This,” says Andrew Sean Greer, pointing over his shoulder, “is my new book.” He turns to get the US version of his new novel, Less is lostthe sequel to his 2017 worldwide bestseller, Fewer. “Look,” he adds, holding it up, “it’s gold.” Sure, when an author gets a fancy award like the Pulitzer— Fewer Won in 2018 – publishers have the budget to be as snazzy as they want for their follow-up. It shines as Greer turns it back and forth. “Nice, isn’t it?”
The pride he feels is well deserved: Greer had previously been a well-reviewed but never quite successful best-selling author for two decades, who had at times wondered “if I would ever publish a book again”. That’s what he points out Fewer struggled to find a home and was rejected by 12 UK publishers before one finally made an attempt. It’s hard to believe because it was an incredibly charming book. It told the story of an unfortunate middle-aged gay writer, Arthur Less, who greedily accepted invitations to literary events around the world, hoping to escape the complications of his own inner life. “Finally a graphic novel gets a Pulitzer Prize. It’s about time.” The Washington Post Headline reporting Greer’s victory. Possessed by a certain melancholy Fewer was a serious, make-you-laugh novel, alternately witty and lyrical, that gently skewered the absurdities and contrivances of the literary world. Armistead Maupin, Dave Eggers and Ann Patchett are among his fans, and John Updike raved about Greer’s early novels.
“Comic novels don’t usually win Pulitzer,” he points out, “and why mine won is fortunately a question I never have to answer. But I’ve heard from readers all over the world that they felt so much joy reading my book, which was nice.” Suddenly he frowns. “Now I should warn these readers that I can’t do the same trick twice, so I didn’t even try it with my new book.”
This is obviously not true – in many ways, Less is lost is almost the same book, or at least a direct sequel, told in the same joking manner. Sequeling a bestseller is clearly reckless behavior, and there’s an unwritten law that suggests you shouldn’t even try, and yet here Greer did just that. He’s not the only one, though: Jennifer Egan recently released a sequel to her Pulitzer-winning show. A visit from the Goon Squadwith the somewhat disappointing The candy housewhile Elizabeth Strout, one of America’s most admired writers, keeps returning to her fictional character, Lucy Barton, whose third installment, Lucy by the seawill be released next month and is perhaps Strout’s best book yet.
Still, the sequel remains a problematic experiment. in the Less is lostHis life for Arthur Less – still the perennial midlist writer – is actually looking pretty good. The work is fine, he’s just been asked to judge a fancy literary prize, and he’s happily in love with a younger man, Freddy, who narrates the book with an omniscience that belies the fact that much of the narration is taking place a way by him. Freddy is missing from the storyline because a sudden financial crisis forces Less to take another road trip, this time across the United States. His journey is both problematic and absurd. When a gay man walks into a bar in Alabama, he’s asking for trouble, and a growing mustache doesn’t exactly allow him to come by incognito. Tasked with taking care of a feisty elderly writer’s panting dog, he struggles to maintain control of a campervan nicknamed Rosina. Occasionally he is mistaken for a Dutchman; at other times for another writer of the same name, except the other Arthur Less happens to be Black. Ultimately, Less finds it difficult to fit in somewhere.
“He joined a gym that turned out to be a sex dungeon,” Freddy tells us at one point. “He joined a political party that turned out to be a conspiracy theory about government health clinics. He joined a sex dungeon that turned out to be a government health clinic. It was all so confusing.”
“My agent specifically told me so Not to write a sequel,” says Greer. “So I started a whole different book first, kind of an American Don Quixote. I planned everything, went on a writer’s retreat and wrote 100 pages, but it was awful: I couldn’t get into the story, couldn’t get the characters to work.”
So he scrapped it and went back to two characters he already particularly liked: Arthur and Freddy. “I was worried at first, but then [the writer] Michael Chabon told me to write whatever I wanted, and I did.
“Besides,” he adds, “I still don’t feel like this eminent, award-winning author. I’m just a guy who happened to win the Pulitzer, that’s all.”
Greer, 51, was born and raised in Maryland and spends these days between San Francisco and Milan, where he lives with his Italian partner, “about 30 minutes from the Duomo.” He became a writer, he says, because he is not capable of anything else. “I wasn’t smart enough for science or good enough to be a TV or magazine writer. I don’t even think I’m a particularly good storyteller, but I am to have studied storytelling. I’m also a sensitive person. I pay attention to the world around me, which is sometimes painful, but it helps as a writer because then I can write down what other people don’t notice.”
His novels have always been critically acclaimed, and at least two from his back catalog were particularly good: those of 2004 The Confessions of Max Tivoliwhich reads like a Victorian equivalent of the Benjamin Button story about a man who ages backwards, and 2008 The Story of a Marriage, a forensic look at a married couple whose connection is constantly breaking down. Regardless of how well he writes, however, he finds the actual process to be a never-ending struggle. “I started a book thinking I was going to write an 800-page epic, but after I found 300 pages I had to cut 250 of them,” he says. “If you ask my partner who was with me while I was writing during the pandemic Less is losthe would say yes, there always is a lot of of drama when I write.”
Friends have told him they didn’t realize Greer’s true voice on the page until he created the character of Arthur Less, seen through the lens of his lover Freddy. “It’s me, I guess,” he shrugs. He says he wrote both books in response to Trump’s 2016 election victory. “I wanted to write about the America I no longer understood, and I wanted to write about the horrors at the heart of my country. ”
But he does so with a lively sense of humour. Why?
“I didn’t want to be mean, and I don’t think I could seriously have done that. I’m too sentimental; i know my weaknesses The way I deal with fear is to find the humor in being funny.”
And in this way he finally found a large readership, no longer a midlist. Success has allowed Greer to relax a little, to relax, but not entirely to harm, not yet. It’s only a big deal in a very small world, he points out. “When I tell people in Italy that I’m a writer, their eyes light up, they tell me that the police won’t fine me if I’m stopped. But in America it’s not the center of culture. People’s eyes just glaze over even when I mention that I won the Pulitzer. It’s like I won a hamburger or something.”
Nevertheless, the award made him happy and confident. He appreciates it.
“It’s nice to know that I can now pay the rent and it’s nice that my fears have eased a bit,” he says. “From now on, I hope it will be a fun ride.”
Less Is Lost will be released on September 22nd
https://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/books/features/andrew-sean-greer-less-is-lost-b2171977.html Andrew Sean Greer: “I’m just a guy who happened to win the Pulitzer”