The Desire Not to Be: The Millions Interviews Garth Greenwell

June 12, 2020 | 1 book mentioned 9 min read

In Cleanness, Garth Greenwell’s follow-up to his critically acclaimed debut What Belongs to You, the author brings readers into an intimate and explicit relationship between an unnamed narrator and a student named R. Greenwell’s first and second books aren’t necessarily a pair. One does not need to be read before the other, but they both do revolve around the same characters, location, and time.

Cleanness expands on what Greenwell built in his first book. Long passages explore the queer body and the love and sex that comes with it. The narrator and R. live in Sofia, Bulgaria, where they are happy together, but there is a sense of end looming over their heads. The book begins and ends with explicit scenes of sex—more than the fleeting moments in his first book. Greenwell delivers these moments with such beauty and frankness, without shying away from the sadomasochism and voyeurism that fill these men’s relationships.

I spoke with the author about the relationship between his first two books, his approach to crafting his novels, and why Cleanness needed explicit sex scenes.

coverThe Millions: What Belongs to You Came out three years ago. When did you start thinking about Cleanness?

Garth Greenwell: I started writing the earliest sections of Cleanness in 2011. I wrote several of the chapters at the same time as What Belongs to You. I would finish scenes for that book and turn and write scenes I knew would be for a different book. By the time What Belongs to You was published in 2016, I probably had about half the book written. The other half was written in the years since.

TM: How did you know what was meant for your debut as opposed to this book?

GG: It was really clear to me. I had a very early intuition that What Belongs to You needed to be a streamlined container and really focused on the relationship between these two men. I knew there were other aspects of the narrator’s life and world that I wanted to explore.

What made it okay for me to leave that out of What Belongs to You was that I knew there was this other book that was more of an ample container that could contain more places and more characters.

TM: R. played a vital but small role in your debut and is now back for Cleanness. What made you return to him?

GG: The earliest thing I knew about Cleanness was that the heart of it would be the relationship with R. It was interesting to have What Belongs to You be what it was and write the scenes with R. who only really appears on Skype. It was interesting to leave so much out and so much of that relationship untold because I knew I wanted it to be in this other book.

I hope the books are independent and that someone can read Cleanness without having read What Belongs to You, but they do intermingle. It’s not that one is a sequel or a prequel. They occupy the same geographical and temporal space. If someone reads What Belongs to You and then Cleanness or Cleanness and then What Belongs to You, I hope they would be much richer books.

TM: The books are siblings in a sense that they coexist and touch each other’s lives but you don’t need to know everything about life for another life to make sense. 

GG: Also, there is a tension in me as an artist where on one hand I desire well-made or well-shaped things and enjoy a formally satisfying object. On the other hand, feeling the artifice of that and how inadequate those perfectly shaped objects fail to represent the reality of our lives.

It’s a way of trying to have my cake and eat it, too. To have these books that are elaborately shaped, but there is an acknowledgment between the two that there is an openness to these shapes. My hope with What Belongs to You was that the first two sentences lit a fuse and the bomb that it led to went off in the last chapter. That book was a thing in it of itself and shaped in a way that it was as satisfying as I could make it.

If you put Cleanness next to it, the shape that book made is forced to open up again. Cleanness filters in and then What Belongs to You filters into Cleanness. That is something very appealing to me. Having books that are their own thing but also constantly opening up into one another.

TM: I was very engulfed by your sense of place and how you present Sofia to us in such a manner where you don’t beat readers over the head with place and setting. What is your approach to writing about Sofia?

GG: I think my approach to writing, in general, is that it is a discipline of looking. It is a way to observe the world in the fullest intensity of all of my faculties. My physical sensorial apparatus and my moral faculties. It’s something interesting to me, and is something I can’t explain to myself, about what I can invent in fiction and what I can’t invent in fiction.

Something I cannot invent where there is a complete block is place. I wrote What Belongs to You when I was living in Bulgaria. Much of Cleanness, about half, I wrote after I left Bulgaria. That was really difficult. I found I would be blocked in a scene, let’s say if I couldn’t remember what a particular street corner smelled like at 10 o’clock at night. I would wrestle with myself and tell myself to make it up and I couldn’t.

I spent one to two months in Bulgaria every year I was working on this book and I would go around with a notebook seriously recording sense data. I was trying to make verbal sketches in case they would become helpful to me writing this book.

When I work with students about scenery, I do think it’s true that much of the art of conveying reality lays not in perfusion but in selection. It’s not a matter of accumulating sense data, but trying to sniff out that particular detail that will bring a world to life.

TM: Do you think you’d ever be able to write about a place you haven’t spent a lot of time in, or will your works primarily be set in Bulgaria or even Iowa? 

GG: I do think as I was finishing Cleanness that the chapter of my creative and affective life that has been about Bulgaria has come to a state of completion. It made finishing the book very hard, actually. Place has been the start and finish of everything I have written. I can’t imagine writing well about a place where I had not had a profound experience in. I don’t think the profundity of experience is equal to time spent. I can imagine being in a place for a weekend and having a profound experience enough to write about it or spending 10 years in a place and feeling the same way.

I can’t imagine setting a book somewhere that I didn’t have a profound experience in. Who knows, maybe in 10 years I’ll feel that way, but can’t imagine that right now.

TM: The body of this book also features a lot of long passages. What about those long takes on a subject appeals to you? 

GG: It doesn’t really feel like a choice. I think I tend to think slowly and I need to dwell in order to think through a thought completely. When I was writing both books or when I am writing anything, my mantra is to be patient and to dwell in a scene until I feel like it taught me everything it could teach me.

I like writing where I feel like a writer is wringing a situation dry and they are not eager to move on. The feeling that they want to stay with a particular moment until it has done all of the work it can do.

That said, the center of the book, which is called “The Frog King,” is in fragments. The new project’s early material has also been in that fragmented vein. It was a surprise to me when “The Frog King” was written that way. It’s been a surprise with the new project. I’m not sure where that is going to lead, but it is exciting to see significance driven by juxtaposition as opposed to by a feeling of wringing a scene dry.

I feel that feels constant with poetry writing, which I have done most of my life as a writer. It feels the way poems are composed. I adore writers like Michael Ondaatje who use fragments in very brilliant ways. That is to say, I am interested in other forms as well.

TM: I always adored how your passages, as you say, wring a moment dry because it feels like the mundane is cinematic and dramatic. I’m drawn to that because mundane is what most of our lives are.

 GG: I believe that revelation lies all around us. One of my most central beliefs about literature is that literature is a way of looking. It doesn’t have to do with extraordinary or unusual events. It has to do with a particular attitude taken toward the world.

TM: This book also deals with sex, which you have written about in the past, but this book feels a little different. How has writing about sex and the body changed for you between books? 

GG: I actually think Cleanness is quite different in that respect. One of the biggest surprises about the reception of What Belongs to You was how much people talked about sex when there was very little sex in that book. I think that does say something about where mainstream, literary American publishing was in 2016. The fact that a book like mine, which did have explicit passages that equaled maybe two or three pages, seemed so surprising to people.

Some of the most explicit scenes in Cleanness were written before the What Belongs to You came out, but I did feel in response to that reaction, I felt I’ll earn that conversation in that book. I wanted to push what I could do in writing about sex.

I feel like sex is this extraordinarily complex and dense act of communication. Wringing a moment dry of its significance is really fascinating and to try to see how one can untangle the various kinds of communication that are happening during sex. I am also just interested in sex. Sex seems to be interesting in a scenic way. I am interested in how bodies occupy space during sex. I am also interested in it in an emotional way and what people feel during sex. I am also interested in a philosophical way. I think sex is the source of our metaphysics and where we have our greatest intimations of transcendence. It’s something that can do a lot of work in fiction.

I was also just interested in the challenge of writing something as explicit as I could make it, as well as making as high art as I could make it. These characters are in moments that they themselves view as degrading but I wanted to treat that situation with all of the serious and dignity bestowed upon high art.

TM: Were the scenes featuring sadomasochism and more explicit content scenes you wanted to write previously but couldn’t for whatever reason?

GG: One of the things that concerns me when I write about multiple characters is the question of power. In What Belongs to You, the question of power is layered in many ways. It has to do with nationality and class and beauty and desire. There is a way in which that was fertile enough and complex enough without the added layer of S&M.

In some sense, both S&M and sex work raise questions of consent and what extent we can consent to things and what extent we can’t and how difficult that is to discern. In writing Cleanness, I knew I wanted to write about sadomasochism and think of questions of consent and coercion. I wanted to write about the desire not to be. Sex is an expression of that desire not to be.

The book is called Cleanness and I think there is something in us that longs very much for cleanness. I think cleanness often represents the desire not to be. I think there is also something in us that longs for filth. I think the longing for filth can also be the desire not to be. I think those things can also be the desire to occupy the body and connect with another body. Sex seems like such an emotional and moral tangle. I wanted to view it from as many different angles as I could in this book. The different kinds of communication that sex can be, like communicating with a stranger or communicating with a beloved; I wanted there to be a kaleidoscopic surveying of sex as human activity and communication in the book.

TM: How has sex and queerness changed in literature since you were a young student learning to write to now as a teacher teaching others to write?

GG: I think it’s hard to say anything that is really true about that. I’ll hear others and hear myself talking in really simplistic ways about that, but I actually don’t think it’s simple. I think queer sex, but also sex in general, I feel our culture is constantly losing and having to reinvent the resources for addressing sex in art.

I often hear this narrative that people weren’t writing queer sex before the 1980s or stopped in the 1980s because of the AIDS epidemic but started again in the 2000s. I think if you look closely, none of that is true. Gordon Merrick wrote The Lord Won’t Mind trilogy which is still jaw-droppingly explicit and that first book came out in 1970. Maybe there is more latitude for explicitness in mainstream publishing right now in this moment. I do think there is more latitude for a range of possibilities for queer life. It doesn’t shock me if there is a book about a monogamous gay couple or if there is a novel with a polyamorous community. I think there is much more acknowledgment that various ways of life are legitimate and have a place in literature.

Something I think about in Cleanness is anal sex and it does feel our culture is very adverse to talking about anal sex and especially anal sex between men. In What Belongs to You, there is no representation of anal sex. In Cleanness there is a lot of it. I wanted to think of anality and what it means to try to represent that in a way that doesn’t let people look away from it. I do think a lot of acceptance of queer people in our culture is dependent on not thinking about men fucking each other. Writing that book has made me more sensitive to anality in general in literature. D.H. Lawrence in Lady Chatterly’s Lover is so good about writing about anal sex and it is jaw-dropping to see how willing he is to go there.

So every time I think our age has allowed us to do x, y, or z, I look back and realize others were able do it.

is a Phoenix-based writer whose criticism and interviews have appeared in Electric Literature, Paste Magazine, The Millions, and more. He runs Debutiful, a site dedicated to celebrating debut authors and their books. Follow him on Twitter to see what he's currently reading.

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