"Where Are They Now" is our series catching up with some of the most memorable people and topics we've covered on Haighteration.
It's been a couple of years since we first chatted with Lower Haighter Andrew Sean Greer. His latest book, The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells, hit bookshelves and e-stores yesterday. We thought this would be the perfect time to check back in with Andrew.
Haighteration: First, congrats on the new book. How are you feeling?
Andrew Sean Greer: Much less anxious than some other book tours — I know, after five books, that it is completely out of my control. There's also, this time, the strange new addition of online reviewers by the dozens who have access to early copies of the book, so that means I already have a sense how it will be received! Whether it will be popular is impossible to know — but there is evidence that people are reading the book I meant to write. So there is that. I call this part before publication "The calm before the calm."
H: When we met you two years ago, you were working on the second draft. At the time, the working title was Many Worlds. Why did that change?
ASG: The publisher wanted to change it, which threw me into a tailspin, although I've changed the titles of three of my books upon publication. It had been Many Worlds for four years... and NOW a new title? But I did agree: Many Worlds sounds very vague and abstract, and in fact too connected to the "many worlds" scientific theory, from which the novel departs significantly. So I thought, well it should have her name. And my friend Daniel suggested the "Impossible." I was never planning to write yet another five word title with a preposition.
H: How else did the book change as you continued to revise it?
ASG: Well consider this: the first draft began in 1918 in a quarantine station on Angel Island, with a doctor interviewing a German patient. The final novel begins in 1985 in New York City with a woman walking a dog with her twin brother. So: everything changed. Setting, era, characters, language, point of view. Everything. Every single line I wrote. That's pretty typical for me. I reach a point in a draft when I realize it isn't working, and I am very brave in making enormous changes — there were four other drafts in between, all of them quite different. But I do think, with each draft, that this one's the one! I am always true to them. Until I dump them.
H: When we spoke, you thought the book would come out in about a year. The process obviously took longer than that. Why?
ASG: Revisions! I was also set back slightly because I ran out of money and was offered a wonderful teaching position in the winter, which took me away from writing for about four months. Yeah, wish it had been a year! But so it goes.
H: Your book is set in three specific time periods — 1918, 1941, and 1985. How did you arrive at these specific eras?
ASG: When I threw away the first draft of this book, I was living in New York on a fellowship from the New York Public Library Cullman Center. That caused me to reset the book in New York. And by reading old books, pamphlets, newspapers and accounts, I began to sense which times interested me most. One day, I realized that each era was a mirror to another — through war and disease — I scribbled out a map of the novel on a cocktail napkin. Those reflections work throughout the book, and it was great fun to have her husband head to war in one era, only to return from a different war in another.
H: You have said that this book is not a time travel novel, and that's true, though the protagonist does visit different time periods in a sense. One thing that struck me in reading this new book is that, if I were able to visit an earlier era, I would want to use my knowledge to my advantage. You know, profit on the stock market, warn people of upcoming catastrophes, that sort of thing. Without spoiling anything, the protagonist in your book generally does not do that. Was that a specific choice you made? If so, why?
ASG: At one point in the novel, she looks around a room in 1918 and thinks that somebody there would be an important force in history. Somebody else, if they had traveled to another world, could have warned people and changed things. But she was, herself, too small to move history. Too small to stop WWII or profit on stocks a decade before the crash; she can barely manage her love affairs! Personally, of course, I wasn't interested in those time travel bits; the trick of alternative universes is just an excuse to experiment with how a woman's life would be different depending on the time in which she lived. By which I mean her emotional life. I was too baffled by those complexities to consider working in a horse-racing angle.
H: In writing this book, were you inspired by any other books or films that deal with the the issue of — well, let's call it anachronism, if not outright time travel? Back to the Future comes to mind...
ASG: Anachronism is a great word! I did read the original Time Machine, which is wonderful, and huge numbers of time travel stories. Alternative universe stories as well. But I'm not a science fiction writer; my interest in the hard science wanes quickly like a boy in physics class and I look dreamily out the window. The real influences on this book were Graham Greene, Marcel Proust, James Schuyler, Frank Ohara, Hilary Mantel. But that left me with wonderful storytelling influences, but some bad instincts about magic. WHich is why I needed advice from writers more familiar with genre techniques — Karen Joy Fowler and Michael Chabon both helped enormously — because I simply could not get my Alice into her Wonderland properly.
H: You've been through the process of launching a new book several times now. How does this one compare to your previous releases? Does it get easier? Harder?
ASG: For me, it's difficult every time. But somehow, for this one, I have managed to distract myself and begin something new before the book's release. Otherwise, one is tempted to google oneself every few minutes. As if someone were writing about you every few minutes! Writing is lovely in that, mostly, you can do what you do without anyone watching. But it means that you don't have the immediate satisfaction of, say, a playwright. People buy your book and read it alone — or don't read it for years. You will never know, and never get to see them while they're doing it!
H: What do the next few weeks look like for you? Are you doing a book tour or anything? Any plans to celebrate the book's release?
ASG: I am currently at SFO flying to Chicago for my first book event! I will be gone all week every week until August 1st, with about 20 events. There is a road trip through the Midwest involved at the first leg, which should be fun. Celebrate? are you kidding me? Absolutely! Anyone who comes to my reading at Booksmith on July 24th is welcome to have a drink with me afterwards at Aub Zam Zam. But don't get me trashed — I have an event in Berkeley the next day!
H: Are you working on your next book yet? If so, what can you tell us about it?
ASG: I have two books I'm playing with. I have absolutely no way of talking about them yet—except that one is set in San Francisco in the present, and takes place over the course of one day. And the other is in outer space with robots.
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