Friday, October 30, 2009

Andrew Sean Greer and the Art of Writing

Andrew Sean Greer (right) talking to 5 month nephew Arlo, who is sitting on the lap of Greer's identical twin brother, Mike. New York Times photo by Heidi Schumann

Earlier this week, the New York Times' new Bay Area section published a story I wrote on the Sunday routine of novelist Andrew Sean Greer.

The article touched on what Greer did on a typical Sunday. One thing he does not do is write. When he got together with his husband, David Ross, 13 years ago, he promised that he would avoid working on weekends.

Of course, I couldn’t interview Greer and just ask about when he drinks his first cup of coffee in the morning. I am a writer, too, albeit a nonfiction, writer, and I wanted to hear about Greer’s writing habits. So here are some tidbits from the conversation we had.

Greer spent much of the past year in New York, working as a Cullman Fellow at the New York Public Library. Greer applied for the fellowship in order to work on his novel, which is a book about characters who time travel between 1918 and 1941. When he got to New York, the pieces of the novel he had written were set in San Francisco, much like two of his previous books, The Confessions of Max Tivoli and The Story of a Marriage.

But Greer couldn’t resist the vast resources available to him at the library. He found himself captivated by the library’s books, newspapers, and other sources about New York. He walked the streets everyday, sat in cafes, and dined out with friends. Soon the atmosphere of New York had permeated his psyche and Greer tossed the 100 pages he had written and started afresh. He set the next draft in New York and added new characters.  He wrote about 150 pages in the following months.

“Ideally, your head is in your novel most of your waking life,” said Greer. “All of your spare moments, conversations you overhear, thoughts you have, all should be going to the novel. If I sort of let myself forget about the book, it’s hard to get back into it again.”

When Greer is writing intensely, he tends to read classic rather than contemporary literature. “I’m reading Colette right now. I will pick up Proust. I find old fiction helpful. It’s classic for a reason. It is really well done.”

Greer and Ross moved back to their home in San Francisco’s lower Haight at the end of the fellowship in May. Greer spent much of the next few months away from home. He traveled to Italy to read from his work at Letturatura, the Rome Literary Festival. It was an outdoor evening performance (video here)at the Basilica di Massenzio near the Forum. (“It was a warm Roman night. The Forum was all lit up. It was so beautiful it was amazing.”) He also spent six  weeks at a writer’s colony and visited Michael Chabon and Ayelet Waldman at their summer home in Maine.

So Greer didn’t start to look for a new writing office until September, a search that he Twittered about.

You might think that a writer as successful as Greer might go for a high end, modern office with a view of the city. But it seems that he prefers grunge. Or at least redone grunge. He described his previous office as a “crappy room in someone’s basement.”

He looked all around and almost took an office on a houseboat because he couldn’t find anything else. Then he found a spot in the Mission, with a few small rooms and a loft that lets in lots of light.

“”It’s really nice but it’s really crappy," said Greer. "It looked like a meth lab when I first rented it, so that’s why I had to paint the whole thing. The room was bright pink which is why I had to paint it white.”

Greer calls himself an Internet addict. When he gets up he goes straight to the computer, reads the New York Times online, reads various progressive blogs, but skips literary blogs because he dislikes it when bloggers write snarky comments about his friends. He is so addicted to surfing the web (and who isn’t?) that he uses the program Freedom to limit his Internet access. Before he leaves his home, he programs his Mac Air not to let him go on the web for at least 4 hours. Then he walks to the office,

“It’s a 15-minute walk. I love it because there is a transition. The mind kind of gets into the novel and the one thing I am thinking of on the way over is the first sentence of the next paragraph. Half the battle is getting the next sentence. At least it’s a way to start.”

Then Greer laughed and added: “And it’s usually followed by a nap, and then lunch, all the procrastination I can get in.”

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