Andrew Sean Greer: Becoming a Writer
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: Why did you write your first book?
Andrew Sean Greer: It was my first short story collection, so I did it over a number of years starting some time in graduate school when I was 23 and started publishing things up through my 20s and so I had been working on a novel and I couldn’t crack the novel form at all and I just kept doing short stories in the background and finally, I realized I had 11 of them that I was proud of and that could be a collection. I hadn’t meant to do the pattern of publishing short stories and then a novel. I thought I’m a novelist, I know it. But you have to kind of write a lot of bad novels before you can write a good one, I think, so I did that. But meanwhile, I loved the short stories I did.
Question: You’ve written plays?
Andrew Sean Greer: Oh, yeah, I did. They had a contest where they would, for some reason someone in the past loved musical theater and so if you wrote a musical they would fully fund it and put it on the main stage with full costumes and a set and everything and my roommate said we should totally do that. That would be awesome. She’s the same one who talked me into competing to be commencement speaker, which we did together. She always had ideas. She thought no one else is going to try for this stuff. So actually, one of them we wrote the night before and submitted it and we won, so two years in a row we won that prize.
Question: Do you have plans for a screenplay?
Andrew Sean Greer: I think screenplay is hard. I’ve tried that and it felt really difficult, like all the stuff I think I’m good at like description and internal experience and memory, you can’t do that or at least I couldn’t figure out a way. It was action and present time and it was so literal I felt really sort of bound as a storyteller. I think it’s a good thing for me to learn how to do. I think I learned from it about visual storytelling, but plays you can do that a lot more because
the audience imagines half of it, the way they do in literature.
Question: What work have you done for magazines?
Andrew Sean Greer: It was a variety of stuff. Esquire was a fiction piece. It was crazy. That was the first thing I ever published and I sent it in, I was sending in dozens of stories all over the place, against the rule you’re supposed to double submit. I just thought I’ll send them everywhere. I had 200 rejection letters and then I got a call from Esquire. For some reason everyone at Esquire had quit the fiction department over some scandal and the assistant was left in charge and he published my story. You know, it was luck. It was cold out of pile, you know, a slush pile.
After musicals, magazines, and short stories Greer has found his true voice as a novelist.
Is it acceptable to write a story from the perspective of someone who is completely unlike you?
- Man Booker Prize-winning writer Yann Martel, a Canadian man, has written from the perspectives of a man with AIDS, a body-switching woman, an Indian boy, and 20th-century Portuguese widowers.
- Is it acceptable to write from the perspective of someone who is completely unlike you? Martel believes these transgressions put empathetic imagination into practice, allowing your mind to go where your body cannot.
- In Martel's case, it's the recipe for great art—books that have been loved and read by millions. "[W]e are who we are in relation to others," says Martel. "But the key thing is the empathetic imagination, and the empathetic imagination is the great traveler. And travelers necessarily cross borders. And not only do they have to but it's a thrill to do so. It's a thrill encountering the other."
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- Similar anxieties are raising similar border defenses elsewhere.
- This map shows how, as a result, "the West" is in fact one large gated community.
The inventor Nikola Tesla's esoteric beliefs included unusual theories about the Egyptian pyramids.