Brooklyn BookBeat: Author to read in Fort Greene
By Samantha Samel
Brooklyn Daily Eagle
Award-winning author Andrew Sean Greer has recently released his latest novel, an imaginative story titled “The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells” (Ecco/Harper Collins) that follows one woman as she navigates her life in three alternate time periods during the twentieth century.
Like in his New York Times bestselling novel “The Confessions of Max Tivoli”, Greer creates intricate yet relatable characters, the most notable of whom is Greta Wells. Though conventional in many ways, Greta faces an extraordinary set of circumstances that prompt her to consider the continual adversity that women face (Greer aptly dedicated the novel to “all the women in [his] life”).
The novel opens in 1985 in New York City, where Greta recalls the loss of both her twin brother Felix, who died of AIDS, and her lover Nathan, who left her for another woman. In an effort to alleviate her depression, Greta hesitantly decides to undergo electroconvulsive therapy in 25 treatments. While her doctor promises the procedure will not damage her brain, he warns that she might feel disoriented.
Indeed, Greta becomes acutely bewildered by her surroundings. She awakes one morning in her Greenwich Village apartment, but finds she is living in 1918. Though she lives in the same home, the decorations have transformed, as have the people in her life. Nathan is her husband but is away at war, and she has a younger lover named Leo. Her brother Felix is still alive, but is concealing his homosexuality and has plans to marry a woman.
While Greta grows aware of what is happening to her – attributing her situation to the ECT – she continues to be confused when she next winds up in 1941, still married to Nathan and now with a child. Each ECT treatment transports Greta to a different version of her life, and as she cycles through the three – all of which seem as real as the other – she experiences different versions of happiness and sadness. As she evaluates the pros and cons of each of her lives, Greta must ultimately choose how to pave her own cohesive path.
Greer will appear in Fort Greene on July 17, when he will read from his book at Greenlight Bookstore. Brooklyn Eagle checked in with the author, who reveals where and how he researched his novel, and shares a preview of his next project.
Did you spend much time researching the different time periods described in the book?
I was lucky enough to get a fellowship at the Cullman Center at the New York Public Library, which offers a private office in the midtown library, and so I moved myself to New York for a year to research this novel. You would think that books offer the best information, but for the purposes of a novelist (and we are odd indeed) the library was an amazing resource for pamphlets, antique newspapers, photographs and memoirs—those artifacts that provide specific details about how life was lived, and not just a processed history of the place. Living in New York led me, among other things, to set the novel in the beautiful Patchin Place, and to place my characters in bars, restaurants, departments stores and parks in the city—some of which no longer exist!
You do a wonderful job of getting inside of Greta’s head…was it difficult for you to narrate from a female’s perspective?
It's a very good question, though one that never occurred to me—I feel my job, as a fiction writer, is to write from a consciousness not my own. I only think about whether I am being true to that character, and that has meant a wide variety of people whose experiences are far from my own. I did, however, begin this novel trying out a male protagonist. But you know what? It just didn't work. I tried three different protagonists and only when I found Greta did the plot, and the novel, fall into place. Despite my early plans, it was always meant to be a woman's story. That's why I dedicated the book to the women in my life.
Some of your other novels similarly explore the element of time. Can you tell us a bit about your interest in this theme?
Honestly? I have no idea what's wrong with me. ‘Why so obsessed with time, Greer? Why always set it in the past?’ Perhaps all writers come from a place where we sit slightly outside society -- oddballs or outcasts -- and it can make us there where we might belong. What place or time. Certainly after “Max Tivoli” I was often asked what time period I'd love to live in. I was tempted to say the early 20th century, but then I wanted to bring all my friends with me, and then I realized it might not be such a hot time to live in for many of my closest friends: people of color, women, gay people. And that got me thinking: is there an ideal time and place for everyone, or everything? Or would something always be off? When asked the question now, I answer: forty years in the future. But then again: there will be no fish.
Who are some of your greatest literary influences?
Certainly my most pompous answer is Marcel Proust. What can I say? Philip Roth, Evelyn Waugh, Michael Chabon, Michael Cunningham, Edith Wharton, Colette, Lillian Hellman…and a variety of books I picked up in used bookstores that had new and exciting ways to tell a story.
What’s the best (new) book you’ve read this past year?
Gotta be “Life After Life.” I was so delighted to learn Kate Atkinson had been toiling over some of the same themes as my own novel, and she handles it so beautifully.
What are you working on now?
After so many books set in the past, I am working on a novel set in the present day. Over the course of one day, in fact, on a walk through San Francisco.
The July 17 event will begin at 7:30 p.m. Greenlight Bookstore is located at 686 Fulton St. in Fort Greene.
Andrew Sean Greer is the bestselling author of “The Story of a Marriage” and “The Confessions of Max Tivoli”, which was a Today show Book Club selection and received a California Book Award. He lives in San Francisco.