Bookforum talks with Garth Greenwell

What Belongs to You: A Novel BY Garth Greenwell. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Hardcover, 208 pages. $23.

When I first became aware of Garth Greenwell, he was the enigmatic new English teacher at the American College of Sofia in Bulgaria, the high school I had graduated from a year before his arrival in 2009. He became an outspoken advocate of LGBT rights on campus—something that made the school, still attached to its missionary origins, distinctly uncomfortable—and he also introduced a much-discussed fiction assignment that required students to write their own stories modeled after James Joyce’s Dubliners: He wanted them not to look away from the incongruities of their own city, but to make an aesthetic out of them.

Greenwell’s first novel, What Belongs to You, follows an American expat teacher who gets involved with Mitko, a male prostitute he meets in the bathrooms under Sofia’s National Palace of Culture. It tells the story of their relationship, which involves layers of transaction, humiliation, love, and illegibility (created by the language barrier). Greenwell writes lucid, elliptical sentences that nudge the narrative forward even as no contour, no shift or reversal of power or dependence goes unrecorded: “But then there’s something theatrical in all our embraces, I think, as we weigh our responses against those we perceive or project; always we desire too much or not enough, and compensate accordingly.”

Through Mitko, Greenwell captures with uncanny precision the sense of lostness that, for many in Bulgaria, comes from a feeling of that the possibilities for what shape a life might take are narrowing. I spoke to Greenwell about lineages of queer literature, the connections he found between his experience in Sofia and in the Kentucky of his childhood in the 1990s, and writing as a mode of intense, sustained attention.

What brought you to Sofia?

In large part, chance. The real decision happened years earlier, when I decided to leave a Ph.D program. I signed up with an agency that places teachers in different schools and ended up with two possibilities: One was in Switzerland, in this very posh, elite school in the Alps, and the other was ACS (the American College of Sofia). This is shameful to say, but up to that point I didn’t know anything about Bulgaria; I’m not sure I could have found it on a map. Maybe partly for that reason, I decided Bulgaria would be the more interesting experience.

What was it about the place that elicited such a strong response in you?

It’s hard to say why that happens in some places and not others. Before Bulgaria, I had never been to a place where there is such a depth of history visible everywhere. I constantly had the sense of being able to see these layers of empire. One of my favorite places in Sofia is the Serdika metro station downtown, because you can see this extraordinary vertical expanse of history: an Ottoman mosque, Roman ruins, nineteenth-century architecture, Soviet blokove, and these very modern EU-funded projects, all in the same place. And then there was the language: I just think Bulgarian is the most beautiful language in the world.

When going there, did you have the intention to write? You have an MFA in poetry, but, as far as I know, you hadn’t written any fiction before you went to Bulgaria.

That’s right, not a word, and that was part of the weird, intense response to Sofia I had: I started hearing sentences that weren’t broken into lines. I think the really extraordinary thing that happened was finding the cruising bathrooms at NDK (Natsionalen dvorets na kulturata, the National Palace of Culture), where my novel begins. I found them by chance during my first couple of months in Sofia. It was the weirdest experience, because as a kid in Kentucky, my coming of age as a gay man took place in hidden communities like these, in bathrooms and in parks, these cruising places where men go to have sex. Above ground in those first weeks and months I could barely speak the language, I almost never understood what people said, I made all sorts of social faux pas—but then I descended into a place where there was this non-verbal communication I understood perfectly. The codes were exactly the same; it was like I was suddenly fluent and could make myself understood. It was a kind of experience I had again and again in Bulgaria, of being in a place that was totally foreign and yet very familiar. This was especially true when I talked to gay men, when I heard the same kinds of stories I remembered from my adolescence in Kentucky, when men described to me the same horizon of possibility for their lives.

The book seems to welcome biographical parallels between you and the narrator. Do you see your writing as part of a tradition of first-person autofictional writing?

I do feel like I’m working in a tradition like that. I’m drawn to writers whose work seems to occupy a kind of middle ground between fiction and nonfiction, who seem not to care very deeply about that distinction. I would put in that camp writers like W. G. Sebald and Javier Marías. One of the things that’s interesting about the discussion of autofiction around people like Lerner and Knausgaard—writers I admire very much—is that it’s not often recognized as a tradition of writing that’s very deeply queer and that’s been going on for a long time. Edmund White has been writing gorgeous autofictional novels for decades.

You write about desire with what seems like an equal commitment to the exterior and the interior, to documentary and invention…

I hope the book is equally committed to interior observation and to a reality that’s exterior to the narrator’s consciousness. The really fundamental thing I realized with the help of my editor—I had a very brilliant editor, Mitzi Angel at FSG—was that the book absolutely succeeds or fails to the extent that Mitko is available to the reader as an object of empathy, independent of his role as something that causes the narrator to have feelings and thoughts. I do think the narrator’s experience of life, and especially of life as an artist, is that he’s at once constantly attuned to experience but also distanced from it. When he articulates that in the book, it causes a kind of crisis for him. He realizes that he’s been telling himself this story that art is a way of living more fully, but maybe it’s not that, maybe it’s actually part of what’s keeping him from being able to be fully available both to himself and to the people around him.

The descriptions of the intimacy and sexual exchanges between the narrator and Mitko are sharply detailed, almost magnified. What was it that you wanted to explore in that way?

Sex has always been central to my writing—that was true for my poems before I wrote fiction. It’s endlessly fascinating to me as an experience that’s at once so deeply and obviously rooted in the body and the physical, and also constantly gesturing toward, or promising to become, metaphysics. It offers this great promise of a release from ourselves, of a finally unimpeachable authentic experience. It’s not scandalous to write those kinds of things in English, but it does still seem to me kind of revolutionary to do so, to insist on the reality of bodily experience and to insist that queer bodies and queer sex warrant the kind of dignity that the literary imagination can bestow.

What I also wanted to create is a space in which Mitko can be seen clearly enough that the reader might question the narrator’s interpretation of his own experience. And I wanted to explore the way that, even though the relationship he has with Mitko is conditioned and formed by the transaction with which it begins, it’s also constantly full of the potential to overflow and not be exhausted by that frame.

Did any part of the book surprise you as you were writing it?

The thrill of writing prose for me, when I first started, was that I was surprised much more often than when writing poetry. I was surprised by spaces that opened up, by memories and associations I made, by connections that arrived that didn’t arrive in the same way for me when writing poetry. Certainly, when writing “Mitko,” that first section, there was a constant surprise in the detours and asides the text made. But the part that was most frightening and difficult was the second section, partly because it took me to a territory that was really hard, on a personal level, to inhabit. In some way, as I said, the biggest surprise about being in Bulgaria was how often I was reminded of my childhood in Kentucky. It was as if I had to go to Bulgaria in order to be able to think about Kentucky, as if it was just far enough away to allow me to approach things I hadn’t thought about in years.

That second section is about what it means to grow up in a place where the only lesson you’re taught about your life is that it has no value. That’s the lesson queer people learned in Kentucky in the early ’90s, and it’s the lesson queer people learn today in Bulgaria. It’s the lesson all my students at ACS who were queer learned about their lives. Thinking about the ramifications of what happens to children who are taught that lesson is difficult. It’s a question with as many answers as people, but to try to follow the life of my narrator through that intensity of anger and pain was terrible.

Yes, the book does have an intensity, both aesthetic and emotional, that seems not to flicker even for a moment. How does one harness and sustain that?

To me the key really is patience and, well, indulgence, I guess. I think one thing that happened as a poet after so many years of workshop is that the self-editing mode was engaged all the time, which was really damaging. As I began writing prose, I kept telling myself to just put everything in that first draft. The first draft of the second section of the book was probably twice as long as the final version. So indulgence was the first thing. The other thing was to be patient, to not be anxious to get to the next moment, but instead to sink into the present scene and ask what the narrator is experiencing in this moment. Inherent to narrative is a kind of horizontal, forward movement in time that urges you to the next event. I wanted to resist that and instead create these lyrical moments of exploration. I do think it’s a poet’s way of writing fiction.

Your response to Sofia was such an intensely literary one—to me it felt rare for someone from elsewhere to engage with the place in that way. Who did you read while you were there and what was your impression of the contemporary literary scene in Bulgaria?

I think it’s a really exciting time. There’s a rich tradition to build on, world-class writers like Yordan Yovchov, and exciting writers working now, like Teodora Dimova, Nikolai Boikov, Hristo Harastoyanov, and Georgi Gospodinov. Then there’s the younger generation, people like Angel Igov and Dimiter Kenarov. It feels like a very rich time. The Elizabeth Kostova Foundation has opened doors for Bulgarian writers to find audiences in English, especially through their partnership with Open Letter Books. And the international success of Gospodinov’s work, especially The Physics of Sorrow, will surely increase interest in other writers from Bulgaria. I certainly want to do whatever I can to help direct attention to those writers. Harastoyanov’s terrific novel Edna i sushta nosht (The Same Night Awaits Us All) is being translated now; I hope that it will find the audience it deserves in the English-speaking world.

Do you think about what your book’s reception in Bulgaria might be?

The book will be published in Bulgaria by Black Flamingo in a translation by Nadezhda Radulova, and I hope I’ll be able to be there when it comes out. As in the United States, almost no book in Bulgaria gets any attention at all. If this book does, I suspect it will be not as literature, but as a scandal, because it’s about an ACS teacher and a male prostitute, and because it’s the first book in Bulgarian that I know of—maybe with the exception of some of Nikolay Atanassov’s poems—that deals in a sexually explicit way with the lives of gay men. I want to be there to be part of the conversation when the book comes out, to talk about the importance of LGBT literature, the fact that these lives deserve to be the subject of serious literary attention. That’s obvious to me, but it’s not obvious in a tradition where that fight hasn’t been fought yet.

Are you working on another novel or a collection of poems?

I haven’t written poetry in six years. I would love to write poetry again, and it’s still very much part of my reading life: Probably the two books I’m most excited about in 2016 are the collected Adrienne Rich and the collected Frank Bidart. But all the writing on my mind right now is prose. The most immediate project is a collection of stories, which includes “Gospodar” and “Mentor” (published in The Paris Review and A Public Space). It’s a book that shares the world of What Belongs to You, covering things that I want to explore that for whatever reason didn’t fit into the container of the novel. There’s so much from my experience in Bulgaria that I feel I’m still processing.

Maria Dimitrova is a writer based in London.