” I was like, What are you talking about?” And also: “Why aren’t you reading Samuel Delaney, who’s really writing sex in a kind of in-your-face way?” You know, there’s maybe three pages in the book that have explicit sex in them—and it’s not even that explicit! I think people were like, “Oh, he’s using the word cock, like, you know, how brave!”And so I did feel—I started to joke, and then I think it was not entirely a joke—that I was going to earn all that conversation with the next book. I was going to write a book that would justify all of that conversation about sex.

I did feel, especially writing “Gospodar” and “The Little Saint,” that there were kinds of sexual relations that I had never seen in the kind of literature I write, that had never been exposed to or subjected to or processed by the weird technology that is the recursive Jamesian phenomenological sentence that interests me. And I felt that the combination of those two things—a dedication to pornographic explicitness and a commitment to the kind of pressure that a certain kind of aesthetic syntax can place upon experience—might be productive of revelation. So I was excited about that as a kind of experiment and about looking at different kinds of sex that way—looking at S&M that way, but also looking at sex within a romantic relationship that way; I wanted to look at various kinds of erotic intimacy with those tools. And I guess I knew that to write sex well, or as well as I could, I needed to be kind of unflinching; I knew I needed to be committed to explicitness and to not looking away. I knew I had to do what I think is the key to writing anything well, which is to look as long and as patiently as possible and with your full apparatus—your moral apparatus, your aesthetic apparatus. You have to look, and you have to try to see and write as truthfully as you can.

This is again a question of perspective, because on one hand, I think there’s nothing special about sex, and that actually, it’s really, really hard to write about eating a muffin in the morning if you devote yourself to that experience. Then on the other hand, I think, Well, no, sex is a different kind of experience from that. And actually sex is charged in an almost unique way because of what a dense form of communication between human beings it is. In some ways I think sex has a kind of privileged access to revelation. And that seems true, but it also seems to me to just be like, No, actually, writing anything is almost impossible, and sex is no different. So, again, both of those things seem true to me. 

BLVR: I think the narrative is that sex is an experience that defies language, right? And so it can’t be re-created with these pedestrian words that we use. But when you think of it that way, it’s like, well, what is…

GG: Exactly. I’ve heard that argument. But, you know, our language is inadequate to describe sunlight, our language is inadequate to describe the beauty of the dog sleeping next to you. I mean, obviously, we have tools that don’t map exactly onto the world, but they are our tools and we can do a lot with them. On one hand, I understand that there’s a kind of experience of ecstasy or of rapture that feels beyond language. One of the things I studied when I was doing a PhD in English was the idea of apophatic theology and the via negativa,[2] and this question of how we can make this inadequate tool of language somehow less inadequate. That theological tradition was formative for me because one of the ways the mystics did it was through really densely impacted recursive syntax. They were trying to take, to use your word, a kind of pedestrian tool and find ways to pervert it into something less pedestrian. I do think that’s one of the things aesthetic writing does. When aesthetic writing departs from the patterns of spoken language, or of “everyday language,” one of the things it’s trying to do is to make this medium that is often as transparent to us as air into a different kind of technology that can access different kinds of experiences. And, you know, it also seems true to me that sex is never nonverbal. I’ve said this before, but the stupidest thing anyone ever said to me about my writing was that “nobody thinks this much when they’re having sex.” I mean, I’m sure for some people that’s their experience, but it’s not my experience, and my experience is that sex is radically productive of consciousness. And there’s a lot of our consciousness that is not verbal, but also a lot of our consciousness that is. And so sex is always productive of language for me. And it may be especially so because of many of the kinds of erotic experiences I’ve had. Maybe when you’ve spent so much of your adolescence sucking cock at glory holes, I mean, maybe that’s differently productive of consciousness than having sex in the back of a Chevy, or whatever the heterosexual equivalent is. I don’t know. Language is obviously inadequate to describe a lot of things, but also language is the most extraordinary human invention. So it just seems so crazy to me say, Oh, this whole fundamental realm of human life is just not accessible to it. 

BLVR: Do you have specific books or writers you would recommend for good sex writing? 

GG: Merritt Tierce’s book Love Me Back has some really remarkable sex writing. Lidia Yuknavitch is writing sex in exciting, challenging ways, especially in The Small Backs of Children. I recently went back and took a deep dive into D. H. Lawrence—I think Lawrence’s sex writing is tremendous. Lady Chatterley’s Lover is extraordinary, and the sex writing is really, really good. He’s maybe the only straight male writer I know (though it’s a little complicated to call him a straight male writer) who’s really good at writing about anal sex. Also Mary McCarthy in her book The Group. The primary text I use when I teach a sex writing class is three paragraphs from that book, when Dottie loses her virginity: it’s just jaw-droppingly good. I recently re-read Lolita, and I think there’s some incredible sex writing—some very uncomfortable sex writing, but some incredible sex writing—in that book. Alissa Nutting’s Tampa blew my mind. Philip Roth Sabbath’s Theater has extraordinary sex writing that seemed to me to push the boundaries of what mainstream American fiction had been able to accommodate until then. It’s a wonderful book. I love Philip Roth. That’s one of the few books I know that deals with the erotic life of elderly and infirm bodies. And there are wonderful kinky things in that book. There’s this very moving scene where the protagonist’s at the deathbed of his longtime mistress, who is dying of cancer. And they have this incredibly tender moment where they remember some of the things they did together, including a moment when they were having sex—by a stream, in a stream, something—and they pissed on each other. And Roth tells that in a way that is funny and, you know, it’s not like they’re big water sports fans; they’re just experimenting. I think that’s wonderful. And also it’s just full of affect. People sometimes talk about Philip Roth as though he writes, especially about women, in a way that flattens out affect. That’s not my experience of him.

And finally I’d add the late novels of James Baldwin. Giovanni’s Room is one of the totemic novels for me, and I think of it as a very sexy book, but I’m always surprised, when I return to it, by how abstracting and vague the sex writing is. That isn’t true of his late novels. If Beale Street Could Talk has the single best masturbation scene I’ve ever read. And in Baldwin’s Just above My Head, there are stunning, very explicit scenes of sex, including sex between men. Those passages—and this is true of McCarthy too—show how powerful a tool sex writing can be for engaging with big questions of history and historical trauma.

BLVR: I’ve heard you say that you tell your students, “Logistics are sexy.” Is this a tip for sex writing or a writing tip in general?

GG: I love writers who care about logistics. This is one of the great lessons of Zola—who I know is one of your favorites too. The intensity he brings to logistics—to describing how a horse is lowered into a mine, how alcohol is produced, how a huge department store is run—is the opposite of boring. It’s thrilling, and I also find it deeply moving. It’s a kind of declaration of allegiance to the world, to reality—it’s an assertion of the seriousness with which you take the work of imagination. It isn’t a distraction from the business of the novel, from plot or theme; it’s central to what it means to engage with the world through fiction.

When sex writing fails, nine times out of ten I find it’s because a writer isn’t paying enough attention to how bodies move in space. Sex writing is almost never bad for being overexplicit; it’s bad for being under-explicit, for not having fully imagined these bodies and the ways they communicate. But this is true for all writing, not just sex writing. One of the things that disappoints me most when I’m reading is the sense of inadequate pressure being placed on the reality of the world, a sense that there’s a looseness, an incompleteness in the writer’s imagining of a world. Without that pressure, a text can’t generate any of the other kinds of pressure I care about—the pressure of psychological urgency, of emotion, of suspense. Without a fully developed world, it’s very hard for me to care about a story at all. A commitment to logistics—to getting the basic physicality of a situation right—is for me one of the signs of seriousness in art.


BLVR: I want to ask you about a line toward the end of “The Little Saint”—it comes during a moment when the narrator is engaged in violence that surprises him, and also he takes a surprising pleasure in that violence. “It was the pleasure of being a man, I think, I’m not sure I had ever felt it before.” I wonder if you could talk about the idea of masculinity in this book in relation to this line.

GG: Both “The Little Saint” and “Gospodar” are about masculinity, about what it means to be a man. They’re about ways in which the narrator has never felt like a man and has always longed for men who seem to embody a kind of masculinity he has no access to. Both stories are about the narrator’s fantasies of what it would be like to be a man like the man he longs for. So in “Gospodar,” he says that the man who is having sex with him would never be called a faggot, because of the way he embodies this manhood. And then in “The Little Saint,” the narrator is so conscious of performing a role, and at one point he wants to kiss this boy but he doesn’t because he says, Oh, no, that’s not the role I’m supposed to be playing. And then he thinks, If it were really my role to do this, if this were really who I was, I would have kissed him. And then he says something like, At least that’s what I think it is to be like the men I long for, to want something and not to question it. So it’s all about his fantasy of what being a man is. 

But, I mean, that’s what masculinity is. It’s our fantasy of being a man. And I guess I do think cruelty is inherent to that fantasy. In “The Little Saint,” what is kind of devastating to the narrator is that he discovers he can enjoy someone else’s suffering in a way that he didn’t know he could. He discovers that the fact that he has suffered so much for not embodying a certain script of masculinity has not inoculated him against that script of masculinity. So he may have been the victim of it and may have suffered because of it, but it is also part of who he is; he is run through with it. And that’s kind of devastating for him, to find that actually he likes whipping this boy, that he gets sexual pleasure from it. Something that’s really important, I think, to the sex writing in the book is to disarticulate a conventional unit of sex, pleasure, and desire—to insist that they are separate phenomena. The narrator does not desire to whip the boy. But when he whips him, he feels pleasure in it. And that pleasure teaches him something about himself. I’m interested in sex writing that is revelatory in that way.

I think sex is an experience that can teach us a lot about ourselves. I don’t think any of us understand our desires. We delude ourselves that we know what we want or what we’re capable of enjoying. But actually one of the things that’s exciting about sex and maybe especially about the kind of sexual experiences I write about—experiences of promiscuity, of cruising, of sex with strangers—is that our pleasures and our desires can be less determined and so can teach us so much about ourselves. If we accept that we don’t know what we want, then what we discover we want tells us something really important about ourselves. That’s one of the reasons I think sex can be so powerful in fiction. And not just in fiction, but in art. That it is itself so mysterious. And also so productive of revelation. But, yeah, that line. I do believe that. I think there is truth in that, that it’s impossible to take cruelty out of our idea of what it means to be a man. 

BLVR: I wonder if you might have any advice for students who are writing about trauma, or difficult things. 

GG: This is where I feel the greatest tension between the demands of art and the demands of education. Because the number one demand of education is to keep your students safe, and I think often the demand of art is to make yourself unsafe. We’re super suspicious now of the romantic idea of the artist as sufferer and of art as a heroic struggle, but I do think making great art requires going into the abyss, and anytime you go into the abyss, there is no guarantee you’re going to come out. The history of art is strewn with people who went into the abyss and didn’t come out. I will never be able to tell a student to do that. I will never tell a student to go into the abyss, because there’s really no guarantee you get to come back.

Part of my reverence for artists is a sense of intense gratitude to them for having undertaken that journey. That’s what I feel when I think about someone like Frank Bidart, whose poems are great precisely because they are so ruthless with themselves, because he is so ruthless with himself as a poet. He goes into the abyss and brings us back what he finds there. And that’s a great gift to us. This is again a way in which, on one hand, when writers complain about writing being such hard work—and I do it all the time—I think, Well, it’s not coal mining. It’s not tobacco farming. But on the other hand, I think it is immensely difficult. It is something really perilous, and we should be grateful; we should honor the bravery in it. I think to make great art, you have to be willing to go to dangerous places. I’m never going to say that to someone in workshop; my job as an educator above anything else is not to do harm to my students. But I don’t think art is a harmless endeavor.

BLVR: Do you ever have times in your writing life where you struggle to get into what you’re working on? What strategies do you employ to enter the work? Can you say more about how you find your subjects? 

GG: The question of subject matter feels deeply unwilled to me. I don’t cast about looking for things to write about. I write about things that, for whatever reason, come to feel unignorable to me. This presents itself in various ways. Sometimes it’s excitement: I encounter a place or a scenario and it sparks some interest, some possibility that feels pleasurable to me. And sometimes, maybe more often, it’s something closer to dread: some subject or situation comes to feel inescapable, unignorable, so that however I run away from it, I know I’ll finally have to face up to it. I felt this writing a number of the chapters of Cleanness, maybe especially “The Little Saint” and “An Evening Out.”

The key to actually writing, for me, is solitude and routine. I can’t work on the road, and I find that I can’t work when I’m engaged in the outward-facing activity of being a writer “in the world”—touring and promoting. I know that when I publish a book there will be a season when I just can’t be doing the real work of writing. I can write while I’m doing other kinds of work—I wrote What Belongs to You while I was teaching full-time as a high school teacher—but I need to be able to control my time; I need to be able to write at the same time every day. Once I’ve secured that, there’s no mystery: I sit at my desk for a certain number of hours. I put away all my screens—I have to be alone with my notebook, with no access to the internet. I don’t have a minimum page or word count; after I put in my hours, I’ve done my work for the day, even if I haven’t “produced” anything. I try not to get too frustrated if I’ve written only a sentence, or not even that. The anxiety to produce gets in the way of writing for me—and I find that if I just put in the time, the writing gets done. I write to avoid boredom, if nothing else: sitting at a desk for hours doing nothing is unbearable. I write just to escape that. 

[1] In his review of Alan Hollinghurst’s The Spell, from the May 31, 1999, issue of The New Yorker, John Updike writes: “Little momentum builds around The Spell’s intertwining affairs; nothing is at stake but self-gratification. Novels about heterosexual partnering, however frivolous and reducible to increments of selfishness, social accident, foolish overestimations, and inflamed physical detail, do involve the perpetuation of the species and the ancient, sacralized structures of the family.”
[2] According to An Introductory Dictionary of Theology and Religious Studies, edited by Orlando O. Espín and James B. Nickoloff, via negativa, or “the way of negation,” is “the term traditionally used to describe the experience of what God is not.” Via negativa is characterized by the idea that “one’s awareness of divine transcendence, or of God’s unfathomable love, reveals the inadequacy of all human images and vocabulary to talk about God meaningfully.” Apophatic theology is the form of thinking and religious tradition that approaches God using negation.
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