Greer up next for Aspen Winter Words |

Greer up next for Aspen Winter Words

Stewart Oksenhorn
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
David RossNovelist Andrew Sean Greer appears at 5:30 p.m. Thursday in an Aspen Writers' Foundation Winter Words event at the Given Institute.

ASPEN ” Andrew Sean Greer found inspiration for his latest novel, “The Story of a Marriage,” in something his grandmother once said. She told him that her husband had revealed, some years earlier, that he had had an affair with another man and considered running away with him. Greer knew there was the potential for some rich character development there, especially in his grandmother as a storyteller: “She was not a reliable narrator. She was a wonderful woman but kind of a maniac, a big talker,” he said.

But Greer’s mind flashed not so much to character as to a time. The incident ” assuming it happened ” would have taken place in the early ’50s, and Greer began to imagine the era, and how it would have shaped that story and its characters.

“What was shocking was the idea of being left with two kids, not knowing how to support them. It would be so different from what it would be now ” group therapy; ‘Get out of here,’ or ‘I’m out of here,'” said Greer. “I think she regretted that she couldn’t have left.”

Greer poured his energy into setting the story. His initial thought was 1952, and while researching the year, he discovered that 1952 was kind of a dull time: “I picked the era first, and then I panicked. Because nothing happened. I got frustrated,” he said.

And then he allowed himself to wander ahead one year. And that made all the difference.

“Nineteen-fifty-three was when a lot of things happened,” said the 39-year-old, who makes an appearance Thursday in the Aspen Writers’ Foundation’s Winter Words series, at The Given Institute. “I imagined it as a time of extreme anxiety. I read a 1953 newspaper, and it seemed like a moment when the country was in a state of fear. The Rosenbergs were about to be executed; Brown v. Board of Education; Ginsberg was about to read ‘Howl.’

“Nineteen-fifty-three was the year before everything started to go downhill toward the ’60s.”

“The Story of a Marriage” ” which will be available in paperback for the first time at tonight’s event ” turns out to be an exploration of its characters more than the monumental events of 1953. The story centers on Pearlie Cook, a young black mother and wife living a quiet, no-frills life in San Francisco’s Sunset District. Her life is placid, focused on her young son, whom she calls “Sonny,” until a stranger appears at her door, armed with a story very much like the one Greer’s grandmother told. The stranger, Buzz Drumer, knew Pearlie’s husband, Holland, some years before and wants to renew their relationship. He offers Pearlie a considerable sum of money to acquiesce to the affair.

To Greer, all the action, all the characters’ choices, are fundamentally dictated by the circumstances and the times. “Picking the time period is crucial,” he said. “Because somehow the time of the story sets up the conflicts and the restrictions on the characters.” So lurking strongly in the background are the Korean War, nuclear anxiety, polio.

This has become Greer’s standard mode of operation. For “The Confessions of Max Tivoli,” his 2004 novel which became something of a breakthrough when it was highly praised in a New Yorker review by John Updike, Greer set his story between 1870 and 1930. (The tale, about a man aging backwards, was inspired not by F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” nor the film adaptation that postdated Greer’s novel by several years, but by Bob Dylan’s “My Back Pages,” and its line, “I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now.”)

“That solved the problems of the novel,” said Greer of setting the book in the past. “A man aging backwards is a bad, ludicrous idea ” but setting it in the past made it plausible, possible.”

Greer, who wrote “The Story of a Marriage” while living in San Francisco, is now living in New York’s West Village neighborhood. With a fellowship from the New York City Public Library, he is writing his next novel ” set during the two World Wars. He says it is a “time-travel novel,” but quickly adds that he is joking. Still, it does seem to be about time travel in the same way that his previous books were.

“It’s how the era affects people,” he said.

Greer doesn’t know if he’ll ever give his writing a contemporary context. He tried recently, with an article for the Italian Vanity Fair, about the inauguration of Barack Obama. In his eyes, the assignment was a failure.

“It was the most basic thing to do. And it was a struggle to write about something quickly, about something I cared so much about,” he said. “I don’t look forward to doing it again.

“I don’t know why I’m incapable of writing about the present. Somehow I feel paralyzed to do a contemporary novel. I need the mirror of the past to look at the present. Which is tough, because I’m a terrible researcher.”

The incapacity doesn’t bother him much. He’ll take any setting that works.

“When you have a story, you look for a way to tell it,” said Greer. “Whether it’s a dog telling it, a child, in present tense, through letters.”

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