We got off to a fabulous start when host Benjamin Law noted Andrew Sean Greer’s striking leather pants and asked, “Who are you wearing tonight?” Andrew obliged – the pants were bespoke, made for him in Paris, and his striped blazer was purchased in Milan on a post-Pulitzer spending spree. For those who had not read Andrew’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel, Less, this exchange may have seemed farcical, however, those familiar with the character of Arthur Less immediately knew they were in for an entertaining evening (bespoke clothing occupies Arthur’s time in Paris).
Andrew went on to talk about the importance of books in his childhood. His parents were both scientists and in choosing between an English major and a chemistry major at college, his mother selected chemistry on the basis that “…it was easy, but English, you had to have a special talent.” Both parents loved reading and Andrew’s Maryland-middle-class childhood was filled with Enid Blyton and the Five Little Peppers. He enjoyed writing his own stories, in particular recalling an imitation of Watership Down (with squirrels, and “…illustrated by the author”).
Not limiting himself to books and illustrations, Andrew also wrote musicals. He mentioned one about computers but despite Benjamin’s coaxing and Andrew’s hands poised over an imaginary piano keyboard, he refused to sing. The moment provided the perfect segue for Andrew to read from Less (the hilarious scene where Arthur cries at a Broadway show).
Andrew said that his writing process typically involves a nervous breakdown about two-thirds of the way through whatever manuscript he’s working on. At that stage he says, “It’s [the book] no where near what you thought it was going to be. You’re on a course with a new book and you have to let it take you…but I have to go through a long Greek grieving process for the old book.” The ‘process’ involves Andrew lying on the couch for a week or so.
So what was Less before it turned into the book it is? Andrew said that he set out to write a serious version of Collette’s Chéri. The problem he had (about two-thirds of the way through) was that he couldn’t feel sorry for Arthur Less and thought, “I’ll just have to ridicule him instead… I left him with very little dignity intact, so that I could reward him.” Although he wanted to write a happy novel, it kept veering toward tragedy – “But it’s not what I see in many places. It is possible for two men to give love a go… To be joyous and funny in the face of everything.”
Benjamin asked Andrew how he came up with Arthur’s mad itinerary. Andrew laughingly said that it was simply where he got work – from writing pieces for inflight magazines to working for a baronessa in Italy, Arthur’s travels around the world reflected Andrew’s odd assortment of assignments. He found out he’d won the Pulitzer while in Italy – “I had just finished putting an incontinent pug in diapers at a writers retreat – it was the baronessa’s pug but Margaret Atwood was coming so we had to class-up the place…”
Hard to top the bit about the incontinent pug but there were some great questions from the audience. Andrew was asked who he had in mind when he wrote the character of Robert Brownburn (poet Frank O’Hara) and what he saw for the future of queer literature – “I would see it as becoming strangely diffuse…literature will reflect fluidity about gender and sexuality.” And lastly, asked who would play Arthur Less in a movie version of the book, he promptly answered, “Daniel Craig. I’m sure he could do it!”
If you haven’t read Less, you should – it’s a delight. You can also read something he wrote for Vogue here. And for the record, my friend and I voted the evening as one of the best author talks we’ve ever attended – Andrew was charming, generous and funny. Just like his book.