In his new novel, The Story Of A Marriage, Andrew Sean Greer transports readers to '50s San Francisco. Against the backdrop of the Sunset District, Greer crafts a lyrical tale of reserved housewife Pearlie Cook, whose life is interrupted by a ghost from the past. Admittedly inspired by Ford Maddox Ford's The Good Soldier, Greer subtly turns everyday life into something unexpected. The A.V. Club recently spoke with the Confessions Of Max Tivoli author (and, in the interest of full disclosure, the brother of Onion Inc. web technology director Mike Greer) about reading old newspapers and writing as a woman.
The A.V. Club: How did you begin writing the book?
Andrew Sean Greer: The Story Of A Marriage was initially a short story I wrote, and before that, it was a family story. It was a story that a relative of mine told me about herself in the '50s, and it was a story that no one else in my family believes, and it might not be true. Obviously I changed everything about it. It was too crowded for a short story, so I thought, "It's a novel."
AVC: What was it like writing as a woman?
ASG: [Laughs.] Really, I just wrote as the character. British Vogue just asked me to write about writing as a woman, and I wrote back and said, "I don't know what to tell you." I don't think women are mysterious—they make a lot more sense than men do. It didn't seem very different to me. Writing fiction is an act of imaginative empathy. The whole job is not autobiography. For a lot of people it is, but for me, the whole fun of it is that I pick a story where it's someone who's nothing like me. I try to imagine their life and what their burdens are and what their flaws are, and try to see it honestly. Like, a guy aging backwards [in Max Tivoli] is really nothing like me—he was kind of a jerk, but that was the fun. It was fun to write someone who was a little evil, but also try to be sympathetic.
AVC: The book has a lot of surprises for readers. How much of that is a conscious decision?
ASG: Well, I will say that there is something you find out 60 pages in, which was not something I meant to be a trick or a gimmick. I was really struggling and trying to figure out the scene when Buzz confronts her. And I realized at the same time that there was something I wasn't dealing with. I was being cowardly and I wasn't dealing with race, which was the big issue of the time. I just played with the idea. In my notes, it's called "crazy version," just because it seemed very shocking to me. This book is about assumptions, and you know, maybe it will make the readers think about reading and the assumptions they make. I don't know how people are going to take it, honestly.
AVC: How much time do you spend on research?
ASG: Less than it appears, I think. For The Confessions Of Max Tivoli, there are these books that you can get that are compilations about Victorian stuff, but they don't have that for the '50s. So I read the newspaper. At first I thought I was setting it in 1952, so I read the newspaper from February to May. I skimmed it, but I skimmed it every day. Then I realized I had to set it in 1953, so I reread the newspaper from 1953 from February to May. Mostly what I was doing was looking for ads for furniture and shoes and stockings and things. And I read 1948, because I thought that [Pearlie Cook] would have old clothes.
AVC: Are newspaper advertisements the best way to get a feel for the era?
ASG: Newspaper ads are just a fantasy being offered to the time itself. It's not real time, and I realize that. I'd also read the news, and every day, it was so off about what was important. Every day in the newspaper, it would say, "World Ends Tomorrow," and then "Big Sale Tuesday." It's schizophrenic, or manic-depressive—it's a newspaper, it's not real. I decided, at least I would know what people looked at every day. Even though the story's told in hindsight, I wanted to have some sense of how unsettling it was to be there and not know where things were going.
AVC: In general, is there anything you look to for inspiration?
ASG: Other books. My editor told me I had to put away The Good Soldier by Ford Maddox Ford. It's a crazy-great book from like 1915, and it's insane. The Age Of Innocence, I read a lot. It's talking about a time that's gone forever, and the strictures and anxiety of that time, and a love affair that can't be. I actually lifted a scene from The Age Of Innocence and translated it to my book. I don't think it's a steal; it's so obvious.
AVC: Did anybody in particular inspire you to become a writer?
ASG: It's hard to say, because it's been so long ago. I've wanted to be a writer since I was like, 10.
AVC: How did you know that early?
ASG: You can sort of start to write around 10. You also become a good reader around that time, and you want to imitate the thing that you love. I got praise for it, and then I found that it was a great way of translating my life, so I would write little stories and plays and things. At that point, it was kids' books that I was reading.
AVC: A lot of E.B. White?
ASG: Yes. And science fiction, like every young boy.
AVC: How have things changed for you since Max Tivoli?
ASG: Everything changed. I was younger then. I wrote that book thinking nobody was going to read it, because I'd had two books before and nobody read them. I wrote it in a panic. The first draft took a year, which I guess is short for a novel that was pretty complicated to do. It was at the edge of my abilities. Everything that happened was a surprise; it's kind of like being struck by lightning. It was a really fun ride, but distracting, so it took me a while to get back into writing a book. Then I realized, other people are going to read this, they'll pay attention this time.
AVC: Is that an added source of stress, or something you were looking forward to?
ASG: Both. I would get very panicky about the book, because it's nothing like Max Tivoli to me, which is what I wanted.
AVC: On the plus side, people aren't likely to label you, or try to force you into a genre.
ASG: That was my plan. I think what's mostly changed is that just before Max Tivoli came out, I started meeting other writers in San Francisco. Then I got to travel and go to festivals and meet other writers. That's the best thing for a writer, to have that sense of the community.
AVC: There was an article in The New York Times a while back, talking about certain books being relationship deal-breakers. Have you ever encountered a book that's caused a rift?
ASG: I'd rather people not read at all than if they read Paulo Coelho [The Alchemist]. I'm sure he's great, but there's something about it that's not fiction as I know it. It's a self-help book in which there's an allegory. I don't mind if people are stuck on Kerouac, or something. If people actually have a strong opinion about a book, I am totally for that. Then they've read it. The main thing I run into is people that don't read at all.
AVC: Any books you've loved recently?
ASG: This year, I was one of the judges for the National Book Award. So I'm glad to say I read 250 of the books from last year. I thought Michael Chabon's book The Yiddish Policemen's Union was the best of the year. I loved it. There was a book called Coal Black Horse by Robert Olmstead that I thought was a beautiful novel. I'm kind of picky; I like a book where things happen. It's like when you go out dancing with your friends, and there's this great DJ playing, and the DJ plays the same beat for an hour, and suddenly there's a hook and everyone cheers. You always think, "Why not a hook more often? Why not every couple minutes? That's really what we like." That's kind of how I feel about books.