Garth Greenwell: “Every Human Life Is Infinitely Valuable”

December 21, 2016 by American College of Sofia

Interview by Petia Ivanova ’97

Garth Greenwell taught English Language and Literature at ACS between 2009 and 2013. Next, he wrote a stunning debut novel – What Belongs to You. The book is currently longlisted for the National Book Award, shortlisted for the Center for Fiction First Novel Prize, named one of Publishers Weekly’s Top 10 Books of 2016, one of the best books of the year by The Washington Post, The New Republic, Esquire, GQ, The Spectator, The Guardian, The Evening Standard, Vulture, The Telegraph and described as “the year’s publishing sensation” by BBC Arts. The lyrical story of love and desire, and their consequences is set in Bulgaria. I read the book as soon as it was published in the US and loved it for its unique beautiful language, so when I heard Garth would be coming to Sofia in October for the launch of the Bulgarian translation,[1] I immediately got in touch with him to ask for an interview. He graciously agreed.

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How did you end up teaching at ACS in Bulgaria?

Pretty much by chance. I sometimes say that the real decision took place three years before, when I decided to leave my PhD program and take a job teaching high school in Ann Arbor, Michigan. I thought at the time it was just going to be a year, like I was taking a break to see if I wanted to continue with my PhD. And it’s really true that I fell in love with my students. Harvard was very kind and extended my leave for a second and then a third year. And it was in that third year that I realized that I wasn’t going back and that I didn’t want to finish that PhD. The school I was at was amazing, a really wonderful place, but I remember I was living in this apartment complex, one of those awful suburban apartment complexes in the States, and across the street there was an old persons’ home and I remember thinking, because this school was the kind of place where people have entire careers, how easy it would be to just blink and wake up and live across the street. And so, I’d always wanted to live abroad, I’d never been abroad until after my first year of teaching high school when I chaperoned a group of students to France, and I decided I just wanted to be in Europe.

And so, I was on the market and of the two offers I got, one was this Swiss boarding school, very posh, and one was ACS. As I researched them both I realized that ACS would be the much better teaching experience because the students would be better. And also I thought it would be the more interesting cultural experience, because I would actually be living in a city and not just sort of on a mountain top in a sort of beautiful bubble. So that’s why I chose to come to Sofia. Also I had one friend in Sofia, who in my first year at ACS taught music here, Neda Tsvetkova, and whom I knew from conservatory. We were together at the Eastman School of Music back in the day. So that’s how I ended up here.

I remember, when you came to ACS in 2009 you already spoke Bulgarian at the start of the school year. This made you pretty unique among American teachers. How did it happen?

I love learning languages. I started studying Bulgarian as soon as I had the contract in March, so I had 4-5 months when I was studying with a teacher in Plovdiv over Skype, and I was studying hard. So I came and I had survival Bulgarian. And that full first year I worked really hard on my Bulgarian. I wasn’t really writing because I was using that time to work on Bulgarian. I couldn’t imagine being in a place and not speaking the language. Not that I ever spoke Bulgarian perfectly, but I did speak enough to have real friendships with people who didn’t speak English, and to be able to have real conversations with people who didn’t speak English. I just can’t imagine living in a place without that. It’s true in Sofia it’s fine, you can get around perfectly easily just with English, and certainly most young people speak English. I mean, it took about three years before, reliably, my Bulgarian was better than the English of people I would meet and so people would not immediately switch to English with me. But you know, language is not just information, language is also culture, and I feel like there’s so much about Bulgaria that I learned not because of the translatable information carried in language but because of a different kind of information language carries. I think that’s something really important to be cherished about languages, and it’s something I feel strongly about as an English speaker, because we live in an age where English is the global language, and on one hand that makes it feel sometimes to people who speak English, especially to Americans, as though what would be the point of learning other languages, you don’t really need it, everybody wants to speak English–and especially what’s the point of learning a language like Bulgarian, which is spoken by only about 8 million people. Almost everything that I did and that was valuable about my experience in Bulgaria was tied up with the language and with being able to speak it, with being able to turn on the television and watch something, being able to listen to the radio, being able to read Bulgarian literature, which is not to a very great extent available in English, being able to read the stories of Yovkov. And also in terms of teaching at the American College, like when we read Shakespeare’s sonnets, to be able to bring in Valeri Petrov’s translation of a sonnet and to look at them side by side, or when we read Huckleberry Finn to bring in the first few pages of Yan Bibiyan which I think are very sort of Huck-Finn-ish. Especially teaching something like literature, you want your students to be engaging with the text with their whole lives, with their whole beings, and that means making connections between, you know, a book they read as a kid like Yan Bibyan and a book like Huck Finn and see the use the great poet Valeri Petrov made of Shakespeare. And this just allows for a much richer conversation.

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The Bulgarian premiere of Garth’s novel in Peroto

You have said in interviews that in a sense Bulgaria made you a writer. Can you explain?

One of my biggest fears for English-language literature is that English-language writers don’t read in other languages, don’t know other languages. And the history of English-language literature, the history of innovation in English-language literature has always been history of encounters between languages. I mean, English language as a literary language came into being to a very great degree because Chaucer was a customs official and so he was reading tons of Italian Renaissance books and French books. And the English Renaissance happened because Wyatt was reading Italian sonnets and Romanticism happened because Coleridge went to Germany and read German philosophy, and Modernism happened because Eliot and Pound were reading French. I do feel sometimes that if English literature becomes a conversation with itself, then English literature, despite the fact that English is the global language, is going to be a parochial literature. And I certainly feel like my novel, in fact I was thinking at the book presentation, you know that scene with the fly – Georgi Gospodinov is obsessed with muha, you know, muha appears in all of his books, and I’m sure that was part of why that scene with the fly is in my book. I remember when I was writing that second section, which is very kind of crazy and scary, so scary that after I wrote that section I put it away and didn’t look at it for a year, and it was in that year that I read Teodora Dimova’s Maykite and it was a really important reminder that, all right, literature can do this. So, I wanted to learn Bulgarian for totally selfish reasons, because I think learning languages and reading other literatures makes me a better writer.

But it also shows what a special person you are, really open to everything around you.

That’s the nice way to put it. Also, I think writers are always kind of vampires, and they want to take whatever they can from their experience and from what’s around them. Language is this great resource and yeah, I do think that my book is really deeply influenced by my engagement with Bulgarian—and the least of that influence is the fact that there are Bulgarian words in the book.

So Bulgaria made you turn from poetry to prose?

I think that’s true. I don’t fully understand it. I think something about just the kind of density of information that I was taking in every day being in this place and being so fascinated by it… I remember when I originally conceived of the Mitko story, I remember thinking I would write it in poetry and then, you know, instead, it came out in unbroken sentences. That had to do with Bulgaria. I also think it really had to do with teaching high-school kids after a life as an academic, training to be an academic. Doing a PhD degree is such a solipsistic work in some sense, you’re so caught up in your own head, your most important relationships are with books and the most urgent things in your life are your own thoughts. And then to go from that to being sort of thrust into the lives of 70 adolescents is a powerful change. And teaching is, in some sense, in a meaningful way, a kind of long looking. I mean you look at these kids in a way that no one else in their life looks at them – their parents look at them in a different way, their friends look at them in a different way. And this is especially true when you’re teaching English and reading their writing. I think that is what made me interested in narrative: I became interested in these students and their lives as narratives. I became interested in other people’s lives. I was living in a beautiful place in Michigan, I was biking 8 miles to school and I think that made me more aware of the natural world and I think my poems became more like scenes and more like little narratives. So I think it was teaching high school that prepared the ground and then being in Bulgaria that made me start writing prose.

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Michigan University professor Linda Gregerson’s virtual visit to ACS and Garth’s students, December, 2010

How did it feel to be the only openly gay teacher at ACS at the time?

I was the only openly gay adult, there were other gay adults in the community but none of them open, for a very good reason. I was the only gay American adult. It was hard. I mean, it was not super easy to be an openly gay high-school teacher even in the States from 2006 to 2009. There was a lot of pushback against that and, you know, other teachers would say to me, “Why do you have to be open? Why should your students care about that? Why should they know about that?” And I would just say, “You’re wearing a wedding band and your husband comes to events, how is that not telling students about your sexuality?” That is, fundamentally, I think the most dehumanizing way of thinking about LGBT people that straight people often take for granted, which is that they reduce LGBT relationships to sex, so that in some way, my being openly gay is rubbing sex in students’ faces in ways that this woman bringing her child and spouse to the school is not, in her mind. So it was a matter of education there, too, and just pointing that out, saying, “Actually, wearing a wedding band is advertising your sexuality.” Certainly, in the States, the pushback came from the adults and never from the students. At ACS, the most painful thing was that there were incidents with students. Never my students, actually, but other people’s students in the community. Homophobia or prejudice of any kind is not actually about real people, it’s about an idea, a myth of people. And the most moving thing and the thing that made it all worth it is that pretty much every year one of my students, at least one of my students, usually like a sophomore boy, very macho in that way young guys sometimes are, they would come to me saying, “At the beginning of the year I had certain ideas about gay people and those ideas have changed.” Because they’re myths, and I do think that when kids spend a year actually seeing the reality of a human being in front of them it’s very hard to sustain those myths. That’s one way in which I do think that it’s important to be open, it’s important to be visible. If you’re visible people can’t continue associating you with these totally false monstrous myths they have.

Former ACS ELL teacher Garrard Conley said that being the only openly gay teacher, he sometimes felt as if he was “enacting some kind of public service all the time,” sort of always having to be at his best.

Well, I push back against that really hard in general as a high school teacher. I think it’s really deadly. In the United States there’s this taboo, like a teacher should never acknowledge to a student that he/she had smoked pot, this idea that teachers are saints. I mean, there’s a fine line, and there is such a thing as oversharing. My goal as a teacher was always to be useful to my students, and I think if there’s a necessary boundary with authority, like if you’ve become their friend you aren’t useful to them in the way that you need to be useful. I think it’s very important that you know there is a line. Now I can be friends with former students, but when they were in class with me it was very clear that no, you know, we’re not friends. I was in a position of authority and that was what allowed me to be useful to them. I also think though that if you are inauthentic, you also stop being useful to them. And so, if students ask me questions that I did not feel comfortable answering, I would tell them, “I don’t feel comfortable answering that.” But I would not lie to them. I would not say to them, “Oh no, of course, I have never done drugs, that would be awful, what a horrible thing.” Because they know that’s a lie, and then you can’t be useful to them in terms of what does it mean to be a responsible person and what resources are there if you need help. You want to have an authentic relationship, so I didn’t feel like I had to be perfect in some way.

It’s kind of like with the representation of gay people in general. I think there is a sense among some activists that in order to gain rights and recognition for gay people, gay people have to be presented as kind of ideal, an ideal that very often looks very much like straight life, you know: a monogamous relationship centered on the raising of a child. And I think that that’s just a mistake. Dignity is not something that LGBT people earn by acting in a certain way that seems dignified to people who are disgusted by LGBT people. LGBT lives as they are lived, in the communities in which they are lived, have dignity and value, you don’t have to pretend they conform to a single model of what dignity looks like. You know, once when I was talking about my novel, a very kind of aggressive interviewer at the BBC, her first question to me was, “Why, after decades in which gay men have been reduced to sex, would you begin your book with a sexual encounter in a public bathroom?”

Did she just read the first pages?

I wondered, I actually did wonder but no, she read the second section, too, because she said, “That’s the part I liked.” And I said, “Okay, you like that part because the narrator is the victim and it’s easy to sort of sympathize with him.”

 

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Garth in his classroom at ACS: the photo was featured in College Life

Oh no, I said that about the second part, too. But in my defense, I think I did so because I’m a parent and everything involving parent-children relationships interests and moves me even more.

To me, it is the most important part of the book, there’s no question. But when it comes to the question of sympathy, you know, or distance, in the second part the narrator is easy to sympathize with because he is being victimized and in the other sections he is not. I think it’s bound to be much more complicated than that. But I said to this woman, “You know, the fact that gay people have sex does not diminish them.” And after I gave her this sort of long nuanced answer – this was a pre-taped interview, so she said to me, “You have to speak in shorter answers because we’re going to have to edit this down.” And I said, “You need to ask questions that are not densely impacted homophobic narratives that I have to take the time to pick apart.” I mean, it was clear from the beginning that she was going to be hostile, so I was like “OK, I will be hostile right back.” But this idea that “Oh, you know, we need to represent gay people acting well.” Well, according to what standard? It’s a funny analogy, but it’s similar to what Flannery O’Conner would often be asked. People would say, “You call yourself a Catholic writer. If you’re a Catholic writer how can you write these stories in which these horrible things happen, you know, people are killed, all these things?” And she said, “If you really have faith, then you have the courage to present the world as it is, because you know that God is there.” And in the same way I feel like I’m not making an argument that gay lives have dignity, I am asserting that gay lives have dignity, I’m recognizing the dignity they absolutely have. And I do think that dignity is not something that you bestow on someone, it’s instead something that you recognize in someone. What happens when lives are stripped of dignity, it’s a way of seeing, you know, they are being looked at in a way that refuses to see the dignity that they have. I believe that every human life is infinitely valuable and it doesn’t matter whether that life is rich or poor, whether that life is in New York or Dublin or Afghanistan or Sofia or wherever it is. Human value is not an accident of history or circumstance, it’s always there. And I do think literature is the way of seeing that most powerfully recognizes that value. But it’s not by changing the world, it’s by looking at the world as it is, as closely and carefully and lovingly as you can.

I heard the term GSA (Gay Straight Alliance) for the first time in my life when I had to translate your new faculty intro paragraph. Now we have a GSA at ACS. Have you been back to the school in the last three years? Have you seen any significant changes that you want to comment on?

I have, and I’ve seen extraordinary changes. In fact, I’ve been back to the school every year, and when I was here last year, I couldn’t believe the changes I saw. There was a presentation of the Elizabeth Kostova Foundation fellows and I was here in the audience and well, for one thing, in the back of the lecture hall there were two boys holding hands. That would have been unimaginable in my time here, absolutely unimaginable, and so clearly ACS has changed. I was so relieved and happy when Garrard took the job — to have someone being a visibly gay person living his life with dignity, you know, that is just so important. It’s clear that other teachers arrived who became really fierce allies, and I stayed in close touch with them and heard about some of the battles they fought and won. I’ve tried to be an ally from afar. I think ACS is a safer place now for all students than it was when I was a teacher here. I think it’s great!

Have you kept in touch with your former students?

Yeah, very much, I mean Facebook is wonderful for that. The only real value Facebook has is that. But also, you know, the biggest joy of [the] book tour has been how many students I’ve seen pretty much at every stop. Both American and Bulgarian students have been at almost every reading, and that’s really wonderful. I remember how joyful I was at the second reading I gave in New York – there was a big contingent of Bulgarian students who were in the New York area. And I remember I was signing books when I heard this Bulgarian conversation and said, “Oh, I’m so happy to hear Bulgarian!” We went to dinner afterwards, and it was just wonderful. And now, I’m going to see two students, at least, when I’m in London for my reading on the 10th. That’s a real joy of being a high-school teacher, that there’s this network of friends everywhere that you run into.

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ACS alumni at Garth’s reading at Foyles in London, October, 2016

What’s the best and what’s the worst about teaching?

The best and worst thing about teaching is actually the same thing: it’s the intensity of it. I just taught university fiction for the first time. As part of my graduate studies, I taught at Harvard and at Washington University at St. Louis, but I did not teach at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, because I was doing a fellowship. And so this summer, at NYU, I taught my first college-level fiction workshop. It was fine, the students were good, but I kept feeling like there was an intensity missing. I saw the class twice a week for three hours each time, Monday and Wednesday, and then from Thursday to Sunday I didn’t think about them at all. It was like I didn’t feel I had a real relationship with them, I didn’t feel like I got to really see their growth over the course of the workshop. There was missing that kind of intense constant engagement you have when you’re a high school teacher and when you’re reading a ton of their work and they have million assignments over the course of the year. You really can see this extraordinary growth. And when they come to talk to you during lunch period and they want to talk to you after classes and they want to tell you about their lives and talk about their other classes. The intensity of that engagement and relationship is what was transformative for me about high school teaching. I really did discover as a high school teacher feelings I didn’t know I was capable of, a kind of disinterested love. I mean, never in my life have I ever thought that I wanted to be a parent and I still don’t, and I’m very grateful for that because my life would be so much harder if I wanted to be a parent. But I discovered a kind of parental feeling I did not know I was capable of as a high school teacher, and that is what made high school teaching such an important element of my growth as a human being and of my growth as a writer, I think. But it is also why after seven years of high school teaching I was just really burned out. It’s just such a hard, exhausting job. It is the kind of job where nothing you ever do will actually be enough, you feel you should always be doing more. And with the students here’s a kind of reward, because you see that growth, and everything. But then there’s also the other side of high school teaching, which is the administrative aspect, and there it’s just no reward, it’s just you give up this energy and there’s no sense of satisfaction. And then the other thing was that I was writing this novel, and so I was waking up at 4:30 in the morning to write for two hours and that was all I could do – I wrote a novel and I taught and then that was it, you know. There really wasn’t space in my life for a relationship, even for really sustained friendships. It was really hard. And then also I realized that two hours in the morning is not enough and that I could never discover what I could do as a writer if I didn’t quit high school teaching. So, it’s that intensity that’s the best thing, and it’s that intensity that, for me, made it unsustainable. I just couldn’t do it.

What was the most and the least successful ELL assignment you ever gave here at ACS? (I loved that story you shared in Peroto about the Dubliners assignment, only on Sofia, where students had to include real maps that you really checked.)

Actually, the first non-scholarly prose I ever published was an essay about that assignment called “A Native Music.” I think somebody wrote me that a teacher here[2] teaches it to his ELL students. It was definitely the best assignment. And the worst… you know, my students could tell you. Trying to sort of balance as an English teacher all the different things you need to be doing and encouraging the students to do is really hard. Definitely, every year there were assignments –every year I tried to revise my assignments to make them more useful – but every year there would be something where I thought this was a waste of time. And I felt terrible if I felt like I had wasted the students’ time. I wanted never to give them busy work, never to give them work that just took up their time without a clear benefit, and I think there were assignments that did that, definitely. Anytime I was doing that because of having to have a certain amount of grades in a quarter, that just felt horrible, awful.

The Sofians story was the best lesson I taught my students, because it taught them a way of seeing. The other best thing I did, and this I did more in the States than I did here, was when I made my students memorize Shakespeare sonnets. That is the most lastingly meaningful assignment – I mean, I still get emails from my very first students who say how something happened and it made them think of the sonnet, and they were just so happy to know it. ‘Cause, you know, memorizing poetry is kind of accoutrement of the self, it enriches your life. Like, for me, every time I see the first flowers on the trees in spring I think of a certain poem by Hopkins, and that’s an enrichment of my life.

What is ACS/Sofia/Bulgaria to you?

My experience in Bulgaria – and ACS and Sofia are a part of my experience in Bulgaria, – totally changed my life in every way. There was just no part of my life that was untouched by it. And I think it’s a richer life because of all those things. And my experience in Sofia would not have been as rich if I had not been working with young people in Sofia, because working with young people makes you invest in a place in a certain way. And caring deeply about my students made me care deeply about Sofia and about Bulgaria. Caring deeply about my students’ fates made me care deeply about the fate of this place, its destiny. Caring deeply about those things made me a richer human being and a writer.

What is the most beautiful place in Bulgaria you’ve been to? Have you written about it yet?

That’s hard. There are a lot of beautiful places. I do think Sozopol is very beautiful. I think Veliko Tarnovo is just ravishing, it’s just incredibly gorgeous. And then I think there are many beautiful places in Sofia, too. Someone said to me at this literary festival in South Africa, “Oh, Sofia. I hear Sofia is the ugliest former Soviet capital.” I almost punched him in the face! But instead I said to him, “You don’t know anything about it. You’ve never been to Sofia.” I think Sofia is an incredibly beautiful city. I think Mladost’s just beautiful. I came to Mladost the other night to have dinner with a friend and I got out of the metro and just looked at the landscape, you know, the mountain and then the blokove – it’s very beautiful. It’s alive!

Tell us more about your creative process. Do you experience things in order to write about them later or do you write about stuff you experienced?

I don’t think you can engineer it. I think there’s a kind of inexplicable chemistry you either have with a place or you don’t. And I felt it immediately in Sofia. It is like the chemistry you have with a person – it’s either there or it’s not, and I know where I feel it and where I don’t. I don’t feel it in Madrid, I do feel it in Granada. I don’t feel it in Iowa City, I do feel it in Santiago.

Maybe it has to be a little crooked?

Maybe it has to be a little crooked. I think that’s part of it. A place that’s sort of perfectly manicured doesn’t interest me. It’s also true of people. You know, if there’s a kind of perfection of appearance, I’m sort of not interested in some way. It doesn’t need to be something extreme. In the States: Portland yes, Los Angeles no. I don’t understand it. And you can’t engineer it.

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What Belongs to You, US cover

After the tremendous success of your book, have you been able to actually breathe out and just enjoy being successful without feeling guilty for not working on something new or making a living? And without feeling bad about a less positive critic (if such exist)?

Oh, they exist! There hasn’t been a lot of breathing over the last ten months or so, but I’m hoping I’ll have a chance soon. After this, I’m going to be in England, for 6 days, visiting 7 cities, and doing 8 events – there’s just no way to write. But after that I’m done. I go back to the States and I’ll go back to these projects. I will also head to a residency in Texas, where for five weeks I hope I’ll be able to unplug and begin to process the last year. And mainly I hope that (finally!) I’ll get to write in an uninterrupted way – something I miss being able to do very much.

What inspires you?

 I really think anything can be inspiration, and I find it all around me. For me, it’s usually the weird alignment of two things that seem unlike each other: something I see connects with something I’m reading, or with a piece of music I’m listening to, or with a memory I have. It’s less any of those things alone that counts as inspiration than the relationship they make.

You wrote the first draft of What Belongs to You in a series of notebooks. Do you still write by hand? Is it because inspiration comes unexpectedly, or is it something else?

I do write by hand. I find that it slows me down in a way that’s useful, and lets me feel sentences in a different way. And, maybe most importantly, it keeps me away from the internet and its distractions.

Do most writers wake up at 4:30 in order to write before having to go to work for a living?

Every writer is different–but I think a lot of writers do do things like this, yes. Irish writer John Boyne, who wrote this book called The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, reviewed my book for The Irish Times and I met him at a reading in Dublin. He was like, “I do most of my writing while traveling.” I can’t imagine. Although, you know, it could be, and all of my friends who’ve sort of been doing this for a long time, they’re like, “Every morning for an hour write, and it will change everything.” But I haven’t been able to while traveling.

How about the editing process?

I worked really hard with my editor at Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, my American publisher, and I feel immensely grateful to her. Together, we made the book a lot shorter than it was, and she helped me see where the language was less strong than it needed to be, where I needed to re-write to make it stronger.

How does writing a critically acclaimed book change the life of its author?

In the most important way, nothing has changed: when I try to write something new, I’m alone with the blank page. In other ways though, a lot has changed. I feel (not always comfortably) like a writer in a public sense now, and over the last year I’ve spent almost all my time traveling and speaking about the book. Most importantly, the book has bought me time: limited time, but still time in which I can think about the next book without the demands of a full-time job.

Have readers and critics discovered things in your book you hadn’t initially intended?

Oh definitely. I think the meaning of a book happens somewhere between the author’s intention and what a reader brings to a book. I’ve discovered so many things about the book from conversations with readers.

Name three books we absolutely MUST read NOW.

The books that have excited me most in the last year are: Anuk Arupdpragasam, The Story of a Brief Marriage, Brian Blanchfield, Proxies, and Olivia Laing, The Lonely City.

Name three books that have changed your life.

James Baldwin, Giovanni’s Room, Edmund White, A Boy’s Own Story, and Jean Genet, Our Lady of the Flowers.

Sofia, October 2016

[1] Translated by Nadezhda Radulova and edited by freelance journalist Dimiter Kenarov (ACS Class of 1999). Published by Black Flamingo under the title „Каквото ти принадлежи“.

[2] In fact, both Iain Flannery and Isabel Norwood do that.

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