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Kaliel RobertsAndrew Sean Greer, an erstwhile Politics & Prose staffer who grew up in Rockville, won the 2018 Pulitzer Prize in Fiction for his sixth book, Less. Hitting every low note of one Arthur Less, a failed novelist staring down his 50th birthday while despairing over the impending nuptials of his longtime lover, a younger man, this is a comic novel. It’s an around-the-world travelogue, too, populated with juicy characters. It’s a work of deep compassion that had me shouting with laughter and reading for wisdom. Less lodged in my heart.
City Paper recently e-mailed with Greer, now based in San Francisco, about his memories of D.C., the way into writing about sadness, and a certain classic swear word.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
Washington City Paper: You once worked at Politics & Prose in the summers of 1989 and 1990. What did you do—or not do—to earn the joking sobriquet of “P&P’s worst former employee”?
Andrew Sean Greer: It was my first summer job during college. And I don’t quite remember what made me such a terrible employee. Perhaps I misshelved things. Gabriel Garcia Marquez went alternately in “G” and “M,” depending on the day. That kinda thing. And I talked way too much.
I had been friends with Eve Cohen since I was 12, and had often been to her mother’s store—Carla Cohen and Barbara Meade started Politics & Prose. The bookstore was a world of strong opinion, enthusiasm, argument, politics, and family. Working there seemed natural to me—and a kindness from Carla and Barbara.
I began the summer [that] the bookstore crossed Connecticut Avenue, and I remember that the customers were the ones who moved the store, box by box, across the road. That sense of community around books was something I have loved ever since. In fact, my favorite bookstore in San Francisco, Booksmith, was started by a couple who met with Carla and Barbara many times to learn how to build that kind of community, which they have.
WCP: You grew up in Rockville and went to Georgetown Day School. What are a few of your old local haunts?
ASG: I wish I could say I was the wild kid who hitchhiked into Georgetown and went to the punk clubs, but nobody is surprised that I wasn’t. My friends mostly biked to Dream Wizards to geek out over lead figurines for Dungeons & Dragons. A big city night for me was to stay at my friend Aaron’s house in Georgetown, eat take-out sushi, and read X-Men comics all night. This is a high school memory. We would also wander at night into Georgetown and sit in Bread & Chocolate and feel very very glamorous.
WCP: When you look at the D.C. area now, what do you see?
ASG: So D.C. to me now feels much more cosmopolitan and hipster and preppy. The ’80s felt scary to me, though I had no idea what punk really was, because D.C. had a true music scene and culture. To me now, it feels lovely but perhaps missing that old grit that terrified me as a teenager. Even the bars I snuck into when I was a gay teenager feel tame to me now—they were a fear factory back then.
WCP: In 2013, you told Tin House: “I’m just still searching for the right novel, the right protagonist, the right style to make something that engages a general reader in the inner lives of gay people.” With your latest novel, how did you balance the political imperative that some would feel (as when you have Finley Dwyer say that Arthur Less is “a bad gay.” Finley says, “You have to do better. For us. Inspire us, Arthur. Aim higher”) with the novelist’s imperative to tell a richly imagined story (that explores aging, heartbreak and devastation in the style of a joyful comedy)?
ASG: I think I had been trying for—well, decades—to talk about the saddest, most difficult things I know, and I only considered serious, tragic, difficult fiction. And then, suddenly, I realized the way into sadness is comedy. The lightness brings people into the heavier things, and even complex politics feel less strident, and therefore more persuasive. The author is not here to berate you; he is here to engage you. I’m very very very bad at a difficult argument—I get ugly-angry. Humor abates that. And God, it was fun to write.
WCP: Despite his “not so bad” life as a soon-to-be-50 globetrotting novelist, Arthur Less is compassionately sketched as feeling failed and playing the fool—someone readers can relate to and root for.
ASG: Let’s be honest: It is hard, in these times, to feel great sorrow for the middle-aged white male who clearly did not grow up in poverty and experienced an enriching life. The best way to feel empathy for someone of such privilege is, I think, to poke fun at him. Deflate him. And once you do that, the reader becomes attached to him.
WCP: Nell Zink, the novelist, said the ending of Less “will make you sob little tears of joy,” but of course the way you describe life and the human condition is just beautiful (“the bright garlands of notes”), perfect (“the cruel checkmate logic of conversation”), and wise (“the face-plants of life”), as well as funny (“Shut the fuck up! Enjoy the fucking sunset on your fucking camels! Jesus!”). Even your tossed-off lines (“He reaches for, but does not catch, a falling star”) are what life is for. To get to the heart of the mystery: How do you know what unexpected word to try next?
ASG: Why, I think you liked the book! Wonderful to see you pick these out. Honestly? I was entertaining myself. I thought nobody would ever want to read this. I was having a great time with every sentence—making them scan, going to the thesaurus for a funnier word (“spoony”), creating long strands of run-ons that would be impossible to follow. In earlier books, my language can become sometimes over-decorated. But here: That’s the joke. It’s kidding. And when you’re kidding, you can get away with almost anything. And can you really write “fuck” in the City Paper these days? Wow, D.C. has really changed! (Editor’s note: Yes, we fucking can!)
Andrew Sean Greer appears in conversation with Ron Charles this evening at at Politics & Prose. 5015 Connecticut Ave. NW. 7 p.m. Free.