Exploring the art of prose


Hybrid Interview: Garth Greenwell

In our hybrid interview series, we pair an author Q&A with a critical essay about one or more of their books.  —CRAFT


By Nicole Barney •

Garth Greenwell’s second novel, Cleanness, revisits the territory of his debut, fleshing out the experiences of the narrator beyond those of his encounters with Mitko, a young man he meets in a public bathroom and pays for sex in What Belongs to You. Cleanness fills in the gaps of this unnamed American teacher’s time working at a high school in Sofia, Bulgaria, a setting whose impending political revolution parallels the narrator’s own fomenting interior life. In meditative prose, Greenwell’s narrator contemplates the role and shape of desire in his life, particularly in light of his relationship with R., a marked and monogamous diversion from his typical temporary and transactional sexual partnerships.

The novel takes the form of nonchronological linked stories, arranged in three acts, a structure which not only presents the reader with the powerful formative influence of R. in the narrator’s life, but also allows Greenwell to carefully juxtapose events in what he calls “mirrored pairings,” which subtly enrich our understanding of the narrator’s arc. In one such pairing, “Gospodar,” first published in The Paris Review and appearing second in the collection, and “Little Saint,” the second to last, the narrator experiences both sides of a BDSM encounter: in the former, the narrator is the submissive partner, while in the latter he is the dominant. Both stories elicit visceral reactions from the reader; Greenwell’s descriptions expose both the physical acts of the encounters and the internal state of the narrator with the unflinching eye for which his writing is known, challenging our ideas of what constitutes and shapes intimacy and the ways in which we are intimate. But the vastly different outcomes of the two encounters, taken in tandem, deepen their significance.

Greenwell employs his trademark lyrical prose to create a narrator who acknowledges his own unreliability, continuously doubling back on his analysis, calling into question the accuracy of his memory and interpretation of events. The willingness to consider all possibilities creates an atmosphere of acute self-awareness, reflection, and at times, penitence. In the tradition of Olive Kitteridge, the protagonist’s likeability isn’t taken for granted, and at moments he behaves in ways that are both despicable and endearing. But the prose takes confidence from the narrator’s uncertainty, safe in the knowledge that every possible motivation has been probed and what is left is an honest accounting of the narrator’s desires and their implications. His ambivalence renders him almost crystalline in his humanness, a quality he struggles to find in himself throughout the novel. Greenwell takes pleasure in creating muddled boundaries between love, worship, and aggression, guiding us toward the conclusion that life is messy, but that there’s both joy and pain to be had in the mess.

Every choice in the novel is conscious, from the precise execution on the sentence level, to the broader matters of setting and character development. It’s unsurprising that Greenwell situates the reader in an unfamiliar setting, a country and culture of which most U.S. readers have minimal knowledge, placing the reader on the same unsteady ground as the narrator. Sofia is painted in an almost urban pastoral depiction, with the narrator finding great beauty amidst the spare, Soviet architecture and heritage that impacts the characters’ and the readers’ psychologies alike. We have a sense of navigating the foreign city streets along with our nameless guide, joining him on untrodden paths within his and our own souls, leading to an unshrinking examination of our most private desires. The narrator’s very namelessness seems to be a conscious contribution to the reader’s experience. As Sam Sacks says in his essay, “The Rise of the Nameless Narrator” (The New Yorker), “These narrators appear to be doubles of their authors but are not specifically identified as such, and the anonymity keeps the books in a state of quantum superposition between memoir and fiction. As long as the question is left open, both avenues of interpretation remain passable.”

Cleanness is, at its heart, an invitation to consider dichotomies and absolutes. The narrator’s style of self-questioning invites us to consider how ideas that may seem antithetical on the surface are gradations of the same, a spectrum with no true opposites but only shades. Utilizing symbolism of foreign and familiar, filthy and clean, sacred and profane, Greenwell helps us conceptualize such duality, while simultaneously allowing his narrator to discover his true self and become comfortable in that existence. The narrator works, if not toward redemption, then toward an absolution of shame, an acceptance of self and his place within the world, a journey which all of us, though perhaps without such razor-sharp analysis, must at some point undertake.

I had the privilege of a phone conversation with Garth Greenwell on November 12, 2019, and share his thoughts on craft, sex, and other compelling topics in the interview below.


Nicole Barney: Every choice in your novel seems careful and conscious, so I’m wondering about your decision not to name your narrator, and to identify your characters only by initials, with the exception of Mitko.

Garth Greenwell: It’s easier to answer the bit about the narrator. I think in large part that comes from the fact that my first training as a writer was as a poet, and there’s a way in which lyric poems occupy a first-person that can be at once autobiographical and completely impersonal and it can be something that is deeply embedded in the reality of the writer’s life, or at the same time a kind of universal placeholder that the reader can imagine herself occupying. The nameless first-person and a sense that there was no need to be beholden to either pure invention or autobiography is something that I absorbed from poems and that felt very natural to me. When I wrote What Belongs to You, I had never written fiction before, I had never studied fiction, I had never taken a fiction workshop, which I feel really grateful for because I had the wonderful freedom of just not knowing any of the supposed rules, and it also meant that I wrote that book with the toolkit I had, which was the toolkit of lyric poetry.

In What Belongs to You there was a narrative situation that suggested namelessness, which is that we’re told that the narrator’s name is unpronounceable in Mitko’s language. There’s a ritualistic feeling about the opening of that book—the narrator descends into a subterranean space and the first thing that happens to him is that he’s stripped of his name, and that felt right for that book. And so, for the second book, it didn’t really feel like a choice. I knew it was going to be the same character and the same sort of figure and voice. It felt right that in What Belongs to You, which is so much a two-person drama, Mitko would be the only named character, and also that his name would be almost not a name; it’s generic, it’s the most common Bulgarian name, and it’s also a diminutive, so it’s not even his full name, so it’s barely a name, and that felt right, too.

I have a much harder time coming up with a reason for why the characters in Cleanness only have initials. There is a way in which the convention of generating names for fictional characters, and this is not at all a stand or a point I want to make, but that convention, there’s something about it that I resist. There’s a way in which it’s a kind of a declaration of allegiance to invention that there’s some block in me that won’t let me do it. It’s weird to me because my books are full of invention; they’re also full of the found material of real life, but there’s a way in which I like the ambiguity of a world in which it’s never clear what’s invented and what’s not invented, and I feel like maybe invented names, and certainly names that are more invented than something like Mitko or Mike, that this would feel like a step too far into unvarnished invention. So much of this book is people telling stories that feel shameful to them, or people acting on impulses that feel shameful to them, and there’s a way in which not naming them feels like, even though this is sort of a silly thing to say about fictional characters, it’s a way of honoring the intense privacy that makes possible the kinds of voices that appear in the book.


NB: Much of the tension in Cleanness derives from how you utilize opposites and contrasts, with references to what is clean and what is dirty, characters that serve as foils for one another, and perhaps most compelling, the narrator’s own ambivalence toward himself. Can you speak to your interest in dichotomy?

GG: I don’t know how conscious it is…sometimes it’s conscious like in that mirrored pairing [“Gospodar” and “Little Saint”]. I wrote “Gospodar” first, and the minute I finished the scene in which the narrator is the submissive partner in an S&M encounter, I knew that I had to write a story in which he would be the dominant partner. It would be years before I was able to write that, but I knew that I had to do it. I was conscious of the need for that, if the book was going to work. In lots of ways though, I think that it’s just a consequence of the way I think and the kind of thinking that I find compelling in art. To me, art is the arena in which we can entertain ambiguity, uncertainty, and doubt, and it seems to me that in our public arena we’ve become incredibly intolerant of ambiguity, uncertainty, and doubt, and yet to me those are the qualities most characteristic of the kind of thinking that seems to be fully human or fully humane.

And so, there is a way in which the syntax I’m attracted to—the shape of a sentence, the way in which I’m attracted to sentences that fall back and correct themselves—that’s the most characteristic movement forward for me in thinking and in writing, something like, “and yet,” and that sort of self-correcting term that wants to see multiple possibilities, that wants to acknowledge complexity. That to me isn’t just what feels interesting in thinking, but is the only kind of thinking that seems to me even potentially adequate to the world. I’m interested in dichotomies that at first seem to point to some easy delineation in reality, and yet actually, when you look at them and poke at them hard enough, and allow reality to exert itself strongly enough against them, they fall apart. That, to me, is what happens in the book and also in life in the dichotomy of cleanness and filth. One of the things I wanted to explore was how dangerous the idea of cleanness is, and how necessary filth is.


NB: As the narrator deals with his own ambivalence toward himself—his struggle between his public self and private self, how his desire takes shape, acts that make him despicable versus loveable—do you feel that such self-awareness is a strength for him or is it an Achilles heel in its potential to incapacitate him?

GG: Yes, I would say, to both of those things. I do think there’s a way in which hyper self-awareness can become an endless cycle of critique that then is paralysis. This is something that I wrestle with a lot in my own life. I don’t want to pretend that things are simpler than they are, and yet I also want to be able to act. I do think that’s one of the things I try to think about again and again in literature, and something I feel grateful to when I find books that think about it in ways that feel helpful to me. A recent book I’ve read with immense admiration is Johannes Lichtman’s book Such Good Work, I can’t recommend it highly enough. One of the things that book dramatizes really beautifully is someone who is desperate to act well in the world and someone who is intelligent enough to see all the ways in which any way he might act is problematic, who then sort of sacrifices his attachment to his own sense of purity in order to act anyway, to do the best he can to try to alleviate the suffering he sees. That’s another sense of what cleanness means to me, and the reason why I think it’s so dangerous is because I do think our most dangerous impulse—and I guess I feel this most, I think this is true across the political spectrum in the United States right now, but I feel it most acutely when it comes to the left—that we have become so attached, so desperate for a sense of our own moral cleanness, our own righteousness, that we have become paralyzed because we see that being a human being in the world is inherently problematic, and we have become intolerant of the necessarily problematic basis of existence, and that means that we are becoming less able to assert beliefs about the world that unify us, and also to act in effective ways to alleviate the suffering we see. When I see democrats in a circular firing squad taking aim at candidates for their failures, any of whom would alleviate suffering in the world despite their lack of purity, that does kind of make me despair. That is to say that yes, I think self-awareness is the strength of the narrator, in the sense of strength as the source of any moral insight he might have, and I also think it makes him feel like an observer and not a participant. That part of the struggle in the book is to find a way to be in the world that is bearable and not paralyzed.


NB: There’s a quote from Rabih Alameddine’s An Unnecessary Woman that I love, and that I think applies to your book: “Sex, like art, can unsettle a soul, can grind a heart in a mortar. Sex, like literature, can sneak the other within one’s walls, even if for only a moment, a moment before one immures oneself again.” What is sex to your narrator? Is sex a tool of empathy, a way of inhabiting another’s being, or having another inhabit him?

GG: I do think that sex is a really profound and intense form of communication. I don’t think sex is necessarily empathy. There is a kind of sex in which pleasure given, or pleasure taken, and also very often pleasure received, inheres in treating someone or being treated like an object, and it’s difficult for me to square that with what my sense of empathy is. But I do think the Rabih Alameddine quote is really wonderful when it talks about the stranger, and the kind of sex that I write about and the kind of sex that has been central to most of my life does often involve strangers. I think sex is as good a way and probably a much better way than almost any other way of encountering a stranger. I think that the intensity of sex, and the intimacy of sex, makes possible an encounter between two human beings that is radical in its potential for something that we might call empathy, for a recognition of humanity in the other. In this book, one of the things I was interested in is this idea of sex with strangers, and what that can mean, and what that can make possible, and I wanted to look at the ways in which that can go very wrong, and the ways in which that can go very right. What interests me about sex is that it does seem to me this field of radical possibility, where things can go wrong, but also things can go right. To me one of the most important mirrored pairings in the book [is] the second chapter, “Gospodar,” [which] explores what happens when that encounter goes wrong, and the second to last chapter, “Little Saint,” [which] explores what happens, in my feeling, when that encounter goes very right. I wanted to explore the idea of promiscuity as an ethic of encountering the stranger, and promiscuity as an ethic of radical hospitality.


NB: One of your minor characters in “Harbor” mentions that in his writers’ workshop they discussed “the G-spot of the story, how it is like with a woman, it is difficult to make the story come.” The narrator challenges him, saying “why should the story be a woman? Couldn’t it be a man, would it change anything?” but then they are distracted by another member of their party and the conversation goes unfinished. So, how does a story change depending on whether we conceptualize it as feminine or masculine?

GG: Obviously I’m taking aim at a real way of thinking about stories in the world that I think used to be much more prevalent in America than it is now. It’s one that I find pretty objectionable in its presumption of heterosexuality and more objectionable in its glorified sense of masterful masculinity that can deliver pleasure to a prone female body. That’s just a model of sexuality that I find gross and that I don’t want to be my model for art-making, and yet the idea of sex as a model for art-making and the kind of pleasure and delay—I’m interested in the way that the shapes we make in art can mirror or resemble or question or complicate the shapes we make in pleasure. One of the things that interests me about queerness in art is I do think that novel affective and sexual arrangements demand novel forms. This is something I was thinking about recently as I was reading T. Fleischmann’s most recent book of nonfiction, Time Is the Thing a Body Moves Through, a book that has not just promiscuity, but a life with multiple profound affective centers in it at the core. The fact that it is at the core demands an innovative narrative shape, like the idea that I hear in fiction workshops espoused as an ideal of good narrative-making is that you have a story that has a dominant plot and subplots, and you have a story that has a through line, you have a story that has a center. All of those things are fundamentally monogamous, they’re fundamentally predicated on the idea of life as monogamous, as life being drawn to a single affective center. Well, what if life doesn’t look like that? Then it seems to me that your story could have a very different shape.

And yes, I guess I am interested in the idea, it’s a very old idea, that fundamental idea we have of ideal structures in art as gendered, and that they are connected to sex. That’s an idea I encountered first as a music student in the 1990s reading feminist musicology, that many of our ideas of musical structure basically seem to resemble male orgasm. Feminist musicologists and feminist music theorists [were] sort of asking, what would music look like if instead of taking the experience of the male orgasm as our primary experience of transcendence, we took the experience of female orgasm? What would that look like? How would that change what art might be? That seems to me a really profound question and one that it’s not the kind of question you answer, but that you might explore in art. To me, it’s a question that unsettles my sense of what art can do. The way that I feel like I grow as an artist is by seeking out questions that unsettle my sense of what art can do.


NB: If story structure is sexual, the writer’s job becomes in part to parse out what the reader wants. Can you speak to the rhythm of story, the giving and not giving that builds anticipation so that when the story reaches its moment of emotional release it rings true?

GG: I feel like that process is so intuitive and that making art is so much about giving rein to one’s urges and giving rein to one’s own sense of pleasure, but pleasure as a term—I want to really complicate the idea of pleasure in my writing and I want to complicate the idea of what we might seek out, the kinds of experiences we might seek out and find are the experiences that we crave. With “Little Saint,” that sexual encounter does structure the narrative, but also I knew that the sexual climax could not be the climax of the story. My impulse is always toward greater complexity or ambiguity. I do want pleasure, including sexual pleasure, to be part of the response my writing can elicit from a reader, but I always want to trouble whatever response the reader has. To me, that troubling is a big part of the pleasure. I love when art turns me on—that seems like an entirely legitimate thing for art to do and a very powerful response for art to have, but then I also want art to make me question that experience, make me meditate on that experience, make that experience infinitely rich and complex for me so that to me it is a hallmark.

This gets back to an earlier question you had about opposites; I think great art is always made out of contrary impulses and that the response to great art, in whatever form a work of art takes is the working out, or the further entangling of those contrary impulses. The response that great art elicits is always therefore itself, too, a conflicted response. I am very suspicious of any work of art that makes me feel only one thing. I don’t ever want to make categorical statements about art and say something is necessary for something to be art, but to me it seems almost a part of the definition of art that it wants me to feel more than one thing. If I only feel one thing, I think it’s propaganda. If the art is true to the competing or contrasting impulses that animate it, then I think the reader also will respond with competing impulses.


NB: In “Mentor,” the narrator’s student G. says, “I had never read anything before, I mean a story or a poem, that seemed like it was about me, that I could have written it.” How crucial is the importance of representation in literature?

GG: Again, I have complex feelings. On one hand, I think it’s absolutely necessary that we have ever more diversity both in the characters appearing in literature and the voices that we value in the literary community. I don’t have complicated feelings about that. But I do have complicated feelings, even though I understand and share them, about the way that representation works in literature and the way that identification works in literature. I worry about falling into too easily and too essentialist an identity, which depends upon an idea that for a reader to identify with a character, that character has to share some central attribute of their existence. That’s just false to my experience of art. What astonishes me about art is that Emily Dickinson can move me as deeply as Chimamanda Adichie can move me as deeply Proust, as Virginia Woolf. That in fact, I can feel represented by experiences that are far removed from my immediate reality. That said, it is true that growing up in pre-internet Kentucky, the only stories I had access to about queer people were stories not told by queer people, but stories imposed on queer people. Those stories were for gay men, that there were two possibilities available to us, that we could molest children and we could die of AIDS. That was a deadly situation in which those were the only narratives available to me about the shape my life might take. The book that changed that for me was Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin, though I like to think about that too, in complex ways because I think it is a deeply homophobic book. I think it is a book in which queerness is a curse, and I think one of the moving things about the arc of Baldwin’s career is you see him working in his books to try to climb out of a pit of homophobia. But in Giovanni’s Room, homosexuality is only ever a closed door. It is not just the narrator David; I think the book itself feels like a meaningful, sustainable love between two men is impossible. And yet, when I read that book at fourteen, that book in which homosexuality is only ever a closed door, to me it opened every door. Even though the book was tragic and certainly did not suggest that I could have any kind of happy or even bearable life, it gave me a sense of my life as accommodating of dignity, and that felt really lifesaving to me.

I like to think about that whenever somebody suggests that a queer artist might have a responsibility to tell a certain kind of story or a story with a certain kind of ending or a story that affirms in some immediately or easily legible way certain ideas we have about the world. I think that is always an illegitimate claim to make about literature or about art, and I also think that it is wrong about the way in which art acts on us, the way in which art can help us to live. I think the relevance of art to our lives is always endlessly mysterious, and never corresponds to a one-to-one relation of “I need a story to suggest to me that my life can be bearable and I can have the life I want to have.” I don’t think that’s how art works, and I think it’s really important to remember that. Any time we feel, as I think as a culture we are expressing this very much, very often, that we can place those kinds of claims on art—we cannot. It is illegitimate, I think, to ever tell an artist they have a responsibility to represent reality in a certain way.


GARTH GREENWELL’s celebrated first novel, What Belongs to You, won the British Book Award for Debut of the Year, was longlisted for the National Book Award, and was a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. His fiction appears in The New Yorker, The Paris Review, A Public Space, and VICE. A graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, he lives in Iowa City. 

NICOLE BARNEY is a recent graduate of the MFA program at Pacific University. Her writing appears in the Bear River Review and other places. She lives in Michigan with her family, and is currently working on a novel.