Laying Bare the Dignity of Queer Desire

Garth Greenwell & Andrea Lawlor

In Conversation

Barnes and Noble

In Cleanness, the highly anticipated follow-up to his beloved debut, What Belongs to You, Garth Greenwell deepens his exploration of foreignness, obligation, and desire. Sofia, Bulgaria, a landlocked city in southern Europe, stirs with hope and impending upheaval. In this atmosphere of disquiet, an American teacher navigates a life transformed by the discovery and loss of love. As he prepares to leave the place he’s come to call home, he grapples with the intimate encounters that have marked his years abroad. Each echo reveals startling insights about what it means to seek connection: with those we love, with the places we inhabit, and with our own fugitive selves.

The Center for Fiction hosted the launch of Cleanness (watch here), where Greenwell was joined in conversation by Andrea Lawlor, author of Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl.

Andrea Lawlor: Hello. There are a lot of you—welcome. I’m Andrea Lawlor, and as you know, this is Garth Greenwell, whose new novel, Cleanness, we’re all here to celebrate.

This is the first time we’ve met in real life. I don’t know if any of you have friends from the internet, and then you meet them in real life. Well, that is happening here, in real time. And there’s a lot of fanning going on, for my part.

Garth, one of the things you’ve talked about with this book is that you’re a former opera singer, which is very exciting. You see this as a song cycle rather than a novel, or collection of short stories. I wonder if you could tell us more about that.

Garth Greenwell: Well, it’s such a pretentious thing to say, but it’s true. My first education in art was in music. I feel like everything I know about writing comes from my training as a singer. For better and for worse, everything I think about narrative, drama, and narrative construction, comes from opera. And also my sense of structure, of deep structure—how wholes can be made of parts—comes from music.

As I was working on Cleanness, I wasn’t thinking of it as a book. I wrote the earliest sections while I was working on What Belongs to You. I knew that What Belongs to You, which is about an obsessive relationship, had to be obsessively focused. And I knew that the world I was writing about was bigger than that.

I knew what I was working on was a book when I wrote what would become the second chapter, “Gospodar.” It was the first fiction I wrote after finishing What Belongs to You, and the first fiction I wrote after coming back to the United States. It was the first thing I wrote in Iowa City. I can see now the table where I sat every morning in High Ground Café writing this scene. I remember the terror I felt as I wrote it. It’s a very intense S&M encounter that goes bad.

When I finished “Gospodar,” which is told from the perspective of the submissive, it called into existence a companion—a story from the perspective of the dominant. I wouldn’t write that story for years, but it’s now the second to last chapter in the book, “The Little Saint.” That story really called the book into existence. The fact that what I was writing was a book suddenly became clear to me.

These nine centers of intensity are like a kind of constellation. They’re not connected by chronology. They’re not connected by the cause and consequence of plot. But there is a charged relation between them that holds them in place. And there are mirrorings and thematic connections. The model for that, for me, is Schubert, especially Schubert’s lieder cycle “Winterreise.” I can’t believe that people actually let me get away with saying this, but it’s really true. For me, in my head, Cleanness is a lieder cycle.

Lawlor: That’s lovely. One thing I’ve been thinking a lot about while I read the pieces—some of which I read in The New Yorker, as I imagine is true for others—is the order. Once I got my head around this idea of the song cycle, I started to wonder how the sequence is related to music. There are three discrete sections of the book—I wonder if you could talk a little bit about the relationship between those sections.

Greenwell: The first thing I knew about the structure of the book, after I realized it was a book, was that the heart would be the story of this transformative love relationship that the narrator has with a younger college student named R., who also appears in What Belongs to You. Some readers were annoyed with the way R. appears in What Belongs to You. He’s important in the third section, yet we never see him, he only ever appears on Skype? And we don’t know very much about him. People were like, “Who is he?” And “Why isn’t the book telling us this story?” And I thought, “Well, just hold on!”

I also knew that that central love story needed to have a beginning, a middle, and an end. That was my earliest intuition. My next intuition was that by the time we got to that story, the heart of the book, we had to know the whole arc of their relationship. We had to know it had ended. We had to know that the narrator, when it ended, would be devastated, and that he would have to navigate a world transformed by the experience of love that he had lost. That was all I knew, and I figured out the rest—the nonchronological ordering of the first and third sections—really slowly, by trial and error, by sort of feeling it out.

Lawlor: That makes sense. And it also makes sense that you were a poet. You started writing as a poet, thinking about that play with the ordering and the chronology.

Greenwell: Absolutely, yes. I shouldn’t say this, because I teach fiction now, and I haven’t written poetry for years, but it’s hard for me to think of myself as a fiction writer. I still feel like I don’t know anything about it. Writing fiction, for me, is feeling my way forward in the dark, inch by inch. The technology that I have for navigation is the sentence. The whole time I was writing What Belongs to You, I never thought, “I’m writing a novel.” That would have terrified me. I would have been frozen. Instead, I said to myself, “I’m writing sentences.” And the sentence, for me, is a kind of heat-seeking device.

Writing fiction, for me, is feeling my way forward in the dark, inch by inch. The technology that I have for navigation is the sentence.

When I’m writing, I try to be responsive to what feels to me like an energy that is not my own: an agency that is being produced by the sentence. The sentence wants to go a certain way and I either acquiesce, or I try to outwit it. And that’s sort of the pleasure to be had. I never think in terms of narrative, I think in terms of a lyric relation to time. I like to take something—a dilemma, a scene, a relationship, a situation—that feels to me like an abyss, something that I don’t know how to think about, that I can’t make an argument about, that I couldn’t make a judgment about. My way of thinking about it is to inhabit a moment in the way that a poem does, freezing it and then trying to wring it dry. What I want to do in these weird sentences I write is to try to create a space where the densely impacted significance of a charged moment can be unpacked.

Lawlor: One of the first encounters I had with your thinking was in the review you wrote of A Little Life many years ago, after your first book had come out, but before What Belongs to You.

Greenwell: Yes, after the little novella, Mitko.

Lawlor: Right before What Belongs to You. It was one of those moments where I thought: I need to meet this person. I need to read what this person is reading and hopefully one day we’ll talk about it. But I remember you were writing about the book as a sort of expression of queer suffering. And you were talking about how in your youth you had come to James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room—as did I, also in my youth—and had responded to the dignity in those relationships. It may have been a dignity of tragedy, but it was dignity nonetheless, and it was the dignity of queer desire. I am interested in the way that you got from sort of grasping at Giovanni’s Room, which is such a gorgeous, painful book, to where your work is now. I’m thinking especially about the centerpiece of Cleanness, “The Frog King”—the tenderness in your representation of sex in that story and the desire in that story. Can you talk about that a little bit? Not to send you back to your youth.

Greenwell: Oh, god! But, I mean, that is where we always are. In large part, I think the project of What Belongs to You was to try to figure out what to do with my inheritance, which was a childhood in a place that taught me certain lessons about my life. It taught me that my life lacked dignity, that my life lacked value. Through years of activism and queer artmaking, I have come to a place now where I know that everything I value about my life comes from queerness, everything that gives me joy in my life comes from queerness. But I will never get to be someone who was not first taught those lessons. It feels, to me, very wrong and very dangerous to try to pretend that the shame I was taught isn’t still there. You know, the rhetoric of pride is life-giving. When I was fourteen or fifteen and saw my first Pride parade in Louisville, Kentucky—what an astonishing thing. Thank God that exists. But I don’t think anything good comes from trying to sort of aggressively proclaim a rhetoric of pride as a way of shouting down shame. And you know, shame can be enormously productive, enormously useful.

I mean, I find queer people endlessly inspiring. I find queer survival endlessly inspiring. Queer people are geniuses of transformation. The whole history of queer art is taking shame and stigma and turning it into style. The whole history of queer activism is taking stigma and turning it into solidarity. And I think one of the histories of queer desire and of queer eros is taking stigma and making it productive of pleasure. If I can take the language of my father and apply it in a certain context, in a kind of aesthetically created space like, say, what an S&M encounter can be; if I can take the word that lacerated me when I was twelve years old, when my father said, “If I had known you would be a faggot, you would never have been born”; if that word—the word “faggot”—when directed at me from a lover’s mouth gives me access to a kind of pleasure that seems to me extraordinary, a kind of rapture that I don’t otherwise have access to, then it seems that I have taken this pain and made it productive of pleasure in a way that is, to me, a mode of survival.

Queer people are geniuses of transformation. The whole history of queer art is taking shame and stigma and turning it into style. The whole history of queer activism is taking stigma and turning it into solidarity.

I think if you repress something, it will always erupt in ways that are devastating. But some things—even if you face up to them, enter into them—can’t be solved. There’s not some puzzle of myself that I can find a solution to that will make what belongs to me, the inheritance I bear, disappear. But if I can worry it, if I can keep trying to make things out of it, if I can keep putting it into new contexts, if I can make it productive, then maybe there’s a way that in negation, somehow, one slips into affirmation. I don’t want to romanticize this. It was important to me to write a story like “Gospodar,” in which that technology of transformation I just described doesn’t work. And the narrator is in a terrifying place by the end. But then it was also really important for me to write a story in which it does work.

Lawlor: Like in “The Little Saint”?

Greenwell: In “The Little Saint,” a story about an S&M encounter where the narrator is the dom. The narrator meets the character of the Little Saint off the internet, and he’s fascinated with him, because the internet profile, which has excellent, pornographic English, says “no limits whore.” And the narrator asks himself, what does that mean here? And the narrator, who in the grief of having lost R has been seeking out more and more extreme experiences, wants to be on the other side of those experiences. He wants to know what that feels like. I titled it “The Little Saint” when I started to write the story, and I think I thought there was a kind of irony to that title, because he’s really not saintly. I mean, he wants to do dirty things. But by the time I finished writing that story, I realized that no, actually, there’s zero irony in the title. It is absolutely earnest. He shows the narrator a way to transformation; he shifts things to a different key.

Lawlor: Garth, the way you write about sex is one of the things I love. It’s not the only thing I love about your work, but I love the way you take sex so seriously. I think that we have some of the same literary loves, but I wonder if you could talk a little bit about the books and the lineages that you’re in conversation with or in reaction to when you’re writing?

Greenwell: I do think sex is serious. I mean, I think sex can be play. But I think play is serious, and I think taking sex seriously gives access to the biggest questions of human life. There is a vibrant tradition of queer thought that sees that the erotic is at the heart of politics. That the erotic is at the heart of sociality. This radical queer tradition that’s interested in sex—and especially in non-normative, kinky sex, sex that maybe puts the self at risk—that might lead you to a place where you can say “I want to be nothing.” Sex that challenges our usual notions of the self. Sex that might take us to a place where, in fact, we are reduced to nothing. And then from that profound negation, we might invent some radical new form of sociality.

What the Little Saint does for the narrator in that story is to him a way, not to deny shame, not to deny the hatred directed at him by others that makes up such a large part of himself, but instead to transform that shame, to turn it into something that can be productive of laughter, something that can be productive of tenderness, something that can be productive of what I think is, to me, a very profound experience of each other’s humanity.

Lawlor: You mentioned earlier when we were in another room with fewer people that you are working on another book that’s set in the United States.

Greenwell: I know. Shocking.

Lawlor: What’s that about?

Greenwell: So, What Belongs to You changed my life in every way. And maybe the most profound way it changed my life was that I went back to Louisville, my hometown, for the first time in fifteen years or more. I ran away from Louisville at sixteen. I felt like Louisville was killing me, and I think I was right. I think if I’d stayed in Louisville, I would have died. I am very pro-promiscuity, but I was having suicidal sex. I was trying to kill myself with sex when I was fourteen and fifteen, at the height of the AIDS crisis. It was really important that I discovered art, and that art gave me an escape.

So, my father retired and left Louisville right before What Belongs to You came out, which meant I could go back home for the first time in a long time. FSG wanted me to go on book tour there, and so I did, and I ended up spending time in both Louisville and Lexington. My little sisters, whom I adore, were both living in Louisville at the time. They’re these remarkable, fabulous, brilliant, very artistic people with friends that are all those things, and they showed me Louisville as they experienced it. And Louisville has changed a lot—imagine!—since 1994. Parts of Louisville have become super queer in a way that would have been unimaginable to me at a kid. Anyway, I felt a kind of chemical reaction to this Louisville, this new Louisville I was discovering, encountering, which reminded me of the chemical reaction I felt to Sofia. I had thought I knew everything I could ever want to know about Louisville when I left. And then when I went back to my hometown at thirty-eight, I realized I didn’t know anything about that place at all. I realized that I need a book in order to think about it.

When I went back to my hometown at thirty-eight, I realized I didn’t know anything about that place at all.

The other thing that happened is that I became aware, in large part because of conversations around What Belongs to You, that the University of Louisville has one of the largest regional LGBT historical archives in the United States: The Williams Nichols Archive ( I spent six weeks there, working all day going through this archive.

Lawlor: That sounds amazing.

Greenwell: I mean, it shouldn’t have been a surprise: queer people are everywhere and therefore queer history is everywhere. But somehow it was. If you guys have read Jordy Rosenberg’s great novel Confessions of the Fox, it’s an extraordinary meditation on what it means to try to claim a history that has been lost through neglect and actively destroyed through malice. When I was twelve, thirteen, fourteen, desperately in need of a history, I had no access to history. But in the archives I learned so much. First of all, about heroic activists, especially heroic AIDS activists, in the early nineties, right when I needed them, who were not far away—and yet I had no idea they existed, doing this incredible work. And then older history. Like, for instance, I had no idea that Oscar Wilde stopped in Louisville on his US tour in the 1880s. And the Courier Journal article about this weird guy Oscar Wilde, who was not yet famous—which, this is one of the great cons of literary history. Wilde was not famous in England, so he went to America and did a tour as a famous Englishman in order to go back to England as a famous person. What a queen! I mean, that’s fabulous. But the Courier Journal article about Wilde, this weird Englishman, this dandy, mentioned boys from Kentucky who showed up with carnations in their lapels.

Lawlor: Green carnations?

Greenwell: Green carnations in their lapels. How did they know? How was there enough of a community in Louisville in the 1880s, that that kind of symbol could resonate? That’s just so exciting to me. I don’t know what this project will be. I have a sense of what territories it might explore, but really I just know I need to create this space in which I can think really hard about Kentucky, about Kentucky then, about Kentucky now, about Kentucky when I was a kid, about friends that I had in the park, about what it would mean to be an HIV-positive queer kid before protease inhibitors in rural Eastern Kentucky. I have to think about all that.

There are things that I can’t figure out through reason. It’s like I have to have the weird pressure of art to think about them. I have to have a scene. I have to have a space I can inhabit. I have to have the weird, expansive but also recursive, phenomenological, consciousness-producing sentence that I’m addicted to in order to think about them. But it’s very moving to me that it is because of What Belongs to You, and what it made possible, that now my childhood is not something I can only ever run away from. Louisville is not something I have to run away from. I cannot believe that I can say now that I think Louisville is an extraordinary city. I love Louisville. And that has allowed me to reclaim my past.

Lawlor: Garth, it’s been such an honor to talk to you.

Greenwell: The honor is all mine.

Garth Greenwell is the author of What Belongs to You, which won the British Book Award for Debut of the Year, was long-listed for the National Book Award, and was a finalist for six other awards, including the PEN/Faulkner Award and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. A New York Times Book Review Editors’ Choice, it was named a Best Book of 2016 by more than fifty publications in nine countries, and is being translated into a dozen languages. Greenwell’s fiction has appeared in The New Yorker, The Paris Review, A Public Space, and VICE, and he has written criticism for The New Yorker, the London Review of Books, and New York Times Book Review, among other publications. He lives in Iowa City.

Andrea Lawlor teaches writing at Mount Holyoke College, edits fiction for Fence magazine, and has been awarded fellowships by Lambda Literary and Radar Labs. Their writing has appeared in various literary journals including Ploughshares, Mutha, the Millions, jubilat, the Brooklyn Rail, Faggot Dinosaur, and Encyclopedia, Vol. II. Their publications include a chapbook, Position Papers (Factory Hollow Press, 2016), and a novel, Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl, a 2018 finalist for the Lambda Literary and CLMP Firecracker Awards. Paul, originally published by Rescue Press in 2017, has been re-released in the US by Vintage/Knopf and published in the British Commonwealth by Picador UK.