Pulitzer Prize-winning author sees success by injecting humor in his latest book
Andrew Sean Greer’s fifth novel, “Less,” marks a departure for the author in a number of ways - he used more autobiographical detail than in his other books, he infused the story with humor in a way he hadn’t done before, and the book’s main character is gay, another first for his novels.
One more first: “Less,” the story of an unlikely round-the-world trip taken by Arthur Less, a failed novelist, proudly displays a gold circle on its front cover, in recognition of the novel receiving the 2018 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.
Greer, who has also won numerous other honors, was the featured speaker at the March 7 meeting of the Rancho Santa Fe Literary Society, held at the Fairmont Grand Del Mar Resort, said he struggled with the book early on in his writing. Initially, the book was meant to be a more serious contemplation of the loss of love and youth as the protagonist approached middle age.
“I couldn’t stand it, and I couldn’t stand the main character’s self pity,” said Greer. Instead, he decided to take a different approach and make fun of his central character.
Along with his fiction-writing, said Greer, he has long held what he called a series of “odd jobs,” to make ends meet as he wrote fiction and tried to get it published. Those jobs have ranged from teaching at a community college to running a writers’ retreat in Italy, to working as a reservations clerk at a restaurant and as a television extra. He also worked as a travel and food writer for magazines.
It was during his travels for his magazine-writing gig that “Less” began to take shape, said Greer. Struck by inspiration, he quickly wrote a chapter about Arthur Less in Italy.
“I just knew this was it,” he said. “The pages came so easily. Once I figured out the novel, it was great fun.”
The book follows Arthur as he receives a wedding invitation from his boyfriend of nine years, who was about to marry someone else. Arthur was torn because he felt as if he could neither gracefully accept nor decline the invitation. Instead, he cobbled together a world trip by accepting a number of invitations to literary events that had come his way.
Arthur’s travels would take him to New York, Mexico City, Paris, Berlin, Morocco, India and Japan. The invitations to a conference, a writers’ retreat and an assignment for a travel magazine, among others, gave him cover to bow out from attendance at the dreaded nuptials.
“My apologies, he wrote on the RSVP, but I will be out of the country. My love to Freddy and Tom. He would accept them all,” Greer wrote of Arthur’s decision to skip town to attend the various literary events.
Along with avoiding the wedding, the trip would allow Arthur to celebrate his 50th birthday in an exotic destination.
Greer, who grew up in Washington, D.C., an identical twin and the son of two scientists, has held some interesting jobs as he honed his craft as a writer. Early on, he wrote several novels which were eventually relegated to a dusty cardboard box. His writing career began to catch on after he published a short story in Esquire magazine, an experience he called both “thrilling” and “other worldly.”
Later, he published a book of short stories before he began to publish novels.
As mentioned, along the way he paid the bills by, among other jobs, working as a reservation clerk at a restaurant. He recalled coming in to work one morning, only to have the chef come after him with a cleaver, because he had booked too many diners at one time.
In the early ’90s, he worked as a chauffeur for writers on staff at Saturday Night Live, which he said was his favorite job, and he also worked as an extra on SNL, earning $100 per episode, which he said was decent money at the time. (Greer said he can be seen in the background of SNL skits on videos of that time period.)
Being a novelist in the era of social media has both its positives and negatives, said Greer, a San Francisco resident. He has left Facebook entirely, due to the disinformation spread on the platform. The only time he regrets his decision, he said, is when he misses a party invitation.
But social media also allows for positive feedback from readers.
“Playwrights get to sit in the theater and hear the applause,” he said. “On Twitter, we (novelists) get the applause.”
For more on Greer and his work, visit www.andrewgreer.com.
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