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Sydney Writers Festival 2019, Live and Local (Session 2)

May 5, 2019

I returned to the National Library of Australia today for two more live-streamed events from the Sydney Writers Festival (#SWFLiveAndLocal). As I did last year, I’ll write each event up in separate posts, so here is the first of my Sunday events.

Andrew Sean Greer: Less (Conversation), Sunday 5 May, 3.00pm

Conversation: Andrew Sean Greer with David Marr (Convenor)

Andrew Sean Greer, Less, book coverWhat an absolute joy this session was. Australians will know David Marr as a politically engaged author and commentator, not to mention Patrick White’s biographer, and most readers will know Andrew Sean Greer as the author of the Pulitzer prize-winning novel Less (which also won, last week, the International Book of the Year category in the ABIA Awards.) These two men, one in his early seventies and the other nearing fifty, entertained us with a conversation that was light-hearted and yet managed to convey substance too. What made it particularly enjoyable was that Marr and Greer seemed well attuned to each other resulting in quite a bit of repartee, and no awkward spots.

So, the session felt very much like a conversation between friends rather than an interview, but we still got some nitty gritty, including:

  • the challenges of writing comedy, and how Less starts off quite flatly, which Marr felt was daring. Greer explained that he wanted to strip everything away form the protagonist Arthur Less at the start so he could then “reward him”. The narrator ridicules Arthur, but with warmth. Marr talked about some of his favourite bits, including that Arthur turns out to be a “miraculous kisser”. Are there any literary antecedents for this, he asked, to which Greer responded immediately, vampire novels! Haha!
  • the theme of the book being about joy and discovering joy, but also ageing. Greer said that he wanted it to be about age, but not be autumnal. He wanted it to be more about the idea that “given you are not getting any younger, you should enjoy it”. When Marr asked Greer about his own ageing, he commented on the things he can’t do any more – like drinking – but followed up by saying that John Irving was right, it’s important to have a “clear head in the morning”! Later in the conversation, Greer returned to the idea of age, saying it’s about the narrowing of pleasures, but that since writing is a pleasure, he was going ok.
  • the rules of comedy, being that you find the scariest thing you can, and it is this that releases the comedy. Readers need to be able to identify with the pain, but comedy only works, said Greer, if you know everything is going to be alright.
  • the writing process, including how he went about writing the foreign languages he uses in the book, and how he chose his names. Marr loved the names in the book, but advised that in future a good source for names is war memorials. However, it seemed that Greer had already discovered the value of cemeteries for this purpose!
  • winning the Pulitzer Prize, meant that he’d “won the time to write”, so he left his job. But he also needed some time to bask, he joked! Marr responded that Patrick White would ask “why aren’t you at your desk?” to which Greer replied that Peter Carey had already told him that! (Marr muttered that Carey has had his times of basking!)
  • Joe Keenan, Blue heaven, book coverbeing a gay writer, and finding gay stories. The first gay writer Greer remembers admiring is Edmund White, albeit some of his writing was too sophisticated for him at the time. He also named Blue heaven by Joe Keenan who went on to write the Frasier TV series. He had even turned Blue heaven into a musical, and had invited Keenan to it, but Keenan didn’t like it! Greer also named Armistead Maupin as an influence on his writing.
  • whether only minorities can write about minorities, to which Greer had an open mind, saying that he remembered a time when there were no gay characters in the books he read. Silence or invisibility is death, he said. He is therefore happy for non-gay people to write gay characters, but they must think about them as humans, not present stereotypes. He wouldn’t want “straight” books not to have gay characters. I like this response – that invisibility is a worse problem, and that the important thing is for writers to think about their characters as “humans” not types – but recognise different minorities, different writers may feel differently.

There was a Q&A, which included:

  • Did he feel a pressure to represent gay people? Greer said that there is always a tension for writers between representing “your people” (whoever they are) and telling the truth, the tension between the “legend” and the “reality”.
  • He’d spoken elsewhere about reading books relating to his writing, so what books had he read while writing Less? Nabokov’s Pnin, Updike’s Bech stories, Muriel Spark, and Proust (who finds that desired balance between sentimentality and cynical detail.)
  • Had he been to all the places he writes about in the book? Yes. He had two rules writing this book: everything had to come from his notebooks where he’d written his experiences, as he didn’t want to write fantasy about another country; and the joke always had to be on Arthur because he’s the outsider in the various countries.

All this sound may sound dry, but the repartee really was something. It was a joy seeing Marr in this different, lighter, but as astute as ever, mode. All in all, thoroughly entertaining, and informative.

12 Comments leave one →
  1. May 6, 2019 1:27 am

    All I can think of:

    • May 6, 2019 4:48 pm

      Thanks Guy … love that …. comedy is tragedy + time. Plus, it must bend not break! Makes sense to me. I do think comedy is generally harder.

  2. May 6, 2019 12:40 pm

    I think people in the lit industry are making a mistake when they discuss appropriation in terms of having minority characters. Of course any fictional universe may/should include any number of minorities. The real question is should people with power (whites/men/straights) pretend to be people with less power, and the answer is a straight out No. And I think in his answer about locations, Greer shows that he is aware of this.

    • May 6, 2019 4:31 pm

      Yes, l agree Bill that the main issue is speaking in the voice of a minority in a major way, but I think Greeks comment made clear that we are not talking all or nothing. Also, I liked his point about writers thinking about these characters because it’s too easy to make minor characters caricatures.

      Re Greer and place, I was listening to the SWF interview with Graeme Simsion today on ABC RN, and he said that he brought his characters back to Melbourne from New York when the child was starting school because he knew nothing about the American school system. Loved hearing that a day after hearing Greer.

  3. Shelley permalink
    May 6, 2019 2:38 pm

    Well done Whispering Gums. I was there and agree with you in everything you’ve said in this admirably detailed piece!

    • May 6, 2019 3:39 pm

      Oh were you Shelley? Thanks so much. What a shame I didn’t see you. I snuck in at the end of the Schama talk before it, and so didn’t really watch all the comings and goings.

      My challenge – and one I’m still working on – is to be not so detailed!! But I like to remember the detail for myself – hence the tension. My advice to others would be do as I say, not as I do!!

      Wasn’t it a wonderfully engaging and engaged session?

  4. May 6, 2019 4:22 pm

    Thanks for this, Sue, I’m pressed for time because we are about to go out for dinner here in Wellington, but just wanted to say I enjoyed this (and am planning on getting hold of Less!)

    • May 6, 2019 4:33 pm

      Have a lovely dinner, Lisa. Hope it’s not too windy there!

      I’d love to read Less. You may remember that I gave it to my son for Xmas, but I don’t think he’s read it, though he’s read the birthday books!

      • May 7, 2019 7:43 am

        Ha ha, that’s the tricky thing about giving books for gifts when you really want to read them yourself, you have to wait until they’ve finished reading it.

        • May 7, 2019 8:39 am

          His Lisa! And of course he’s in Melbourne too. I must give him a little pod.

  5. buriedinprint permalink
    May 16, 2019 12:39 am

    What a difficult balance to achieve and sustain: light-hearted and meaningful. I’ve not read either writer’s works but they both interest me in theory. And I appreciate that Greer cites Maupin as an influence; I fell in love with the serial chronicles of Barbery Lane and the interconnected stories that emerged.

    • May 16, 2019 8:33 am

      Me too… Re Maupin… Oh, and few being interested in some books bloggers write about in theory! Would be in practice of there were more hours!

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