The Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Less, Andrew Sean Greer went against industry advice to release a sequel this year: Less is Lost. In a freewheeling conversation with Sumeet Keswani, he talks about his writing process, travels for research, character inspirations, favourite LGBTQIA+ books, and much more!
A Conversation with Andrew Sean Greer
Kunzum: How much of yourself did you put into Arthur Less? Or do you relate more to any other character in the books?
AS Greer: Looking at me and looking at the book cover, you might think that is me. I certainly give Arthur Less a lot of my experiences. In fact, some of the scenes that happen in the books are exactly what I experienced. But I don’t think of him as me. Because I think of him as much more innocent, more naive, about the world. I’m like a reporter writing down everything; he’s experiencing it. He’s a sweeter person than I am. I think I’m more like the narrator, Freddy Pelu [Less’s partner in the books]; that’s actually my voice—it’s a little bit more teasing.
Kunzum: Less suffers from an impostor syndrome in both the books. Is that something you relate to?
AS Greer: Yeah, absolutely! After winning the Pulitzer Prize, I was thinking, ‘Why did I win this? That’s not right.’ And then I had to write a book that was a Pulitzer Prize winner’s book. And I didn’t; I wrote another Less book instead. I thought, ‘I’m just going to write what I want to, something that’s great fun and not a serious, important novel.’
Kunzum: Was a sequel always on your mind?
AS Greer: After I finished the [first] book, I often kept writing it (the sequel) in my head. Because I missed it. You spend so much time going over the same pages when you write a novel, and this time, I just kept writing it. I thought I’d wear it out with time. My agent told me not to write another Less book; in fact, I wrote 100 pages of another novel and it was terrible. I realised the character I was writing was so close to Arthur Less that I was being foolish not to use what I already had. And as a writer, I’ve always felt that I should do whatever I want—that makes a better book. So, it took me a while to give myself permission to write the sequel.
Kunzum: Now I must ask, is there a third Less book you’re writing next?
AS Greer: No, it’s not an Arthur Less book, and I don’t think it’s going to turn into one. But I’m going to pass to my future self the possibility of another one, because they’re so much fun to write. They tend to take a lot of work—I like to travel. In fact, I had to cut chapters from this book where Less wasn’t travelling; it’s no fun if he isn’t on the move.
Kunzum: If the next book isn’t about Arthur Less, what is it about? Are you allowed to tell us?
AS Greer: I can tell you that the material I have is Italy—that’s where I spent the pandemic—and also that it will be a comedy.
Kunzum: Did you feel any additional pressure writing Less is Lost after the Pulitzer win?
AS Greer: Yes! Not the idea of the prize, but the idea that people would actually read it. I knew that Less meant something to the readers, and I didn’t want to disappoint them or harm the character or not live up to the readers’ expectations. But during the pandemic, I was pretty much all alone, which made it a little easier.
Kunzum: In the second book, the narrator, Freddy, keeps making himself felt, as opposed to the first book where his identity is a mystery. Is this change symbolic of his evolving relationship with Less?
AS Greer: Yes, you got it. It was fun to hide him in the first book. In the second book, because it’s about what happens after the happy ending, I thought the relationship needed to be more balanced. At one point, Freddy takes over the book. That, I thought, would make the relationship fair.
Kunzum: The common thread between the two books is travel. Less travels to escape his troubles but is confronted by them regardless. Have you had any transformative travel experiences yourself?
AS Greer: I travel to humble myself. A lot of people travel to see sights but I do it to realise that my habits and preconceptions are arbitrary—that there are other ways of doing things. I now spend half my time in Italy. It’s a humbling place to live, because I’m wrong all the time—on how to use the subway, whether seafood and dairy belong together in the same dish—I’m corrected all the time. What’s normal for them is not normal for me, which makes me realise my American way of thinking is not the only way. That keeps me alert as a writer—things are strange to me. Even when I come back home, the American world seems alien to me and I like that as a writer.
Kunzum: In the first book, Less is the awkward American who visits a bunch of foreign countries and is always the outsider, but in the second one, you’ve made him travel across America, with political references included. What made you do that?
AS Greer: In 2016, when Donald Trump became the US President, it was a surprise to a lot of Americans. I thought, ‘I don’t really understand my country.’ So, I rented a camper van and visited parts of the country I’d never been to—to the Southwest (Arizona, New Mexico), which is a sort of desert landscape, and then to the Deep South, one of the first parts to have been colonised by England and that enslaved Black people for centuries, but also a charming part of the country where my family is from. I wanted to see what I was wrong about. I never talked politics to people, but I talked to many whom I never would’ve met otherwise—and the book came out of that.
Kunzum: So, are the characters that Less meets in the second book rooted in the people you met on the road?
AS Greer: Very few. I had two rules while writing Less: that I could use only those details that I put down in my notebook, because I didn’t want to make an imagined fantasy of a foreign country—a lot of Western writers have done that; and secondly, the joke would always be on Arthur Less. I didn’t want to make fun of a foreign country—they’re normal; Arthur is the strange thing coming in. It was especially difficult in India, because I visited only one place—so I wrote down a lot of detail but I didn’t use actual people. I did the same with the second book. I went to Mississippi, and I only used the details I wrote down in my notebook but I made up most of the people.
Kunzum: Few people know that you have an identical twin brother, Mike. Does he feature in any of the Less books?
AS Greer: Sometimes, I have twins in my books (but not in these two books). I think, if anything, I am Freddy and he’s [Mike] Arthur Less—in a way. My brother is a much sweeter and kinder person than I am. I think I’m a nice guy but I’m a novelist so I’m a narcissist, and he’s not.
Kunzum: What’s your writing process?
AS Greer: Right now I’m on a book tour, so my days are lazy. I love these in-between-book moments because I can go to the gym, make a nice meal, etc. But once I go back to writing mode, it becomes much more like a normal job. I wake up around 6.30, make coffee, and go straight to the computer to start working — before I read the news. I find the news very distracting these days because something awful is always happening. Once I read the news, things are shot for a couple of hours because my mind is somewhere else. I have to be in the universe of the novel, which cares about different things.
Once I’m working on a book, everything is about the book. I turn down invitations to birthday parties, invitations by magazines to travel. I become very focussed and obsessive for around three years. I go away for weeks to writing retreats, or even to a friend’s empty house somewhere. I become very selfish, or ‘protective of the book’ is how I think of it. I’m an extrovert when I’m not writing a book, but an introvert when I am writing one.
Kunzum: Do you also yell “Champagne!” when you’re done with a book? Like Arthur Less and his former lover?
AS Greer: (laughs) No, I don’t do that! Because I never feel done! I do have those moments when I finish my writing for the day and think, ‘I’m a genius!’ But when you look back at what you’ve written—those days, it turns out, what you write is no good at all, because it’s so overblown. And then there are days when I feel I’m a total loser and I can’t write at all—and those days, when you look back, is better writing.
Kunzum: Which writers/books have influenced you most?
AS Greer: When I’m working on a book I’m looking for storytelling clues. If I have a scene that’s not working well, I look for someone else who’s struggled with it and found a solution. So, it can be anything. But I consistently turn to some classics: I find Marcel Proust really inspiring—I can turn to any page and find new ways of describing something—or Nabokov; his storytelling is exceptional. I like reading works in translation, because books written in another language tend to not have the typical American storytelling style. I just read a fantastic book from France that I hadn’t even heard of; it’s not even in print. I had to buy it at a used bookstore! It’s called Faraway by André Dhôtel. I don’t read the new bestsellers; I’m the preloved and independent bookstore kind of buyer.
Kunzum: Can you tell us your five favourite LGBTQIA+ books?
AS Greer: Tales of the City by Armistead Maupin is a series of books about San Fransisco. They started in the 1970s and they’re joyous, not sad and struggling; every kind of person is in there. Therein lies the basis of the Less books. A Boy’s Own Story by Edmund White was one of the first books I really loved. Fiebre Tropical by Juli Delgado Lopera is a more modern part-Spanish, part-English book with gender fluidity. Marcel Proust was one of the first LGBTQ writers. Patricia Highsmith’s novels are much more coded, so people don’t think of her as a queer writer but she was one. I also like the old English writers like EM Forster and Evelyn Waugh; I’m still charmed by them.
Kunzum: What do you look for in a bookstore?
AS Greer: When you go into chain bookstores, they all look the same. What I love about independent bookstores is that they have new books that you’ve never heard of. They have read and chosen these books to display and talk to you about. I like a bookstore that’s a little bossy—I pick up a book and they say, “I don’t think you want that book, I have another book that you’d probably prefer.” They’re not just trying to take my money, they’re trying to help me. Every time I walk into an independent bookstore, I walk out with a book I’d never thought about. It’s something Amazon can’t do, nor can a bestseller list.