Andrew Sean Greer’s new novel explores the life of one woman in three different eras and finds that the more things change, the more they stay the same.
Updated: June 23, 2013 - 5:52 PM
In Andrew Sean Greer’s new novel, time is fluid. The book opens late in 1985, with Greta Wells mourning both the breakup with her longtime partner, Nathan, and the AIDS death of her twin, Felix.
Therapy and something called radical electroconvulsive treatment are prescribed, with the marvelous, unexpected effect of transporting Greta back in time to her life in 1918 … and her life in 1945 … and back to 1985.
Every few days, like clockwork, she is in a different era. And each time, Nathan is there. So is Felix. So is Felix’s lover, Alan, and so is, mostly, Greta’s Aunt Ruth. The people close to her are always in her life, and while their roles change, their essence does not. Felix is gay. Ruth is unorthodox. Nathan is inscrutable.
Greer is the author of “The Story of a Marriage” and “The Confessions of Matt Tivoli.” He will be at the Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis on Friday. Here, he talks about why he’s so interested in time, living life to the fullest, and, yes, his grandmother’s sex drive.
Q: How much do you think time and circumstance affect how we live our lives?
A: I don’t have a very good answer, which is why I wanted to explore it in a novel. I think that most of us would reflect the time in which we are living; sad to say, most people go along with what is “normal.” But there are people I know, mostly women, who stood against the tide of their historical moment, which either saved their lives or hurt them.
Both of my grandmothers were brilliant women born in impoverished circumstances in the early part of the 20th century in the American South. They were born, I think, at the wrong time, and in the wrong place. All they could do was encourage their children to lead a different life. When I asked my paternal grandmother, before she died, what she would have done differently in her life, for instance, she said, “I would have had a lot more sex.” So there’s my grandmother’s take on things.
Q: This is not the first novel in which you’ve played with the concept of time. What is it about time that interests you?
A: Probably my own terror at growing old, at losing things and people, at having misspent my younger days in anxiety instead of in delight, at missing out on what is surely wonderful right now in my life, if I could only see it. That makes me sound like a shut-in — but in fact thinking about these things, looking at my fears head-on and writing about them, frees me enormously.
I have been traveling because I say yes to any adventure, which has meant living in Berlin and, currently, in Tuscany. I can’t bear the thought that I have left a day unfulfilled. It has also left me far from home for far too long. If only I could live in all places at once! And in all eras of history!
Q: Describe your writing room.
A: I have been traveling for nearly a year and a half, so whatever writing room I used to have has been replaced by the necessity of finding a place to write wherever I am — which is a good thing. I think it’s a mistake to think in any way magically about your process — that you need certain music, or a certain room or (worst of all) that you need to feel “inspired.”
That said, I usually have an office in San Francisco, and the last one I rented was quite large, two levels (!) with two couches for napping, a chandelier, skylights, no windows, no Internet, no cellphone reception. It was the best possible place to work, because there was nothing to do but confront my book. So, naturally, I napped.
Q: Do you have any writing rituals that you maintain?
A: My only ritual is really just to turn off the Internet and have books around that inspire me to write this particular book. That means I don’t particularly keep up on contemporary fiction — for instance, I’m reading Philip Roth at the moment because something about him is working for me. I keep poetry around, currently the Dickman brothers. I play repetitive modern classical music until I can’t stand it any longer. I go for a run. And then, usually about an hour before my day is supposed to be up, I write three pages. Every day. Weekends excluded when I’m home, but when I’m at a writers’ retreat (such as now, where I am in Florence), I write four pages every day including weekends.
Q: Do you have a favorite book from childhood?
A: Anything with a map at the front of it. That’s why I made two maps for this new book, “The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells.” I wanted a reader to open the book and have that old childhood sense of: “There’s a whole world in here!”
Q: What books do you reread?
A: I mostly reread these days, because I know that what I’m looking for in my own book is found somewhere in another one on my library shelf — and I have a sense which one it is in. “American Pastoral” was the latest, and helped a great deal. I taught a Proust class last semester, reading the first volume, and that has got me going ahead and re-reading the entire thing. I long ago abandoned trying to keep up with what was hot in fiction.
Q: Where are you right now? Describe what you see.
A: I am at a writers’ retreat called Santa Maddalena, in Donnini, a town an hour east of Florence, in the living room (the only place with wireless Internet). The owner, Beatrice Monti, used to be an art dealer in Milan, and so the room is filled with priceless art; one piece is currently missing because it is “on loan to the Louvre.” In its place is a gold tapestry of a tree.
Around the white walls is a white stucco bench, covered in white cushions and Afghan embroidery, and on an inlaid chest there is a lamp made out of tiny pieces of mother-of-pearl.
On the coffee table are loads of books and magazines and some kind of large red ceramic pot. A large barred window is open to the garden; it is pouring down rain. And there is a pug named Carolotta asleep beside me.
Q: What’s on your desk?
A: “The Plot Against America” by Philip Roth, “Mayakovsky’s Revolver” by Matthew Dickman, “Call It Sleep” by Henry Roth, “& Sons” by David Gilbert (a galley of a great book coming out soon), my 11-inch MacBook Air, iPhone, an old-fashioned brass desk lamp, a pot of coffee (gone cold), two cups made out of horn, a lacquered ink set and three locked drawers that I am dying to know what is inside of.
Q: What’s been the best place so far to do a reading?
A: The Massenzio Festival in Rome, where I did a summer nighttime reading before a crowd of thousands in the Roman Forum, with the ruins all lit up, and a Philip Glass piece playing during the intervals in my story, and a giant screen showing the Italian translation behind me. I understood, as it was happening, that this was a very special moment and I should enjoy every second of it.
Laurie Hertzel • 612-673-7302
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