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Andrew Sean Greer: the power of humorous writing

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Less, the novel that earned Andrew Sean Greer the 2018 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, often makes for hilarious reading. Its story of a white, gay, middle-aged American writer, in crisis in both his love life and his work, risks coming across as autobiographical – which the author admits is partly true. But Greer chooses to venture beyond the personal memoir. He pinpoints the writer’s idiosyncrasies, his biggest fears – that are in many ways common to us all – and pops each one like a balloon to bring it down to earth. 

Less offers Greer’s recipe for life: chipping away at preconceptions, alleviating dark worries, moving beyond the appearances and inner barriers that, if left unchallenged, threaten to overwhelm us. Like his character, Arthur Less, Greer casts a discerning eye over contemporary reality and maintains an irreverent perspective, first and foremost with regard to himself. 

Teresa Bellemo met him at a literary festival in Italy, where dressed like the archetypal American abroad – white linen suit, loafers and slightly overheated – he explained how this attitude is fundamental to see him through moments of darkness. He also praised the freedom that technology is bringing to so many, noting that gay people, for example, are able to feel more at ease today thanks to social networks. “They realise the world is full of people who can be their allies,” he says. “It’s like a revolution.”

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What does control mean for you?
I think about power. Right now the whole world is about power. People with power and people without power, and the struggle to control your own life. 

We can talk about this kind of control, about our experiences of what we do with our lives and how we use technology to gain control over them. The phone, for instance. It seems like a means for controlling our lives and making them easier, but that’s how technology controls us. It isn’t really freedom and we have to be careful what we’re doing.

Can you explain this idea a bit more? 
I’m from San Francisco where everyone uses their phone for everything. While it feels like freedom, in reality your choices become limited by a computer. And I think that’s one of the choices that the next generation has to make. Turning off the phone sometimes gives you more control, a different type of control.

Humanity has likely never known an era of greater freedom, but it seems we feel obliged to control or put some restrictions on our lives. Whether it’s using phones or choosing politicians who impose borders and controls on populations.

It seems as if all countries – most conspicuously the United States – are electing people who are drawing lines and recognising certain groups of people as more human than others. It feels like a backwards step and it’s a mystery to me; I have no desire to control anybody.

Do you think we’re afraid of freedom?
Sometimes we realise that freedom means other people are also free, and this surprises us because when other people are free they make different choices from our own. If we’re afraid and if lots of people can’t cope with their neighbours being so different, that’s not freedom. That’s totalitarianism.

In your book, Less, being homosexual is normalised and even something that we can laugh about. 
You know there are so many books about homosexuality written by gay people in which homosexuality is a struggle; it’s a difficult, lonely existence. I wanted to write a book in which the main character is human, and I think we’re ready in our countries to acknowledge this humanity. Maybe it’s nice to share our humanity instead of talking about our dramas all the time.

Do you think people are finally ready to see homosexuality in this “normalised” way?
I think people are ready. Obviously in many Western countries our leaders keep saying stupid things and then you realise that there’s still a lot of work to be done. I think this work has to happen through individual people knowing – and realising that they have – friends and family members who are gay. They love those people and those people haven’t changed just through being gay, they’re just humans. And that’s the most powerful thing, even more than politics. 

You made the character Arthur Less uncool, unremarkable and very funny. Why?
I’ll give you a personal answer. It’s also the reason why the book is funny and not over-serious. I was going through a very sad period in my life and I was so sad that I felt I couldn’t write a sad book. As an American I was also realising how dumb I am about the world, so I enjoyed creating a character who’s a bit like me: innocent, a fool. This is how I express my sadness; I think humour is a good way of doing it.

Social networks and apps are tools for meeting other people, not only for friendship but also for relationships and dating. Do you think this technology helps us to move out of our comfort zones?
These days when you meet someone in person – an old friend, a prospective lover, whatever – you’ve already talked to them virtually for two hours before getting into a deeper conversation, so you can go straight to a truer relationship. Talking to people online feels a bit like a performance, I don’t talk with anyone very deeply, but it’s also my job so I’m careful not to make myself vulnerable. For gay people, who are often lonely, it’s been like a revolution because they realise the world is full of people who can be their allies. It’s a life-changing moment when you see that you can go beyond your comfort zone. And I think that’s true of all types of people who feel lonely.

There are a lot of funny scenes in your book. What’s the strangest situation you’ve been involved in?
There are a lot that I didn’t put in the book, but one of the strangest – which does briefly appear in the book – happened when I was interviewing the horror writer Anne Rice. She writes vampire novels and is a bestselling author in the US. It was Halloween and they told me I had to wear a vampire costume, and everyone in the audience was dressed the same way. It was a pretty weird event. 

These days writers have to do a lot of extra things like that, they have to travel the world for literary events, write a blog, use social networks. Do you think that the role of the pure writer is finished?
There are some writers who don’t do those things, they refuse to. And even a writer like me – I’m on the social networks, I’m going on tour, I’m travelling the world – even I have already set aside a period when I’ll turn everything off, I’ll retreat to the countryside for a month and a half, I won’t answer emails and I’ll be a pure writer again. I think every writer does that, because you can’t do all these things and write as well. You can do them for a while, because it’s fun, and then you stop completely. You can’t switch backwards and forwards it seems to me.

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