Andrew Sean Greer is an American novelist and short-story writer. The New York Times called his 2008 novel The Story of a Marriage “lyrical” and “inspired.” His first novel, 2001’s The Path of Minor Planets, was well received, and his second, 2004’s The Confessions of Max Tivoli, earned him comparisons to Proust and Nabokov from critic John Updike. His stories have appeared in Esquire, The Paris Review, The New Yorker, and other national publications. Born in Washington, D.C., Greer received his bachelor’s degree from Brown University and his master’s degree from the University of Montana. He currently resides in San Francisco. Greer was so well received as an undergrad that his classmates elected him the commencement speaker, for his own graduation.
Question: Is the theme of “passing” distinctly American?
Andrew Sean Greer: It’s a little tough. I must have talked about that before because definitely in Max Tivoli there’s a lot of passing. He is a different age than he appears to be because he’s aging backwards, so he’s always pretending to be something else and his friend Huey is passing and there’s the Madame who’s trying to change herself. And then Story of a Marriage there is a way in which the book is passing for a while. The main character doesn’t reveal things about herself and a lot of the characters. I think certainly for Max Tivoli it was very much on my mind for that time period, the turn of the century, 19th to 20th, it seemed like the moment when immigrants could transform out of their own stereotype into an Americaness and America was ready to believe them when a lot of groups weren’t able to do that, but I think there’s something kind of sad about that too, to leave all that behind. So I was really experimenting with what was complicated about it because Max gets to do a lot of things and have his heart’s desire, but he pays a great price and so does everyone around him.
Andrew Sean Greer: That he’s passing in some way or that America is letting him pass?
Qusetion:: Does Obama try to pass for something else?
Andrew Sean Greer: It’s hard to know. It’s a very curious thing. I don’t think any of us ever thought there would be a black presidential nominee as of yesterday, when we’re taping this, but he is not hiding his race in any way. I think something is happening where a lot of people are accepting him on the terms he’s talking about and he’s not pretending anything as far as I can tell. I mean, he’s a politician, so he’s pretending everything in a way, but the line he’s drawing is one I’m prepared to stand behind and a lot of politicians I just feel like none of it’s real. I don’t think it would work, you know, I don’t think people would buy it if he tried to pretend that race didn’t matter because that’s what he was faced with. He had to give that speech and he could’ve say why are we talking about race? Instead he said we need to talk about race and that’s what shocked me and really got me behind him.
Question: What inspired your new book?
Andrew Sean Greer: Well, it was a story that my grandmother told me about ten years ago about herself in which a friend of her husband’s, of my grandfather’s, took her for a drive around rural Kentucky, must have been the early ‘50s, and he stopped the car and he turned to her and he said, “Leona, I was your husband’s lover in the war and I’m his lover now and I want to leave with him and I want you to help me.” And she could not tell me the rest of the story because I think the idea was so crazy and absurd that she just said, “Let me out of this car. I never want to see you again.” It was all over. She never talked to my grandfather about it and she regretted all her life that she couldn’t have left, but she said, “I had two sons. I had never had a job. I was a poor woman. I don’t understand what I was supposed to do.” All the restrictions were on her and oddly, that’s the part of the story I really liked was to identify with the woman and see how trapped she was. Obviously her husband, my grandfather, was trapped, if it’s a true story, which I don’t know. My grandmother told a lot of crazy things, but it doesn’t matter to me as a novelist. Okay. He’s trapped for sure, we know that, but what made her so trapped and what made her life harder than his in a lot of ways and that was the story I wanted to tell.