Garth Greenwell on Transitional Spaces and the Burden of Action
“Harbor” takes place in a Bulgarian resort town, shortly before the season starts. How important is the idea of that transitional or interstitial stage to the story?
There are lots of harbors in this story: the literal harbor where it ends; the emotional harbor of a relationship, which the narrator has lost, or is in the process of losing; the harbor or parenthesis formed by an occasion like a writers’ conference; the harbor of the pocket of time before a vacation town comes to life.
I’m interested in the emotional dynamics of harbors, the way they always feel like transitional spaces, or spaces of unease: one longs for safety and rest; one longs for adventure. This is an unease built into any structure of stability, I find: a relationship, a career, any settled life. You pull into a harbor to recuperate, to prepare; you don’t actually live there. Until you do.
The narrator is attending a fiction workshop, which brings together American and Bulgarian writers. How much does it matter that the characters in the story are all writers? Or is the particular state they’re in—both strangers and, temporarily, colleagues—more significant?
I’ve spent a fair amount of time at writers’ conferences and festivals, which have a peculiar, charged atmosphere. Writing is solitary, invisible labor, and most writers live surrounded by people who couldn’t care less about it; it’s intoxicating to be in an atmosphere of shared endeavor. That atmosphere is conducive to charged encounters, to friendship and desire, to a possibly artificial but very intense experience of intimacy. The narrator of this story both longs for that experience and is suspicious of it; his shifting proximity to and distance from it form the emotional contours of the story.
“Harbor” appears in your new book, “Cleanness,” which will be published, in January, by F.S.G. “Cleanness” is made up of nine sections, and the last two stories of yours that we’ve run, “An Evening Out” and “The Frog King,” are also among those nine. “The Frog King” culminates in a scene of striking tenderness between the narrator and his boyfriend, R.—in describing that story, you said you’d wanted to challenge yourself to write about happiness—whereas, here, the relationship seems to be coming to an end, with R. seeing no future for it, and the two men are back in a more familiar position of pursuing separate lives in different countries. Was one of these stories harder to write than the other?
“The Frog King” was a kind of harbor, too—a respite in a book that is often quite hard on these characters. I haven’t figured out the best way to talk about “Cleanness” yet, or even what to call it. The nine chapters were written as stories, and I hope that they’re individually satisfying. But they are intensely interwoven, more than interwoven: they all have the same narrator; they take place within a period of a few years; there are story lines that arc across them. The story of the narrator’s relationship with R. is at the heart of the book, told in the three chapters of the book’s central section. That story is told chronologically, with a beginning, middle, and end. But the rest of the book isn’t chronological: in both the first and third sections, the narrator is grieving his relationship with R. and navigating a world that has been transformed by an experience of love he has lost. “Harbor” is the first chapter of the third section, and the story in which that grief is most fresh.
There was some back and forth about the possibility of calling the book a novel. That didn’t feel quite right to me, though I hope the experience of reading the book is immersive in the way that novels can be; but it doesn’t feel right to call it a collection, either. What makes more sense to me is thinking of the book as a kind of song cycle, and of the relationship between the chapters as aspiring to the relationship that exists between the songs in something like Schubert’s “Winterreise.” Maybe since I came so late to writing fiction, I don’t fetishize particular fictional genres or forms (in the way that I sometimes do with poetry), and I’m happy to let readers think of it however they like, as a novel or a collection. I’m grateful that the book is being published without a label, simply as a “book of fiction.”
As to which story was harder to write, “The Frog King” or “Harbor”: “Harbor” took much longer to get right—it took years—and was harder logistically, maybe because there are more characters and more moving parts, and because thematically the story is more diffuse. But writing “The Frog King” was emotionally devastating in a peculiar way, I think because I was writing about a happiness I knew the characters would lose.
The narrator has started to think about other men, both in Sofia, where he lives, and in Sozopol. “I didn’t trust myself, I was too eager,” he thinks. “I caught myself looking at him, at almost every man I passed, with a kind of hunger R. had shielded me from, I mean the thought of R.” Yet the story is also about inaction, in a way, about not making a move. Did you ever think of making the narrator act?
I wanted to write a story of stasis—but not of stasis as lacking intensity or drama. At the end, when the narrator sees the priest almost naked, he says that he feels like “a flame submerged in glass,” which might be an image of what I wanted the story to do: to have vibrancy without decisive action, to have intensity within stasis. The desire the narrator feels is both spurred and checked by grief, and he experiences himself as desiring beneath a prohibition. So I knew the narrator wasn’t going to be the center of the action of the story; I knew that the primary action would be displaced onto another character.
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In “Harbor,” the writers decide to explore Sozopol after dinner, taking bottles of wine along with them for good measure. They’re still getting to know one another—making conversational sallies, seeking to befriend or impress or charm. Underneath it all, there’s this kind of inchoate mix of desire and frustration. Were there any logistical difficulties, as you were writing, in charting the movements of a group through a resort town?
Everything I’ve written has begun with place. All of my fiction is full of invention—invented characters, invented situations—but I feel an urgency I don’t fully understand about being true to place. This made it hard to continue to write about Bulgaria after I came back, in 2013; sometimes it was debilitating. Google Maps is helpful for joggling memory, but often I found myself blocked in a scene because I couldn’t remember what a particular street corner sounded or smelled like at a particular time of day. I spent at least a month in Bulgaria each year that I was working on the book, and I found myself taking reams of notes, just recording sense data that I might find I needed.
The first version of “Harbor” was written years ago, and then set aside. It had most of the elements of the current version—religion, sex, heartbreak, writing—but they didn’t cohere somehow; there was a kind of thinness to the story, a lack of gravity. I returned to it every now and again, but it didn’t come alive until a residency in Bulgaria, in fall 2016, as part of which I spent two weeks in Sozopol. I think a certain experience of place was the density the story was missing; in the hours I spent walking the town’s mostly deserted streets, I could feel details of the place adhering to the story’s thematic concerns, like some weird, necessary emulsion.
One of the Bulgarian writers is also a priest. The narrator is reminded of an earlier period of his life where he considered converting to Catholicism, but it’s the priest who most embodies the undercurrent of desire running through the story, both in the way that he seeks the attention of the women in the group and also draws the narrator’s sexual attention. Did you know from the outset that the priest would fulfil this function in the story? Does the narrator see more of his past in him, or his future?
I’m a decidedly, committedly secular person, but maybe it’s fair to say that I have a religious temperament, an inclination toward devotion, and I’m interested in what can be done with our longing for a transcendence we don’t believe in. (“Man needs a metaphysics; / he cannot have one,” Frank Bidart writes in his poem “Confessional.”) Art is an answer; sex is an answer; neither of them suffices. Religious imagery keeps appearing in my writing—there’s an odd scene in my first novel where the narrator lingers around a half-built church—and I wanted to write something that allowed me to think about it a little more forthrightly.
I knew that I wanted the priest to bear the burden of action in the story, that he would be, in some way, a surrogate for the narrator. This was an irony that seemed interesting to me: the sexually adventurous narrator restrained, the religious personage unbridled. And maybe I just liked the idea of a priest acting in unpriestly ways, pursuing bodily pleasures, stripping on a beach where sometimes gay men cruise one another. I don’t think the narrator sees his future or his past in the priest; I think he sees in him an image of desire that is always present—and always, at least for him, unmanageable—whatever its object. God, love, art, sex: it’s all one and the same, the narrator thinks. Maybe I think so, too.
At the opening of the story, the narrator finds himself staring out at the sea: “You could lose yourself in it, that was what I liked, it was beautiful but also it was like looking at nothing, the sight of it drowned out thinking like the sound of it drowned out noise.” Do you think the sea drowns out thinking for both the narrator and the priest, or does it intensify it?
I’ve spent most of my life in landlocked places—Louisville, Sofia, Iowa City—and so the sea has always been something exotic for me, a promise of elsewhere. It’s a useful tool in fiction, a ready-made counterpoint: something a character can always look out on, a source of ever-changing mood, a kind of escape hatch into a different scale of existence. Maybe it’s important for the story that the narrator only ever looks at the sea, that only the priest is willing to immerse himself in it, to give himself over to whatever it is the sea offers. But, whether one is looking out at the sea or swimming in it, the escape it offers is always only partial or temporary, another kind of harbor one has to leave. Eventually, the narrator has to turn back to the claims being made upon him, by the people around him or by the phone in his pocket, to the stuff of real life; eventually, the priest has to turn back to shore. Or doesn’t have to, maybe, and maybe that’s the thrill of the kind of abandon the narrator doesn’t allow himself in this story: the thrill of insisting upon a faculty of choice, of breaking the chains of the inevitable. If one turns back, it’s because one chooses to turn back, today, from this particular abandon. Tomorrow one might choose otherwise.
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