Garth Greenwell on Why Desire Is a Writer’s Greatest Plot Device

Garth Greenwell returns to the characters of his breakout hit 'What Belongs to You' in 'Cleanness,' a novel that challenged him to write about explicit sex, good love, and joy.

Garth Greenwell Oriette D'Angelo

With explicit, unflinching prose, Garth Greenwell’s debut novel What Belongs to You became an instant classic when it was published in 2016. In it, an unnamed American narrator teaches abroad in Sofia, Bulgaria. In this still closeted society, he finds solace with a young hustler named Mitko. Theirs is a doomed relationship for countless reasons, but the tenderness they share transcends the impossibility of their condition. The accomplishment of writing a frank and intimate, yet unfussy, portrayal of sex is matched by the rich interior exploration Greenwell creates through his exquisite prose, which draws comparisons to James Baldwin.

The acclaim for What Belongs to You as a novel chronicling the experiences of gay men abroad was as strong as it was for André Aciman’s 2007 novel Call Me by Your Name. Curiously, both authors have within the last six months returned to familiar characters in their new novels. Sequels automatically pose a question of purpose. Why circle back now and what else is there to share? For Aciman, while his fascination with memory and devotion to love rang true, Find Me couldn’t capture the verve of its companion. Where that novel falls short, Greenwell’s Cleanness sings.

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Over the telephone from Iowa City just before embarking on his book tour, Greenwell responds to the question of what brought him back to Sofia and our unnamed teacher. “It really was the case that they never left,” he relates. “A couple of the earliest pieces of Cleanness were actually written while I was working on What Belongs to You. What Belongs to You was such a streamlined container, focused on two men, but there was a lot more to their world that wouldn’t fit into that book.”

Greenwell’s characters will continue to expand upon that world as his third novel will take his unnamed narrator back to Kentucky, the home state he and Greenwell share. For a writer who first embarked upon a career in vocal performance, then poetry, academia, and teaching before what felt like his overnight success as a novelist, Greenwell’s journey to fiction is a testament to his searching, brilliant spirit. With incredible generosity and eloquence, Greenwell spoke with Observer about the slippery label of autofiction, the challenge of writing sex scenes and good love, the fault we find with our homes, and how we recognize desire in ourselves and others.

Observer: When What Belongs to You was first published, did you have to respond to critics who considered it autofiction?
Greenwell: The book meditates on some of the circumstances of my life—I did live and teach high school in Bulgaria—but it was very clear to me from the get go that this was not autobiography. It was a work of fiction. I think of it as the way a visual artist might use readymade material. You take this little piece of reality and then you process it in all sorts of aesthetic ways that cut it off from reality and make it into art.

Autofiction is certainly a word that we use a lot more now, more than even four years ago (when What Belongs to You was published). But, it’s so curious to me that people talk about it as though it’s a new thing when it’s really the oldest game in literature. For the kind of writing that I do, which I think of as being a novel of consciousness, the goal is to render what existence feels like from the inside. I mean, the person who invented that kind of writing is St. Augustine. And, in modern literature, it’s Proust and Henry James and Virginia Woolf and Thomas Bernhard and James Baldwin. That’s a very clear tradition. We talk a lot about autofiction now as though it’s something that this current generation of writers invented. Well, it’s just not.

So why do you think people use that term—autofiction?
To me, the most important influence or the most influential writer on current American practice is probably W.G. Sebald. When I read Sebald for the first time in graduate school, I thought, “This opens a door to a kind of novel I could write.” And it would be a decade before I would begin writing What Belongs to You; Sebald made it possible. My literary training was entirely in poetry. I wrote only poetry for 20 years. What Belongs to You was the first fiction I’d ever written.

When Sebald’s books came out in translation here, that felt like a discovery, like a kind of new technology. But it’s not a new technology. You know, I do think it is tradition of writing that has been stronger in Europe, especially in Central Europe. It’s a kind of writing that blurs the boundaries between narrative and essay and between invention and, you know, reportage. But it’s something that’s very old. I think Americans like to think that when they discover something, they’re actually inventing something perfect.

Cleanness by Garth Greenwell. Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Moving into the heart of the book, I wanted to ask you about desire. To you, is it something that is outside of you that you’re trying to find rather than something inside of you that you’re trying to uncover? And especially if you don’t have a model to reflect back your own desires, how you understand desire if it doesn’t come from inside of you?
That’s the big question isn’t it? I don’t know where desire comes from. I don’t know how much of it is hardwired and how much of it is derived from our culture or what we’re taught. But I think about what it feels like. And one of the things that fascinates me about desire—and especially about desire in art—[is that] once we have an object of desire, then there’s a plot. We have a quest. We have something we want to seek. So it’s a very powerful sort of narrative device in that sense—this idea of desire as a motivating force and as a force that engages our will. For example, I will myself to pursue the object of my desire. And I can go to great lengths and use great strategies to try to get anything that I desire.

But what’s fascinating and what I think queer people feel intensely, especially when they grow up somewhere like Kentucky in the 1980s, is that we do not choose what we desire. That object is never our choice. And in that sense, desire is something that happens to us. The reason why desire’s the greatest plot device is because it is something that always causes trouble. It always disrupts all of our plans.

Another reason I think desire and sex are endlessly fascinating phenomena is because anytime I think about them, they seem so made up of contradictions. Sex is an experience that puts us really intensely inside our bodies. And yet it’s also an experience in which we get our clearest intuition, our most powerful intuition that there is something in us that exceeds our bodies. It’s our kind of our most physical experience, but it’s the experience that I think gives us all of our metaphysics. And then there’s the fact that sex is an experience in which we are so focused on our own intensity. And yet, I think if it’s interesting sex, it’s also an experience in which we are most focused on the experience of another.

It’s hard for me to think of another mode or act of human communication that is so densely impactful, so rich with complex information. It seemed to me like writing this book, one of the things I wanted to do was to try to go as far as I could in writing sex. I felt like there were discoveries that I could make if I took really explicit writing of sex, you know, pornographic writing of sex, and combined that with the novel of consciousness and the kinds of sentences that I write, which are inherited from a tradition that includes Woolf and James and Baldwin. At the sentence level, that kind of writing is expansive and searching and also recursive and self-questioning. It’s about exploring inwardness.

I felt that the combination of those two things, explicit sex and the high art kind of novel of consciousness writing, could produce discoveries.

You’re not shying away from the contradiction of it without settling on either side.
That, to me, is what art is for. If a situation is clear to me, if I know what I think about it, I don’t need to write fiction about it. You know, I can write an essay about it or I can make a speech about it. Fiction is, it seems to me, the tool we have for navigating situations that are not clear to us. I want to write about something when I feel like it is an abyss, which means when I feel like I don’t know where I stand, I don’t know, ethically speaking, what’s up and what’s down. Art is the instrument I have for navigating the abyss.

We all need to keep challenging ourselves to navigate the abyss. Another thing about your writing through a language of consciousness is your incredible ability to stand still in the face of all that ambiguity. Your work doesn’t flinch at intangible and difficult subjects. But you’re not without moments of levity. I wonder if you could talk about recovering joy as well as beauty in your work.
That was another real challenge I gave myself. There was a lot of commentary about What Belongs to You as a joyless book or a book without humor or without consolation, which troubled me when people said that. I don’t think that’s quite right. It’s obviously a dark book, but I don’t think it’s unremittingly bleak. However, one reason that I hope Cleanness is a better book is that it has a wider emotional palette. It’s about sex, but it’s also about love and an experience of love that’s different from anything the narrator has had before. One of the first things I knew about the structure of the book was that at its center would be a telling of the relationship between the narrator and R [a relationship lightly touched upon in What Belongs to You]. It would be a story that would have a beginning, a middle and an end. And I knew that I wanted one element of that story to really relish in the joy that exists between these two people and the happiness that they experience with one another. It’s the central chapter of the book, “The Frog King.” That was an explicit task I gave myself, which I don’t usually do when I write. This book is so hard on these characters that there has to be a moment in which they get to dwell in the fullness of their happiness. It was a surprise to me how emotionally hard that was to write.

Recently, Jaquira Diaz commented on a literary panel moderated by Michelle Filgate that the next difficult thing she wanted to tackle in her writing was good love. Why is it so hard to write about good love? Because there’s no conflict and it feels banal?
In this story of this very ordinary happiness of these two men, there’s nothing heroic or dramatic about their love. My characters don’t do anything special. And yet to treat that with reverence is something I think any human experience deserves, and I wanted to challenge myself, to look at very ordinary happiness in a way that would allow me to see it as accommodating of depth and of revelation. And that was the challenge of “The Frog King.”

There is a prejudice against good love. I don’t think it’s controversial to say that. There is a price and kind of “quote unquote” prestige seen within culture against lightness. You know, again, thinking about happiness and joy, there is a sense that tragedy is always more serious and that the deepest questions of human life take us always into very dark places. Well, that’s also my temperament. I mean, I think you have a certain kind of temperament and we don’t get to choose our temperament. And, you know, there’s no arguing ourselves out of them.

It’s my prejudice to feel that tragedy has greater resonance than joy. But I don’t believe that. It seems to me a kind of failing. I mean, my deepest belief is that, you know, the greatness and depth of literature, of art has nothing to do with subject matter, that it’s not about what one is seeing, but about how one is seeing it.

Literature is first and foremost a way of perceiving the world. My students in Sofia had, for their whole lives, been directed towards the West. Sofia was always a place to leave. And, during their last semester of their senior year, I would read James Joyce’s Dubliners with them. Instead of writing a paper, they would write a story about Sofia. The main thing I asked of them was to really describe the city. I remember during my first couple of years, I would say, “You know, I’m going to test you—every building has to actually exist, any time a person moves through the city, they have to move through the city in a way that I could move through the city and I’m going to use this as a way to get to know Sofia,” which I did. And it was wonderful, but I will never forget this brilliant student named Maria who said to me, “Mr. Greenwell, there’s nothing to write about in Sofia.”

They were so convinced that Sofia was boring and that there was nothing of interest there. So then, of course, that became the most powerful work of all their writing. It was revolutionary to empower them to write about their city in a way that made them actually see it, not make judgments about it or make arguments about its politics. I remember I developed over the four years that kind of pep talk where I would tell them, “Look, I really do believe that in any apartment building in Sofia, there is all of the story you need to write War and Peace.” The resonance of human life is not about exotic places or dramatic experiences, but it’s about the quality of attention brought to bear.

Garth Greenwell on Why Desire Is a Writer’s Greatest Plot Device